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Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives

22 October 2017

From David Gaughran at Let’s Get Digital:

Phoenix Sullivan is well-known in the indie community – I’ve known her myself since 2009 or 2010 and consider her a close friend.

Aside from being exceptionally generous with her time and knowledge, tirelessly sharing her insights on marketing and algorithms, Phoenix is also well known as a vocal campaigner against scammers and cheaters – particularly on the current big issues of book stuffing and clickfarming.

And now she is being targeted.

Phoenix made a box set free for a few days at the very start of October, advertising on Freebooksy, KND/BookGorilla, and Digital Book Today – all legitimate sites – and there was no other promotion involved with this title. No BookBub CPM ads, no Facebook campaign, no tweets, no newsletter swaps, no mailing lists.

On the third day of her free run, Phoenix’s box set was rank-stripped by Amazon, a punishment normally reserved for those who have used clickfarms or bots. Phoenix reached out to Amazon to ask what was going on, but they only replied with a canned response accusing her of using artificial means to manipulate her rank.

Exactly one week later, they sent an automated mail with essentially the same content and implied threat:

We are reaching out to you because we detected purchases or borrows of your book(s) originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank.  As a result, the sales rank on the following book(s) will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

Wild Hearts Box Set (Books 1 & 2 + Bonus Novella)(ASIN: B01MYP56J8)

Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.

Please be aware, any additional activity attempting to manipulate the Kindle services may result in account level action.

As I said, Phoenix is a close friend. I know her well and we are in contact almost every day. I know exactly what methods she uses to promote her books, and they are all legitimate. Her ethics are above reproach and she would never engage in any grey hat behavior, let alone go near the black hat territory of bots and clickfarms or mass gifting/incentivized purchasing.

In short, there is no possible way that Phoenix is guilty of any wrongdoing.

. . . .

Successive emails from her to KDP, the Compliance Team, and Executive Customer Relations achieved nothing other than repeated boilerplate about rank manipulation – accusing her of employing illicit methods to artificially inflate her downloads.

At least that’s what we think Amazon is accusing her of doing. In keeping with the general Kafkaesque vibe of the whole situation, Phoenix is being warned not to do it again, but in the half-dozen emails Phoenix has received on this issue, Amazon hasn’t explained what “it” means exactly, and has refused point blank to elaborate (my emphasis):

As we previously stated, we still detect purchases or borrows of your book(s) are originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. You are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions.

We cannot offer advice on marketing services or details of our investigations.

Please be aware we will not be providing additional details.

This all unfolded while I was at NINC. I approached a senior Amazon person and explained the situation. He seemed genuinely concerned and said that he would investigate.

All that seemed to achieve was that the rank was eventually returned to Phoenix’s book fifteen days later, but her promo was ruined at that point and, most importantly, she is still being accused of rank manipulation and is on a warning as to her future conduct.

Link to the rest at Let’s Get Digital and thanks to T. for the tip.

Amazon, David Gaughran

51 Comments to “Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives”

  1. Stephen Kolcow, jr

    It’s easy for me to believe that an author who has been outspoken about scammers became a “target” of those firms doing the scamming.

  2. It’s also the height of irony, given that Amazon is now engaged in their own version of ratings manipulation. The star average of my reviews for my first book is a bit above 4.2 (verifiable by calculating average of all the reviews) but Amazon lists it as a 4.0. Buried below, they claim they are now using a machine-learned algorithm rather than raw averages to determine a book’s rating, but that’s not at all obvious unless you dig for it. I picked two 47North-published books at random (Amazon-published works in a similar genre) and lo and behold, both their ratings were consistent with their raw averages. While I’ve long been an Amazon fan, this practice leaves me feeling slimed.

    • Doug, in case you were unaware, Amazon weights reviews differently, depending on where they’re coming from. For instance, a review from someone who is associated with you on social media counts for less than one from someone unaffiliated.

