Amazon and the Indie Revolution — A Personal Retrospective — by Tosh McIntosh

In late 2011 I published Pilot Error on four major distribution outlets to maximize the potential for reaching an audience: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, and Smashwords. Two weeks later, Amazon announced Kindle Direct Publishing’s (KDP) Select program.

In return for giving Amazon exclusive right to distribute the digital edition of a book for 90 days, KDP Select allowed authors to run promotions for up to five days during the contract period, including the option of offering a book for free. To sign up required that I remove the novel from the other three outlets. At the time, Amazon had not risen to virtually complete dominance in the online digital book market. I had just spent months preparing four different versions to comply with slightly differing style requirements, and KDP as yet had no track record of success, so I elected not to sign up.

In what might be called the heyday of KDP Select, authors were able to use free-book promotions to rack up significant sales over a short period of time. Although that appears counter-intuitive, the mechanism took advantage of Amazon’s algorithm then in use to position books on the “pop(ularity) list,” which reflects the ranking of a book within the various genres as defined by the choices Amazon gives authors for categorizing their books.

Since download of a free eBook was counted the same as a sale in terms of its effect on ranking, KDP Select authors realized an enormous advantage over authors who hadn’t signed up. Rankings inflated through downloads of free books catapulted them into the top tier of the pop lists where customers who actually purchase books were looking for something to read. The key element here is visibility, and authors who only offered books for sale had no chance against those who were able to haul their books out of Amazon’s basement and put them in the faces of potential buyers. The effect was (and still is) synergistic: discoverability leads to exposure, then to traction, and finally creates momentum.

The launch of KDP Select effectively began a feeding frenzy in which savvy authors used the system to promote their books with great success. The downside for Amazon, however, soon became apparent. They’re in the business of selling things, not giving them away, which meant their best interests were not served by in-the-shopper’s-face advertising of free books. Amazon affiliate companies assumed that role by directing traffic specifically to free books, which affected Amazon’s bottom line in two ways: they didn’t receive their percentage of the sale, and delivery of each book through Whispernet cost them some small amount, that when multiplied by thousands became a profit drain Amazon could not ignore.

Implementation of two changes altered the landscape: the free-book sites were limited in the number of books they could offer, and download of a free book only counted as one/tenth of a sale in terms of its effect on ranking. From that point forward, the competition for ranking became a cat-and-mouse game between authors, Amazon’s pop-list algorithms, and the free book sites, the list of which has slowly morphed into a two-tiered landscape: BookBub at the top and every other one well below.

Two key mechanisms define the landscape. First, the constant presence of free/low-cost eBook promotions have conditioned millions of readers to expect they’ll never have to pay full price. Second, they never have to go looking for something to read. Each and everyday, blast emails from the sites they’ve signed up with provide that day’s offerings, and a click or two puts the book(s) on their eReading device.

But in a development reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, reviews have taken on the function of the magic key that unlocks access to a book’s visibility: it can’t be featured in an advertised promotion without reviews, but getting reviews requires visibility.

Authors responded by aggressively trolling for reviews among family, friends, and neighbors. When that pool had been exhausted, many authors signed up with paid services that promised five-star reviews, which altered the review war with “sock puppet” entries using false online identities. In one egregious example, an author purchased one-star reviews for the book of an author he considered to be a competitor. Anything is fair, it seems, in love, war, and the ratings game.

Amazon’s response to these underhanded tactics has by any standard been too little, too late. But once they woke up, their attentiveness made it almost impossible for their authors to review another Amazon author’s book (to prevent bias in either direction), or for a family member of an author (supposedly identified by a review posted from the same household IP address) to review the book of a spouse, for example.

In the final analysis, the only reviews that should count are those written by strangers. But without proactively seeking reviews from a readily accessible tribe of sympathetic readers, it’s very difficult to get the number of reviews to satisfy the minimum required by the promotional sites to even give the book a chance of being accepted for a promotion.

Kindle Unlimited (KU) is another program that has taken on a life of its own. And like with KDP Select, Amazon appears to have underestimated the ingenuity of both authors and scammers in identifying vulnerabilities that could be used to stack the deck in their favor and to the detriment of everyone else.

For $9.99 a month, Kindle Unlimited offers readers the opportunity to choose from over one million titles and thousands of audio books. To compensate authors, Amazon puts millions of dollars into a global fund every month, to be distributed to each author based on the percentage of the total number of books downloaded represented by that author’s book(s).

In May 2014, KU’s first month, the fund totaled $1.2M. In December 2015, the fund had increased to $13.5M, reflective of the number of authors whose books had been enrolled in the program. I don’t know how many of an author’s books would have to be downloaded to reach 1% of the total, but in December, 2015, that would have resulted in a payout of $135,000.

Approaching the second anniversary of KU’s existence, the program is embroiled in controversy, recently explained well by author David Gaughran on his blog:

“Amazon is an extremely innovative company – and usually quite responsive to self-publisher’s concerns – but sometimes it gets things very wrong too.

“Today is one of those times.

“I’ve received several reports from writers threatened with having books removed from sale, and heard even more worrying stories from others who had their titles actually removed from the Kindle Store without notice.

“What were these authors guilty of? What crime did they commit for Amazon to adopt such heavy-handed treatment? Something completely innocuous: the Table of Contents was at the rear of their books instead of at the front.”

