Home » Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Amazon, David Gaughran » Scammers Break The Kindle Store

Scammers Break The Kindle Store

15 July 2017

From David Gaughran:

On Friday, a book jumped to the #1 spot on Amazon, out of nowhere; it quickly became obvious that the author had used a clickfarm to gatecrash the charts.

The Kindle Store is officially broken.

This is not the first time this has happened and Amazon’s continued inaction is increasingly baffling. Last Sunday, a clickfarmed title also hit #1 in the Kindle Store. And Amazon took no action.

Over the last six weeks, one particularly brazen author has put four separate titles in the Top 10, and Amazon did nothing whatsoever. There are many such examples.

I wrote at the start of June about how scammers were taking over Amazon’s free charts. That post led to a phone conversation with KDP’s Executive Customer Relations.

Repeated assurances were given that the entire leadership team at Amazon was taking the scammer problem very seriously indeed. But it was also stressed that the problem wasn’t quite as bad as I was making out, and that this stuff never hits the charts and remains largely invisible to customers.

I explained in detail how none of those contentions were true, that readers are leaving angry reviews under these books, which regularly hit the charts, and further that KDP has singularly failed to act on 18 months-worth of complaints.

. . . .

Developments since then have made a mockery of the claim that this stuff doesn’t hit the charts as a book titled Dragonsoul by some unknown writer called Kayl Karadjian hit #1 in the store yesterday. The paid store, not free. Paid.

Authors immediately expressed skepticism – and for good reason. I don’t want to give a playbook on how to spot clickfarmed books, but this was a particularly obvious case. Dragonsoul had very few reviews. It had been out for 9 months with little or no sales history. There was no promo footprint either – it didn’t have ads on BookBub or elsewhere.

There was no Facebook campaign, the author only has 57 likes on his Facebook Page. In fact, the author seemed to have no platform at all – just a few dozen followers on Twitter, and no other discernible internet presence aside from a blog with 9 subscribers and a Patreon with no patrons.

Earlier yesterday, before its great leap forwards, Dragonsoul was languishing at #385,841 in the Kindle Store – meaning Kayl Karadjian was selling roughly one copy every fortnight or so.

And then he suddenly appeared at #1.

. . . .

As I explained in my post last month, unscrupulous authors and publishers are now adopting scammer tactics, and it’s pretty obvious this guy used a clickfarm to artificially borrow his book. Those fake borrows are equivalent to a sale for ranking purposes. A few thousand of them at the same time can be enough to put you at the top of the charts.

. . . .

Another author – who has been engaging in various shady tactics for years with impunity – has gatecrashed the Top 10 four times in the last six weeks using clickfarms. His books tend to immediately slink back to around 100,000 in the charts and don’t have Also Boughts weeks after publishing (meaning that he didn’t manage to rustle up 50 genuine sales yet – borrows don’t count towards Also Boughts).

On the same day that this clickfarmed book hit #1 on Amazon, KDP announced yet another drop in rates for Kindle Unlimited authors – and rates have been steadily dropping for some time now.

They are lower again in markets outside the US – countries like Australia, Germany, the UK, and Canada.

. . . .

Could these phenomena be linked? A huge uptick in scamming and a drop in KU payouts? Gee, I wonder.

. . . .

There is one thing puzzling to me, though. The secret sauce of Amazon’s success was always the store. While Amazon’s competitors raced to build flashier devices, Amazon’s genius was in understanding that if they had the #1 buyer experience and the #1 recommendation engine they would trounce the competition.

Amazon has spent millions and millions of dollars and man-hours in building the most trusted recommendations in the world. The charts themselves are massively popular discovery tools for readers – as any author will tell you who has appeared in the charts and enjoyed the sales spike that this visibility brings.

The sales rank that powers those charts feeds into the recommendation engine tons of ways, so that if you can engineer a sales spike, Amazon’s system will start selling your book for you.

But now Amazon is recommending scammer crap – undercutting the years and years of work it did building up customer trust.

Link to the rest at Let’s Get Digital and thanks to Lucy for the tip.

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Amazon, David Gaughran

114 Comments to “Scammers Break The Kindle Store”

  1. thanks for linking this. I’ve shared at FB and Twitter. Perhaps customer complaints will do what writers have been unable to do.

    • If consumers cared, the problem would be solved. They don’t.

      • My Twitter mentions would seem to indicate otherwise – filled with angry consumers (not writers) complaining about scam books and their favorite authors leaving KU and threatening to cancel their subscriptions or saying they have already done so.

        You have a pretty binary way of looking at this issue. It’s entirely possible that the number of consumers who have a problem with this is growing in line with the amount of scam books achieving big visibility in the store – that would make sense, wouldn’t it? And it’s entirely possible that this number would grow to the point where Amazon would feel compelled to act.

        I’m happy to play my part in hastening that process through educating authors and readers. The situation is not a fixed state. It can be influenced.

        • Terrence often plays the devil’s side around here to see what else might boil up. 😉

          Since I have my ebooks in other places I can’t do KU, but I can think of dozens of ways one might ‘game’ the system. The problem in stopping the games is the issue of false positives – non-gamers that through no fault of their own trip the ‘gamer’ flag.

          As I said elsewhere, we’ve seen people demanding Amazon do something – followed by writers claiming Amazon is doing ‘them’ wrong because they claim the weren’t gaming – they just got labelled as a ‘gamer’ by the system.

          So which do we really want, sometimes the bank robbers get away with the loot – or the cops shooting everyone within a mile of the bank when the alarm goes off? I meself prefers not to get shot at for someone else’s actions.

          • Anon: Not sure why they are the only two choices. Obviously I would like to avoid any false positives and letting some get away with it is far preferable to that. But that’s not what’s happening right now – it’s open season. You can see these guys boasting on places like Warrior Forum about how easy it is to scam the system.

