I thought of this post when I heard of a problem plaguing one of the groups I belong to. People are using its Twitter hashtag without actually being members of said group. This both confuses readers and dilutes the group’s rather successful brand. Even worse, these authors are taking advantage of the hard work others have put in without ever contributing anything themselves.
This reminded me of a series of posts author David Gaughran has written since June 2017. In them, David complains about scammers breaking the Kindle Store and about Amazon’s frequently heavy-handed approach to dealing with the problem. The main culprit is so-called click-farmed titles and other dodgy marketing practices. Based on David’s observation, I, too, mentioned the issue in my post, Fake Books: Amazon’s Latest Headache.
Back in July, one particularly brazen author put four separate titles in the Top 10 in the course of six weeks. There are many such examples.
Big Rewards, Big Hype
If anything, the problem seems to have grown worse since then. This is because of the hype surrounding books these past years, and the illusion that they can serve as a get-rich-quick scheme. In part, that’s true. The rewards are much, much greater now. The amount of money to be made at the top of the charts, and the upper end of KU, is incredible. David mentions authors who are regularly banking $10,000 to $50,000 a month from KU page reads alone. And they aren’t even close to what the top tier guys are making.
However, for all of us smaller fish, getting visible at all is much trickier now too. The days are long gone when putting your book at 99c was enough to hit the genre charts, and when one small, cheap reader-site ad could put you in the overall Top 100.
Spotting a Fake
David mentions a particular example of how effective these “dark practices” can be. The book, by an unknown author, 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 and 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.
Then, in the course of a single day, the book jumped from #385,841 in the Kindle Store to #1. To say this was a dramatic increase in this book’s fortunes would be an understatement. Amazon has another chart called Movers and Shakers, which tracks the books making the biggest leaps up the charts in the last 24 hours (a tool which can be easily used to spot scammers).
More than likely, 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 common practice is bonus stuffing–a practice also followed by genuine authors (myself included). In case you don’t know what that is, this is the practice of adding bonus material at the end of your books. In my case, I include extra material at the end of my books, usually the first chapter of the next book in a series or a couple of bonus short stories. I do it to entice the reader to continue reading by hooking them to the rest of my work.
I still believe the way I’ve done it is okay. But other authors are taking four or five other books they have written, and stuffing them in the back of their books – and then doing that across their whole catalog. Book A might have Books B, C, D, and E in the back. Book B will have Books A, C, D, and E in the back… and so on.
This artificially inflates the book’s page count, so that when it is borrowed the author will get paid for 2,000 pages instead of 400. Historically, this practice has been accompanied with a Click Here inducement, often by adding a bonus or exclusive short story to the very end of the book, and a link at the beginning encouraging readers to click. Recently, these bonus stuffers have been getting more artful – no doubt trying to avoid Amazon’s radar – by working these Click Here inducements directly into the text of the novel.
And when readers skipped to the end, these authors got a full payout for all 2,000 pages, no matter how little was actually read.
For those who don’t know what a clickfarm is, read this or this, but the basics are as follows. Depending on what the author is trying to achieve, clickfarms can download free books, or borrow KU books, and/or page through borrowed books to generate reads. These services are easy to find, as they are all over Google and Fiverr.
We aren’t talking about the darknet here. These services are open to the public and easy to find. Here’s an example of the kind of services they offer:
- 100 guaranteed KU borrows for $59
- 200 KU borrows with a guaranteed Top 100 ranking for $109
- 1000 KU borrows with a guaranteed Top 5 ranking in any category for $209
Other companies will guarantee 300 to 500 sales over a certain period, or 15,000 free downloads, and appearance on Amazon’s Movers & Shakers list, or a guaranteed sales rank of 1,000 or better in the US Kindle Store. Anyone who has had a BookBub in the last few months will probably have been spammed afterward by one of these sites looking for business. They also provide paid reviews, ghostwriting services, the works. Fake authors, fake books, fake borrows, all parlayed into real chart position stolen from genuine authors and significant funds paid out of the communal KU pot.
