Scammers Attack the Amazon Charts

Once again, scammers have swarmed the Amazon Best Seller list. It was only last month that Amazon was caught up in a crisis at least partly of its own making when bungled attempts to deal with a growing Kindle Unlimited scammer problem resulted in the sanctioning of innocent authors.

This post is from 15 April 2016. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open.

Amazon has since apologized, and has also pledged to beef up its response to the KU scamming mess – but questions very much remain about whether Amazon is taking the problem seriously enough. A quick check shows that some of the main scammers are still operating, under the very same author names and book titles that were reported to Amazon in late February and early March. Which is very disappointing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with Phoenix Sullivan about the problem and she told me about something else she was witnessing – scammers taking over the free charts in the Kindle Store. I could see what she was describing and invited her to share the story here. But first, Phoenix wanted to give KDP an opportunity to take action.

You can guess how that went.

If you unfamiliar with Phoenix, she wears multiple hats: author, self-publisher, and publisher, as well as a very smart marketer and someone with a peerless understanding of Amazon’s systems and the various algorithms that power its recommendation engine.

KU Scammers Attack Amazon’s Free Ebook Charts by Phoenix Sullivan

Over the Easter weekend, I was watching a carefully orchestrated promotional campaign of Steel Magnolia Press titles. By design, we’re back down to just the original founders of the micropress—Jennifer Blake and myself, with a couple of pen names and about 75 titles between us. Our catalog is currently exclusive to Amazon, meaning we’re all-in in Select and KU. Our promotions are planned to optimize visibility via a mix of Free and Countdown Deals and keep our back and front list afloat for a few weeks, then rinse and repeat.

For our Easter weekend promotion, we had 12 books sharing an ad budget of about $1300. Of that, $365 was allocated to our anchor ad—a BookBub placement for a free box of 3 of Jennifer’s backlist romances. Things were trundling along as expected on Saturday, and the anchor title hit #2 on the freebie list late afternoon. So far, so good.

But a curious thing was happening further up the Top 100 Free list. Two other free books of ours seemed to be garnering enough downloads for ranks that would put them in the Top 100, but they were sitting just outside that visibility. In fact, during the early evening, one of those titles lost a rank. Yes, a single rank, but at #107 with a good history of increasing downloads behind it, that was very telling movement.

Additionally, we had another book in the Top 100 that seemed stalled in the #70s despite increasing downloads that day.

A peek at the full Top 100 Free list revealed why. There were 22 books across 7 author names on the list that didn’t belong. Yet there they were, hanging together as a block, solid from #6 to #27. I saw books of two friends that a couple of hours before had been in the Top 20—and most importantly, on Page 1—shoved back to the #30s and Page 2.

Let’s be clear. I run a lot of promotions. Steel Magnolia has been fortunate to have seen more than 30 titles in the Top 3 Free and another 70 or so titles hit in the Top 100, many of them multiple times. I’ve managed the giveaways of over 2.2 million copies. I watch this stuff. I pay attention to this stuff. I talk about this stuff. More power to the underdog books that come out of nowhere to grab a top spot on any list. We’ve had a couple of those ourselves. But even those underdog books have a very clear reason for being on the list. These 22 books under discussion, in my experienced opinion, not so much.

The majority of them were children’s picture books and cookbooks, with few to no reviews, keyword-stuffed titles (some with one or two misspelled words in the title), and blurbs that made it clear no English-speaking editor had touched them.

I’d seen this before periodically. A handful of freebies appearing high on the list out of nowhere, usually gone in 24-36 hours, most likely the result of click-farmed downloads. One such service was guinea-pigged and analyzed on KBoards, and users were subsequently admonished by Amazon and advised not to use them again.

During the free run periods I’ve managed, I’ve not seen them break through the BookBub wall—ranks #1 through #12 or so.

Until Easter weekend.

I went to sleep in the wee hours of Sunday morning—after firing off a letter to KDP Support—with our BB-backed freebie firmly ensconced at #2, only to wake up a few hours later to a front page of the Free list completely taken over, from #1 to #22, by those 22 books that didn’t belong.

