The Black Hat Riddle

There are serious problems in publishing right now with black hat authors. Nobody is talking about it either, because the cost of speaking out is simply too great. Scammers are increasingly litigious. Dirty tricks abound. White hat writers are suffering in other ways too as readers come to mistrust any name unknown to them, and the only entity with enough power to enforce any kind of justice doesn’t like going on patrol. But maybe there is something else we can do.

My first introduction to the concept of black hats and white hats was not via cowboy movies – I am not American and my own cultural milieu was less focused on that… frontier – but from Philosophy classes as a college student. Particularly what is known as the Hat Riddle (or the Prisoner Hat Riddle).

There are many variations, but in the version I heard, four cowboys – two wearing black hats and two wearing white hats – are captured by banditos who decide to have a little fun with them. They bury the cowboys up to their necks in sand so they can’t move or even turn their heads. The banditos swap their hats around so each cowboy doesn’t know which color hat they are wearing. And then they are asked to guess… and if they get it wrong, they die.

The cowboys are arranged in the manner displayed in the picture at the top of this blog post. No one can see their own hat, of course. The first man, wearing a black hat, is behind a wall and can see none of his companions.

The next in line, on the other side of the wall and wearing a white hat, can only see the two men in front of him and their respective hat colors. The third man, wearing a black hat, can only see the cowboy in front of him. And then the final cowboy can see none of his friends or their hat colors, or indeed his own.

The cowboys have ten minutes to figure it out, or they will be executed. Communication between them is not permitted, and if they attempt it, they will be shot. But if any of the cowboys guesses the color of his own hat correctly, he will save them all.

After just one minute in the searing hypothetical heat, one of the cowboys calls out the color of his hat. Correctly. The riddle is this – and it’s not a trick question – which one of them calls out, and why is he 100% sure of the color of his hat?

The answer – and the logic – is in the comments, and it requires a bit of lateral thinking. Just like the problem we are all facing in the Kindle Store today.

Black Hat Silence

People have noticed that I’ve become increasingly vague when talking about those in our community wearing black hats. I haven’t blogged about the topic since last October. I occasionally try and give out warnings on Facebook and Twitter, but often people are frustrated by vague warnings and want all the particulars – and I just can’t give them. I won’t get into the particular details of why, but let’s just say that the personal cost of speaking out on these topics is far greater than anybody knows.

However, perhaps there is something else I can do, something we can all do, to fight those who cheat and swindle their way to the top. We don’t necessarily have to confront the black hats directly – perhaps we can lift up all those with white hats instead.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a network of authors with similar values? I mean those who don’t engage in unethical behavior to game the charts. Those who actually care about the quality of the books they publish, and don’t use any tricks to cheat readers or retailers or bestseller charts.

Good people, if you want shorthand.

What if there was a way that good people could promote each other? Instead of tearing down the scammers and slimeballs, we could just… leapfrog them. Don’t invite them to our promos. Shut them out of our networks. Instead, only loop in those who respect the craft, the work, the business, and each other.

I’ve been thinking about this all weekend, while at a conference in America. It was a wonderful event with some really superb sessions which got the brain whirring. I won’t drop any names here as I rather deliberately don’t want to associate anyone with the views I’m expressing in case they attract any heat, but you can see me raving on Twitter about the event and all the things which impressed me.

During the many long discussions I had with fellow authors and industry people last week, a recurring topic was where the industry was headed, of course. Again, not associating anyone else with my opinion – I want to be clear on that – but my personal view is that the problems posed by unethical individuals and entities and groups are growing, not abating, and that there is real danger here because we are talking about it less. Publicly, at least.

Scamming and cheating hasn’t stopped just because fewer people are speaking about it – in many ways it is worse than ever, but the dangers of highlighting it today are such that many voices have retreated from the discussion. I’m not criticizing anyone who that applies to; it also applies to me, quite frankly. There are so many things going on right now that I would love to be explicit about, because there are really dangerous currents going on under the surface, and some particularly nasty people operating, worse than those that have come before, engaging in even more insidious practices.

And the community can’t police itself like it used to.

I don’t know how all this will pan out. To really combat all this stuff, you would need the world’s biggest retailer to actually care what is happening to its store. You would need some superpowered version of the watchdogs of before, with endless legal funds and reserves of energy – a full time staff with a panel of technical experts who understood how all the ad platforms and algorithms worked, so they could grapple with the incredibly complex scams that are operating right now. And you would need institutional support to handle the cyber-security (and actual security) implications of taking on people who routinely employ clickfarms and bots and hackers, people who think nothing of issuing legal threats (or other kinds of threats).

Which is not going to happen, of course. This isn’t to criticize any entities or individuals that have sacrificed a lot over the last few years, and decades, to protect authors from various scams. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of gratitude from the community.

But the simple fact is that the scams have now exponentially exploded in technical complexity, and those wearing black hats are much more ruthless; they have deeper pockets, more to protect.

Creative Solutions for Black Hat Authors

So, what do we do? Nothing? I’m not prepared to go there yet. There are still little bits of activism we can all engage in, if this is something we truly care about. We can still bend the ear of retailers in private, about certain things they are doing… or not doing – and not accept the usual corporate blandishments. We can join one of the organizations that does actually fight for authors. And maybe we can lift up the good people and use what little power we have to exclude the bad people a little more.

You don’t have to do any or all of these things. I’m not an organization person, for example, although I do amplify their campaigns when I can. But is lifting up good people and steering clear of bad people something else we can all consider?

I’ve turned down more than a few opportunities in the last 12 months, when I decided to draw a line in the sand. I’ve turned down attractive speaking gigs when I saw who was on the slate. I’ve withdrawn from lucrative promos when I saw who else was on board and what practices might be deployed. And I’ve started telling organizers why I was withdrawing too, instead of citing scheduling conflicts, or whatever I used to do.

It’s not easy, and it certainly doesn’t make you popular. I’m not looking for any prizes here, just showing how you can – maybe – use whatever power you have to get people thinking about what kind of industry we want to have. What kind of behaviors we want to reward.

Events and promos are starting to realize that I won’t participate if certain people are involved, or if certain practices are engaged in. And this doesn’t make me unique or different – authors have been doing this for a long time and have made far bigger sacrifices. I’ve just started being explicit. At least in private.

These are things you can do too. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything I say, or share my specific values, or even particularly like me. But you can – I respectfully suggest – make a small step towards having the kind of industry you want by taking a similar stance.

Or at least thinking about it.

Maybe it doesn’t suit. Perhaps I’m in a more privileged position here and have the luxury of turning things down. That’s a fair criticism, and I’ll accept that. But consider the following, if you can.

What about doing something positive for the people who do enshrine your values? What about only choosing authors to list-swap with who are good people who truly care about the books which carry their name?

What about only inviting people into your box set who are nice people who don’t cross the line when it comes to reaching readers and making money? I know it’s tempting to invite the person with the 40,000-strong mailing list, or massive Facebook presence, or whatever. I know, because I’ve succumbed to that temptation before. I’ve participated in things which I regret, promoted with people I wished I hadn’t, gone to events where, in hindsight, I wished I had pushed back on certain practices, or at least called them out privately.

I also know that other people have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. I’m not claiming any of this is new, or that this makes me in any way special; I’m just trying to get more people to think about doing the same thing. Because I think the industry needs to change course. And maybe we – collectively – have the power to help ourselves if no one else is going to help us.