David provides numerous links to egregious examples of how the scam operates, and one example of how Amazon mistakenly took action against an award-winning author and effectively sabotaged his promotion. Then he asks, “What was Amazon actually trying to do?” and explains it this way:

“One of the quirks of Kindle Unlimited is that we are all fighting for money from a fixed pot, putting us into competition with each other in a way that we aren’t normally. And KU has been plagued by scammers and opportunists – “authors” who seek to gain an edge with unethical behavior (I hesitate to call them authors because they are often internet marketers who farm the actual writing out to someone else).

“Amazon has been very slow to act. Indeed, the switch to a per-page compensation model [italics added] is widely believed to have been at least partly prompted by these authors publishing junk booklets which were only a few pages long and contained no real content, but still triggered a full KU borrow payout – but that change was a year in coming and Amazon did little to combat these guys in the meantime.

“The latest wheeze from this shady crew was to place a message at the start of their KU titles encouraging readers to click through to the end – because this fools Amazon’s system into thinking the entire book has been read, the author of that title then receives an inflated payout from the KU pot, and then honest, hard-working writers who aren’t pulling these cheap tricks on readers have less money to share. It’s a mess. These guys are peeing in the KU pool and Amazon is paying them by the gallon.

“Despite how glaringly obvious these messages are – similarly obnoxious text appears in the product description too – and despite how near-identical the phrasing is across the various perpetrators, it seems that the only method Amazon could devise to catch these guys was to crack down hard on anyone who had rear TOCs – whether they were enrolled in KU or not. The worst part is that banning rear TOCs doesn’t even seem like it will solve the problem as these guys could use regular links, footnotes, or other alternative methods to funnel readers to the end of their books.

“The real problem here is that Amazon has such a crude page-counting method that it doesn’t actually know which pages were read, or whether a giant chunk was skipped. Which is kind of blinking important when you are operating a hugely popular subscription model where author compensation is supposed to be based on actual pages read.

“What I’m saying is Amazon can invent flying delivery robots, but can’t handle a 1990s-level Internet marketer scam.

“To rub further salt in the wound, Amazon seems to be taking a very relaxed approach to these scammers. Multiple threads on KBoards have examples of books which are using these CLICK HERE links to artificially inflate their KU payouts. These titles were reported to Amazon by a whole bevy of authors/readers from KBoards, as well as in separate efforts elsewhere, but Amazon has been incredibly slow to take down the offending titles.”

David’s blog post includes a number of updates, including Amazon’s responses to his requests that something be done to curb the abuse, and he ends the post with this:

“Let’s be very clear about something: we aren’t taking about genuine authors here who are engaging in some extra-curricular shadiness. These scammers are not authors. They are Internet marketers who outsource the “writing” of these books (or simply plagiarize and/or rework genuine books in many cases, I suspect). It would be a much trickier problem if we were talking about genuine authors engaging in shady behavior, but that’s not the case. No authors will complain if Amazon takes a hard line with this crowd.

“Even when Amazon does identify a title which has breached its guidelines, it still seems to be taking a kid glove approach with actual scammers. Often the titles are only down temporarily, and then re-uploaded with the same cover/title/author name and only one of the rule breaches addressed. For example, the scammer will often remove the more obnoxious CLICK HERE messaging, but keep the keyword stuffing aimed at flooding search results, and keep the filler content aimed at bloating their page count and payout, and then swap in more subtle inducements to click to the end. I’d have a little more sympathy for Amazon on this front if I didn’t predict exactly this in my original post.

“The scammers have only focused on certain niches to date (mostly certain specific sub-categories of romance and self-help), so you may not be fully aware of how flooded the Kindle Store is with this crap.

“Try searching the Kindle Store for “cowboy romance” or “victorian romance” or “seal romance” or “historical romance” or “regency romance” or “mail order romance” or “amish romance” or “shifter romance” and you will see exactly what I mean. The scammer books are usually immediately obvious from the title-keyword stuffing like “Romance: Regency Romance: [ACTUAL BOOK TITLE]” – in fact most of the scammer books take this exact form, right down to the position of the semi-colons in the title.

“Which makes this stuff incredibly easy to find. If you want to.

“A lot of these books are hovering around the 20,000 mark so maybe Amazon doesn’t think it’s important – but those borrows are taking money from the collective pool and the scammers are doing what scammers always do: they are working on volume. But even at rankings of 20,000 you can grab some decent visibility and squeeze genuine authors out of the sub-category charts. Some scammers are doing much better than that too – I’ve seen scammer titles hovering around the Top 500. And I’m sure there are many, many more titles at worse ranks, but I’m not digging particularly deeply here. Obviously Amazon has infinitely better tools for identifying this stuff. If it wants to.

“Right now, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Amazon simply doesn’t care. I honestly don’t know how anyone could conclude otherwise.”

That post is dated March 11, 2016. He followed up on April 15, 2016 with a guest post by Phoenix Sullivan, whom he describes as follows:

“ . . . she wears multiple hats: author, self-publisher, and publisher, as well as being a very smart marketer and someone with a peerless understanding of Amazon’s systems and the various algorithms that power its recommendation engine.”

Phoenix describes in detail how KU scammers are attacking Amazon’s Free Ebook Charts, and she ends with this:

“I can figure out all this with a little searching. Surely Amazon can do better. All of these wheezes already have specific policies forbidding these actions. Amazon doesn’t need to scramble to produce a new framework for handling these guys. It already has the rules in place. It just needs to start applying them.”

From my perspective as an author who understands the reality that my books will never begin to approach the status of being anything more than entertainment, and who wants nothing more than to be proud of each and every one, it appears that the opportunities for engaging in fraudulent behavior unleashed by Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace, and their inability to police the back alleys of their bookstore, validate my decision not to bother with trying to join the race for rankings.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 


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