Take a moment to absorb that. Our title was contemporary romance with a BookBub list of 2.2 million subscribers. That was the only promo site we bought for it, and it garnered about 25K downloads on the US site that day. The book ahead of Jennifer’s was a cozy mystery off a list of 3.3 million subscribers. Both were books by recognizable authors with a solid number of reviews. Yet 22 other books that day managed more than 25K downloads each. Plus the #1 book had zero reviews during the time it was at #1 and no author recognition factor.

That it happened over a weekend, especially a holiday weekend, was likely not a coincidence. Amazon Support is short-staffed on regular weekends, and they move slower to catch and correct.

Scammers Are Amazon’s Problem Too

Is it Amazon’s fault that scam services take advantage of their systems? No. But they do bear liability in putting systems in place and promoting them to their author-publisher clients, and then not policing those systems or changing them out in favor of something less-easily gamed.

I shop-talk algorithms a lot—ranks, poplists, recommendation algos, etc—and it’s easy to get caught up in the mathematics and theories, and to objectively dissociate their workings from their very real impact on our bottom line.

Your bottom line.

When those gamers steal visibility, they are stealing profits from others, pure and simple. The two books of ours in the Top 100 Free were impacted by the loss of visibility by being knocked back from Page 1 to Page 2 and from Page 5 to Page 7. The two books that hit just outside the list suffered even more from not getting deserved visibility. Not in some abstract, esoteric sense or bragging rights sense, but quantifiable dollars. Ethical authors and publishers are the ones having to pour more and more of our profits into the system to stay ahead of the scammers in terms of visibility.

But it doesn’t just impact us.

While Amazon seems to care little about the impact to KDP authors as a whole, they are undermining their own carefully built website infrastructure by allowing the gamers and scammers a place to flourish. They’re eroding the confidence of their customers every time a reader clicks in and is faced with a wall of low-quality scam books. That drives customers off-Amazon to find discoverability elsewhere. Which means fewer eyes browsing the paid ads on their site. Which means fewer impressions, fewer clicks, and fewer dollars—for Amazon.

If they won’t clean up their store because they feel it’s an author/self-publisher problem or a KDP problem, maybe they’ll care about cleaning it up when they realize it’s an Amazon problem too.

The correspondence I sent KDP Support was very detailed, leading off with the statement, “Please escalate this to management.” I also included the ASINs, authors and titles of all 22 suspect books. My escalation request made it up a notch, and I was assured, “My name is [removed], one of the Customer Service Supervisor with Kindle Direct Publishing. Your concern was transferred to me and I’ll be glad to help. [sic]” That short, personal part of the reply was followed by their lengthy, canned response about how ranks are determined, leading off with, “Thanks you for bringing this to our attention. Let me take an opportunity to explain you the way our sales ranking system works. [sic]” All of which was entirely irrelevant to the complaint at hand. And while I recognize it’s nothing more than a copy/pasted script triggered by keywords in my email, I also appreciate the irony of KDP Support lecturing me on how their rankings work.

The most frustrating part is being unable to reach someone who understands issues that aren’t in their scripts. Which is why I approached David about space to bullhorn these further shenanigans while he’s still on a roll with Amazon’s PR department over all the other gamers still playing Roulette with KU—and winning.

I want to be the vendor Amazon wants me to be—exclusive, smart about promoting, someone who drives legitimate traffic to their site, a money-maker for us and them, and a cheerleader for their services.

Why do they make it so hard?

And how many ethical authors are feeling pressured into adopting black hat techniques seeing how many black hatters are making bank on them with seeming impunity? Some days even I’m tempted to grab a few EINs and a handful of throwaway email accounts, put on a black hat and go to town. I understand the system—all I need is one good month to game it…

About Phoenix Sullivan

Phoenix Sullivan is not quite ready to trade her white hat for a black one. Currently, she’s Managing Director of Steel Magnolia Press (Jennifer Blake, President), still paying for advertising that reaches real readers who may or may not buy or download any of their books on offer depending on some factors under SMP’s control (covers, blurbs and content) and all those other ethereal ones that aren’t.

Final Note From Dave

My thanks to Phoenix for sharing her experiences. I wanted to highlight this story because it illustrates two aspects of this mess:

  • What these scammers are doing isn’t particularly sophisticated but Amazon is still struggling to deal with the problem.
  • Customer service levels at KDP are still unacceptable. Basic issues are generally handled well, it should be said, but when there is a serious or complex problem, KDP customer service can be awful. This has been an issue for years now and has never been properly addressed.