We all have mailing lists and Facebook Likes and passionate readers. We can combine our networks to lift up the right people. And we can avoid succumbing to the temptation to include that questionable person because they’ll make us a ton more money.

I waited until my recent promo was over so there could be no accusations of some kind of self-serving weaselry, but I think a concrete example is useful.

Because I was going to a con last weekend and giving a couple of talks on marketing, I wanted some live examples of cross-promotion. I had been meaning to do a group promo with a bunch of fellow authors for a while and decided to pull something together quickly in time for the weekend. It was also the only window where certain people could participate; I had strong feelings about the kind of person I wanted to include.

I personally wanted authors who were strong on craft and ethical in their approach to marketing. I wanted good people. Books and authors who I could comfortably stand behind, and not worry how they were pushing the promo.

Now, the list of writers I included isn’t proscriptive, of course. I’m not saying these are the only ethical people in the business and everyone else is a black hat author – just in case anyone misinterprets this. I plan to do more promos of one kind of another, and I want to cross-promote with as many good people as possible, people who care about their books, and their fellow authors. Ethical people.

I think there’s a hole in the market here. The community really responded to this approach in huge numbers. I don’t have the final tally, but my estimate is that this promo shifted at least 15,000 books. And the only spend was around $600 of affiliate income rolled back into ads, with a little extra from me. We had no retailer support – there was no time to pull anything like that together – no discount sites, no advance buzz, no elaborate social media campaigns. Just our respective lists and platforms and networks.

And a ton of sharing from participants and writers in general (thank you, btw). There was no buy-in for participants, and no hassle. A genuine win for everyone.

All this got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if we could do this all the time? I don’t mean cross-promote, that’s old hat, but exclusively focus on lifting up good people and skipping over those who engage in tawdry practices.

We might not be able to end scammers and ban black hats, we might not be able to confront the sleazy internet marketer types directly, but maybe we could stop inviting them to our parties? Maybe we could stop exposing our audiences to these people?

This is but a simple request: think about it. Maybe it’s worth a try.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

117 Replies to “The Black Hat Riddle”

  1. Our industry doesn’t teach ethics or how to spot scams. We eat our young this way. I’m working on a free marketing bootcamp and one of the things I’m covering…ethics and how to spot scams. We have to start teaching this and it needs to be viewed as important as anything else in this business.

    I also believe that all the way scamming eats up opportunity will eventually result in new income and/or distribution models. I already have a book I don’t want to distribute like every other book. I don’t quite know how I want to bring it to market yet, but I know I won’t be doing what I do now.

    I’m fascinated that the scammers just got better after the last crackdown. I’d hoped Amazon had developed the ability to head them off and lock them out. As you’re able, I’d be interested in reading about what loopholes they are exploiting and how the tech works.

  2. Good for you. Your article throws back the curtain I knew was there, even though I’m a non-entity in the business by comparison. Once I committed to being a working independent author, I sought out the pros. I was on the ground floor with a couple of (used-to-be) great people. I made the most of the opportunity and achieved my immediate goals. Then, tactics changed. Offers changed. Frequency changed. Collaborations changed. Clearly defined services and motivations muddied before turning black. I voiced specific concerns to direct questions and eventually (quietly) bowed out of the relationships.

    After a recent writer’s conference it was clear that most authors don’t understand the game and the rules; even marginally. I’m making it a point to provide clarity and encouragement where possible. So far it’s just because, not as a profit center.

    Thank you.

  3. As a reader and someone who is about to publish, I can assure you there are black hatters out there. Some are more obvious, some even have videos on Youtube telling you about their workarounds and scams to sell more books.

    -Some do bookstuffing
    -some are copying a chunk of other authors books and publishing them
    – some are taking other writers stories off free fanfiction sites and publishing them.
    -Some are publishing erotica in the romance charts and have been doing this for a good few years now.
    -Some of them even admit to changing an erotica book into a romance book, but all they really do is add a HEA on the end and say it’s a romance.

    Go look at the romance books in the short reads chart on Amazon, it is 70% erotica.

    I am active on 3 writing and publishing forums and although the issue was raised when a huge erotica/romance author (actually they are two women who write under one pen name) were banned on Amazon. It is obvious that some site owners, moderators and some authors do not want to directly talk about this issue. Any conversation about it was heavily moderated and deleted on the erotica authors reddit site.

    I don’t think there is a solution to black hatters or scammers. They will continue to appear where ever there is a chance to make some cash.

    I just wish authors and readers did not feel like they have to whisper or stay silent about these scammers.

  4. I’ve been seeing a lot of this kind of thing, lately. I know it’s not new and I tend to show up late to the party. I’ve just, recently, finished finding out all the hoopla on youtube with what I call authorgate and you know what? All I could do os be grateful that i happened to stumble upon the right group to hang with. Joanna Penn is one of the first Indies i began following when I started writing. Following her down the rabbit hole led me to those I follow to this day. This includes you, David. My experience as an indie has been nothing but positive, even though I’m not making those sales like I would like to be, this post makes me appreciate the slow burn. I would rather be associated with those on the up and up and making my own way, slowly, than to be grouped with folks raking in the dough in shady ways. Side note: I, too, took advantage of the sale, but only needed to buy four books as the others were already part of my library! Great article, David!

  5. Just for an FYI – if people are looking for a place for authors to ‘meet’ online – the Nookboards are still up. It has no other traffic and could be a good place for the ‘white hats’ and other ‘gone-wide’ authors to communicate.

    You won’t find any of the KU black hats there. Seriously. It’s there, it’s free. It’s a good place to organize.

  6. Apologies if this has been answered but I don’t have the time to read through almost 100 comments. David, you write, “We might not be able to end scammers and ban black hats, we might not be able to confront the sleazy internet marketer types directly, but maybe we could stop inviting them to our parties? Maybe we could stop exposing our audiences to these people? This is but a simple request: think about it. Maybe it’s worth a try.”
    We need to know who they are before we can “stop inviting them to our parties.” That lack of vital information kind of prevents any meaningful action, doesn’t it? That is the real riddle.
    Maybe I missed something?

  7. OK this is all a bit dark matter for me, I am not sure I really understand what the bad guys do except manipulating look-good figures, by dishonest means (whatever that means). I am a rather new and inexperienced indy author, published my second book 100% myself. Great thanks go to David for showing me the way and making me suspicious of ANY people who promise to “help me become famous”. Sadly, as an author I am not famous yet. Marketing is the most difficult part, worse for me as I write in completely different genres. I learned here about “Writer Beware part of SFWA” and promptly bookmarked their site. Anyway whatever modest contribution I can make, I am ready. I do expose some scams on my website (focused on writing).

  8. Here’s an extra idea. I was wondering what readers might do, since this affects them a lot too. I was musing about the idea of them rating and reviewing books they like, and recommending them to their friends, and signing up for authors’ newsletters. But that last idea doesn’t scale up – if you joined a lot of newsletters you’d be drowning in them. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could register with some central agency those authors for whom you’d like to be notified concerning new releases?
    And then I realised it already exists: with Amazon! I myself have not taken the trouble to go to all my favourite Amazon Author pages and click the Follow button to be informed of new releases.
    But now the idea has occurred to me I can’t think of a reason not to, and can think of many reasons why that would be great. What do others think?