On the face of it, this differs little from those promoters who put your promo in front of thousands of readers through their newsletters or social media. However, clickfarms don’t have any readers; just fake Amazon accounts that they use to buy your book (naturally, their cost is more than covered by your payment for the service). These can be generated by humans or even pieces of software; the notorious bots.
Some authors and marketing websites actually defend such practices. The defenses usually fall under one of three categories:
- One, that all is fair in love and war – it’s all one big sales game, and whoever gets people to click on the buy buttons wins.
- Second, that everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?
- And third, that it’s impossible to succeed without engaging in such practices.
Obviously, this kind of practices has a number of awful effects. Cheaters are taking four or five times the KU payout that they should from the pool. That’s money directly taken from more deserving authors who are all paid from a communal pot, an amount fixed by Amazon. In addition, as these skipped pages don’t represent actual reading by readers, this must be exerting downward pressure on KU payout rates. Meaning that we all suffer further. And it’s also a terrible experience for readers – which is why there are explicit KDP rules banning this practice, despite the continual denials of the practitioners.
You might say, “let’s quit KU then and get it over with.” However, if you’re not in KU, hitting the charts on Amazon is increasingly difficult and holding on to a high position is near-impossible – especially when your book is being leapfrogged every hour by thousands of borrow-boosted KU salmon running all that mad marketing. And you can’t even advertise to the same level because they are getting reads on top of those sales to make ROI easier.
Finally, clickfarmers and botters and mass-gifters undermine the trust readers have in the charts. 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. Shady marketing practices diminish chart value as a crucial discovery tool for authors and readers, while they simultaneously deny crucial visibility oxygen to books that should be there on merit.
Even though David Gaughran is often complaining that Amazon is taking no steps to remedy the problem, the truth is that they do–albeit they can be heavy-handed in their approach. Several authors (including some innocent ones) have been rank-stripped. This means that the book has its rank stripped completely. Think of it as going to the back of the line.
The consequences of rank-stripping are severe. When Amazon rank-strips a book, it immediately disappears from the charts, it also disappears from the Popularity List, which feeds a lot of recommendations in the Amazon system. Your book becomes pretty much invisible to Amazon customers unless they directly navigate to your product page somehow. In other words, it chokes off your visibility and kills discoverability. Needless to say, this pretty much wastes any promo you throw at a book.
But why are innocent authors also caught? David suggests two probable causes, not necessarily exclusive:
- Amazon has instituted a new fraud detection system, one which is generating some false positives.
- Scammers are deliberately targeting innocent authors, pointing clickfarms/bots at their books or using some form of incentivized gifting, which is triggering Amazon’s fraud detection system.
Why would scammers do this? There is any number of possibilities, from a general muddying of the waters so Amazon can’t detect actual fraud, to specific testing of Amazon’s fraud detection systems to see what level of artificial downloads triggers a sanction. In a case mentioned by David, he suspects scammers targeted a particular author who often riles against scam practices.
What to Do?
While competition is greater now, the tools we have to reach readers have improved immeasurably: Kindle Countdown Deals, reader magnets, BookBub CPM ads, permafree, Facebook Carousel ads, cross-promo, RobinReads, free runs, Kobo promos, BookFunnel, iBooks First Free in a Series, BookBarbarian, merchandising opportunities, mailing list automation – this is just a tiny sample of the powerful options we have at our disposal today.
When you put them together, it’s a heady mix. Incredible marketing campaigns that catapult books into the charts, bringing in thousands of dollars a month, or even tens of thousands of dollars a month. And all cleanly.
Hopefully, the scammers and cheaters will finally move on to easier marks, just as most of them have done every few years since they started with internet marketing scams and MLM pyramid schemes back in the 90s. WarriorForum is always ready to sell them the next “turnkey solution” and “passive income stream” – whether that’s real estate ads or importing pool noodles from China or selling bad boy romance by the ton.
Until then, keep writing and keep up the clean marketing!
For more information on the subject, you can check out David’s posts, Amazon Has A Fake Book Problem, Scammers Break The Kindle Store, Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives, and You Can Win Without Cheating FFS, which are the original sources for the information shared here.