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The Only Rule Amazon Truly Cares About

12 September 2017

From David Gaughran at Let’s Get Digital:

On Monday, I found out that some bug hit a German e-book site causing the reactivation of long-dead listings, including one of mine, putting myself and some other authors in breach of KDP Select’s exclusivity rule.

Amazon pounced into action and cancelled my Countdown deal which was scheduled for this week, screwing up a carefully planned promotion. And despite pledging to resolve the matter and restore the promo, Amazon has not done so.

I’m going to go through what happened in detail so you can be sure that I acted correctly at all points – because there is a lot of shadiness going on at the moment – but feel free to skim some of the details if you wish.

Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible had never been in Select, so I decided to throw them in for one term as an experiment at the start of July. It was a short-term play, I was curious to see what KU could do for these books. Once they were down from all other retailers, I enrolled them.

. . . .

It’s usually a good KU tactic to run a free promotion on the first book of a series and a 99c Countdown Deal on the second. Both promos will feed into each other, and the step up from free to 99c is quite small so you will get a decent amount of sell-through. And as Digital and Visible are more akin to companion books which boost each other than a linear series which must be read in a certain order, there is no loss running that in reverse.

I bought ads on a variety of reader sites, drew up a Facebook campaign with a carousel ad pushing both books as the centerpiece, and planned some action on the BookBub CPM platform. I also wanted to push the deals myself on social media – figuring Visible in particular would get a lot of play as it had never been free – and then try and give things a final shove on this here blog, if I could shake off the virus that had been dogging me all month. In short, there were a few moving parts.

And then I got the dreaded email.

KDP’s Exclusivity Compliance team contacted me on Monday August 7 to say that Let’s Get Digital was breaching the exclusivity requirements of KDP Select. They gave me a link to some German store called Weltbild.

Straight away, I could see something was off because this store was selling the first edition of Digital – which hadn’t been available anywhere since 2014. I emailed them straight away asking them to take the book down and to explain why it was on their site etc. (They never replied at any point.)

I also replied to the KDP Exclusivity Compliance team, explaining that it looked like this German store had inadvertently put an old 2014 edition of my book on sale without my permission. I told them I was trying to get the listing down but was facing some difficulty as I didn’t know how it had gotten there in the first place, and asked them to take all that into consideration. I further explained that the situation was urgent as I had a Countdown deal scheduled to commence on Wednesday August 9.

. . . .

And then a friend warned me that I should check if my Countdown deal was already cancelled.

I logged into my KDP Bookshelf, and, sure enough, my dashboard said that the Countdown deal had been cancelled. Clicking on the “Why?” link beside the cancellation status brought up some boilerplate text about KDP Select exclusivity, with a link to the KDP terms and conditions.

. . . .

Another round of emails to Amazon finally got a response on Tuesday August 8. A member of the Executive Customer Relations team said that he was trying to find out what had happened with my book and was re-instating my ability to run Countdown deals in the meantime.

I scheduled one for Digital immediately, but the earliest date I could select was August 10 – not the original date of August 9. Far from ideal, but better than nothing. Starting late would still mess up my promo though, so I emailed Amazon and asked if they could manually shift the date back to the original of August 9, as I had ads booked.

In the meantime, the helpful team at Draft2Digital had established that this German store had listed my book without authorization and provided me with a form of words to that effect so I could show Amazon that the breach of exclusivity was through no action/inaction of mine, and that it was working to get the book down ASAP.

(Note: Draft2Digital was not at fault here at all, and was excellent throughout.)

. . . .

Authors regularly get caught up in situations like this because of Amazon’s poorly designed enforcement system – which treats authors with contempt. I’m far from the first to be caught in its maw. Self-publishers have been warning Amazon about this kind of thing repeatedly over the last few years, but we have seen no improvements. Books still regularly get removed for typos, sometimes without warning, and for breaching exclusivity, often through no fault of the author (whereas those engaging in much shadier practices seem to get a pass).

This needs to change.

We deserve to be treated with a basic level of respect. Authors shouldn’t be put in a position where they have to chase down unauthorized editions of their books against a ticking clock threatening serious sanctions. We should be informed if Amazon is going to apply sanctions like cancelling Countdown deals. At the moment, Amazon just acts, without affording a right of reply, often without even communicating the sanction.