I also share Phoenix’s worry that authors who generally play by the rules may be tempted to start breaking them. I really hope that Amazon starts to get a handle on this, but its actions to date don’t inspire much confidence.

I don’t have access to Amazon’s internal systems, obviously, but with a few simple searches I can generate a huge list of both scammers and likely for-pay reviewers (and the authors and publishers using them). It’s really not too hard so I don’t know what Amazon is struggling with here. It’s quite obvious what the scammers are doing:

  1. Publish a title with keywords stuffed in the title so that it appears high in Search.
  2. Set it free so paid reviewers can download for free and add their paid-for reviews.
  3. Return it to the paid listings where it will appear even higher in Search now thanks to the free downloads.

These scammers are using a number of tricks to boost their Sales Rank, appearance in search, general visibility, and KU payouts:

  • Title keyword stuffing. The most common trick involves inserting genre keywords in the book’s title, so instead of “Saved By The Big Bear” (an invented example) you will get something obnoxious like “ROMANCE: Shifter Romance – Saved By The Big Bear (Shifter Paranormal SEAL Cowboy Clean Romance)” as the book’s title. Then when a reader searches for “clean romance” or “paranormal romance” this title will appear.
  • Page bloat. A common ruse is to upload 25 titles with different covers, but each containing all 25 books, with the order rotated slightly. Others fill the books with “translations” of the main title, or random content pulled from who-knows-where. This can turn a $1 KU payout into a $12 payout – from the common pool (i.e. your pocket).
  • Click here tricks. Once the page count is bloated, then various inducements are given to readers to click to the end – whether that’s some kind of Table of Contents manipulation, telling the reader the “real” content is there, or offering them free books, or whatever.
  • Category squatting. Titles are often added to a bunch of additional categories – often completely unrelated to the advertised content – for extra visibility.
  • Cover impersonation. This one specifically relates to “study guides” which are often extremely short (i.e. 25-page) summaries of popular titles. Often the titles are designed to look like the original book and aren’t flagged as study guides. The scathing one-star reviews underneath show how many readers have been hoodwinked.
  • Title impersonation. Often these study guides will insert the actual title of the book in the “Author” field so you will have a “study guide” for, say, Harper Lee’s debut and “To Kill A Mockingbird” entered as one of the authors. This hugely boosts appearance in search (try it and you will see what I mean – this one is not an invented example, and the author of that “book” is absolutely cleaning up right now).
  • Author impersonation. This time they stuff a famous author’s name into the title of the book. Again, it boosts appearance in search and fools readers.

I can figure out all this with a little searching. Surely Amazon can do better. All of these wheezes already have specific policies forbidding these actions. Amazon doesn’t need to scramble to produce a new framework for handling these guys. It already has the rules in place.

It just needs to start applying them.

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.

71 Replies to “Scammers Attack the Amazon Charts”

  1. Thank you for this info.

    I published my first novel as an indie author with Amazon back in 2007 soon after Amazon launched KDP.

    Since then, my opinion has grown with my experience to seriously think Amazon trusts trolls and scammers more than authors.

    When it comes to “author said this and the scammer/troll said that” it seems Amazon sides with the scammers/trolls most if not all of the time even in violation of their own rules.

  2. I would consider it acceptable to be charged a small fee per book to have a human look at it after I upload to Amazon – the obvious scammers could be disposed of in minutes, and those who went through Amazon humans paid by the fees would be back in business.

  3. Preface to my reply: I am not an author.

    I work in tech. My comments do not represent the views of my employer (not that you can figure it out, but…just in case!).

    This is an easy problem for Amazon to fix. When I say easy, I mean about 2 person weeks of work — not nothing, but not much. Low $xxxK fix. I’m not including the time it takes to evaluate and make the decision to fix the problem — just the time to design and implement a switch. Deciding can take years. They’re likely in the deciding process right now.

    Trust me — working a tech company, even the biggest ones (especially the biggest ones) employees pay attention. You have employees on the inside acting as your voice, I promise. They’re using your arguments. Sending around your posts. Keep it up. It helps. As does emailing execs (tweeting as well).

