Kindle Unlimited – A Cheater Magnet

I don’t hate Kindle Unlimited; I hate scammers who care more about hacks than books, and don’t care how many authors they cheat out of royalties.

While all my own books are currently wide, I have also work on huge marketing campaigns for others which regularly attained over 10m Kindle Unlimited page reads per month. I’m not saying that to brag — the respective authors are doing the hardest part of the equation by writing books which resonate so widely — I merely state this to show that I understand how to (ethically) work Kindle Unlimited, and that I have nothing against it per se.

Such caveats are necessary as Kindle Unlimited elicits strong feelings — and it’s not just down to self-interest. Some authors object to exclusivity on principle and refuse to enroll. Others are concerned with the compensation model or the market as a whole.

These are concerns I shared seven years ago when KDP Select was first launched in December 2011:

By accepting the compensation system Amazon is proposing, we are agreeing to fight for a limited pot of cash – no matter how many authors are scrambling for it. Amazon say they will raise it if the scheme is popular, but it’s all at their discretion. We have no say. They have all the power under this new model.

Under Amazon’s scheme, we never know what we will be paid until well after the fact. We’re not even being made a crummy offer. There’s no minimum guaranteed payment per rental. We know what the size of the pot is (for one month of the three month exclusivity they demand), but have no idea how many rentals it will cover. We’re being told afterwards what we did (or didn’t) get paid.

Despite these concerns, it must be stated that Kindle Unlimited has been very positive for many authors. It has made careers for some hard-working, honest writers. While no one likes granting Amazon exclusivity, lots of people clearly view it pragmatically and enroll their books in the program if they feel that being exclusive earns them more money overall.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment; everyone needs to put food on the table. Although it must also be said that many authors feel they must enroll to get any kind of visibility in the Kindle Store, or their primary source of income collapses — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s tendency to strongly prefer exclusive books for any merchandizing opportunities like Kindle Daily Deals.

The biggest problem for the market overall — more than individual concerns, forced exclusivity, and a skewed compensation model — has been the exponential rise in scamming, compounded by the catch-and-release approach Amazon has historically taken to those gaming the system.

Bad Boy Book Stuffers & Kindle Hacks

We aren’t talking minor infractions here. A hardcore group of internet marketers invaded the Kindle Store and constructed an elaborate system for purloining millions of dollars from the Kindle Unlimited pot — from our end, in other words. Various seamy behaviors were engaged in from a menu containing rank manipulation, incentivizing purchases, mass gifting, clickfarms, fake reviews, formatting hacks, plagiarism, and book stuffing, but the actual approach varied on a case-by-case basis.

These were all serious breaches in isolation, but when deployed together they acted like a turbo-charged smash-and-grab on the author pot. One that Amazon turned a blind eye to again and again.

Amazon eventually took action in June 2018, after a concerted PR campaign by a bunch of writers on social media and via the press — a step taken in desperation after Amazon refused to listen to endless reports exhaustively documenting these abuses.

Amazon had instituted a bunch of automated system to detect fraud in the latter part of 2017, but these seemed to catch more innocent authors than cheaters. And when direct sanctions were finally applied in June 2018, they were far from comprehensive.

Amazon Takes (Some) Action

Chance Carter was nuked from the Kindle Store after one particularly ill-advised competition aimed at manipulating reviews led to his entire shady business model being exposed on social media. Tia Siren was next, after she was shown to be using, amongst other things, a series of tricks to artificially inflate her page count. Cassandra Dee was also taken down after her mosaic book stuffing was detailed.

It was no accident that these “authors” — I use that term very loosely here — were all part of the same shady mastermind circle, or that others banned from Amazon around this time were part of the same crew.

Media articles like this excellent piece from Kayleigh Donaldson in Pajiba and this in-depth article from Sarah Jeong in The Verge kept the pressure on Amazon. While this blog has been the more visible face of the campaign, at times, it should be clearly stated that huge numbers of authors have been working in the background on this: collating information, sending reports to Amazon, talking to journalists, exerting pressure on social media, expressing their concerns to contacts and reps at KDP.

It was a widespread, collective effort — which didn’t stop just because Amazon put one head on a pike.

A second wave of purges ensued in July and, when the dust settled, perhaps half of Chance Carter’s mastermind circle had been ousted from the Kindle Store: not just Tia Siren and Cassandra Dee, but others like Rye Hart, Nikki Chase, Juliana Conners, Alexis Angel, and Kira Blakely — the latter infamous for being a married man who was secretly pretending to be female on social media to elicit private sexual information from young women. This is the kind of person we are dealing with here.

While these purges were extremely welcome, they were far from complete. Many questionable figures were left completely intact — despite Amazon being in possession of clear evidence as to their behavior for over nine months. Millions of dollars from our compensation fund were paid out to these people in that period, let us not forget.

Cleaner Charts… For A While

For a month or two, though, things improved. The charts cleaned up. Real, actual authors — not faceless book stuffers powered by ghostwriters — started surfacing again. Readers were saying that it was easier to find good books in the charts. I noticed the difference myself in July when helping someone with a launch; it seemed to take less of a push to get in the Top 100. I stopped paying attention to what the scammers were doing. Life was good.

