Last month, Amazon was caught up in a crisis at least partly of its own making when bungled attempts to deal with a growing Kindle Unlimited scammer problem resulted in the sanctioning of innocent authors.
Amazon has since apologized, and has also pledged to beef up its response to the KU scamming mess – but questions very much remain about whether Amazon is taking the problem seriously enough. A quick check shows that some of the main scammers are still operating, under the very same author names and book titles that were reported to Amazon in late February and early March. Which is very disappointing.
A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with Phoenix Sullivan about the problem and she told me about something else she was witnessing – scammers taking over the free charts in the Kindle Store.
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Here’s Phoenix Sullivan with more:
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Over the Easter weekend, I was watching a carefully orchestrated promotional campaign of Steel Magnolia Press titles. By design, we’re back down to just the original founders of the micropress—Jennifer Blake and myself, with a couple of pen names and about 75 titles between us. Our catalog is currently exclusive to Amazon, meaning we’re all-in in Select and KU. Our promotions are planned to optimize visibility via a mix of Free and Countdown Deals and keep our back and front list afloat for a few weeks, then rinse and repeat.
For our Easter weekend promotion, we had 12 books sharing an ad budget of about $1300. Of that, $365 was allocated to our anchor ad—a BookBub placement for a free box of 3 of Jennifer’s backlist romances. Things were trundling along as expected on Saturday, and the anchor title hit #2 on the freebie list late afternoon. So far, so good.
But a curious thing was happening further up the Top 100 Free list. Two other free books of ours seemed to be garnering enough downloads for ranks that would put them in the Top 100, but they were sitting just outside that visibility. In fact, during the early evening, one of those titles lost a rank. Yes, a single rank, but at #107 with a good history of increasing downloads behind it, that was very telling movement.
Additionally, we had another book in the Top 100 that seemed stalled in the #70s despite increasing downloads that day.
A peek at the full Top 100 Free list revealed why. There were 22 books across 7 author names on the list that didn’t belong. Yet there they were, hanging together as a block, solid from #6 to #27. I saw books of two friends that a couple of hours before had been in the Top 20—and most importantly, on Page 1—shoved back to the #30s and Page 2.
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The majority of [the titles that suddenly appeared] were children’s picture books and cookbooks, with few to no reviews, keyword-stuffed titles (some with one or two misspelled words in the title), and blurbs that made it clear no English-speaking editor had touched them.
I’d seen this before periodically. A handful of freebies appearing high on the list out of nowhere, usually gone in 24-36 hours, most likely the result of click-farmed downloads.
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I went to sleep in the wee hours of Sunday morning—after firing off a letter to KDP Support—with our BB-backed freebie firmly ensconced at #2, only to wake up a few hours later to a front page of the Free list completely taken over, from #1 to #22, by those 22 books that didn’t belong.
Take a moment to absorb that. Our title was contemporary romance with a BookBub list of 2.2 million subscribers. That was the only promo site we bought for it, and it garnered about 25K downloads on the US site that day. The book ahead of Jennifer’s was a cozy mystery off a list of 3.3 million subscribers. Both were books by recognizable authors with a solid number of reviews. Yet 22 other books that day managed more than 25K downloads each. Plus the #1 book had zero reviews during the time it was at #1 and no author recognition factor.
That it happened over a weekend, especially a holiday weekend, was likely not a coincidence. Amazon Support is short-staffed on regular weekends, and they move slower to catch and correct.
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When those gamers steal visibility, they are stealing profits from others, pure and simple. The two books of ours in the Top 100 Free were impacted by the loss of visibility by being knocked back from Page 1 to Page 2 and from Page 5 to Page 7. The two books that hit just outside the list suffered even more from not getting deserved visibility. Not in some abstract, esoteric sense or bragging rights sense, but quantifiable dollars. Ethical authors and publishers are the ones having to pour more and more of our profits into the system to stay ahead of the scammers in terms of visibility.