            These problems aren’t new – they are as old as the internet. Neither are they unique – they have been dealt with pretty well by lots of other companies like Google and Ebay. I’ve been getting emails from security specialists since I posted who claim that Amazon’s security (around this section of the business at least) is well below par. That fits with my own impressions. The anti-fraud systems seem pretty lax too.

            To circle back to your analogy, what we seem to have here is a bank with no alarms and open windows and cops that don’t respond to 911 calls.

            • “To circle back to your analogy, what we seem to have here is a bank with no alarms and open windows and cops that don’t respond to 911 calls.”

              Or like that alarm company ADT, that the cops ignore calls from because of all the false reports?

              (Speaking of ADT, don’t join, their service is crap and getting rid of them requires you tell your CC company to stop paying them. When my dad died ADT told my mother she needed to send them a death cert. to cancel them! Still took telling Discover to not pay them to get them to allow her to cancel.)

              No, it doesn’t have to be all one or the other, but which is worse – the bank gets robbed every now and then, or the customers can’t get in to do banking in the first place? In the second case you might as well close the bank (and if you thought writers and readers were crying about the gamers so far then get ready to cover your ears if Amazon shuts down KU! 😉 )

              • I think our comments just crossed.

                We’re in danger of disappearing up our own analogies 🙂

                As I said elsewhere, what’s the alternative? Do nothing? I’m fully aware that Amazon could institute a solution that’s worse than the current problem. But the situation had deteriorated to the point where I had to publicize the matter – addressing the issue privately was getting nowhere.

                • As I said elsewhere, what’s the alternative? Do nothing?

                  Often that is the answer. Many security applications don’t expect to eliminate a problem. They seek to minimize it. So, we would have to have data to see the extent of the phenomenon.

              • Had the same experience with ADT. I now go out of my way to warn people to avoid them.

            • One other thing I didn’t address was that we don’t really know how many attempts are being made each day – just those that are getting through.

              If it was so easy wouldn’t they be collecting the top 100 slots every day of the week? Or do they keep trying and sometimes get lucky? (or need a huge botnet to make it work.)

              So, I guess the question really is if it’s even possible to increase security ‘without’ locking out the customers – and not locking out the ‘honest’ writers of course.

              As far as ‘experts’ go, unless they’re on the inside and know what’s actually in place I’d take how ‘loose’ Amazon’s security is with a grain of salt.

        • It’s entirely possible that the number of consumers who have a problem with this is growing in line with the amount of scam books achieving big visibility in the store – that would make sense, wouldn’t it?

          The possibility makes sense, and it’s a plausible scenario, but so do a number of other possible plausible scenarios. Lacking sufficient information, we can’t conclude which plausible scenario is correct.

          It’s also entirely possible nobody gives a hoot other than enthusiasts. Twitter mentions isn’t a very good guide since there is little reason to expect people to come on Twitter and express their lack of awareness of an issue.

          Amazon has demonstrated it is very consumer oriented. It reacts to consumer feedback.

          So, it’s reasonable to ask if this case is a special anomaly where Amazon doesn’t give a hoot about consumers, has chosen to break the Kindle Store, and seeks to drive consumers away.

          And there is nothing wrong with a binary examination of the issue. Consumer feedback either has or has not risen to a level where Amazon feels it is in its interests to react to that feedback.

          • Amazon isn’t some omniscient, omnipotent, infallible entity. It’s a corporation made of many divisions and lots of different people. One of its famed qualities is the ability to still act like a scrappy start-up, despite its size – but there is a flipside to that also in that sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Any organization of any size has to wrestle with that issue.

            Just because Jeff Bezos has a singular focus on customer experience, doesn’t mean that every single staffer is equally focused on that. It doesn’t mean that Amazon always gets it right.

            Customers trust Amazon’s recommendations – it’s one of the things customers love about Amazon. You really think trust in those recommendations isn’t eroded by this crap? Really? I find that hard to believe.

            Charts are a huge discovery tool for readers. You really think manipulating downloads and borrows and sales rank to appear at the very top of the paid charts isn’t something that will affect the utility of charts as a discovery tool? I find that hard to believe also.

            Here’s what I think: Amazon looked at this scamming issue initially and saw it was affecting the lower reaches of the free charts and the telephone number rankings, and concluded it wasn’t an important issue, something that was largely invisible to customers and would be sorted out by the market if it bubbled up.

            But that obviously didn’t happen.

            • You really think trust in those recommendations isn’t eroded by this crap? Really? I find that hard to believe.

              Sure, somebody has their trust eroded. But, what is the extent of that erosion? What percentage of Prime consumers no longer trust Amazon because some guy used a click farm? What percentage no longer buys books because someone wrote a book saying, “Eat more brocolli,” a zillion times?

              I agree not all Amazon employees exercise the same degree of attention to consumers. But, experience indicates they are very responsive to consumer feedback even with that cadre buried deep within the giant corporation.

              Is that responsiveness attributable to Bezos? I can’t say what the forces are that operate to make the company responsive to consumers. Jeff doesn’t call anymore. (I know he calls everyone else.)

              I suppose we could also question if it did bubble up. We simply don’t know if a material number of consumers care. Material means a number sufficient to result in a measurable change Amazon’s market share.

      • And I’m sure writers wouldn’t mind at all if Amazon just shuts the silly thing down while they fix it. 😉

        • It’s entirely possible that Amazon could come up with a solution that’s worse than the status quo – it has some form in that regard. But what’s the alternative? Do nothing? Allow these scammers to keep throwing books into the top of the charts? I tried to raise this privately with Amazon over an 18-month period – so did plenty of other authors. Going public is a last resort, not a first step. It’s not like I particularly enjoy the idea of p****** off Amazon.