The whole matter is compounded by the (often terrible) customer service levels at KDP. When I emailed about this issue, I was first received a canned response that had nothing to do with what I was asking. Then I had to wait a further day for the next response. If I didn’t have contacts at KDP Executive Customer Relations, I would have gone through that canned response loop with customer service agents a number of times before someone began to address the actual issue.

. . . .

This is pretty abominable treatment of authors considering it pertains to actions outside their control. For example, giant media conglomerates with an international army of lawyers and a budget of billions are unable to stamp out piracy, but individual authors are now expected to get them to tow the line? It’s ludicrous.

Link to the rest at Let’s Get Digital

PG agrees with David that KDP Author support is ineptly automated.

Here’s a free suggestion of a data-driven procedure that will improve performance of that automation. Pay attention, Seattle!

PG suspects a relatively few bad apples spoil the indie-publishing barrel for a lot of innocent authors. PG has no complaints about Amazon treating the worst-case actors like the worst case actors.

However, PG suggests that only a few authors are worst case actors. Among other techniques, the worst case actors probably sign up for a new Amazon account after they’ve been bounced off their old one. The better-behaved authors have accounts that are older and more populated with books.

So, how does the data-driven solution work?

(Trigger Warning to real database gurus – PG will be talking about data solutions like a lawyer. Take deep breaths.)

  1. Every new KDP author is treated with polite suspicion. If they violate KU Terms of Service, the automated ficklewraiths snap up their KU privileges and threaten them with obscurity soup in five days.
  2. Over time, a KDP author collects points for good behavior. “You didn’t break the rules for three months! Here’s a star!!” A violation might get a star removed or freeze the star count for a few months.
  3. Authors are grouped into categories based upon star count:
    1. Psycho Bin
    2. Barely Beyond Suspicion
    3. Honest Peasant
    4. Coconutbramblesocks, a fairy of the lowest order
    5. Aheahe, Hawaiian for gentle breeze
    6. Queen Pudicitia the Virtuous
    7. Jeff’s Bros
  4. The autoresponses vary depending on the earned author rank.
    1. An Honest Peasant in KU has the same book up somewhere else on the trackless internet – “Hey! What’s your problem? You been drinking again?”
    2. Queen Pudicitia the Virtuous is in KU and has the same book up somewhere else – “Your majesty, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we have a tiny problem. Could you have one of your servants fix it?”
  5. Amazon could automate the whole system (says the lawyer) and send the message with less likelihood of mistreating an author who has been doing the right thing for a long time and suffered from a senior moment.
  6. When an author communicates with KDP support, their response goes to a group dedicated to serving people just like them.
    1. If the author is Barely Beyond Suspicion, support doesn’t treat them like dirt, but maybe like floating dust.
    2. If the author is Coconutbramblesocks, support doesn’t automatically assume they’re dealing with Jack the Ripper, but rather an author who inadvertently spilled habanero sauce on her keyboard, shorting it out and transmitting a bunch of Click to Accept messages.

While PG gives them permission to use his groupings and genius ideas without compensation, Amazon doesn’t need to follow PG’s suggestions to the letter.

But the company routinely profiles purchasers of its products up one side and down the other – PG just signed on to Amazon and saw a bunch of computer cables on the first page. PG’s daughter will see something different when she signs on. Ditto for PG’s son. And his next door neighbor will see a sale on lawn fertilizer.

Each customer gets their Own Private Amazon.

Just sprinkle some profiling juice on KDP and ask customer service soak it up.

Amazon, Self-Publishing

21 Comments to “The Only Rule Amazon Truly Cares About”

  1. PG, I wish they would do this.

    Or a lot of the scams are supposedly for about 24 hours right?
    So you can’t be in KU and get paid from it unless you’re in for 3 weeks (or whatever length of time would prevent the scams). I don’t think click farms could escape notice for 3 weeks if it’s just nonsense in the middle of a few paragraphs in english, especially since they climb the charts and readers get curious.
    Amazon could hold those books in suspicion and treat them as psycho bin if they start racking up complaints upon release.