    Ok, back to the fix. There are ‘many’ ‘simple’ fixes that wouldn’t implicate privacy concerns you mentioned above — no need to see what people are actually reading. And, frankly, that wouldn’t help much — where there’s a will there’s a way, and sure enough bots and humans and robots can turn pages to ‘read’ fake books, so that wouldn’t work (or, wouldn’t work as the only solution). As the author and some commenters have pointed out, there are other signals that can indicate this scam — similar to how Google flags malicious websites, or … Amazon ranks products :). Again, not that complicated.

    Now to the main point of my post — can you imagine a use of Mechanical Turk to fight the scammers? That is, you could use Mechanical Turk to, say, mark Unhelpful any fake reviews; you could Turks to write reviews (you’d be stopped quickly, but still — somewhat ironic); you could use Turks to evaluate the authors, books, track the details in a massive spreadsheet, etc — to provide Amazon and the community with data. But is there something at the heart of the matter — in how this ranking works, in how the books get published, etc — that could be done by Turks? Like, say, flagging books for content? (not sure that exists).

    See what I mean? I’d chip in to pay for this. I’d help you set it up. I’m not an author, but my wife reads via Unlimited and I got so tired of her complaining about this issue that I went hunting…and found this post.

  4. I spent time today building an Amazon order at my day job. I spent way too much time looking for #2 drill bits. The amount of totally unrelated stuff that the search pulled up was maddening. I knew it was bad with books, but I hadn’t realized it extended into other areas of the site.

    I stopped shopping at Amazon years ago. I’ll buy from a marketplace seller if I absolutely can’t get what I’m after, or something close enough, anywhere else. I stopped doing business with them because I knew stuff like this was coming. I thought it would have a different appearance, but the end result is the same: legit authors are being screwed in ways most didn’t think possible.

    This is one of those times where I hate being right. What’s actually happened is far worse than what I thought would happen.

    1. Oh it is much worse outside of books, if you ask me. As a 2-3 Amazon orderer per week of books and all sorts of ‘stuff’, I can tell you it’s a complete mess. And amazon knows it:

      But they’re not doing a ton about it. That’s more related to scarcity of resources than anything else — their list of priorities is long and this is not yet a priority.

  5. What if visitors/customers were able to blacklist and whitelist authors, book and/or publishers? That is, to show the customer what she wants to see?

    Mind you, that adds friction to the UX but there is a payback.

  6. The whole thing is broken though. For a while it didn’t matter what genre you put in, the entire site was just a sub genre of romance while all the scammers tried that.

    The result I have seen with my books is a big drop in my Amazon sales because it’s much harder to get my work in front of potential readers but a big uplift in sales from other outlets. As a reader I get fed up with Amazon’s dodgy search results. I use the search less and recommendations from friends a lot more. If I do search I try iBooks or Kobo and these days I also buy there. I am beginning to wonder if the reason my sales from outside Amazon are rising is because I’m not the only one getting bored of it. Perhaps, like me, non prime Amazon users are voting with their feet. Perhaps that’s what Amazon wants, to move to a subscription only model and bin customers like me. It might explain their laissez fair approach to the whole issue of their search results. Then again I doubt that.

    I will be really interested to see how they fix this because I’m guessing they will do something. What though remains to be seen. Probably something that involves threatening authors with the removal of their books if they use certain words but nothing about the folks categorising their self help books as fantasy (my genre). It always amazes me that a company as market savvy leaves so much cash on the table in some critical areas by not using a human or two. I guess we will soon see.



  7. It seems to me that Amazon could prevent this at the click farm or click co-operative level. If someone is downloading excessively large numbers of free ebooks everyday, or if they are borrowing 10 or more books a day on KU, and then almost immediately returning them and borrowing 10 more, it should be obvious that they are part of some sort of scam. So Amazon could shut down any account that is behaving in such suspicious ways using an automatic program (no human needed). These scams seem to depend in part on these kinds of activities, so at the very least, putting a lid on how people can use their Amazon and/or KU accounts could slow this down and make it harder to distort the process.

  8. I totally give up and am waving the white flag. *waves until arm falls off* Pretty much everything I’ve done promotion-wise for the last six months has failed miserably due to scammers. I just finally got released from KDPS/KU by complaining to Amazon, put my first book permafree, and then it got buried by this crap too. Really? I’m going back to my writing cave and staying there.

  9. I noticed a slew (over 70 titles) of KU Scam books, all published around March 15. I will say, Amazon was quick to remove those once I reached the right department. I was reporting them as a reader though, not as an author or a publisher. I’m curious if that’s makes a difference to them when they go to look into these things.