      • It’s also entirely possible that Amazon has done a cost/benefit analysis and decided that X number of angry consumers is not worth the Y dollars in resources it would take to fix. And then posting about it and informing further consumers can change that equation to the point where it does get fixed.

      • If customers were able to convey their displeasure in a way that hit the bottom line. . . .

        go buy your books elsewhere, would have to be the rule.

  2. Good stuff. Shared where I could.

  3. Something I always found amusing is the ‘why hasn’t Amazon fixed this?’ quickly followed by ‘Amazon is hurting us honest writers!’ when they do fix it. (And we’ve seen it on these very pages.)

    There is no ‘fast fix’ that won’t also bite honest writers/ebooks on the backside at the same time.

    And how would you fix it — in such a way it doesn’t toss the baby with the dirty bath water?

    • Too true. Some people would do better to obsess over becoming better writers, than obsessing on how their competitors are ranking. 🙂

      • Some people would do better than to obsess on what other people are obsessing about 🙂

        Seriously though, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. And my writing is pretty good too.

      • And some people think it behooves them to be informed when other “authors” are literally stealing money from them by scamming the Amazon KU system. It affects my bottom line, and it affects my readers’ experiences when they go online to purchase anything from this site. I absolutely think it’s worth getting “obsessed” over, and I applaud David Gaughran for all his hard work and for keeping this information as public as he can.

  4. This is super frustrating. Is there any kind of reader protection group that could confront/shame the authors/scammers doing this? A public list or something?

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      That’s assuming the author/scammer isn’t writing under a throwaway pen name and doesn’t have any others they’ll happily use until the next one is also shamed/confronted.

      • Seems like someone or several someones (maybe headed up by David!) might need to care enough to form a coalition or something. But without Amazon helping, it would probably be like that whack-a-gator game in the mall!

        It’s eroding the value of KU for all. A real shame.

        • Maybe Authors United is the answer. Someone FedEx Douglas Preston.

          • Only if the gamer is a member, then it’d be a public slap on the wrist and a pat on the back once the doors were closed.

        • “It’s eroding the value of KU for all. A real shame.”

          What if that’s the real goal in the first place?

          Let’s see, they always say to ‘follow the money’, so who would benefit the most if KU just ‘went away’?

          Hmmm, the qig5 (yes, I’m that guy 😛 ) would love to see Amazon taken down a few notches. And we know they love to throw mad money at the dumbest of things …

          Bookstores would love KU not supplying their readers with things to read, but killing KU doesn’t stop Amazon from selling books cheaper than they can. Never mind if those bragging about gaming KU get caught or just decide to brag about who was paying them to do it. (As we’ve seen, the qig5 doesn’t care if they get caught.)

          David mentions seeing them bragging, have they been bragging about how much they ‘won/stole’ from Amazon? Or is their only win the bragging rights to the #1 slot until Amazon knocks it off?

          Questions questions, so many questions …

          • Qig5 don’t seem that tech savvy to pull this off. Just saying.

            Unless that is their plan all along and they are triple agents or something…

            • No, but they are dumb enough to think paying someone to do it is a good idea, after all they thought playing agency games with Amazon would be fun … 😉

        • It’s eroding the value of KU for all. A real shame.

          I suspect many consumers don’t notice anything at all. I get KU books all the time, and wouldn’t know anything about scammers if I didn’t read PV.

    • You can’t shame them – they have none. And the ID is printed on TP, they wipe and toss it and grab another sheet.

  5. What’s sad is the authors in the examples have been trying to build a career as writers. One guy was happily posting photos of his recent bookstore signing event. I feel bad for the dude. And for everyone else who’s going to be tempted to the dark side by the promise of an easy #1 spot on the bestseller list. All that hard work that goes into writing a book. And now… it’s not going to work out well for the ones who make bad choices. Only the least ethical, least worthy hucksters will keep at it with no regrets. (And lord knows there’s no shortage of those people around.)

    • There will be gamers always, look at the good things you’ve got … (Somewhere I might still have a VHS tape of ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ laying around. Some of the tunes stick in me head …)

      You’re right, if they can game Amazon writers might as well give up and go back to praying that one of the qig5 will offer them more than chicken feed for all the rights to their books – better odds than self-publishing on Amazon and the others if KU can be gamed – right?

      • My long-term plan involves crawling toward Trad Pub with my beggar hands out in a few years when it’s an apocalyptic wasteland in self-pub…LOL (through the tears) LOL

  6. This problem exists primarily because of Kindle Unlimited. The clickfarm page reads improve the books’ rankings (even if the payments are stripped once Amazon realizes what is going on … that is a big IF because nobody knows for sure if Amazon is taking this action, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt).

    Moreso than the customers, it is the honest authors in Kindle Unlimited who are being hurt because the scammers are sucking up all the payments … and even if Amazon is omniscently stripping the scammers of their payments, the scammers are taking up the most prominent spots and therefore denying honest authors of their rightful places on the bestseller lists and the additional visibility (and added sales) that go with those rankings.

    Consumers may not care, but any author in KU really should care a lot.

    The authors getting burned on KU need to get Amazon’s attention by pulling their books out en masse.

    • Either the material is being read by people (in which case it’s legit)

      or it’s being downloaded by people and not read (an annoyance, but hardly making a ton of money)

      or it’s being downloaded and read by bots to try and game the payments (in which case it’s fraud and Amazon will deal with it, but they don’t want to throw out legitimate reads at the same time)

      just a position on the charts doesn’t directly translate into money with KU, people have to read the works as well.