    Well, that’s my idea to put an end to click farms. Please, amazon take note of my brilliant idea. Run with it…

    • Any ‘set’ rule can be gamed if you know just how the rule is used/applied, so Amazon has to have several rules working together and more or less unknown to reduce the ‘gaming’ options/chances.

      But the more rules that are set to stop gamers the more of those rules that will catch those that thought they weren’t doing anything wrong.

      In this case to OP ‘knows’ what hit them – a third party offering his ebook. (And Amazon doesn’t care if it’s the first or latest edition, which is why my stories won’t be KDP, the first editions are on several websites for free for anyone to read.)

      In this case Amazon is a bit like those red-light cameras – there’s no arguing with them if you get caught.

      • hmmm… I’m not sure how the click farmers could game this.
        They push the book up but it’s not a real book. Readers complain to amazon. Amazon investigates. And they don’t pay.

        It’s easy to hide the book if you take it down after 24 hrs.
        Much harder to hide when it’s sitting in the top 100 for a week or more.

        • Not sure how that’s supposed to help as it’s at least a month before you get ‘paid’ for any particular day worth of reads – plenty of time for Amazon to stop payment as it is.

          What Amazon (and writers) want to see is those click farms never boosting that fake book into the top 100 – much less the #1 spot.

          That’s much harder, because anything that would stop a click-farm will also kill any ebook that honestly goes viral. Yes, the viral would most likely stay up longer – but you ‘don’t known/can’t tell’ that from the leading wave.

          So Amazon has tripwires in place to automatically catch what they can, like David’s ebook being offered elsewhere.

          Amazon can’t win this fight – not the way it’s currently played. And no matter what they tighten/loosen, someone’s going to get caught – or a gamer is going to get away with it.

          • Click farms wouldn’t be in business if Amazon didn’t pay them. So they put up the book for 24 hours… Amazon pays them. Authors lose out on those pages.

            It would be easy for Amazon to eliminate this.

  2. Beautifully put.

    Except I might name Psycho Bin as Servants of Sauron instead (or add a lower level of Amazon Hell for deliberate scammers).

    Other than that, a definite work of genius suitable for starting the process. Just don’t be surprised if they’re already doing something – I hope they are.

  3. Ah, if only, PG! When something does go wrong, it’s so hard to figure out what, when all Amazon does is send authors canned responses. I recently had a promo screw up because KDP “support” sent their canned message asking me to prove I had the rights to a novella I wrote. I sent numerous details, but I just kept getting the same demand for proof I had the rights — and absolutely no indication why they thought I had to prove it. By the time I finally figured out why they were suddenly objecting to a book that had been published with them for over a year and managed to send them the documentation to shut them up, the promo was long over.

    At least David Gaughran got a direct answer. I didn’t even get that. :/ So maybe something like you suggest is already in place, PG.

    (BTW, if anyone is curious, I blogged about it here:
    https://ruthnestvold.wordpress.com/2017/08/05/how-amazon-continues-to-do-its-best-to-p***-off-its-writers-the-odyssey-of-establishing-my-rights-to-looking-through-lace/)

    • I am curious … but the Word Press censor has caused a “page not found” error by putting asterisks in your link. FYI everyone, go to the link, and swap out the asterisks for “ss” instead. Or, alternatively, let’s see if the censor lets this pass:

      The odyssey of establishing my rights to Looking Through Lace.

      • Nope, that still leads to a page not found and requires replacing the asterisks. I might suggest the author simply change that word to “tick” to avoid linking problems.

        Upsetting blog post, though. As authors, we’re not actually required to register with the copyright office for us to retain copyrights of our work, but it looks like that’s exactly what Amazon is requiring of us.

        • My inital reply got detached to a separate comment somehow. Anyway, yes, it looks like even indies must register copyright. I don’t see a downside to this (I actually thought everyone did it) and it could only help if someone DOES try to pass of your works as theirs, which I think has happened a few times on Amazon.

          I believe in overkill when it comes to thwarting would-be thieves, so registering copyright with the Library of Congress seems like the way to go. I like to read copyright pages, and I notice the LoC catalog is typically mentioned on them.

          Also, with any anthology, even e-book anthologies, the copyright page needs to mention where the stories were first published. I’m wondering if Clarke’s anthology had mentioned on the copyright page “LtL first published in 20XX by RuthNestvoldCo.” would she still have had to go through this.