      Their weighting system may be even more involved than that, perhaps differentiating between verified or non-verified purchases, or reviews from someone who otherwise doesn’t read within your genre, considering them ‘less organic’. We don’t really know.

      I don’t doubt Amazon favors the marketing of its own products over someone else’s, just as most stores would prefer you purchase their store brand over a name-brand product. I’d rather they didn’t futz around with the review system, as I think that devalues it, but until the discrepancies are much larger, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

      • It was the equivalent of an anonymous 0-star review from Amazon out of 24 and the reasons for the disparagement are not transparent to potential buyers. When they see the book, they see the 4-star rating, but unless they manually calculate the ratings, they have no idea that the raw average is actually higher–and making up that difference for an indie author isn’t a trivial proposition in terms of promotional dollars spent. Moreover, I see no reason to presume the recency of a review impacts its legitimacy–that depends on where the book was promoted and the extent to which the particular audience was a good fit–information to which Amazon’s algorithm does not have access. Just because my book “only” suffered a .2 doesn’t mean there aren’t books out there that have been hit with a far bigger nerf bat. And the immunity of their own books isn’t merely “favoring their own products,” it’s a deceptive trade practice. Grocers can’t favor their own potatoes by erasing the word “Idaho” from competitors’. Besides, I was led to believe that when I went exclusive with KU, my book WAS one of their own products.

  3. And so the cycle continues.
    Someone accuses Amazon of harbouring scammers and claims that something must be done, Amazon then deletes a large number of accounts inevitably catching out people who were doing nothing wrong, and the same people who wanted Amazon to fight The scammers now complain when the accounts of their friends are targeted.

    • It will continue until KU goes away. It’s literally a license for scammers to print money, because it costs them nothing to earn a few cents per fake read. So it cannot be fixed any other way.

      • KU probably won’t ever go away unless Amazon does something to chase away all the authors who’ve put their work into it. Right now, I imagine feeling on Amazon’s actions against innocents like this tends–if the other authors are paying any attention at all and sparing any sort of thought to it–is “Better she than I.”

      • It will continue until KU goes away.

        In that case, it will continue. KU is popular with a subset of consumers. Amazon’s history indicates it will favor consumers over suppliers.

        Amazon will probably continue to look for ways to reduce scamming, but not to the extent that they will get rid of KU to satisfy a subset of suppliers. Like most security, their efforts will aim to reduce an undesirable behavior to an acceptable level.

    • Why shouldn’t people be outraged when scammers target innocent authors?

      If you know of a way to stop scammers from downloading free books or buying $0.99 books that are wide, do tell. This has progressed beyond a KU issue. The scammers are hiding their trail and Amazon refuses to do anything about it.

      Amazon is effectively saying that authors are responsible for the actions of the fraudsters.

      I reported 91 scam books which, according to the executive team is in VIOLATION of the TOS, and yet they are still up.

      Amazon created the problem with KU and they are doing nothing to stop it. The scamming has gotten progressively worse, not better.

      • “Why shouldn’t people be outraged when scammers target innocent authors?”

        No proof of that as yet, but those ‘innocent authors’ might have been using some of the same sites/tricks Amazon has caught actual scammers using and dropped them in the same pot.

        “Amazon is effectively saying that authors are responsible for the actions of the fraudsters.”

        No, but if it seems to be acting and quacking like a duck Amazon’s going to treat it like a duck.

        “I reported 91 scam books which, according to the executive team is in VIOLATION of the TOS, and yet they are still up.”

        Sorry to hear that …

        and strangely enough, also not sorry to hear it.

        Could you imagine the fun those scammers/gamers (or book haters for whatever reason) could have if all it took was a couple people emailing in that any ebook was a scam?

        “Amazon created the problem with KU and they are doing nothing to stop it. The scamming has gotten progressively worse, not better.”

        Pull out. If enough people do then Amazon will have to decide to fix it – or just close it down …

      • If you know of a way to stop scammers from downloading free books or buying $0.99 books that are wide, do tell.

        Buying $0.99 books? How does that one work?