    • my understanding is that it’s the download of the KU book that boosts the rankings. The page turns result in money but not in ranking. So if 150 people in KU download your book to their devices, your ranking goes up. If for some reason, all of them get very busy and don’t get around to reading it for a month, you’ll see no page reads register on your chart. (or if all of them read in page preview mode, I suppose, also no income.)

  7. Just click farming your way to a #1 spot wont convince me to buy your book. I don’t care what the ranking is, I still read the blurb, check the look inside and decide if it sounds fun. Rank and even comments mean little to me since the system is so easily gamed. Plus really, what’s the point of doing this? They’re not selling, there’s no money coming in and you’d have to be an idiot to just buy because it’s #1 without looking inside to see if it really interests you. They might steal visibility from more deserving authors but then again so do the millions of other people jostling for position in the queue. There’s a whole lot of us jockeying and a momentary surge to #1 really isn’t affecting overall visibility I would think.
    I know I’m just another drop in a bucket – but I am an honest one at least.

    • Good to hear that Edmund.

      I was starting to think that I was the only reader who doesn’t look at and doesn’t care a fig for a books ranking. Plenty of things influence my (many) purchases but these are not among them.

      • All the information out front, first – then read enough of the sample to see if the writer can write (backstory on page 1 and I back out), and if the formatting is even reasonable (though the Look Inside can sometimes get that very wrong for ebooks in particular).

        Then, if we are past the first barriers, a view to some of the negative reviews and a few of the long positive ones skimmed, and maybe. Takes 5-10 minutes to vet a book which will get hours of my rare reading time; it’s not the money.

      • I was starting to think that I was the only reader who doesn’t look at and doesn’t care a fig for a books ranking.

        There are even some folks who never read the fiction reviews. We came up in those bad old days when we went to the bookstore and picked out a book from the cover, blurb, and fanning through it. No internet. No access to a zillion reviews. No bloggers telling us all the stuff they don’t like. No rankings to tell us the book was #456,879.

        It was tough, but it worked. It still does.

    • I thought the same thing. I don’t buy a book, even for 99 cents, without checking out the sample. These scammers will get an initial burst of visibility, but if they’re peddling garbage, that will come back to bite them on the reviews. Indeed, I was shocked to see a book with one review shoot to number 1 last week. When I checked the sample, it was clear all that visibility wasn’t going to end well for the author. Sure enough, the one-star reviews are rolling in. In that sense, gaming the system with bad books is a self-correcting blip. What I don’t understand is how these angry readers were taken in–even with the inflated ranking, if these readers had been marginally diligent, they would never have been saddled with the purchase–almost all of what they complained of (other than scamming) was obvious from the sample. Shouldn’t caveat emptor play a role, at least at some level?

      Perhaps the more interesting question is, what happens if the book turns out to be terrific?

    • That assumes you find the book first. How deep do you go into categories? How many books to you check and vet before giving up and going to an old favorite?

      That’s the biggest problem. This kind of scamming kills visibility.

  8. Smart Debut Author

    Amazon’s timidity or indifference about addressing this is surprising, especially considering they just rolled out Amazon Charts.

    Amazon Charts supposedly provide a “truer” measure of what Americans are actually buying/reading than the NYT’s phony advertiser-curated “best seller” lists.

    So either these scam books will start appearing on that list. Or they won’t.

    Either case is very revealing.

    – If they do appear, it means that Amazon Charts are just as phony and inaccurate as the NYT’s “best seller” lists.

    – If they don’t appear, it means Amazon *can* detect and filter those scam titles out… but it chooses to let them pollute the hourly lists anyway.

    Neither is particularly great optics for Amazon.

    • Amazon’s timidity or indifference about addressing this is surprising, especially considering they just rolled out Amazon Charts.

      What has Amazon done to address it? Why is it timid or indifferent?

      If we don’t know what Amazon is doing, does that mean they are doing nothing?

      • Smart Debut Author

        I judge ’em based on observable results, not hypotheticals.

        What they’ve done:

        Quietly deep-six a single scam book at the top of the charts, where it incidentally was stealing the top spot from an Amazon Publishing imprint’s title (the AmazonCrossing-published “Hangman’s Daughter”)

        What they’ve not done:

        – Implement effective technical solutions after over a year of complaints
        – Publicly acknowledge the issue anywhere
        – Share any real plan for fixing it
        – Take coherent and effective punitive action against even the most blatant scammers

        “Timid or indifferent” sums it up pretty well, methinks…

        • I judge ’em based on observable results, not hypotheticals.
          What they’ve done:

          There is no reason to presume what is observed is the same as what they have done.

          For example, how many click-farm books are blocked each day?

          How do we know they have not taken coherent or effectiuve action against the most blatant scammers? How would we know? What evidence would we observe?

          And they haven’t shared a plan? Ok. Who is entitled to that sharing? Why? So what? That’s not action against scammers.

          Public acknowledgement? Again, so what? That’s not action against scammers.

        • – Implement effective technical solutions after over a year of complaints

          Is there one that won’t also throttle/kill non-gaming stories that suddenly become popular?

          – Publicly acknowledge the issue anywhere

          Like the government does about stopping terrorist? Which basically lets the terrorists they’re getting the attention they wanted and are winning.

          – Share any real plan for fixing it

          Telling the gamers how you’re going to stop them is a bit like the cops telling the crooks where each cop will be and when.

          – Take coherent and effective punitive action against even the most blatant scammers

          The last time we heard of them locking down accounts we saw on these very pages the cries of writers that claimed ‘they’d’ been locked out too – though they didn’t think anything they’d been doing was against Amazon’s ToS.

          I did leave an earlier comment that it seems didn’t pass PG, the latest BoFH where they tell their workforce they’d made a change (but actually hadn’t) and the calls come in about how bad the change is for everyone. The last two lines were:

          “You did all that with an email,” the Boss sighs. “I can’t imagine what happens when you make a real change.”

