In my last post, I described my positive experience with KDP Rocket. When I used the software for the first time, however, I was amazed to see that about one-third of the books in the top 20 had been published within the last week or so. This was regardless of genre, which is even stranger. What’s going on here?

The answer came in the form of an excellent post by author David Gaughran, which exposed the latest scam by unscrupulous so-called “entrepreneurs”: fake books.

These are books that are powered by so-called clickfarms — and here is how the scam works.

Raiders Of The Lost KENP

Fake Books | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: David Gaughran

David looked at the Kindle Store Best Seller charts and clicked over to Free Books. As the screenshot on the right shows, the Top 20 had five suspicious-looking titles: none of them have reviews. All were published in the last week. They have no Also Boughts – meaning they have had very few sales. And each of these titles is around 2,500 pages long, seems to have duplicated content, and is enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.

What is going on here?

First of all, scammers pilfer a book’s content — often by stealing an author’s original work and running it through a synonymizer before uploading it to Amazon, thus avoiding the automatic plagiarism detectors. They make sure the “book” is as long as possible, but as they are enrolling the title in Kindle Unlimited, they keep it under the program’s limit of 3,000 pages.

These thieves make the book free for a few days, and then use a variety of banned methods to generate a huge and immediate surge in downloads – generally suspected to be bots or clickfarms or dummy accounts, or some combination thereof. These fake books then suddenly jump into the Top 20 of the free charts, displacing authors who have gone to considerable effort to put together an advertising campaign for their work.

As the Amazon staff tasked with dealing with reports of suspicious activity don’t seem to work weekends, when authors and readers report these fake books to Amazon, no action usually gets taken until the following Monday. By then it’s often too late, and these titles have returned to the paid listings, and the subsequent boost in page reads (which normally follows a free run), enables them to grab a huge chunk of the Kindle Unlimited pot – the same shared pot that all authors get paid from.

Sometimes Amazon zaps these fake books when staff return to work on Monday, and presumably then withhold KU payments. Lately, however, the situation has deteriorated to the point where these scammers are getting bolder in the face of Amazon’s increasingly lax attitude, often attacking the free charts during the week now also.

Why Does This Matter?

You might think that this has no bearing on you. However, it impacts authors in two ways:

First, the obvious: there’s less money left in the pot for legitimate authors.

Second, these fake books displace real books. There you are, working for weeks to create the perfect promo, only to slide to #21 and to the second page of Amazon’s best-sellers because a bunch of fake books has taken your place.

As David explains, free promotions are one of the perks of going exclusive with Amazon and an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Free runs can provide significant exposure, which leads to a bump in Kindle Unlimited page reads a few days later. They can also be useful by boosting sell through in a series, or by generating mailing list sign-ups for future launches. As such, authors invest significant resources in free runs, and those places in the Top 20 are high-visibility spots – i.e. incredibly valuable real estate.

In other words, authors are getting screwed. However, readers should be even more enraged, as they find themselves buying stolen, or even unreadable books. This means that their trust in Amazon is eroded — which makes it Amazon’s problem.

There is some controversy as to how much of a payout this actually entails to scammers. Scammers only make money if Amazon actually pays up. As royalties are paid two months after the actual sale, Amazon has plenty of time to pull a fake book and withhold the relevant royalties. Amazon has over a month to go over any complaint reports, ID the scam book, and pull it from their system before payments go out. It is unlikely that any one of these books actually gets a penny.

A second controversial point is whom these scams affect most. As Kevin points out in the comments, KENP payout is not a fixed pool, as the per page payout is deliberately set to specific levels by Amazon each month. This means that these scams cost Amazon a ton of money. If Amazon wants the payout to be 0.45c per KENP, and a click farmed book got 100,000 pages read, that book will cost Amazon $450. Not other authors. Amazon. Because Amazon will have to add in more money to compensate for scam books in order to keep the payout at the level they want.

The Hammer

Fake Books | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksThat is why I’m as concerned about Amazon’s possible solution to the problem as I am to the problem itself. Amazon might decide that 2 months is not enough to check the legitimacy of each book. Or they will yank down suspicious books, as they have done in the past, in the process pulling down legitimate books in their fervor to remove the scam ones. We’ve seen this dozens of times over the winter, with individual books or even entire accounts locked down for the author supposedly using click-farms. Thankfully, in most cases, the author has recovered their account later.

One thing Amazon might do is to make it harder to get a KDP account. They could require users to jump through a stack of hoops in order to block people from setting up repeated, fraudulent KDP accounts. They might even create some sort of ID verification process: something which beyond a shadow of a doubt verifies who the person starting the account is. Or they might require a nominal fee for publishing, which would keep many scammers out as they work on volume.

Every time authors have launched major complaints about a problem on Amazon, the company has eventually done something about it. We usually have disliked the solution even more than we disliked the original problem. If this continues to deteriorate the Amazon customer experience (which is, in the end, all Amazon really cares about), they will act.

Until then, our best defense is to report such books whenever we see them so that Amazon can deal with them. If you report a book, it gets assessed. If it violates the Amazon TOS, then it will be taken down and won’t be getting any KU dollars. A win for everyone!

For more information on this, check out the full post on David’s site and be sure to read the comments.