        • They buy and then return/cancel the order. I get few enough sales on some books that I can see a ‘sale’ on the dashboard that doesn’t have any money behind it.

    • @Anon

      If someone is complaining about crime in their area, and the government solve it by nuking it from space, you think they have no right to complain? That’s a pretty dumb position.

      • I think the analogy would be more like if a particular area was subject to high rate of crime, and in order to counter this, The government covered the area in cameras monitoring everyone and violating the privacy of many people who were not doing anything wrong.
        There are always trade-offs, and sometimes the bad guys win because fighting them is too expensive or Too many innocent authors will get caught up in the process.

        • Again, this is a false choice: between lax enforcement and enforcement which is too heavy-handed.

          There are other options – as proved by the real-world examples of Apple and Kobo which have taken different approaches to this problem but have been more effective than Amazon. Or the approaches by Google and Yahoo against clickspam 10-15 years ago (not a very different problem). Or the approach Ebay took with fraud.

          Etc. Etc.

          • I don’t think we can really say how lacks Amazons enforcement Is, since we don’t have any data as to how many scams perpetrated on Amazon and how many they catch.
            But consider this , how many authors are there submitting to Amazon and how many of them have had their accounts deleted?

            • I’ll tell you how lax Amazon’s enforcement is. In 2012, I reported a Polish scammer account which had published over 100,000 pirated books – and was still publishing at a rate of one every six seconds – including Big 5 books and huge authors like Stephen King. I reported it to Amazon, and they didn’t shut him down for six months.

            • I can also say this: I was working at Google AdWords over 10 years ago when clickspam became a big issue. The measures that Google had in place over 10 years ago to detect and prevent fraud were far more sophisticated than what Amazon has in place today – and of course the scammers have become more sophisticated themselves in the intervening period. Amazon is so far behind where it needs to be.

            • How do I know this? Because I’ve been tracking this issue for years. I can see that when Amazon eventually does sanction a scammer (only usually after someone causes a public fuss) they only – sometimes – take down the book in question. They don’t block on the account level, or prevent the same person opening future accounts, as these guys re-upload the exact same content under the same names again and again, with KDP helpfully transferring over the reviews from the paperback.

              It’s not so much that there are holes in the fences. There are no fences.

              • That doesn’t tell us about the effectiveness of Amazon’s program.

                How many scammers are stopped? How many are not stopped? How many scam books are purchased? How many scam accounts are closed? What is the trend in scammer attempts over time? Is it increasing or decreasing?

                We do have anecdotal information, but that doesn’t provide the information we need to evaluate the program. There are millions of books, purchases, and authors.

                • Instead of spending all my time polishing my glasses to a perfect sheen, sometimes I like to put them on and look at the world.

                  Good luck getting that data, I’ll be sure to check it out.

                • I doubt I will get the data. Nobody else has succeeded.

                  However, the best data we have does not rise to the level of good data. What we do know may lead us to certain conclusions, but we then have to ask if what we know is good enough to support those conclusions.

                  Sometimes we have to act, regardless of the quality of our data. In that case, it’s best to acknowledge the data is bad. The guy who wrote the Amazon book said Amazon had no idea what to charge for a Prime account when they started. They chose $70, but acknowledged they didn’t have good data.

                  Independent authors are in a similar situation. They have to make decisions on marketing, but lack data sufficient to support their conclusions. Join Select? Go wide? Get out of KU because of scams? So they do the best they can. And the best includes acknowledging data quality.

                  Amazon doesn’t tell us what they are doing or how they are doing it. I doubt they intend to, but Jeff doesn’t call anymore.

  4. This is why my full-length novels are not in KDP. I don’t need the headache.

  5. The Zon giveth and the Zon taketh away.

  6. There absolutely should be an appeals process here.

    That said, there’s simply no way for any of us to know what Amazon is or isn’t doing about the situation, or how well their fraud detection system is working, because we just don’t have the back-end data. These false positives might account for 3% of all books being yanked, which is actually a pretty phenomenal ratio.