          “Oh we make them all the time,” the PFY replies. “We just don’t tell anyone.”

    • Desmond X. Torres

      I think your point is the leverage to use on Amazon: that their ‘Charts’ are not reflective of readership. Esp since further down in this comment thread were examples of scam books making multiple charts AND being subsequently promoted by Amazon b/c of their rise ‘data wise’ rather than actual sales.

      Sadly, as David has shown, the Amazon rankings are as suspect as those of the NY Times.

      • Smart Debut Author

        Yeah, they bogus, all right… but leverage? Hah.

        There’s no leverage there to use on Amazon (and who do you propose would be using it in the first place? Authors? 😀 )

        Unlike the NYT, who is trying to tell a particular story with their cooked “bestseller” lists — the story their legacy-publisher advertisers want told, while trying to position the NYT itself as tastemaker for the American readership… Amazon-badger just don’t care.

        I suspect the only reason this particular scam book disappeared from #1 is that someone in the promotions department at Amazon Publishing got mad and raised a fuss over it, because A-pub’s most heavily promoted titles got pushed down a notch as a result. After all, A-pub titles normally dominate the #1 best seller slot (and #2 – #6, too) for large swaths of every month. And you can be *very* sure Apub monitors who is beating them in their own “house” store.

    • I’m late to the party as always, but here’s a plausible explanation:

      Some of the disgruntled mid- to lower-level employees within Amazon are in on the scams. They’re selling their knowledge of the algorithms to the clickfarms and internally suppressing any attempts to deal with this problem.

      This is pure speculation, of course. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it would explain Amazon’s lack of response.

  9. I would think that Amazon wants NO SCANDALs at this time with some asking for Congress to look into Amazon’s desired purchase of Whole Foods.

  10. As of this morning, Karadjian’s book has been quietly removed from the Best Seller lists.

    His account is still active, however.

    • But 2 other books pointed at by David or members of KB are still there, one at n° 53 at the time I’m looking, one in the low ‘000s.
      And it was after David brought the thing in the public’s view.

      • Yes, I’m fairly certain the only reason Amazon addressed this is because of the negative attention David’s article brought to bear.

        There are plenty of other scams that have been brought to Amazon’s attention which are still untouched and thriving.

  11. Karadjian’s book had a total of roughly 50 downloads between 4/19 and 6/3, starting with a 4/21 spike of 20 downloads per day then tapering down to 2-3 per day by the beginning of May, and fading out to zero downloads by June.

    Then, oddly, a giant overnight leap to #1 in mid July, corresponding to several thousand daily downloads.

    As of right now, it looks like Amazon administratively disabled this title’s bestseller rank-tracking — the book currently has *no ranking whatsoever* showing on it’s product page in the “Product Details” block where rankings normally appear:

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MCVJVIP

    Fishy. Very fishy.

    Based on the data, I would concur completely with David’s assessment of what happened.

  12. Phoenix Sullivan

    When we throw out the term ‘theft of visibility,’ there’s more to consider than just the bestseller charts. Two quick examples, both from a couple of the unnamed authors whose scams were cited in David’s blog post.

    1) The author who’s popped 4 books into the Top 10 over the past 6 weeks recently got face-out coverage in one of Amazon’s newsletters for their latest one (not the personalized emails you get for stalking books, but one of the weekly genre newsletters). Such promo can result in hundreds of additional sales and borrows (I’ve worked with authors who’ve gotten such coverage), the same way BookBub can boost books. This author has been reported multiple times by multiple, multiple people — and…is rewarded by Amazon with even more visibility.

    2) An author who’s been scamming the free lists has multiple books in this month’s Monthly Deal on Amazon, presumably invited in because of their popularity. It’s been returned to paid now, but this author’s book yesterday, ironically, also gate-crashed the Top 5 Free yet again.

    Those are all high-visibility spots “earned” by scam behavior. Premium visibility stolen. Amazon is not a democracy, but when it *enables* bad behavior that flouts its T&Cs knowingly, while demanding others play by the rules, then suppliers have, imo, not just a right but an obligation to speak up.

  13. Kindle Unlimited is one of those things that looks great on paper, but fails badly when it is implemented.(There is a pun in that sentence for those who pay attention. HA!)

    I had great hopes for KU when it was announced. To be paid because people actually read pages, awesome. Problem is, they have shown that there is no real way to actually prove a page was read.

    • How is KU working for consumers? Suppliers and consumers have very different objectives in a market.

      Suppliers who want to be effective in changing the structure of a market should not mistake their distress for consumer distress. It’s a losing path.

  14. When you choose to give Amazon exclusivity you effectively are handing them a monopoly on your books, and, as Bezos has pointed out many times, your margin.

    The fact that KU is ripe for scamming is not a new revelation, it always has been and most likely always will be. Scammers are a part of KU, period. Railing against them when you know the system you voluntarily entered into is full of them seems a bit late in my opinion.

    The reading population of KU is proportional to the other four major vendors that we refer to when we say wide (there are hundreds more, but most indies never bother to look for them) so authors need to make up their minds and decide if they wish to be at Amazons/KU mercy (and ever declining payout)or find and build a loyal audience wide.

    IMHO, KU has only gotten worse since its inception, and it shows no signs of changing. We’d all be better off without it.

    The only flaw I see in David’s otherwise excellent post is this: “Clickfarms can do a number of things for those with flexible morals. Depending on what the author is trying to achieve, they can download free books, or borrow KU books, and/or page through borrowed books to generate reads – which will then be paid out of the communal KU pot.”

    Except there is no pot. There never was. There is what Amazon wishes to pay and nothing more.

