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To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm

16 July 2018

From The Verge:

On June 4th, a group of lawyers shuffled into a federal court in Manhattan to argue over two trademark registrations. The day’s hearing was the culmination of months of internet drama — furious blog posts, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, claims of doxxing, and death threats.

The lawyers carried with them full-color exhibits of the trademarks in context. First up, two shirtless men with stethoscopes, embracing a woman, with the words Her Cocky Doctorsboldly printed below. Next: two shirtless men flanking a woman in a too-big firefighter’s jacket, with the words Her Cocky Firefighters emblazoned in the same font.

“What is in the content of Her Cocky Firefighters?” asked the judge, surveying the exhibits.

“It appears to be a male-female-male romance,” said a lawyer for one of the defendants. “Beyond that, I imagine it involves one or two of the male characters is a firefighter.”

The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”

“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.

They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

The fight over #Cockygate, as it was branded online, emerged from the strange universe of Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm. Trademark trolling is just the beginning: There are private chat groups, ebook exploits, conspiracies to seed hyperspecific trends like “Navy SEALs” and “mountain men,” and even a controversial sweepstakes in which a popular self-published author offered his readers a chance to win diamonds from Tiffany’s if they reviewed his new book.

Much of what’s alleged is perfectly legal, and even technically within Amazon’s terms of service. But for authors and fans, the genre is also a community, and the idea that unethical marketing and algorithmic tricks are running rampant has embroiled their world in controversy. Some authors even believe that the financial incentives set up by Kindle Unlimited are reshaping the romance genre — possibly even making it more misogynistic.

A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious. But at stake are revenues sometimes amounting to a million dollars a year, with some authors easily netting six figures a month. The top authors can drop $50,000 on a single ad campaign that will keep them in the charts — and see a worthwhile return on that investment.

In other words, self-published romance is no joke.

. . . .

Qhen author Dakota Willink attended the Romance Writers of America conference last year, she didn’t know anything about the “cocky” trademark. She hadn’t heard of Faleena Hopkins, the self-published author who registered the mark, or of Tara Crescent, the other author whom Hopkins is now suing.

The RWA conference is the beating heart of the romance industry, a business-first trade conference with editorial pitch meetings and marketing workshops. It’s also the center of the warm, accepting, and woman-focused culture that the romance community is so proud of. In an episode of This American Life in 2003, reporter Robin Epstein expresses surprise at the environment she encounters at RWA. “What the hell is going on here?” she asks herself rhetorically. “The famous writers are nice, the editors are nice, and this is the publishing business.”

This was Willink’s first time at RWA, and she was spending much of her time with her new personal assistant, Lauren Valderrama.

Valderrama is also the personal assistant for several other successful romance authors — names that frequently dominate the romance charts on Amazon. In the world of self-published romance, a personal assistant does anything from formatting books to handling social media and publicity to sending out advance review copies. It’s enough work that it was a little unusual for Valderrama to be handling so many top-ranking, prolific clients. But that track record was appealing when Valderrama had originally reached out to Willink, professing to be a fan and suggesting that they work together.

According to Willink, over the course of RWA, Valderrama told her about certain marketing and sales strategies, which she claimed to handle for other authors. Valderrama allegedly said that she organized newsletter swaps, in which authors would promote each other’s books to their respective mailing lists. She also claimed to manage review teams — groups of assigned readers who were expected to leave reviews for books online. According to Willink, Valderrama’s authors often bought each other’s books to improve their ranking on the charts — something that she arranged, coordinating payments through her own PayPal account. Valderrama also told her that she used multiple email addresses to buy authors’ books on iBooks when they were trying to hit the USA Today list.

The Bookclicker chat group exists on Ryver, a clone of Slack (internal chat software for businesses). It was founded by a USA Today best-selling author named Chance Carter, known to some as a “notorious Kindle Unlimited abuser.” Carter’s name came up in half a dozen interviews as a pioneer of questionable and highly lucrative marketing practices. In the middle of reporting this story, almost of all of Carter’s very popular books were removed from Amazon, for reasons that remain unclear. A spokesperson for Amazon said that as a matter of policy, the company did not comment on individual cases.

. . . .

It’s not clear if these early book-stuffers moved onto the self-publishing romance scene, or if some of the self-publishing romance authors began to pick up on these tricks. Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.

Book stuffing is particularly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a single communal pot. In other words, Kindle Unlimited is a zero-sum game. The more one author gets from Kindle Unlimited, the less the other authors get.

The romance authors Willink was discovering didn’t go in for clumsy stuffings of automatic translations or HTML cruft; rather, they stuffed their books with ghostwritten content or repackaged, previously published material. In the latter case, the author will bait readers with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of the book.

. . . .

Of course, you might be wondering if any readers actually read through all 3000 pages. But authors deploy a host of tricks in service of gathering page reads — from big fonts and wide spacing to a “link back.” Some authors would place a link at the very front of the book, to sign up to a mailing list. The link would take them to the back of the book, thus counting all pages read. It’s not clear whether any of this actually works. A spokesperson for Amazon told The Verge that Amazon uses a standardized page count that won’t take big fonts or wide spacing into account. A June blog post by the Kindle Direct Publishing Team assured authors that the KENPC system (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count) recorded pages read with “high precision” and that the company was constantly working to improve its “fidelity.”