    Or they could be completely screwing it up. Time will tell. Anyone who thinks Amazon is well outside the reasonable window for solving this problem apparently has very little experience with large businesses that depend on a programmed infrastructure.

    If Amazon is just being grossly negligent, hopefully the Cycle of Business will take care of it when someone comes along and starts doing it better. Amazon is not the Roman Empire.

    David Gaughran is also not considering a couple of other possibilities:

    1. These authors have offended someone in the community, and are being deliberately targeted in retaliation. Having witnessed some truly petty, vindictive behavior among some parts of the community, this would not surprise me. 1-star campaigns are so 2016.

    2. Some of these reputable marketing avenues are using clickfarming to boost their numbers–either to keep up with an increasingly competitive market, or it’s simply what they’ve been doing all along.

    The web/seo world is pretty rampant with this, and almost everyone does it.

    If one of their clients gets canned by Amazon, it’s Amazon’s fault, not theirs–and there would be no way to trace it back to them.

    Regardless, the shutdown of KU isn’t really necessary. Most clickfarm outfits make use of KU’s free trial. The book is borrowed, clicked through, and then the account is cancelled. This is the only way to run a business like this without an INCREDIBLE overhead.

    All Amazon would need to do is discount page-reads from trial accounts that cancel within the trial period. This would raise the ire of authors as well, and kboards would go up in flames about pagereads going down, but there’s absolutely no way to do this while leaving every legitimate author untouched. There just isn’t.

    Do you think that the prices you pay in any physical store don’t cover the company’s inventory loss? I’d just rather see a slight dent in pagereads over an ocean of scamming that will eventually erode the value of the market we all depend on.

    • People forget that easy use of credit cards covers a certain percentage of increased cost for everyone – I would happily accede to having ID checked more carefully every time I use mine, but that doesn’t suit the majority, so I pay for the fraud and the consumers who think they are entitled, and the serial returners, because it is very difficult not to use credit cards in this world.

      Most systems can – and have to – tolerate a certain amount of fuziness to work at all; it’s when it gets unmanageable that everything clamps down.

      But make no mistake: you’re paying for it.

    • “… but there’s absolutely no way to do this while leaving every legitimate author untouched. There just isn’t.”

      Thank you. Amazon can’t win this. No matter what they do or don’t do someone will howl because they didn’t like some part of it.

      The howlers could pull out of KU – or even stop selling on Amazon at all, but then they couldn’t blame things on Amazon. They might also refrain from trying to boost their numbers by playing the ‘free’ card or buying 3rd party ads – but they’re hoping to make more money. Sadly for them the scammers are doing that too, and Amazon can’t tell the difference.

      I guess Amazon could pay someone to read every single e/a/book coming in before adding a ‘buy’ button to it, though the money for those eyes has to come from somewhere. I’m sure no one here would mind if it takes a couple weeks for a book to enter the system, be read, have the ‘buy’ button added – and a lower % per sale/page read – right?

      (Who am I kidding? Any delays in getting an e/book up or change in payment would have the howlers doing their thing.)

      As with everything else YMMV.

    • I definitely considered both of those possibilities.

      (1) is very probable, especially in the case of Phoenix. I have a good idea who might be behind it and some evidence pointing towards them also – not enough to go public (yet).

      (2) is highly unlikely given that all of the promo sites used were legit, established sites (I checked all the marketing used by every single author) and that all of the authors used different sites, and some used none. That would seem to discount this possibility right away.

      • >>(1) is very probable, especially in the case of Phoenix. I have a good idea who might be behind it and some evidence pointing towards them also – not enough to go public (yet).

        Oh, David. That’s terrible! I hope you get enough evidence to prove this.

        On another topic, I think we do know what Amazon is doing. We’re seeing evidence of it right now, have been for weeks. They’re using some sort of program to catch “wrong doing”, and not getting human eyes on the instances the bots are turning up. Instead, they just strip ranks, or close accounts, and if you dare question them, you’re told there’s going to be no further communication.