    A better formula would be: base number in the “pot” plus bonus amount added monthly = lowest per page payout possible that keeps authors in KU.

    Carrot plus bonus carrot = more monopolies of content / more margins to exploit.

    Its a $hit sandwich, no doubt. But if you are in KU, well,you ordered it.

    • Oh, KU2’s per page payout is lots better than that KU(1)’s 10% read and a 100 page story paid the same as a 1000 page one, and where a gamer would load a 3-9 page ‘ebook’ for an instant win. 😉

      But you are correct, it’s too good a deal not to have scamers/gamers try their luck at it. And for all those bad points there are still plenty of writers that see it as a way to be seen/discovered/read/paid – just as we still see those writers willing to give some publisher all their hard work for little in return, and yet still they do it.

      KU will remain until enough writers and/or readers vote with their feet/money/stories and walk away.

      Jeff has proven himself willing to drop/walk away from projects that aren’t working out. If KU is so bad then the readers and writers won’t miss it when it’s gone.

    • Phoenix Sullivan

      Knowing a system is gameable doesn’t mean there isn’t also an expectation of enforcement to minimize the gaming.

      1. Well, you know there are meth heads in the county; why did you leave your house to go to work? Of course it was burgled.

      2. Red lights can be run by anyone. Why did you go through the intersection expecting not to be hit? It’s your fault for being on the road.

      3. Insurance companies are corrupt. Why do even expect payout for the damage caused by the fire set by campers two miles away? That’s obviously force majeure and not reimbursable because the company determines whether your misfortune meets its guidelines. Oh, and since you’ve now filed a claim that we aren’t paying, your rates are going up 10%.

      Do we expect scamming? Of course. Just like we expect a certain percentage of patrons to shoplift and to impact cost of merchandise. What we don’t expect is each shoplifter walking out with thousands of dollars each and merchandise costs to double while the shopkeepers shrug and wave to the shoplifters as they walk out the door.

  15. What we don’t expect is each shoplifter walking out with thousands of dollars each and merchandise costs to double while the shopkeepers shrug and wave to the shoplifters as they walk out the door.

    Does that mean Amazon is shrugging, and doing nothing to curb scammers?

    • They’ll never give that information out, we can only extrapolate from incomplete data.

      Its actually asymmetric information, but to us its all the same: Amazon wins.

    • The observable evidence that they are doing or little or nothing clearly dwarfs your invisible evidence that they might be doing something unbeknownst to us.

      I’ve been talking directly with the people tasked with dealing with this matter and I can tell you that I don’t have much confidence that they take the matter seriously enough or are doing very much about it.

      I can also tell you that they made statements that were clearly incorrect and showed that they didn’t grasp the extent of the matter. Not saying they were being truthful, I think they just didn’t know how serious things were.

      An example: I was told straight out that while the scammers exist, they only target the free store and are largely invisible to customers and don’t appear in the paid charts.

      That’s demonstrably false. And when I told Amazon that they were surprised and asked for more information – which I provided earlier this week.

      Amazon also said that it always acts when scammer books are reported and takes them down.

      That’s also demonstrably false, and when I explained that to Amazon they also asked for further information on that.

      So there’s clear evidence that Amazon does not know the full extent of this problem and is doing little to counter it.

      But I’m sure you’ll try and explain it away.

      • Smart Debut Author

        Argumentative peanut-gallery pedants aside, many of us *do* appreciate all that you do to protect and advocate for authors, David.

        It’s both selfless and brave of you to make yourself a highly-visible irritant to litigous author-scammers like AuthorSolutions and its disgusting ilk, and it’s equally nontrivial, selfless, and admirable of you to risk annoying a generally benign but careless Godzilla like Amazon which can arbitrarily cut any author off from access to the vast majority of their addressable market, all in the pursuit of helping your fellow authors.

        I salute you, man. You are doing the Lord’s work here.

      • That says a lot about Amazon right there, David.

        If they see whats happening, but don’t understand what it is they are seeing, then we have a problem of incompetent employees running the store.

        My first thought would be that the people who built the store are no longer there and assisting with the running of it. And/or the people running the store are refusing to admit that they don’t understand the problem and are not willing to tell the ones that can actually fix it.

        Either way, the authors suffer.

        Based on what you are saying it sounds as if we have a medic focusing on all the small cuts and scrapes, applying band-aids furiously, while at the same time he ignores the gaping head wound because he doesn’t know how to treat it.

        Kindle Unlimited; the only way to win is not to play.

      • The observable evidence that they are doing or little or nothing clearly dwarfs your invisible evidence that they might be doing something unbeknownst to us.

        Observable evidence dwarfs my evidence? So what? Poor evidence vs poor evidence. Your evidence is very poor. It doesn’t dwarf anything. We don’t have to draw a conclusion when we lack the necessary information. That’s what advocates do. Analysts deal with information. We don’t have to pick a side.

        Your evidence tells us nothing about the extent of Amazon’s efforts. For example, approximately how many click-farm books does Amazon stop per day? Is it zero? One thousand? Some other number?

        Presuming what one knows is all there is to know (or a great deal of what there is to know) is a mistake, and conclusions based on such faulty info should be rejected. They are misleading.

        And my evidence? I offer none. I lack evidence to make conclusions about the full scope of Amazon’s activity. So do you.

        I agree Amazon probably does not know the full extent of the problem, but we both lack the information necessary to conclude they are doing little, or a lot, to counter it.

        • I disagree. Amazon has failed to act on multiple reports of fraud, and in doing so, they have allowed scammers to infiltrate the top levels of the Best Seller lists.

          Whether they’ve stopped 1 or 10,000 so far is irrelevant to that fact. Whatever effort they may be applying to this problem is inadequate.