  9. To those asking “How can we recognise the bad guys?”, it’s even worse than that. The good guys are in a kind of guerilla war with the bad guys, so if we do find a way to support one another, the bad guys won’t just be trying to pass as good guys, they’ll also be spending time and money to make some good guys appear to be bad, or even just muddy the waters. E.g. I’ve heard of people being kicked off Amazon because fake reviews started appearing for their books. The guess was the ads were being paid for by someone who felt the author was a competitor (or enemy?).
    Whatever we do, we need to understand there are literal bad guys actively working to grab as much money as they can.
    So we need to think carefully and strategically.

  10. Makes sense to promote good work. Grey hats or changling hats are challenging, and it takes time for newbies to establish their goodness, but it makes sense for all of us to think in that direction first. I have found that, in my genre, r/fantasy and SPFBO seem to be engines for promoting good work and discussion.

  11. Honest authors have been “lifting each other” for years.
    It was in 2015 that I started organising cross-promotions and this whole track of investment-less cross-advertising has exploded recently. There are Bookfunnel promotions, Story Origin, Prolific Works and other sites that make it really easy for people to run these. There are private promotions and a number of people who, like myself, will organise and host promotions and have large newsletters to rival the smaller paid promo sites and are more effective than many-a Facebook ad.
    I recently launched a brand new pen name and have used only these promotion avenues to recoup the costs of production. i’m yet to spend a single dollar on ads on this book. That’s all done through promotions of “honest authors helping each other” and it’s been going on for years. It’s not a new idea at all.

  12. I’m in the same boat as you. I know some sites have unauthorized copies of my books and do my best to correct that. (Blasty is a godsend!) However, I’m not sure what else the article alludes to. Perhaps I’m too small a fish in the pond or too naive to understand what’s going on.

  13. I’m seeing a lot of people asking “how do we identify the black hats?” And I think that misses the point. Or, at least, I think it’s irrelevant who the black hats are, in the frame of this example. Because the idea is to stop focusing on black hats and how to stop them, and to start focusing more on the white hats (the good authors) and how to promote and empower them.

    Mother Teresa said, ‘I will never attend an anti-war rally. If you have a peace rally, invite me.’ That’s more in line with the idea here, I think. We should stop putting all of our energy into fighting the bad guys, who just turn our efforts into another revenue stream (lawsuits, for example, but also a sort of negative marketing ploy). Instead, let’s focus on building up actual honest-to-goodness authors and services and promotions that help rather than hurt.

    All my take on it, and I could be off base from what David is saying. But my take on this is a philosophy I like well enough to make it my own. And I believe it will work.

    1. Not following the logic there at all, Kevin. For example, I wish to join in with a promo that sounds excellent and a great fit for me and my books then later I discover all is not what it seems because the people behind it turn out to be black hats.

      I know many “good authors” AKA white hats, but I don’t know everyone. So, applying ‘my logic,’ though David’s idea is laudable, it’s also utterly unworkable.

      1. It’s kind of funny that some people are saying it’s unworkable and others are saying it’s old hat and they are doing it already.

        Look, while it is impossible to have some Central Register of Bad People, you can keep your eyes open and your ears to the ground and be on the lookout for dodgy behavior and listen to people who you trust. I’m aware of plenty of people I want to avoid in my space. I’m sure I know very few of those to avoid in Historical Romance, as it is not my niche. You don’t need to have a bird’s eye view of the entire landscape, just try and be a little aware of your own category.

        But the primary focus on this post is not about problematic actors. And it’s not about sorting the entire authorial population into good and bad people. It is about focusing on promoting with those you know are white hats, and not succumbing to the temptation to work with an author who you know crosses the line just because they have 20,000 people on their list.

        It’s really that simple.

      2. There’s nothing simple about that. I don’t know any authors that ‘cross the line’. Should I suspect and exclude any and all authors who have 20,000 or more on their list? And must I ‘vet’ all participants in any promo I join from now on?

      3. Stephen, that strikes me as an odd comment, seeing as it’s coming from a former law enforcement officer. Of course you can’t always know before you join a promo, but once you’ve been burned, you do, don’t you?

    2. Okay, so how do we identify the white hats? It’s the same question, really. I’m in a promo for KU authors of historicals due to start in 2 weeks time. Do I need to check each of my co-promoters to see if they might be undesirables in some of their business practices? Like I have time to do that!

  14. A don’t know if I’m the only person to notice this, but amongst the real self-published community, the ones that actually write their own material, I increasingly find an inverse relationship between the number of reviews and the quality. There is also a clear pattern showing that those with the greatest proportion of long reviews, anything over a couple of hundred words, are the best writers. The pattern of stars hardly seems to determine anything.
    Nothing scientific here, and of course I recongnise that this only applies to the great army of authors with very much less than David’s celebrity status.

  15. I could not agree with you more, David! The historical romance genre is rife with scammers and stuffers. But then, the top 100 in nearly every book category at Amazon is filled with these writer mills/scammers/stuffers. We could talk about that all day long.

    Anyway… I too, have taken to only promoting those individuals whom I know are the good guys. The bad actors are infiltrating the major organizations in huge numbers in order to give the illusion of legitimacy. It’s frightening.

    Thank you for all you do to help the good guys.

    PS: I’d do a promo with you any day of the week! 😀

  16. I’m right there with you, David! My genre, historical romance, has been hit hard by a Chinese-based publisher of ghost-written, stuffed “books”. They dominate KU, “earn” the bonuses because of their click farms, and on some days own the top 6 or 7 of 10 spots on Amazon because they can afford to buy all the advertising slots. Every one of their triple-spaced, six-words-per-line “books” has 150 “reviews” posted on release day (which occur at least once a week). When they started buying slots in online newsletter offerings like Book Gorilla and Bargain Booksy, I stopped advertising with those companies, cancelled by subscription for their daily zines, and wrote emails to both explaining why. Neither acknowledged my notes. Although some might say I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face, I feel as if I’ve done the right thing by spending my ad dollars with the promoters who don’t feature their “books.” And that means I no longer advertise on Amazon but find my lower-than-AMS Google expenditures well worth it (Google Play has become my best retailer).

    1. No criticism intended, but I’m wondering if you’re still in KU with any titles and if so, why? If Google Play is your best retailer, I’m hoping that means you went 100% wide and are thriving that way.

      My main reason for being wide is that I want my readers to have access to all of my titles everywhere and in any way they want to purchase them, but my secondary reason for staying out of KU is the gaming. If all honest indie authors pulled out of KU, all that would be left would be the (increasingly prolific) content published by Amazon imprints, and the scammers.

      If every honest indie who pulled out of KU wrote to Amazon to explain why, we might have a real impact on what happens next. What might well happen next is that Amazon zaps all the scammers, who would then be very visible, and retains only its A-Pub content; it could then make new business decisions for a higher-quality KU platform. That would be a win for Amazon, a win for readers–but it will involve a short-term sacrifice on the part of the honest indies and the risk that Amazon would never invite indies back into KU, having found its own content sufficient to attract subscriptions. But it MIGHT decide to start over with a white-hatting process of its own to ensure that only quality indie work found its way in.