It seems like Amazon stopped paying attention too. It was far harder to get into the Top 100 in September, and a quick look at the charts showed why. Many of those “authors” from Chance Carter’s mastermind circle who inexplicably survived the purges of June/July — grotesque characters like RR Banks — were suddenly charting again. En masse. With multiple books each, simultaneously.

They had figured out a new hole in the fence. I looked at the Contemporary Romance charts for the first time in a while and all the real authors were being pushed down again, while all the ghostwritten trash was swamping the Kindle Store once more.

This is the usual pattern with Amazon and scammers: they find a hole in the fence, we scream like crazy pointing it out, Amazon takes forever to click into gear — usually only after negative PR — fails to deal with the problem comprehensively, and then the scammers get smarter. Harder to detect. Better at grabbing more cash before the next fence-hole is patched. The cycle has been continuing for four years.

I was just about to write off the action in June/July as merely an isolated attempt to counter the negative publicity, when I got some news last night that more authors had been taken down — again from that same infamous circle: Nicole Elliot, Alice Ward, and Amy Brent.

Bad Boys Return to Kindle Unlimited

Many more remain, however. And what’s worse is this: I’ve heard reports that many of those who were banned in June and July have either already returned under new pen names or are gearing up to do so: forming companies, hiring ghostwriters, commissioning covers. That they are all doing so simultaneously is no surprise. It’s clear they have find a new way to game the system and are all going to attack the fence at the same time, with as much content as possible.

While Amazon had been successful at stopping a handful of these guys from returning under new names over the summer, it is clear now that it has missed many more. But Amazon is in possession of all that information now, so we’ll see what action it takes.

Aside from permanently decommissioning these guys, however, a deeper conversation needs to be had about why these internet marketers are choosing the Kindle Store as their playground when they could be hawking diet pills or flipping real estate. Because these guys aren’t writers. They aren’t even readers!

The KDP Select Effect

I will always be grateful to Amazon for so many things. Democratizing publishing. Opening up distribution. Giving us access to readers in unprecedented ways. Thinking deeply about the problems of visibility and discoverability, and building a recommendation engine which was (largely) agnostic, one which allowed any book, by any author or publisher, at any price, to be the one recommended.

Amazon didn’t just popularize ebooks, it revolutionized the ways that books get recommended to readers, which created a massive opportunity for authors — and we then capitalized on to an unbelievable extent. Self-publishers have taken over around half the US ebook market in less than ten years, which is just crazy. And that was largely made possible by Amazon.

That said, it hasn’t all been positive, and the trend in the last few years is very choppy. The introduction of Kindle Unlimited has been a big win for some writers and a huge loss for others. Any disruptive innovation will shake up the population of winners and losers — that’s what disruption does.

However, this particular innovation seems to have worsened the power curve considerably. While those winners are getting unprecedented riches, everyone else seems to be either writing faster and advertising more to stay still, or is slipping back.

I don’t think that’s healthy for the market overall or sustainable in the long-term — and it’s encouraging practices which worsen all those trends, such as the use of ghostwriters to power an incredible release schedule.

The amount of grifters and cheaters and fraudsters which have flooded Amazon since the introduction of Kindle Unlimited is remarkable. You will always get scamming anywhere that money and the internet intersect, and Amazon has always had some level of it, but it exploded exponentially since the introduction of Kindle Unlimited — particularly the per-page, communal pot compensation system brought in during its second year.

Amazon’s response has always been to take a very light touch approach to regulating the Kindle Store. It lets bad actors get away with an incredible amount before it makes a move.

It would be welcome if this philosophy was inspired by a desire to be absolutely sure of someone’s guilt before taking action, but it appears to be instead led by a desire to have automated systems — rather than expensive human beings — doing all the heavy lifting. Systems which have led to innocent authors getting rank-stripped and losing page reads.

Meanwhile, the big scammy whales don’t get spotted by these systems, it seems. Amazon will then ignore dozens of reports from all sorts of sources about someone who is clearly scamming the system before it eventually (sometimes) takes action — usually in response to a PR black eye. And this leaves authors in a difficult position because Amazon doesn’t listen to us: either we go to the press or the scamming gets worse.

That’s not a healthy situation for anyone involved.

I’ve never understood Amazon’s approach to this mess. Amazon spent so much time and money creating the best recommendation engine on the planet, which has led to it being repeatedly named as the #1 most trusted brand in the world by consumers. The quality of recommendations that customers get surely plays a huge part in that — and Amazon has consistently taken the long-term approach of foregoing easy money to build trust in those recommendations.

Letting scammers piss all over the charts hugely undercuts that.

I wonder if Amazon ever thinks about this. Does it ever wonder why these cheaters have chosen the Kindle Store as their playground? Does Amazon ever ask itself this: what it is specifically about Kindle Unlimited that makes the publishing business suddenly attractive to these jackals?

It’s time to have that conversation.

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.