18 January 2017 - 6:33 pm

Amazon Unlimited scams hit authors

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Part of the Amazon is not your friend series. 

In 2015, Kindle Unlimited (KU) changed how it was determining how much to give authors who were part of the program, moving from a ‘per borrow’ system to a ‘per page’ one.

At least one of their motivations for doing this was to prevent authors from trying to game the system by turning out lots of short works. Per-page payments meant that authors of longer works should, theoretically, be paid more.

Over a year on, and I think it’s safe to say that Amazon didn’t achieve their goal. In fact, they seem to have made the scamming problem worse: it got to a point where scam books were taking over the bestseller list and utterly devaluing KU for non-scamming authors.

The Big Flaw

How did they do this? Because, despite the paranoid reactions about Amazon being big brother and collecting all kinds of data on you through your Kindle (including mine!), they can’t tell what pages you’ve read. We gave them way too much credit. They can only tell the latest page in the book that you have viewed. From there, they assume that you’ve read everything from the front cover up to that page.

Hyperlinks are a common – and required – element of an ebook. If you click one that takes you from page 20 to page 300, KU records that you’ve read 300 pages (and pays the author accordingly), rather than the actual 21 pages. There’s also the front matter (copyright statements, etc) that everyone skips past but still counts as pages read.

How the Scammers Scam

You’re probably already seeing how easy it is for scammers to game the system. Where some people said that this would make authors write better stories, to keep people reading page after page, instead you have scammers creating ebooks with links at the start of the book to offers and competitions on the last page, to make them get paid for the entire book’s worth of pages even if you haven’t actually read them.

In the middle, scam books typically have junk. There might be enough legitimate, story-like text to fill up the 10% preview to entice readers to borrow it, but the remainder of the book (usually thousands of pages) is trash text, or repeated copy-and-pastes of that first preview section.

If the text isn’t entirely trash, there might be translations of the story at the front, making readers click past pages and pages of Google-translated gibberish to find the English version.

Or, similarly, ‘bonus content’ at the front of the book (instead of the back, where it typically goes in a print book), so readers who want to read the story they’re there to read click past it, racking up a chunk of pages that no-one has read. (This can be used legitimately, because readers can react negatively to a story ending 70% of the way through the book and the rest is ‘bonus’. One author specifically moved her bonus content to the front to respond to feedback and improve reader experiences.)

Another tactic that scammers have used is to put the table of contents (ToC) at the back of the book. As it’s a useful navigation tool, it’s common that a reader would use it, and record a full book read without reading a single page of the story. (It’s worth noting that this could be invisible to the reader; they’re not going to care where they are in the ebook, as long as they know what to read next!)

A ToC is a required part of an ebook, but its location is at the discretion of the author. Many (legitimate) authors move it to the back to reduce the noise at the start of the book, because the beginning section is used as the preview. The preview an important tool for enticing readers to read or buy a book, and they want potential readers to get to the story as quickly as possible. So, having the ToC at the back of the book can aid sales and support readers; it’s not necessarily a sign of a scam.

So, it’s easy for scammers to rack up huge numbers of page views with very little effort. They’ve been so successful at it that scam books started to take over the bestseller lists on the Amazon site, because Amazon factors in the ‘borrows’ and likes to pump up books in the KU/Kindle Select program.

Real authors are the ones who have been paying the price. Because the money paid out to KU authors is a fixed amount, and the portion given to authors is determined by their percentage of the total page views for the month, it means that authors found their incomes dropping at a startling rate.

Amazon’s Response

Unfortunately, Amazon’s response to this issue has been in typical Amazon style: wild and indiscriminate use of the ban-hammer. They went on a campaign of ripping books off the shelves if their ToC was in the rear of the book, despite this being used for legitimate reasons by real authors. The backlash against this was so huge that they wound up back-pedalling on it and allowing rear ToCs. However, by then, the damage for many was already done.

The impacts for legitimate authors are huge. Due to the way Amazon’s algorithms work, books that were removed from the store lost sales ranks and visibility. It takes a lot of work and money to recover the sales position of an affected book. Due to the timing of the bans, at least one author wasted a whole bunch of money on a promotion that coincided with his book’s removal. This has real impacts on visibility, saleability, and future earnings. In short: it hurts authors’ livelihoods.

For some authors, it has been worse than that. One author, Pauline Creedon, had all of her books removed from Amazon, lost all outstanding royalties, had her account cancelled, and was banned from ever selling through Amazon again. The reason? Some of her KU borrows came from ‘systematically generated accounts’ – the type of system a scammer might use to artificially inflate page read numbers.

While it’s great that Amazon is cracking down on this type of behaviour – paying click-farms to bulk up your page reads – it’s clear they’re hitting legitimate authors as well. Pauline says she did not pay anyone to do this, and it’s not like authors can prevent click-farms from going nuts on their book. The spike that she – and other legitimate authors like her – received wasn’t enough to earn her a significant amount, either. Speculation says that click-farms attempt to hide their scammy activities by clicking through ‘real’ books, which is why Pauline is not the only author to be hit by this accusation and ban-hammering. Pauline’s case was a little while ago now, but I saw another report of a legitimate author being punished for this reason just this week – it’s clearly an ongoing issue.

This seems like a particularly extreme response on Amazon’s part (banning for life? on an unsubstantiated violation?), especially when compared to their actions towards real scammers.

Because, on the flip side, when books are reported as scams, Amazon takes a long time to respond. When they do, they might take down an individual book, but do nothing about the account. These accounts typically have a massive catalogue of scam books. Let’s be clear: these scams are not very well hidden; a quick, cursory glance is enough to confirm what is or is not a scam, but Amazon simply aren’t bothering to do anything but the bare minimum.

They are quick with the automated ban-hammers, but slow and minimalist when responding to reports of real problems. It’s pretty clear that their focus is on the quick, easy action rather than solving the real problems.

Since mid-2016, chatter has grown quieter over KU and Amazon’s shenanigans. But nothing has changed: authors must still be on their guard at all times, and we’re still getting reports of legitimate authors being banned out of hand. One particular blog post suggests that authors should query any spike in sales with Amazon, to get ahead of accusations of fraud, rather than simply celebrating a book doing well. It’s pathetic that this is probably good advice, but even that isn’t working for authors who try to do the right thing.

I remain sure that I will not be making my books exclusive with Amazon any time soon, nor will they be available through KU. Amazon has a long way to go before their service is anything other than a waste of everyone’s time and effort.

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