      I know before I post this that I’m going to convince about 0.000000001% of indies who are in KU and reading this thread that they should pull out. Nobody want to lose a big chunk of their income. But given that KU has become a playground for the bad guys, continuing to be in KU is in effect supporting those bad guys and sending the message to Amazon that they can do anything they like as long as it makes money for us all. Why are we doing this?

      1. I’ve been on Amazon as a customer since 2000 when my lovely hubby bought me my first Kindle. A couple of thousand books later and three Kindles plus an Ipad, phone, audio, etc to read on plus another 2000 physical books, I still remember the feeling of getting ripped off by that author. One of the first books I bought was a mystery. The author started on book 1, stopped one-fourth of the way through the book for Book 2, same with book 3 and book 4. By the time I finished $10 in Kindle books later to read the ending (sorry my anal behavior forced me to finish the book). I had finished the story but I never bought another book from this author. Yes, she has one on to be a #one “best seller”, Still publishes, and I noticed out of curiosity that she has cramped all 4 books into one book now.

        I’m a voracious reader, and indie author. I laughed when David had his book special recently (thank you great bargain) because I had already bought 7 out of 10 books. I invest heavily in my craft. At a recent writer’s group meeting someone asked who they could trust being a beginner author, half the authors in the room shouted “the Creative Penn.” I found you on her podcast and have enjoyed your valuable helpful books. Joanna is 5 years ahead of everyone, so if one wants to know what is happening stick with David and Joanna they are truly the good guys. Neither author has steered me wrong ever. Keep up the good work. Love your books and your blog.

        PS in answer to a later comment. I publish wide. I do not want to depend on one vendor. Even though I have bought and sold on Amazon for many years. I know it takes longer for sales going world wide. But I am a firm believer in the infinite bookshelf, that baddies get their comeuppance, once burnt twice shy, and other truisms. If you want to be in for the long haul, be honest, treat your customers well, and don’t scam anyone.

        I keep telling my fellow authors an honest $2 sale will profit in the long run through repeat sales. As a mathematician, I am aware of the power of $2 repeated ad infinitum. $2 $4 $16 $32 $64 $128 $256 $512 $1024 $2048 $4096 $8192 $16,384 and that’s just 13 iterations of the old tale of the checkerboard and a grain of rice. Our two-dollar sales are our first grain of rice. If as an author you do your best job, write your best quality book, and treat your customers with respect you will get ahead in the long run. One of these days Amazon will lower the boom on scammers like the elephant in the room that it is. A large company moves slowly but when a consumer-oriented company like Amazon turns their full wroth on a scammer the scammer is doomed.

  17. Thank you for this.

    As a small potatoes fairly new author in a tiny niche, I struggle to find people to share with, good or bad. I have seen some groups I dropped out of, mostly because they don’t write my kind of books. I am part of several uplifting, supportive groups that have helped me immensely, at no cost, and mostly no cost. I have found some great groups who are here to support us with folks who mediate and kick out the bad guys. I feel blessed to be part of them.

    I hope I continue to be lucky/blessed. I’ll watch out for the bad guys and support those with my standards and morals.

  18. This is a nice set of thoughts 🙂

    FWIW, I’ve been doing this with a small collective already. We’ve got a Discord setup, and help each other out – sure, swaps, but also blurb writing, marketing advice, ads, the works. It avoids a huge amount of the fire and brimstone of Facebook, their groups, and the sharks that swim those waters.

    I’d like to see it happen more often. Things I think that could make a formative difference is good-brand authors helping aspiring authors; I see little of that going on (probably because it’s overshadowed by the desire to shill shitty 99c boxed sets to get a USA Today tag). I’m going on a bit of a rant here, but I’ve had active (non-solicited) freedback from my list that people do not trust boxed sets, authors they don’t know (like you said), and even some they do with hyoooooge publishing empires.

    1. I’ve been on Amazon as a customer since 2000 when my lovely hubby bought me my first Kindle. A couple of thousand books later and three Kindles plus an Ipad, phone, audio, etc to read on plus another 2000 physical books, I still remember the feeling of getting ripped off by that author. One of the first books I bought was a mystery. The author started on book 1, stopped one-fourth of the way through the book for Book 2, same with book 3 and book 4. By the time I finished $10 in Kindle books later to read the ending (sorry my anal behavior forced me to finish the book). I had finished the story but I never bought another book from this author. Yes, she has one on to be a #one “best seller”, Still publishes, and I noticed out of curiosity that she has cramped all 4 books into one book now.

      I’m a voracious reader, and indie author. I laughed when David had his book special recently (thank you great bargain) because I had already bought 7 out of 10 books. I invest heavily in my craft. At a recent writer’s group meeting someone asked who they could trust being a beginner author, half the authors in the room shouted “the Creative Penn.” I found you on her podcast and have enjoyed your valuable helpful books. Joanna is 5 years ahead of everyone, so if one wants to know what is happening stick with David and Joanna they are truly the good guys. Neither author has steered me wrong ever. Keep up the good work. Love your books and your blog.

  19. Thank you for all you do for this community. I do think lifting the legitimate, hard-working authors is a great idea and I myself have always been one to support my fellow authors. But I also see that it brings another, separate issue to mind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a group or project where mutual support was the goal and the participation was slanted to the most popular and well-known names. This type of mentality and treatment is hard to overcome and with readers and authors doing it, the motivation to participate becomes low.

  20. Excellent article and suggestions, David.

    For health reasons, I’ve been out of the swing of things for almost three years and have only recently been dipping my toes back into the water. What I’ve found at times has been mind blowing. I’m used to writers being white hats and, as you said, that’s not always the case these days. Thanks to said toe dipping, I’ve accidentally stumbled into some questionable people/practices that I had to quickly get myself out of when I figured it out (and I am kind of clueless so it took me a little while LOL). But these folks pretend to be white hats — they seem to be trying very hard to masquerade as white hats and it’s a case of author beware.

    I have a trusted small set of authors I know I can go to, and we cross promote at times. But as someone wanting to reestablish a writing career, I’m finding it incredibly difficult in the current environment, especially since I don’t have large amounts of $’s to invest in marketing.

    I’ve decided the best thing I can do (for my situation) is put my head down and write my heart out. And only promote with people I have known for years. It’s sad because I remember the days (not that long ago), when groups of way cool indie authors (new and established) banded together to do good things. Now I’m leery of authors I don’t already know and that’s very sad.

    Thanks for letting us know to keep our eyes open because the black hats abound.

  21. Marketing collaboration is a wonderful thing, but it is so important for us to build relationships with people, not someone’s rank, platform, or level of success. Only then can we really know whether an opportunity is a good fit for us because of the people involved and not be wooed by the flash of a big platform. This goes for all projects–book bundles, group giveaways or discounts, the free webinar partnerships for affiliate income, whatever: do you know the kind of person who wants to work with you? How are they a good fit for you? What is the mutual benefit, and how does the audience benefit? Are they good people on social media–do their values match your own? Is their writing or product good quality? Do they engage in manipulate marketing practices or focus on providing value and connection with the audience?

    Becca and I are very careful who we partner with because we deeply respect our audience and would never trade dollars for trust. We need to know they are good people, that they provide exceptional value to their audience, and they are ethical. Do we make less money by being selective? Probably. Is it the right thing to do? Absolutely.