          • how many posts have we had from Authors upset that Amazon closed their account, blocked their book, etc?

            those are false positives showing up from Amazon’s efforts to block the scammers.

            you you sre incorrect to say that Amazon has been doing nothing, we see the false positives of their efforts show up.

            • Yes, saying that Amazon does “nothing” is hyperbole, but let’s not get derailed by that.

              Here is the unvarnished truth: whatever Amazon is doing to stop the problem is ineffective.

              We see the evidence of that in scam after scam that sails through Amazon’s screens and crackdowns, and if scammers are breaching the Top 10, you can be damn sure the more circumspect criminals are scattered through the lower tiers as well.

              I think we can agree on that, yes?

              • Yes, saying that Amazon does “nothing” is hyperbole, but let’s not get derailed by that.

                When hyperbole is used to support conclusions, the conclusions are unreliable and misleading.

  16. Whether they’ve stopped 1 or 10,000 so far is irrelevant to that fact. Whatever effort they may be applying to this problem is inadequate.

    Sure. If any vestige of a problem exists, we can say any effort to date has been insufficient to eradicate it.

    But recognizing that tells us nothing about the extent of those efforts. If we look at it as a system, all we can see are problems on the output side. We have no idea what’s on the input side.

    Also, as both David and Anonymous have pointed out, that vestige may be the equilibrium point between the harm done by scammers, and the harm that would be done to non-scammers by taking additional action. But ,like I said before, Jeff doesn’t call anymore, so that is obviously speculation.

  17. Thanks, David, for advocating for us authors and sharing what you’ve found.

    It’s unfortunate that there are folks out there who rationalize stealing.

    It seems Amazon and the scammers is like McAfee and the black hats. Always this game of new exploit and fix, new exploit and fix.

    At least, I hope it is. If so, it would mean Amazon would respond to your report as McAfee or Norton would the report of a new exploit that’s significant and get it fixed.

    I guess we’ll see what happens.

    • I don’t ‘rationalize stealing’, I just don’t see a way to prevent too many false positives if they set the bar to catch every bad guy/gal.

      I know it’s not this way in the courts anymore, but there used to be a saying that went something like: Better a hundred guilty go free than one be falsely incarcerated.

      Which would you be more upset by, seeing the hundred getting away with it – or you being the one falsely convicted?

      After all, in this case it’s only losing your Amazon account and any money it might have been making you. How many here reading this wouldn’t mind being barred from Amazon if it meant all those gamers got caught too? Add a reply if that’s okay with you and PG can let Amazon know they won’t get yelled at by us for closing any wrong accounts.

      (Though as I said elsewhere, ‘I’d’ rather ‘not’ be hung for another’s misdeeds … 😛 )

      • I don’t ‘rationalize stealing’, I just don’t see a way to prevent too many false positives if they set the bar to catch every bad guy/gal.

        Nor have I seen anyone rationalizing stealing. I’d love to see it. Should be interesting reading.

        • I did in one of my books. 😉

          Would you steal if it meant the difference between life and death (yours)? Would you steal to save the life of another?

          I’m sure we can all ‘rationalize stealing’ in that type of case.

          I’m not talking about those that do it for the money or for bragging rights, but because of need.

          I’d say KU is not a ‘needful thing’, but I hear some people are making their house/boat payments with it.

  18. I would also like to thank you, David, for dedicating your time to expose scammers and scams that are harming author.

  19. The real world is imperfect.
    More often than not the only viable solution to a problem isn’t erradication but rather containment or minimization.

    Demanding absolute, final solutions without full knowledge of the extent of the problem and the extent of ongoing efforts may be good for venting and even advocacy but does not guarantee a satisfactory solution. One should be prepared for the possibility that no amount of advocacy will result in a satisfactory outcome and consider alternatives.

    Some problems are by nature inherently intractable and come with quick “final solutions” that are understood to be worse than the problem they would solve.

    (I.e., the problem of north Korean nukes can most quickly be solved by a handful of Trident launches from close by. Not something most people would advocate but the only surefire alternative to an intractable regime.)

    It may very well be that actual extent of the problem is to Amazon more like petty shoplifting that outright larceny and that they are satisfied with identifying the bigger scammers and witholding their loot and letting lesser miscreants get away with the odd “candy bar”.

    From the other side of the divide, it may very well be that the only solution to the problems of KU is, as Mr Wood suggests above, to *not* participate in KU. After all, it only captures a 5-10% share of total ebook spending. If the benefits do not outweigh the negatives, the most effective solution is to disengage.

    And if enough players do exit in a short enough time then perhaps the cold equations will change enough to drive meaningful change.

    Simply put, if the current KU value proposition is unacceptable don’t accept it and withdraw until it changes enough to be acceptable.

    Otherwise…?

    • Ah, but that would require ‘them’ doing something to show Amazon their ‘displeasure’ at Amazon’s current (un?)actions – that for some might affect their pocket books.

      Much easier to act upset about things and demand Amazon ‘do something’. That way if Amazon ‘does’ do something that hits them in their wallets, it too will be Amazon’s fault.

      The logic is perfect, KU is Amazon’s fault. Perhaps if there’s enough kickback they’ll turn it off until they figure out how to make it 100% game proof (and of course refund those that signed up to read KU.)

      Sadly, if they do close KU I don’t see them re-opening it in anything like it’s current form. As all the gamers must be hitting them from the outside (or they’d be easier for Amazon to shut down), perhaps they’ll make it even more limited than it now is. Maybe just their in-house writers. True, they’ll lose some readers, but there would be no more risk of of a gamer submitting an ebook and then firing up a bot network to ‘order’ it (or if they did it would be one-time only with them barred from Amazon ever after.)

