David Gaughran

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.

The Visibility Gambit

6 September 2017

From David Gaughran at Let’s Get Digital:

Kindle Unlimited has received a fair bit of bad press over the last couple of years – some of it from me – but I want to balance that by looking at the positives.

Most pertinent is KU’s popularity with readers, meaning there can be huge opportunity for authors. Especially so if you make full use of the tools Amazon gives you, and understand that it’s all about visibility.

Enrolling in KU comes at a well-documented cost: exclusivity. But it’s the potential benefits I want to focus on today because some of that might be getting lost in the (well justified) complaints about scammers, transparency, and falling pay rates. Even though those rates have dropped by around 20% this year alone, KU is still paying out more dollars to indie authors than all non-Amazon retailers combined. And I think indies need to be selfish and do what’s best for them – whatever they decide that may be.

The other price of staying out of KU is arguably the bigger one: visibility. Each borrow is counted as a sale for rank purposes, and borrows can make up 50%-80% (or more) of a KU book’s rank – unless you are down in the telephone number rankings and invisible to everyone.

Borrows Cannibalizing Sales

When KU first launched the big debate among self-publishers was whether borrows would cannibalize sales – an important consideration when sales are more lucrative and puny humans tend to need food several times a day.

And it turns out they do, but of the books not enrolled in KU.

Think about it from the reader’s perspective, where the experience really is frictionless. Let’s say you have already shelled out for the KU subscription. You go scooting around the charts on Amazon looking for a new read and spot a few books that look interesting. One is $2.99, the next is $7.99, and the other is in KU. Which do you download?

The answer is obvious.

Link to the rest at Let’s Get Digital

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.

The €500 a year career: do Irish writers get paid enough?

6 February 2017

From The Irish Times:

Donal Ryan’s literary success story is one that most up-and-coming Irish authors – and many established ones – would love to emulate. How sobering it must be then for them to learn that the author is having to return to his full-time civil service job at the Workplace Relations Commission to pay his mortgage.

The arc of Ryan’s story has a fairytale quality – the 47 rejection letters from publishers before his novel The Spinning Heart was finally rescued from the slush pile in 2011 and went on to win a host of prizes including the Guardian First Book Award and Dublin Book Festival’s Irish Book of the Decade as well as being longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Award.

Despite following up with three critically acclaimed and bestselling books in four years – The Thing about December, A Slanting of the Sun and All We Shall Know – the author revealed in a newspaper interview yesterday that his literary career has not had the traditional happy ending one might have expected.

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent. “You need to have something else on the go. You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it. I have two kids in school and I have a mortgage to pay.”

“I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that. I can’t complain. My publishers are fantastic. I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”

. . . .

“I thought Donal Ryan was incredibly brave to come out and lay out the realities of being a writer – because the public often has a very skewed view,” said author David Gaughran. “But I would like to talk about the publisher in this scenario. I’ve no issue at all with Lilliput Press, I actually like them a lot, but the system as a whole needs to be examined.

“Everyone in the publishing chain claims to be broke. Publishers always say this is a low margin business. Agents have greater and greater trouble placing books. Booksellers, of course, are constantly feeling the pinch. But publishing as a whole is huge, generating $125bn in global sales every year. Where does all that money go? Why are authors paid so poorly? Contracts are terrible across the board – the system is designed that way. But it can change and it has to change.”

Link to the rest at The Irish Times and thanks to Alexis for the tip.