          I happen to have an e-book version of a Baen anthology. Here’s what I’m talking about:

          “Novice” © 1962, first appeared in Analog, June 1962; “Undercurrents” © 1964, first appeared in Analog, May & June 1964; “Poltergeist” © 1971, first appeared in Analog, July 1971; “Goblin Night” © 1965, first appeared in Analog, April 1965; “Sleep No More” © 1965, first appeared in Analog, August 1965; “The Lion Game” © 1971, first appeared in Analog, August 1971; “Blood of Nalakia” © 1953, first appeared under the title “The Vampirate” in Science Fiction Plus, Dec. 1953; “The Star Hyacinths” © 1961, first appeared in Amazing Stories, Dec. 1961; all copyright to the estate of James H. Schmitz

          I haven’t bought any indie anthologies, but if any of you are in them, it looks like you need a copyright page that looks like that.

          • I never got my author’s copy of the Galactic Empires anthology, so I don’t know if there was a copyright page like that. When I do collections of my own previously published short fiction, I always put that info in a “credits” page at the back of the book.

            But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think Amazon would even have gone far enough to check out a copyright page like that, not given the non-informative, canned responses I was getting in answer to my queries. They didn’t even bother to tell me why they were contesting my copyright.

            • You’re likely right.

              And I hate KDP’s tech support service. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could get an answer that was within the neighborhood of your question, but talking to them is like saying “I’d like fries with that, please,” and them responding “Wookies don’t live on Endor.” So annoying!

    • I got the same email when I posted a book for which rights had just reverted to me from the original publisher. This struck me as weird, since I have about 50 books posted with Amazon. Why would they suddenly assume I’m a pirate?

      However, I’ll admit, I have recently heard of authors being spoofed on iTunes and the Zon, with a thief posting their exact cover & book with only a tiny difference (name of publisher, I think). These thieves are setting up accounts and blatantly stealing right on legitimate sites, so I guess Amazon is trying to combat that.

      Luckily, I had a signed reversion contract, which I photographed and remailed back to the Zon. they posted the book immediately. A few weeks later, when I posted another one, there were no questions raised.

      I’m not sure what the heck we’d send to prove we had a copyright, since it takes weeks or longer to get hard copy verification from the Library of Congress. And, as someone said, we aren’t required to obtain an official copyright (although it’s in our best interest to do so).

      But I suppose I’d rather have that happen, than discover my books were being stolen on the Zon right under my nose.

      • What worked for me was a PDF of the reprint contract, specifically stating that they were buying *non-exclusive* reprint rights.

        But first I had to come up with the reason why they were claiming I didn’t have rights to my own fiction, since they refused to tell me. I found it hard to believe anyone might be trying to steal my stuff, since I’m such a prawn, but it was scary anyway.

  4. Sorry, it worked for a second, then the censor got to it. You may have to try something like Bit.ly to get around it. Anyway, your experience is very frustrating just to read about, let alone having to go through it.

  5. Heh, that’s funny about the censoring of my blog post title. 🙂 Here’s a bitly link instead:

    http://bit.ly/2xvMJZl

    Here’s hoping that works for longer than a few minutes! *g*

  6. The Amazon giveth and the Amazon taketh away. Deal with it.

  7. Amazon’s history indicates it’s not going to invest in providing individual supplier support. If we look at their actions, they are content to lose suppliers because they are managing a growing aggregate. They manage the aggregate, and any relief to individual suppliers will be a function of a change in how the manage the aggregate.

    In economic terms, each supplier is a price-taker. He is stuck with the market and the way it works, and has to skillfully navigate to stay afloat.

    Contrast this with how they treat consumers. They know what they are doing. They have made choices. They are competing for consumers. They don’t have to compete for suppliers. And that makes all the difference. Follow the money.

  8. I had all my books booted out of KDP Select and was barred for a year when Amazon’s relentless bots discovered an Italian language pirate site that had posted several of my titles for sale. When I tried to explain that the books were stolen and that therefore I had not violated the exclusivity rules, Amazon (eventually) responded that they didn’t care. Even stolen books violated their rules and I was still responsible, even when books were posted by pirates. That was a real lose-lose, but there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it.

  9. A brilliant and fun solution, PG

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