  22. Without concrete help from ‘the industry’ ie that big retailer who can’t be bothered, your solution is the only one available to us.

    The problem is identifying the black hats, because sometimes people ‘look’ good on the surface.

    Personal example: I was in the boxed set where Cristiane Serruya (CopyPasteCris) got her USAT letters. Every author in that set sweated blood doing promotion for that set. Cristiane was in the private FB group talking about her story and the process of writing it, just like the rest of us. Posting screenshots and links for the promotions she’d done. Waiting with bated breath for the list publication. We had no reason at all to think she might not be just like the rest of us; an indie romance author early in her career, working her butt off to get any kind of toehold in the market. At the end of the day, I don’t think we even broke even on the set, with the amount of money we poured into marketing. But we did get those letters.

    Fast forward two years and it comes out that her story in that set, Royal Love, was HEAVILY plagiarized from Nora Roberts and many others. The feeling of nausea was overwhelming: I gave that woman a leg up. Seventeen of us did. Most of them were speaking out along with me, condemning Serruya’s behaviour; a few were silent, and now I feel myself side-eyeing those people, wondering if they knew what she was up to. Did she learn it from one of them, or alongside one of them from some unknown third-party mentor? Is that rabbit hole a lot deeper than we’ve yet discovered?

    And how in the name of god am I supposed to recognise another CopyPasteCris if I run across one?

    1. Was that a Rebecca Hamilton box set? Anyone can make a mistake – I’ve sure made my share – but learning the lesson is important too.

      1. It was not a Rebecca Hamilton set, nor were any of the people in it in her ‘inner circle’. The set was called Billionaire Ever After, and you can still look it up on Goodreads if you want to confirm that.

        We were (and still are) all indie romance authors who just want to crack open a tiny bit of the market. We employed no ‘shady tactics’, we made sod all money because we poured it all back into ads, and we worked our butts off to make that set do well.

    2. What? So now people who don’t want to be drawn into the drama are suspicious?

      I’ve avoided the drama as much as possible because I’d rather write books. I only have so much energy during a day to do what I need to get done for my own stuff.

      Now only to find out that makes me suspicious just because I’m minding my own business? Not everyone has the spoons to take on the bad actors.

      1. Hi. The post is literally about the opposite of that, namely, ignoring the black hats and focusing on the white hats and lifting them up. Not taking on the bad actors, leapfrogging them with our collective power.

      2. Hi. My original comment was literally in response to Caitlyn Lynch. More specifically, to her comment:

        “Most of them were speaking out along with me, condemning Serruya’s behaviour; a few were silent, and now I feel myself side-eyeing those people, wondering if they knew what she was up to. Did she learn it from one of them, or alongside one of them from some unknown third-party mentor? ”

        I appreciate all you’ve done for this issue, David. You have my greatest respect. But if I’m going to be judged (not by you) because I’m not doing more (or enough) to expose and condemn these bad actors, then I’m not sure where that leaves me and people like me. It certainly is an “if you’re for us, you’re against us” mentality that doesn’t help serve anyone.

      3. Let me see if I can put your mind at ease:

        I’ve had hundreds of conversations with all sorts of writers on this topic, and I’ve never once heard anyone express any kind of “with us or against us” mentality. If you want to continue keeping your head down and focused on your own work, no one will judge you for it. Don’t worry!

      4. I think Caitlyn was expressing disappointment feeling that way, and I suspect she means that she doesn’t want to feel that way, and how hard it is to tell a black hat from a white hat. But in the end, you can’t really, can you? I don’t think she was actually casting aspersions on those people.

      5. I know that, and I fully respect that not everyone has the spoons. I don’t WANT to feel this way. I feel paranoid, though, about EVERYONE. I couldn’t see Serruya’s bad actions and I was literally communicating with her on a daily basis for months. What else am I not seeing? Maybe even some of those who ARE condemning ‘doth protest too much’… hey, maybe people are thinking that about ME.

        It’s a horrible place to find myself in, because once bitten, twice very goddamn shy, and now I don’t want to trust anybody. Either I go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and trust nobody – or I give everyone the benefit of the doubt until I see hard evidence they’re doing something wrong. Tbh, I’m still on the fence about which way to go.

  23. Sounds like there needs to be a glass door for the author community. We faced predatory behavior and were looking at costly litigation. Luckily for us it blew up on twitter and was resolved soon after.

  24. *raises hand* I’ve been doing this too–and just now realized how much I’ve been hunkering down to avoid the black hats. Keep up the great work, David! And I shared that promo you did–I’m super excited to have discovered Becca Syme in the process. I took a look at that list and thought “Oh yeah. These are the good ones.” Thank you for explicitly pointing out your white hat selection process for that.

  25. Good post. I’ve been working at this for 9 years now and I always feel like the shy, unpopular kid in middle school. I just keep on doing everything pretty much myself. I know people, but I’m always on the fringes, not one of the popular authors. Because of that, I’m oblivious to most of the black hat stuff. That’s good and bad. I don’t engage in any shenanigans, and I don’t get invited to participate in anything sketchy either. Whoosh. It just all flies right over my head.

  26. Can we please switch the analogy from black hats versus white hats and do good people vs bad people?

    Everytime I see the bad guy = bad hat reminds me of the racism associated with black =bad and white = good.

    And with vague references, it’s hard to know who’s who. Also I worry about people being wrongly accused. Or people who did something not quite ethical but learned from it – are they to never be trusted again.

    And the separation into groups makes me worry about cliquishness and alienation of people, people who trusted the wrong person or people, or if it is going to be a paid group – leaving out people who need access to information but can’t afford it.

    Part of the problem is the cycle that you have to write fast, release rapidly and market constantly to make a decent living because you make x cents on the dollar for book y. And you spent xxx dollars in covers, editing, formatting (either hiring out or buying the software), etc. So I get the temptation to go with big name author z and author w who has huge a huge presence because you want as many people to notice your work as possible so you can make money.

    I don’t know what the answer is. And everyone has to make the decision for themselves, but I would hate for people who got duped or trusted the wrong person or who made a mistake and learned from it to be labeled a bad guy and therefore left out.

    1. Fair point. It’s a fairly entrenched term, but I hear you.

      And you don’t have to rapid release! That’s just one strategy among many, and maybe not the right one for you. I think investing in covers and editing is wise, but there are (some) ways around (some of) that if you can put in some time instead.

      There are many paths to the top. Maybe some don’t get you there quicker than others, but I’d rather arrive a little late than with a cloudy conscience.

    2. “…the cycle that you have to write fast, release rapidly and market constantly to make a decent living…”

      This is a myth that needs to die. I know all the kids are doing it. David loves himself some hot ad copy and shnazzy graphic.

      These things are true:
      1. You have to write good books.
      2. You have to release the best product you can.
      3. You have to work to build an audience.

      You don’t have to write fast. A lot of us just poke along with a couple of books a year. It stands to reason that the more books you have out, the more you can – potentially – earn. The faster you can do it, the quicker you’ll start getting traction but if it takes you three or four years to get a half dozen titles in play … so what?

      Rapid release is a specific strategy. FInd a strategy that works better for you.

      Start small. Start cheap. Re-invest in your skills, your writing, and your audience.

      By all means do your marketing.