      As I myself am ‘wide’ it won’t affect my stories too much, and if the gamers really are hurting others in KU then I’m sure they’ll be happy if/when Amazon removes this problem known as KU …

      • Sadly, if they do close KU I don’t see them re-opening it in anything like it’s current form.

        I don’t see any reason Amazon would close KU over independent author dissatisfaction. The Select/KU collection keeps growing. Ever since Select debuted, people have predicted its demise. When KU was added, they were certain the whole thing would implode.

        Yet, over all those years, Select/KU kept growing. Those who don’t like it don’t join? OK. So what? Others don’t like it and leave? OK. It keeps on growing without them.

        It’s a self-selection situation. Amazon offers an imperfect opportunity. Some will join, others will not.

        • “It’s leaking all over the place!” they cried. “Fix it at once!” they demanded.

          So he fixed it.

          “Hey! there’s no water!”

          “Yes,” he replied. “You wanted a quick fix and I gave you just what you asked for. It’s not leaking any more – is it?”

    • Smart Debut Author

      The KU program pays out more dollars directly to indie authors than all the other “wide” ebook retailers put together are able to generate for ALL *publishers* combined, let alone the share of those “wide” dollars that actually goes to authors.

      So while “going wide” feels good and empowering for an author (and, as folks like Randall have pointed out, may very well be the best long-run solution), KU authors will on average lose money going “wide.”

      Sucks, but true.

      With that said, those who do go wide and are able to figure out how to market effectively at those other retailers — those authors end up with much more long-term control over their careers than a Kindle-exclusive author.

      If an author is in this for the long term, becoming dependent on KU payouts and Amazon’s algorithms for your income is a serious career mistake — almost as dumb as handing your IP to a traditional publisher for a peanuts advance and imagining that they will invest any real time and money marketing you.

      • Felix J. Torres

        “Sucks but true”, applies to a lot of things in life, where most things are trade-offs, mixed bags of things both good and bad.

        Likewise, a lot of problem solutions come out as a mix, neither pure “white” nor pure “black” but a combination of both. Quitting KU cold turkey is but one way to mitigate exposure to scamming. Others might exist.

        One thing I’ve always wondered if what fraction of KU authors jump in full time with their entire catalog and what fraction dynamically manage their presence on the service, rotating titles in and out over time. I also wonder about the payout difference between the two approaches but I fully expect tbe latter question involves proprietary data and will remain unanswered.

        It’s an imperfect world where every question does not get answered, or every problem get solved.

        It is important to be informed but it is also important to remain focused on the things one can productively control, no?

        • Smart Debut Author

          My point was simply that suddenly quitting KU cold turkey will hurt the short-term bottom lines of most KU authors. That hardly “mitigates” their exposure to the scamming — at least not if your definition of “exposure to scamming” means losing money as result of said scamming.

          Easing off a KU revenue-dependency, OTOH, by investing more of an author’s marketing effort, dollars, and lessons-learned in growing their wide sales can effectively reduce that KU dependency.

          So we’re mostly agreeing.

          However, if your last point about “remaining focused” implies that KU scamming should be ignored by authors, I disagree strongly with that.

          Amazon *can* be influenced to address scams… if enough folks complain and generate bad optics for them. Sure, they are slow as hell to do so, and sometimes the solution ends up being worse than the original problem. But if a bunch of authors hadn’t complained about KU 1.0’s 9-page scamphlets eating up the KU pot, we would likely never have seen Amazon shift to the “pages-actually-read” KU 2.0 model which was a vast improvement for authors of novel-length works.

          • Felix J. Torres

            No, I’m not advocating ignoring anything. As I said, being informed is important.

            Remaining focused is about not letting external tempests and catfights divert/distract you from your primary goal. Particularly if it is a matter you have little control over.

            Also, it is worth remembering that not everything that annoys or hurts us is directed at us, personally. These days there is an abundance of examples of people losing track of what is of primary importance (typically, earning a living, maintaining a career, family) due to outrage over things not going the way they want them to go. Impulsive actions follow, ending in embarrassment or worse.

            There’s a reason quick and simple “solutions” to problems are referred to as “quick-n-dirty”. Most of the time, taking time to consider as many aspects of the situation as possible is safer than quick kneejerk outrage. Less regrets lie that way.

      • You’re thinking about marketing all wrong. You don’t market “at a retailer,” you market to readers.

        • Smart Debut Author

          So, we should be running newspaper ads and doing book blog tours instead? 😉

          An iBooks featuring can net you thousands of sales, as can an Amazon newsletter listing.

          An Amazon Prime Reading promo can net you north of 20K sales.

          Sorry, Joe, but you’re thinking about marketing the way publishers back in the 1980s did.

  20. I wonder if Bezos is getting any visibility on this issue. And, if so, what his thinking might be.

    (Somehow, I think his response would be “Fix this. Fast!”)

    • I’d hope it’d be “Fix it without breaking anything else.”

      Unless you don’t mind being a false positive?

      • Felix J. Torres

        Bezos might start by asking, “Is this even fixable?”

        For all we know the system is already 99% effective.
        In a pool of a million-plus titles, that still leaves room for thousands of failures, both negative and positive.

        Zero tolerance solutions tend to be draconian.

        Sometimes you just have to live with the occasional sample defect slipping through Quality Assurance.

        • ADS takes many forms, including expecting Amazon to be perfect.

          And you’re really not fighting fair using math, 99% of 1,000,000 allows for 10,000 problem children. If we’re only seeing 100 or fewer, then Jeff’s teams/analogs are already knocking out 99% of that 10,000 (and not too many companies manage four 9s of anything …)

    • Bezos might ask for a detailed profile of the situation, steps taken to date, success to date, planned action in the future, effect on consumers, consumer response to date, and trade-offs involved in more rigorous policing.

      When Jeff calls, I’ll ask him.

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