How Kindle Unlimited is killing off authors — and what you can do to protect yourself

Last summer it became public knowledge that scammers were earning big money gaming Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.

The scam arose out of Amazon’s decision to pay Kindle Unlimited publishers by the page instead of by the download: the more “pages” of an ebook the consumer reads, the more the publisher gets paid. Scammers began uploading fake books with a “click here for something awesome” link at the front that linked to an ad or some other such nonsense at the back of the book; the consumer quickly realized the book was garbage but it was too late: their Kindle had let Amazon know the whole book had been “read” and the scammer got paid. Many of these ebooks contained thousands of pages, netting the scammers really good money.

Kindle Unlimited and its sibling, the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, comprise the KDP Select program, which is dominated by self-published titles. Royalties for KDP downloads are paid out of the KDP Select Global Fund; since the Fund is finite, the payout per page goes down as the aggregate number of read ebook pages goes up. As expected, then, legitimate publishers cried foul. The forums were awash with indignation, and the bloggers picked up the story. Eventually it made the mainstream press, as evidenced by an article in the Observer.

Adjunct to the link-to-end-of-book scam was the use of click farms to drive up traffic.

Similar to the way click farms artificially create Google ad revenue or Facebook likes or drive traffic to mobile apps, the KU scam publisher pays a click farm to create Kindle Unlimited accounts and download the scammer’s books to these accounts. A single click farmer in, say, India, can open 20 or more KU accounts, all free for 30 days, download their clients’ books, cancel the accounts when the 30 days are up, then start all over again. The purpose is twofold: 1) the downloads increase scammer revenue through KU; and 2) they drive one’s fake book onto the top 100 Free list, thereby tricking legitimate KU consumers into downloading the fake books.

Amazon began implementing strategies to alleviate the problem, including forcing authors to put their table of contents at the front of the ebook, a practice Amazon had always demanded but had not aggressively enforced until the KU scam arose. Amazon also began looking for suspicious account behaviour, in particular improbable spikes in KU downloads. Publishers whose accounts showed suspicious activity had their accounts cancelled and all their ebooks removed from the Amazon catalogue.

The problem for legitimate publishers is that click farmers, in an attempt to cover their tracks, were randomly selecting real KU books and downloading them as well.

These publishers’ accounts then also showed suspicious activity, and Amazon closed those accounts without giving publishers the opportunity to repudiate the allegations or prove their innocence. Some had to resort to reader campaigns to pressure Amazon to reverse their decisions. Bloggers reported on the failings of this sledgehammer approach, and Amazon promised action but delivered little. Legitimate publishing accounts continued to be cancelled, killing off many a self-publisher’s main revenue stream — or their entire business if all their ebooks were in KDP Select because the program requires exclusivity for Amazon.

The consensus on the blogs and forums was for self-publishers to protect themselves by abandoning KDP Select.

Amazon responded with an apology to do better to differentiate between scammers and legitimate publishers, but nonetheless many bloggers began advising what I have been advising for years: stay away from Select. Its programs most benefit Amazon, not publishers. As the Observer points out, Amazon alone determine the size of the Global Fund; scammers, while hurting other publishers in the program, do not hurt Amazon financially, at least not directly. Until and unless publishers leave the program, and consumers, unsatisfied with the decrease in the programs’ offerings and fed up with fake books, follow suit, Amazon have little incentive to do more than deliver a band-aid solution to the problem. David Gaughran points this out in his blog, and the problems he mentions still persist today (just check out this Amazon query). Amazon’s sloth in addressing scam books says a lot about their dominance in the ebook industry, a dominance that has bred arrogance. It has always been my opinion that diversity in the marketplace is the best strategy for self-publishers.

That all said, some self-published authors who claim to be innocent victims of these click farms may not be telling the whole story.

Some have admitted to knowingly hiring companies that promised a guaranteed number of downloads. Whether these were naive authors who never thought to question how any company could legitimately guarantee downloads, or whether these authors knew what was up but were happy to pay to game the system until they got caught, is open for debate. What is not open for debate is that Amazon specifically began warning publishers not to engage such companies:

You’re welcome to promote your book through third-party websites and other services, but we encourage you to keep a close eye on the tactics they use to promote your books. You are responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book manipulate the Kindle platform and/or Kindle programs. We advise against using any sites that “guarantee” a return on your investment.

We support our authors’ efforts to promote their books worldwide, but at the same time we work to prevent any manipulation of the Kindle platform.

The brouhaha over closed accounts died down almost as fast as it had arisen. I suspect this was the combined result of KDP publishers becoming more wary of “marketing” companies promising big returns, and Amazon checking accounts more carefully before closing.

Which is why, when just last month another author claimed to be collateral damage of a click farm, I checked out his titles. While he may have indeed been collateral damage, he may also have made it easy for Amazon to assume his books were scams.

How so? By infesting his catalogue entries with keywords, a technique Gaughran calls the #1 sign of a scam book. Although this author’s book titles are legitimate, he has created fake subtitles that are nothing more than keywords meant to bring his books up when a consumer searches for a specific genre: “Steampunk meets Fairy Tale.” “High tech science fiction.” “A Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Thrill Ride.” “A Post Apocalyptic Fantasy Serial.” “An Emergent Steampunk Series.” These “subtitles” do not appear on the covers or title pages of this author’s books, nor as subtitles in his CIP data on the copyright pages, which confirms their suspicious nature.

Many authors build titles and subtitles around keywords; that is not the issue. But there is a difference between “[Title]: A steampunk fairy tale” and “[Title]: Steampunk meets Fairy Tale.” There is a difference between a subtitle that appears on your title page and one that appears only in the Amazon catalogue. These differences may seem semantic, but the intentions conveyed are not. (It is for this same reason that Amazon earlier threatened authors who were claiming their books were part of a series but whose series name was just more keywords.) So my advice to you is to use only legitimate titles/subtitles/series names that form part of the title’s legal record. Don’t make it easier for Amazon to shoot first and ask questions later.

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