      Marketing is a hot button topic with me because so few authors do any marketing. They just do promotion after they’ve written something. Marketing is deciding what kind of thing you want to write, how you want to package it, and where you might sell it.

      Marketing is “I’m going to shop this around first” or “I’m going to self publish this to see if I’m the only person on the planet who thinks we need a series about uplifted freight alligators.”

      Marketing is looking at the market and recognizing that “you can earn more with a novel than a short story” and that “readers love a good series” and that “I only have to sell the first book in a series but I have to sell every single stand alone.”

      Promotion is struggling for Bookbubs, it’s buying ads and juggling calendars, it’s not any of the three things that an author needs to do.

      It’s not a sprint. It’s not a marathon. It’s a way of life. You keep doing it. An endless lather-rinse-repeat loop.

      But first you have to decide what you want from your writing and how much you’re willing to pay to get it.

      Once you’ve got that down, the next step is – almost always – “write the next book.”

      1. “Marketing is deciding what kind of thing you want to write, how you want to package it, and where you might sell it.”


  27. Hey David,

    Great article. I completely agree. I have stepped back from all the hype this past year, and really started to analyze what the best next steps are, for me and my publishing career. With the pressure off to make “X” dollars every month, I have come to realize that it is time that the honest indies band together. I have been researching the cooperative business model, and strongly feel that there is a place now, for a non profit cooperative publishing house. There is strength in numbers, and right now, divided as we are, no single one of us has the strength, the legal expertise, nor the deep pockets to protect ourselves, let alone others.

    A non profit umbrella, where authors share their expertise and the profits from the final product, would increase everyone’s bottom line, while allowing for technical expertise and legal assistance when the ugly hats pull out their bullying bats. I am even thinking of going back to school, to really learn the model. United, we stand, divided we fall.

  28. David – I applaud this effort! While I do worry that we’ll wind up with “in” cliques and then everyone else…who will, by default, cause people to wonder if they’re out because they black hat…it’s really the only way any of us have to float the good boats together.

    Of course, I’m not particularly social, so I didn’t even know that promo was happening and wasn’t in it, but I still think it’s a grand idea. Good job looking and enhancing positive selection!

    1. I think we have cliques anyway? It’s a shame that we don’t have the Kboards (or community) of a few years’ back, and that everyone is scattered across 1000 Facebook islands, but that’s a symptom of bad actors/practices becoming more prevalent (with an assist from the competitive dynamics of KU steering us away from a more cooperative environment, I’d argue).

  29. I like the positive aspect of this idea! Thank you!!! We don’t need to know who the Black Hats are – we just need to know who the White Hats are and help each other promote. I already do this on a small scale – there are authors whose writing I trust with my readers 🙂 – and I am happy to promote their books. I like the collective idea – and I like using our combined “White Hat Power” to offer readers a positive experience with indie authors.

    1. Errrr, the tagline might need a tweak!

      Joking aside, thank you for focusing on the positives. That’s what I’m hoping for.

  30. Do you have any proof of the claims you made in this blog post about the prevalence and impact of scammers? Do you have any data that discounts markets changes, readers habits, and other factors in the changes in revenue some authors have experienced? Why should we assume without evidence that our fellow authors are at fault, when Amazon has repeatedly engaged in the same behaviors with us that they have with all other vendors, luring them in with high profits and special treatment until the lock down the market and squeeze the now locked in vendors?

    Why should anyone listen to you when your best selling books are “how to publish on amazon” manuals that are five years out of date and probably make you less money than a car payment?

      1. Citing your own blog posts, which also contain no sources outside your own speculation, is not a source, David.

        Why don’t you ever address Amazon’s predatory businesses practices instead of whipping up authors to attack each other with nothing to back it up.

        Amazon takes down and sues scammers. The problems the author community has arise from Amazon’s own practices far more than anything we do to each other. The whole point of paying Kindle Unlimited from a fixed pool and making it a zero sum game instead of paying authors a fair fixed rate for borrowed books is to put us at each other’s throats, and you’re making a name for yourself off of encouraging it.

      2. I never talk about Amazon’s business practices? I encourage Kindle Unlimited?

        LOL, try again. Especially with the reading part.

      3. David didn’t claim “our fellow authors are at fault”.
        Framing the bad guys as “our fellow authors” may lead some people to wrongly think David claimed “our fellow authors” are doing this. He didn’t, he has pointed out that SOME authors (and some plagiarisers and some people who pay ghostwriters to create books for them) are at fault.
        You also suggest Amazon is at fault here for not doing better to prevent scams and deceptions, and since David has said the same in the past, I feel comfortable in saying he would agree with you there. I do, too.
        And yes, they do take down some scammers, but they seem to need to be pushed to do that, and often they automate and take down innocents too.
        If you refuse to accept the hard evidence David has dug up and blogged about because his own efforts to expose the bad hats can’t be considered as evidence, then I suspect you’re not thinking about this topic as clearly as you might.
        I’ve also blogged about the topic after I started digging in to investigate why my sales mysteriously dropped off a cliff. You could do the same if you want to find evidence of what is going on, as I did.
        I also proposed a few steps Amazon could cost-effectively and scalably take which I think would make a difference.

      4. N., you must not have been following David’s blog or newsletter for very long. He calls out what he sees, and that includes Amazon. I’m grateful he puts so much of his time into study and analysis of the publishing industry AND is willing to share. He’d probably make far more money spending time writing and marketing his own fiction books.

        Support the white hats—something most of us are probably doing already. I think we have so many authors who support each other and cross promote. I’ve never thought to keep an eye on fellow conference speakers, mostly because I don’t know the black hats. But the ones I do know, I warn people privately about. And I’ve certainly spoken up as a panel member or as an audience member when I’ve blatantly disagreed that the advice was wrong or unethical. I don’t know that I would pull out of a conference because of a black hat. That would depend on who and why. But I’d definitely make an effort to make sure my contributions gave attendees a different perspective.

      5. David – thank you for the group promo. I bought ALL of the books offered for 99c because ALL have different advice that I desperately need – even though I have been publishing fairly well for 5 years. But all I do is write good books, but am lousy at promoting them, so I sell well but not damn well! Nor am I very good at joining in-crowds. (always too busy writing).
        However, reading your blogs and receiving your emails is a great and uplifting boost to me – as well as enlightening – and also as well as learning from all of your books – especially about Bookbub ads etc. To me, your the greatest, the most honest, and the most daring, so please take care of yourself and don’t let these a**holes get you down too much. The fight MUST be taken to Amazon itself, somehow, some way, if possible. It’s not fair that it should all be left to one man to take the risk and the flak.
        Wishing you great success in your books, and victory in all.

    1. As someone who has followed David Gaughran for years, I can attest to his fight against black hats of all kinds. And not for personal gain. He’s called out a variety of bad actors when his only books were just his fiction. But that’s really not the point.

      David is not calling for infighting among fellow authors. Just the opposite. And with this post, he’s not even calling out the bad actors, like he has done before. Instead, he’s calling for all of us to help those fellow authors with similar values so that we all do better. Because it doesn’t pay to call out those who wear black hats, until we have the full support of the world’s largest bookstore.

      I for one like the idea. But I would also like to publicize the black hats too.

  31. Are there criteria that can be fairly established for ejecting black hats from groups like ALLi, or rejecting their application for membership? It’d be nice to know that our core associations are free of malpractices. Then we’d have large pools wherein to meet new people, instead of forming and clinging to cliques.