        Maybe someone finally listens and takes a look, and rank is returned, or accounts opened again, but the harm is already done. Meanwhile, the obvious examples of wrong doing are hitting the charts, pulling in loads of page reads (as the money is in KU, but they target other books that are free or cheap), getting bonuses and just generally making Amazon look stupid.

  7. I find amazon more and more tangled.

    This first: the inability of AMZ to engage real life people with discernment to respond to this author on her campaign, and to give the proofs needed for her to help track down and eliminate attacks on her and on amazon, as their credibility, hearing matters like this with robo letters and no verifiable proofs given, leaves amazon in tatters imo.

    It aint that hard to have impeccable customer service with authors, venders and buyers.

    • This.

      Amazon is a company that values customer service – but doesn’t treat authors like customers.

      I can easily read the despair between the lines when an author loses her income and career (by getting rank-stripped and thus doomed to invisibility), or threatened with losing her account without being told what she did wrong. And not being able to talk to a real person.

      This is the real horror behind those stories. And the FB forums are full of them. It’s not just one author here and there. It’s not just David Gaughran losing a promo and money because of Amazon’s reaction to a website glitch that’s none of his fault.

      It’s a system that threatens and damages without an appeals process and without clear information. And that’s definitely on Amazon.

  8. Tangent to this but related, more than a week ago I reported to Amazon customer service two versions of Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The first contains not The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but an English translation of Johann von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (currently not available for sale). The second contains the gutenberg.org version stolen in its entirety, gutenberg preface and all. Still selling for $2.99.

    Anyone know how to contact gutenberg.org to tell them that their product is being stolen and misrepresented? Since the file contains their preface, they have a prima facie case of infringement.

    • Gutenberg puts everything out into the public domain. So of course somebody can copy and sell their stuff, just like anybody can copy and give away their stuff.

      However, selling any public domain text on Amazon, without adding anything of your own work (like annotations), is against the Amazon TOS.

  9. Bear in mind, this is all second or third hand. I’ve heard this story before and I’ve only once heard them stay banned. She lost one add campaign, it sucks, but it isn’t like Amazon can do nothing here. As for KU, it the worlds second largest bookstore. If a hundred authors have problems in it that is a tiny percentage of the number of authors who don’t. If you were tradpub you’d be whining about them selling your books to Costco and how you don’t get any royalties from those sales. This isn’t a perfect world and there are no perfect solutions.

  10. It aint that hard to have impeccable customer service with authors, venders and buyers.

    With millions of all three, and billions of orders, transactions, and payments, impeccable is very hard.

    The automated, low cost approach that allowed Amazon to offer opportunity to independent authors doesn’t include much personal attention. We are all ASINS. No nurturing. No phone calls. Just wire transfers.

    We have heard lots of complaints about Amazon from authors over the years. Yet during that whole time, Amazon’s book business continued to grow. More authors supplied books, and more books were added to the collection.

    And during that same time, the stock price soared. So, things appear to be working pretty well for them.

    Authors are the classic price-takers. They have no control. They simply take what the market offers.

    • Agreed about impeccable customer service, Terrence.

      It requires both work and an institutional focus on customers to have good customer service. Very few large organizations are willing to spend the money and effort to do the job as well as Amazon does.

      Certainly Amazon makes mistakes with both authors and purchasers, but generally speaking, they do a much better job than other immense organizations at keeping customers happy. And KDP has said that it regards authors as customers.

      • “And KDP has said that it regards authors as customers.”

        This is the basis of why we joined up amz. We make a lot back on our ebooks, a lot monthly. And have been contacted by amz’ own press to publish with them… but we have wondered, will we be treated as good customers who publish, [ we also purchase a ‘s-load of books monthly for years now] or will the day come when a glitch on amazon’s part going uncorrected immediately, interferes with our business long and hard built.

