Tuesday, July 18, 2017

More Amazon shenanigans

It's no secret that Amazon has had more than it's share of con-artists and crooks trying to game the system, both in general sales, and in the Kindle department. I've blogged repeatedly about sock-puppet reviewers, editor-for-hire scams, book formatting cons, and review slamming. The last time I mentioned these topics was around the time Amazon began filing lawsuits against fake review services. Since then, some of these folks have moved on, while others just moved on to new scams.

Lately, it has been about gaming Kindle Select, the Kindle ebook library that Amazon sells at a monthly subscription rate of about $10. What many casual readers don't understand about this service is that Amazon doesn't pay authors when you borrow a book. Instead, they do their best to track page reads, and pay authors around . $.005 cents per page. The general idea is to pay the author a couple bucks for each novel's worth of pages read, which is basically the same as selling a novel through the Kindle store at $2.99. Ideally, that's how it was supposed to work.

One problem is that Amazon doesn't actually pay an established figure per page. Instead, they put money into a slush fund that's divided up between all the authors at the end of the month. The amount they put into the fund is arbitrary, as are the resulting royalties. It depends on number of "pages read," how many other authors had pages read, how many books are in the library as a whole at any given time, and how much Amazon decided to put in the pot. Because of this, some authors choose not to make their books available in the library at all. Many of us still do, not so much because we love the service, but because our choices are limited. If you making a living at this like I do, Amazon is really the only game in town.

So the con artists realized right away that they could manipulate this system: Amazon's page-counting software can't actually tell how many pages you read; it only knows where you started and where you stopped. If I put a link at the beginning of my book that takes you to the end and then back to the beginning, Amazon thinks you read the whole book, even if you don't read a single page. That being the case, the scammers started making books just for that purpose. Many were filled with nonsense, or bits of old public domain classics, or even text stolen from other authors. These guys were literally making tens of thousands of dollars for books no one read, stealing the majority of the "pot" and leaving the rest of us to hang in the wind.

Amazon has tried making changes and monitoring this, with limited success. This did nothing to discourage the scammers. Now they have "click-farm" services whose sole function is to download and page through books. For a fee, they can put any book at the top of the charts. And desperate authors have started buying these services, hoping to get the attention their books need in order to become a breakout success. (It usually doesn't work that way, but that's another story.) So the scam just gets bigger and bigger, and it seems Amazon can't do much about it. After all, any book can limp along and then find sudden success. It can be a legitimate phenomenon. It can also be a scam, but how to tell? That takes resources, and time, and money. Mistakes can and will be made. And it remains doubtful whether Amazon can ever solve this problem. 

In this post, I've only touched on the basics of what has been going on for the last year or two. For an excellent in-depth article, click over to David Gaughran's blog and read his post "Scammers break the Kindle store." David is a super intelligent guy with an excellent reputation for sorting out these things. He can find information and dig into the numbers in a way that just makes my head spin. When it comes to making sense of such things, I find it's usually best left to those smarter than me. Here's an excerpt from his post:

"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."

David goes on to document how a number of titles have managed to go from obscurity right to the top of the charts. For most of us, this requires consistently selling thousands of copies per day -a feat I have yet to achieve, and may never. Unless of course, I decide to pay a click-farm. Not that I would, but I have to admit feeling a sense of anger and desperation when I see this sort of thing going on. There's nothing I can do to stop it, and no way to recover the dollars that may have been lost. The best we can do for now is to contact KDP and Amazon and ask them to look into the situation. Not that they don't know, but it might help if they know how many of us are concerned.

I can think of a couple simple ways to help fix this, but they could make a lot of people unhappy. For example, disallowing links in ebooks. No links, no table of contents, no HTML whatsoever. Or, perhaps, rewriting the KDP software so that it automatically creates a table of contents, thereby taking that control out of the authors' hands.  Or changing (again) the manner in which authors are paid for borrowed books. But these simple solutions would probably create just as many issues as they fix, and as usual, some folks aren't going to be happy no matter what's done.





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