    And btw, you can perfectly well see the underside of the brim of a cowboy hat to find out what color it is. The point of the design is to shade your eyes, so it sticks out a couple-three inches. Maybe you should bury Portland hipsters in stocking caps for your puzzle? Just a thought.

    1. Individual organizations will have to make their own decisions on that, and I believe most or all will have some kind of process in regard to that, whether it’s informal or formal.

      But I’m trying to focus on the white hats here, and what we can do to help each other.

    2. “Maybe you should bury Portland hipsters in stocking caps for your puzzle? ”

      For real, Anna, you are one of the funniest people I know.

  32. I appreciate the idea behind what you’re saying about lifting up the ethical authors, but fact is that will just make it harder for some authors who aren’t black hats but aren’t in the right circles. So now if some author doesn’t relentlessly network with other authors they’ll be deemed suspicious because they weren’t included or cross-promoted by the “good guys” and therefore there’s a suspicion they must be one of the bad guys. Not to mention there has been more than one person in this industry who people lauded and then later realized was a gray or black hat who will at least initially be held up by the “good guys”.

    I think it’s fine to draw a personal line in the sand and not associate with people who do things you think are across the line. I’ve done that with well-meaning friends who happen to promote in ways I don’t think are appropriate. But establishing some sort of “these are the good guys” metric makes it even worse for those of us who aren’t in the in crowd.

    1. Cliques are inevitable. As soon as you have enough humans to form “us” and “them” the cliques will form.

      One of the on-going dilemmas is the turn-coat pattern. If we could keep the humans out of the mix, we wouldn’t have the mix.

      Personally, I’m not looking at anybody who’s not in my tribe with suspicion. I’m just looking to surround myself with people who share my mores and ethos. The digital plains are effectively vast and fertile. I honestly – and perhaps naively – believe that all the tribes combined can’t exhaust its resources any more than any author can saturate a market.

      1. I would not regard newbies with suspicion. I would treat them as I would any stranger, with courtesy and an assumption of honesty, but keeping a bit of reserve and common sense. I might invite a stranger into my home, but I wouldn’t necessarily leave him the place while I went on vacation.

        I don’t have a tribe. I’m still trying to sell books in three figures instead of two. But David’s cautions make sense. Were I fortunate enough to speak at a conference, or exchange mailing lists, or whatever, I can take a little time to investigate with whom I’m dealing rather than bounding forward because they seem to promise the moon (Earth’s moon, not those others).

        Big dogs like Gaughran are going to be key, but us little pups can do our part, however small.

    2. Hi, I’m not suggesting this post will solve all the world’s problems, or turn the Kindle Store into a meritocracy overnight even if everyone adopted these ideas. There are innumerable reasons why a deserving author might be not selling, or not have connections, or not get the awards they deserve – and I don’t claim to be able to solve those problems either.

      What I am suggesting is that we all consider using the power and platform and influence that we have to lift up those with white hats, where possible, and avoid the temptation to deal with questionable people or support questionable practices.

      We may not have much power individually, but I believe that we do collectively.

  33. How do we know the black hats?

    I don’t.

    I hear rumors, see unexplained shifts in rank (a brand new book from an unknown author gets published one day and breaks the top 100 by the end of the week), a collection of “bad covers” rises as a herd, novels showing a thousand pages or more in the product description. Black hatters seem to have an unending supply of pen names which they roll out and repeat the same problematic behaviors that got the last one banned.

    Whack-a-mole. Cockroaches. Good metaphors.

    Myself, I’m really not that savvy to pick them all up. What I can do is talk to other authors, find out how they think about the business, about craft, about marketing. What I can do is identify white hats I want to ally myself with. I can find people in my niche who write good stuff that I like reading. I can network with people outside of my niche to extend my web of perception beyond what I can do myself.

    For me the reality is that the scammers and stuffers, botters and buyers will probably prevent me from winning another All-Star reward and take an inappropriate portion of that pool. They will not – cannot – prevent me from making a living from my writing. I don’t need a million sales a month. I don’t need to make $25k a month to support my botfarm/ad-scam habit. I don’t need to offer high-priced “tell all” courses where I spend all my time peddling snake oil to the rubes so that they follow my Pied Piper into TOS hell to cover my own tracks.

    I just have to find a few friends and neighbors I can work with on the next barn raising. I just have to keep cultivating and growing my own audience. I just have to keep writing the best books I know how and recognizing that teamwork matters to white hats in ways that don’t include “mount up and get a rope.”

    JMO. It’s the internet so YMMV.

  34. Yes. Everyone needs to look after their credibility, because once it’s gone, it’s hard to get back. It’s easy to get drawn into associations based on nothing but anecdotal evidence. I read this blog for a number of reasons, but mainly because David is a credible source who shares huge amounts of information, all of it based on real data.
    Question everything. Exercise due diligence. And as suggested here, help other ethical authors where you can.

  35. I’m worried now. Are we talking about KU gamers still? I spend tens of thousands on FB ads that smaller authors can’t compete with. I’m still a white hat though, right? I started small and grew without (to my knowledge) stepping on anyone else… What are the current scams going on. I thought it had died down a little.

    1. Of course. There is nothing problematic about advertising. But to give an example of some problematic things I’ve seen scammers doing with Facebook: they give authors a free “consultation” and then steal all their custom audiences. Other stuff too. It’s a real problem. But there’s nothing wrong with advertising, of course.

    2. Also, I should note that I’m not deciding what’s Good and Bad here. I’m going to partner with authors that reflect my values. You (general you) can make your own decisions on what are legitimate and illegitimate practices, and, if you choose, also decide to partner exclusively with authors that reflect those values.

  36. Regarding all those asking how to identify black hat authors, this is really difficult because it’s not like anyone can publish a list of names. In another comment above I gave examples of what I would suggest are problematic behaviors and I suggest you watch out for those, and speak with people in your particular genre – that’s all you really need to keep eyes on, your own niche. When you network with other authors, or go to conferences, people talk. Obviously, try and verify any info yourself, but this kind of private information sharing is all we can really do when options are thin on the ground.

    1. There is an organization, Writer Beware, that’s part of SFWA. They send out newsletters warning writers about scams, but it’s usually more of a higher level publisher or agent scam. Anyone can contact them about a scam and they welcome writers sending in documentation about how they’ve been scammed.

  37. Brilliant! 🙂 Now how do we identify the black-hatted authors? If none of us will talk about it, does that mean we have to read every book on Amazon to figure out who’s book-stuffing, for instance?

  38. There are some questions above about black hat authors – the kind of practices I’m talking about are using clickfarms and bots to manipulate rank, using formatting tricks or engaging in book stuffing to game Kindle Unlimited, buying reviews, incentivizing purchases or reviews or upvoting of same, gaming bestseller lists through mass purchasing, illegally swapping email addresses or Facebook custom audiences, engaging in any kind of bait-and-switch with readers around sign-ups or sales, using scammy internet marketer tactics generally. The list is endless, really.

    1. Ah, I get it. It’s just like on Instagram. I’ve been trying to do a cartoon there since January. I’ve played by the rules; coming up with good hashtags, being careful never to repeat them. I’ve paid money to advertise only to see my numbers tumble once the promotion is over. I’ve watched as others with only a couple hundred followers swell to over 200 thousand in record time thanks to bot follows.