        All of our partners are stable and if there is ever a prob [and that is in many foreign language partners as well] it is fixed as immediately as possible… including incidentally amz when we had to file against a person taking our books and trying to edit them down into quote books. They moved immediately to investigate and remove the entire publisher from amz. But, hearing stories like these, now in the hundreds of non-responsiveness, and deleterious consequences to an author without evidences given clearly… makes us wary. Stable partners are just that, responsive, problem solving, TOGETHER, with us.

        Just dont know… I hope the author in this piece is able to restart and be treated fairly by amz. The optics for amz are not good if they do not show proofs before dunning.

  11. Here is a quote from Phoenix Sullivan On the kindle boards thread about this issue and I think it encapsulates what I feel is wrong with the conversation
    “Here’s the thing. My rank was restored, but the Amazon folk who made that happen still didn’t understand it was not about the rank. especially not once the promo was already borked. At that point it was about understanding how and why, and what any of us who are legit can do in the future to avoid the knives. It was about communication and respect. It was about if Amazon — our business partner — had negative information about sites, service providers, newsletters, or practices we as a community hadn’t been able to ferret out on our own through many layers of due diligence, and Amazon refused to share that information to protect its business partners, then that’s shameful and irresponsible. Protecting their business partners is a far cry, it seems to me, from endorsing third-party marketing services”
    And author might see Amazon as a business partner but that doesn’t mean that the company views the author in the same way.

    https://youtu.be/2EwViQxSJJQ
    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

    • The only problem is if Amazon ‘shared’ that info with their ‘business partners’ then they’ve also shared it with the scammers out there – you know, the same ones their ‘business partners’ have been whining about?

      Heh, the one way Amazon is just like the qig5, if one, few, dozen, hundred, thousand writers just say no and walk away they won’t notice; there’s lots more writers waiting in the wings for their chance.

      • actually they would notice, if the author gave amz their 30% a month on all sales and the sales were high. We pulled one of our books to reorganize it, and got an email from amz asking if we needed their help. Oh yes, they would notice. Sure youre right there are lots of writers, podcasters, artists, singers, musicians: billions in fact. But, a biz watches its most valuable mostly because they are unlikely replaceable. I would say most all writers and their points of view and ways with words are not replaceable.

        • Agreed, much as the qig5 would hate to have one of their golden gooses walk away or go indie on them.

          What I meant is that there are so many ebooks being added every day that if ‘some’ of them stopped (just because Amazon couldn’t stop every single scammer without also netting some of the ones claiming they weren’t doing anything wrong), Amazon wouldn’t ‘roll over’ for them.

          You’ve been on this site longer than me, you know as well as I that this is something we keep seeing.

          Some scammers get through and are pointed out (out of how many tries – who knows but Amazon. Are they actually making any money – only Amazon knows that too.)

          Writers get all up in arms ‘Amazon must do something about this – now!’

          Then suddenly we hear (a/some) writer(s) cry out “Amazon removed my book/account! I was doing nothing wrong – honest!”

          Gee, seems Amazon did ‘something’, and somebody was doing something ‘close enough’ to what the scammers were doing to get caught too.

          Rinse/Repeat.

          There is no way for Amazon to win this. The scammers get in in the first place because they look just like any new writer (so Amazon should ban all new writers?), then they do something to boost their sales/page ratings (so anything suddenly shooting up ‘might’ be a scam), then they get noticed.

          Are those scammers actually getting paid? Only Amazon knows (and they have at least a month to look things over.)

          Why does Amazon leave up scam accounts/books? Bait maybe? To see who (if anyone) notices or cares (or gives it 5 stars)?

          Welcome to the neighborhood. Yeah, the cops hit that one corner house for drugs every week or so, but never seem to be able to hold them long. Sometimes they check one of the other houses that looked like something was going on. Too rough/scary for you? No one’s forcing you to stay. YMMV

    • Good link, and fits better than some people will like. 😉

  12. And author might see Amazon as a business partner but that doesn’t mean that the company views the author in the same way.

    One party cannot make a partnership.

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