. . . .

The stereotype of a Kindle Unlimited author is someone who is “pumping out short, pulpy reads,” in the words of best-selling romance writer Zoe York. But even if you write well, write prolifically, and cater to the market, it still doesn’t mean you’ll find success. “That skill set of finding a cold audience, getting them to hook into your product, and then consume through your product backlist, that’s harder than it sounds,” says York. The people who do succeed have that skill set. “They’re not good writers, but they’re great marketers.”

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Kathlena for the tip.

Amazon, Romance, Royalties, Self-Publishing

20 Comments to “To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm”

  1. Jeffery H. Haskell

    “…where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm.”

    What the hell, Verge? If I did a piece that said, “Reporters, who game the system to lie to their readers and fleece them of their hard-earned dollars.”

    Even if it is true of one reporter (I’m sure it’s true of many of them) saying it like it is all reporters would be incredibly inaccurate and if I were a reporter, unethical. Then again, when do reporters worry about things like “Facts” and “The Truth.”

    • Well, now… What other possible reason could that breed conceive of for authors to bypass all the yuge!!!! benefits of tradpub to go with Kindle Unlimited, instead?

      They can’t possibly be real authors so they have to all be scammers.

      By their biases thou shall know them.

      • It’s pretty clear from the article that this group of authors actually are scammers – the ones with hundreds of 3000-page books in KU.

        • Felix J. Torres

          The phrasing of the article implies that everybody in KU is a scammer, concerned *solely* with gaming the algorithms instead of delivering good reads to subscribers.

          Somebody ought to put the Verge editors in touch with Shatzkin, who believes Indies aren’t interested in making money at all.

          I figure a cage match should settle it, two falls out of three.

          • I didn’t get that everyone in KU is a scammer. In fact, if everyone were, they’d cancel each other out. What I did get, is that if you want to game KU, Bookclicker will teach you how. That’s a completely different message. And it goes on a lot. That’s why I won’t touch KU with a fifty foot pole.

            • Felix J. Torres

              “…the strange universe of Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm.”

              It doesn’t say *some* authors.

              It say Kindle Unlimited authors (all of them) collaborate and compete to “game Amazon’s algorithm.”

              Not “to get readers to sample their wares.”
              Or “to get extra exposure and earn new readers.”

              No, Kindle unlimited is where authors go to “game Amazon’s Algorithm.”

              Translation: “Honest authors, don’t bother, just run away screaming.”

          • I’m hoping that would be a match draw!

  2. And here I am wondering if I should include an index in my last book… I get the feeling I might get flagged for book-stuffing if I do.

    • Felix J. Torres

      I was wondering about a linked acronym dictionary.
      Safest would be to put it up front and set the start page to the TOC. That way anybody flipping to the glossary is moving back to the beginning.

  3. A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious.

    Yes. Yes, it does.

    • Judge a book by its cover at your own peril because it’s unserious to the tune of six figures a month for some authors.

    • Oh, not this again. Romance is a viable genre, despite it being mainly for women. Get over it.

      Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.

      This is not correct. 3000 KENPC is the limit at which KU will pay out for a single “read”. Books can be any length the author chooses to upload. KENPC is not the same as “page length”. Readers don’t know what the KENPC is, no one does save the uploader and technically Amazon. I’m not so sure they actually know anything, but so they claim.

      I find when so called journalists can’t be bothered to research and present accurate information, they aren’t worthy of the name.

      • Terrence OBrien

        Oh, not this again. Romance is a viable genre, despite it being mainly for women. Get over it.

        Dollars are fungible. Great levelers.

      • Perhaps not *despite, but rather *especially* because it is “mainly for women.”

        “Pink” marketing works. Color a razor pink and say it’s “for women” and you can get away with charging a buck or two more. If it works for toys, games, clothing, and personal hygiene products, why shouldn’t it work for books?

        • That’s a silly argument. Turning something pink, saying it’s for women, and charging more only means anything when it’s essentially the exact same product (as with razors). Romance books are a genre quite its own, as distinct as sci-fi or horror. There’s no equivalent to turning a razor pink whereby you slap a coat of ‘romance’ over a horror novel and suddenly it’s romance.

          There’s a real problem with marketing and various industries making lower-quality products for women and charging more just because it works. Women’s clothing is not simply men’s clothing turned pink. Sadly, it’s not even men’s clothing with different tailoring. It usually involves thinner fabric, arbitrary sizing, and the insistence upon unnecessary pieces of clothing/accessory portrayed as necessary. Women don’t pay more for a pink t-shirt just because it’s pink, and all other things being equal, most women would probably opt for a different color. Lumping romance books and women’s clothing in with razors as “pink marketing” is frankly nonsensical. Unless you’re really trying to get at some other point that isn’t clear from what you’ve posted.

  4. The title showed the OP didn’t even know the difference between writing and scamming – perhaps because someone that would write such a piece is indeed more a scammer than a writer/reporter …

  5. Why did the article make a point of mentioning some author who didn’t know about the “cocky” trademark last year? That trademark didn’t exist at this time last year, so that is a completely irrelevant statement.

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