      Now I arrive late as this party to find the punch bowl contaminated here as well.

      Look, I just want to write, damnit. I don’t want or need the drama. I had enough of it at instagram. Whatever it is, Dave, that you are thinking to do to help us “White Hats” , count me in from the get go.
      Thank you

  39. I’m only vaguely aware of the sorts of things that ‘black hats’ do, though I can guess, but in a very minor, perhaps trivial, way I have one of my own. I have a troll. She turns up whenever I publish a new title and leaves a vicious one or two star review. I don’t mind the stars, I average about four and they won’t greatly affect that, but I do mind the comments, especially when they are perhaps the only one of two on Goodreads. I’m pretty sure I know who she is: a ‘rival’ author, fading a bit now. She uses various pseudonyms all very similar, almost as if she wants me to know.
    It would be interesting to know if this is common, even normal, and what, if anything, people do about it.

    1. My run in with a black hat was possibly unique. He ran a literary prize and I heard I was short listed, not from him but from someone on Facebook. I was not invited to the award ‘ceremony’ nor did I ever hear from him. Instead he left a negative ( yes negative!) review on the book on Amazon, initially giving it 4 stars and a day later reducing it to 2!

      The ‘annual prize’ never happened again! I never mention it either!

  40. David,
    Thanks for the promo. I bought 2 books and have already read one and used it for my current work in progress. I hadn’t seen anything like that before from you and wondered what was behind it, and now I know. I have 12 books exclusive to KDP. I’ve tried wide 3 times and I lose income every time. I don’t think I’ve been scammed other then some cybersite may have an unauthorized copy of some of my books. I know you were being deliberate and delicate in your words about good guys and bad guys, but I’ll admit I’m not really sure what you’re talking about. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve only been hanging out with my tribe – Mystery writers and I follow you because you have useful insights on the business of publishing.

    1. I’m in the same boat as you. I know some sites have unauthorized copies of my books and do my best to correct that. (Blasty is a godsend!) However, I’m not sure what else the article alludes to. Perhaps I’m too small a fish in the pond or too naive to understand what’s going on.

  41. OK, so the solution – to the hat riddle, if not the BLACK hat riddle – is as follows:

    Cowboy #3 calls out that he’s wearing a black hat. And he’s right, and he *knows* he’s right. Here’s why…

    Let’s go through each cowboy, because it has to be #3. He’s the only one that cna possibly know. Cowboy #1 can’t see anyone’s hat, including his own. The wall is not reflective or anything – there are no cheap tricks here. Same goes for Cowboy #4. Neither of those guys can see any hat, let alone their own. Which leaves two possibilities.

    Cowboy #2 might seem like the more likely because he seems to have more information. He can see two hats in front of him. Problem is, he can see one white hat and one black hat. So he has no way of being sure, no way of knowing what he is wearing.

    Only Cowboy #3 can save them. He knows that the guy behind him, Cowboy #2, can see his hat and Cowboy #4’s hat. He knows Cowboy #4’s hat is white. And he knows Cowboy #2 says nothing – which means Cowboy #3 KNOWS his own hat is black, otherwise Cowboy #2 would have spoken out and saved them all. He waits a minute, and takes Cowboy #2’s silence as his answer. His hat must be black.

    Fiendish, but solvable with some lateral thinking. Perhaps like our own problem.

      1. I am new to this publishing world. It’s a given that scams happen. That’s human nature. But because I’m so new, these veiled references leave me curious to know more, if for no other reason than to avoid same.
        I am not ‘in crowd’ enough to know anybody doing this. I’ve read two recent articles on the subject. Any suggestions for further study?

      2. I only started writing less than a year ago and it’s all totally new to me. I don’t really know what is being discussed here but find it very unsettling. How can the tiny minnows, such as myself, hope to know how to avoid whatever pitfalls are being hinted at?

    1. Brilliant! 🙂 Now how do we identify the black-hatted authors? If none of us will talk about it, does that mean we have to read every book on Amazon to figure out who’s book-stuffing, for instance?

    2. I guessed Cowboy #2 because I thought “searing hypothetical heat” was a clue. My thinking was: Cowboy #2 could see that the black hat cowboy was sweating a lot more wearing a black hat in the heat than the cowboy wearing a white hat. Since Cowboy#2 also wasn’t sweating as much, he knew his hat was also white 🙂

      1. And here’s where I risk being obnoxious…there’s nothing explicit in the riddle that says Cowboy #3 knows which way Cowboy #2, who is behind him, is facing.

      2. That’s my fault. I should have put in an arrow in the image and made explicit the direction they were facing – just an omission, it’s in the original riddle.

  42. I’ve been doing this for about 2-3 years now. Shady practices aren’t just KU-related, and I saw a few and left two powerful groups in my subgenre, as well as unfriended the two heads of each. (The two heads of the groups were the reason I left.) It means I’ve had almost no cross-promo in my subgenre for years and suffered the loss of connections. But I had enough of a fan base (and still do) that I was fine without it. It probably cost me income in the long run, but it was sort of freeing being able to promote only books I wanted to promote to my readers. And they know if I suggest it, that it’s worth looking at. (My mailing list swaps are extremely rare.) Of course, not everyone sees the same sort of stuff and acts on it, but rather looks away to make money. I’m not against making money (this is my full-time job), but finding ways to ensure my income is where it needs to be and not being reliant on shady people makes me happier all around. It also kicks my butt into gear for marketing, which doesn’t hurt, either. 🙂
    PS–To avoid drama, I’m using my real name and not my pen name. And yes, some of the people I upset by leaving would cause drama, lol.

  43. I applaud your thoughts, David.
    But my concern is that for the 11 years that I’ve been an indie author, I have only ever known and dealt with the most wonderful, ethical people (readers and writers). We have all cross-promoted, collaborated and shouted support from the rooftops and yet still the scammers, click farmers and hackers succeed, reducing writers’ impacts on the world of reading, and jading readers in the process.
    We all want to be positive, we want to believe that cream rises to the top, but there is a harsh reality, I think. Can you explain in a little more detail how you think this ‘separation’ process might work? Cheers.

  44. OMG, thank you. You do not know how long I’ve been waiting for someone to say – out loud – that there are scammers out there who aren’t being recognized as such by their “fans” because they are SO big. I am online and active within the community in a variety of ways – as a fan, as a person who reviews every book she reads and I do so thoughtfully and critically but under a pen name because I was getting tired of the pot shots taken by “established authors”, and as a (hopefully) new author under a pen name. But I’ve hesitated and wondered if I really want to get into the middle of this. I’m not known for being a quiet wallflower. If I see something wrong, I tend to speak up about it. But your blog post is spot on. Anyone who speaks out right now is attacked, and not always in an up front manner. I confronted one “author” who has been booted off of Amazon now, and all of a sudden my email and a couple of my accounts on other sites, were hacked. That alone told me that she had a lot of support from people who aren’t all that honest.

    All that being said, kudos to you for standing up and while I know you can’t name names, and you can’t attack directly, you have a very good idea in all of that – by binding honest authors together, you might not be able to stop the scammers, but you might be able to take focus off of them. Good luck, and I would love it if, eventually, you would add me to that bunch.

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