    1. For the most part, Amazon has been taking down books directly reported to them. However, it doesn’t seem to be making a dent in the books not reported directly to them. It often doesn’t even bother taking down a scammer’s other books, just the ones directly reported. And then it doesn’t seem to be stopping the scammer from reuploading those same books under the same name. Basic stuff like that.

  10. So that’s why my KU payments have been so paltry recently! The scammers are carving up a big chunk of the pot between them, reducing the value of our legitimate borrows to next to nothing. Damnit! Amazon really needs to pursue these individuals legally, get their bank accounts frozen etc – they must have the bank details they’re paying into, and multiple bank accounts are far harder to create than multiple email addresses! Maybe the IRS would be interested, as it seems doubtful these types would be paying their taxes…

  11. I would never sell products without at least a cursory quality review. Amazon can’t keep this up and expect to keep their customers. Yet Amazon prides itself as having “Earth’s largest selection”, which means nothing when a lot of it is scammy crap. I’m tired of wading through garbage scam books to find real ones. I can no longer click and buy because if I don’t I end up with a scam book.
    Rather than relying upon authors to report issues, Amazon KDP needs to clean up their act – and take responsibility for their store. I have stopped shopping there and even if they fix this I might not go back. I used to love Amazon. Now I feel ripped off that I even have to waste my time browsing through this stuff, and am often offended by getting tricked into cicking on inappropriately categorized and sometimes obscene books. It’s starting to feel unsafe to me. I am not alone, Amazon KDP – I can assure you of that. A month or a year from now maybe you’ll wake up when this hits your financial bottom line. You’ve lost me as a customer. Remember how hard it was to get all your customers? It’s much easier to lose them.

    1. Totally agree. I won’t sift through their crappily managed categories anymore. Too much work.
      What percentage of scam books does it need to be to make readers go elsewhere? How quickly would Amazon figure out a solution if every legitimate book was pulled from their subscription service, and all that was left for subscribers was scam books?

    2. I think Amazon sells over 200 million products. Also, people often forget that a huge chunk (off the top of my head something like half or two thirds) of the products sold on Amazon come from third-party sellers. There is simply no way to have a product range that wide and have a human conduct a quality review of each item. So it seems that Amazon relies on customers and reviews and sales and affiliates to give visibility to the good products, which leaves the rest largely invisible. And the system works for the most part… until you get scammers who artificially give visibility in the system to products which should be invisible.

      I don’t think Amazon will restrict its product selection (or human-review everything), but they aren’t the only options. This is the internet. Amazon isn’t the first tech company which has had to deal with black-hatters and internet marketers looking for an easy buck.

      In my uninformed opinion Amazon needs:

      (a) better protection against fraudsters in general – it seems they take down books in a piecemeal fashion but don’t block people at account (or bank or social security) level. These guys simply upload again and collect money until they are squashed again… then repeat.

      (b) harsher treatment of actually identified scammers – the kid glove approach with these guys has to stop. They aren’t authors, they are internet marketers who are outsourcing the actual writing – and the actual writing has no real value either. It’s garbage. Some of the books aren’t even in coherent English, they appear to be taking someone else’s content and synonimizing it, thus rendering it unreadable. No genuine readers, publishers, or authors will be crying if Amazon drops the hammer here.

      (c) conversely, Amazon needs to start giving genuine authors and publishers more of a benefit of the doubt and stop dropping the hammer over BS. It’s not hard to tell real authors/publishers from the scammy IM crowd. It’s really not.

      (d) better customer service at KDP – especially tiering/escalation procedures. Complex issues are handled abysmally. There appears to be no functioning system for escalating serious issues to a manager/supervisor who will actually understand the problem and who might actually have the power/knowhow to do something about it.

      (e) some communication pathway between authors and KDP. I tried to raise this issue privately with Amazon. None of my contacts even replied. (What hope does an author without contacts have?) I had to go public to get their attention – and in doing so I’ve painted a target on my back for retaliation too. I’m not overjoyed about that. Why don’t we have any means of raising serious issues like this? Even now, after going public on this, I have no real means of sharing more information with Amazon. I was in contact with them in March, they stopped replying back then, and haven’t responded to my last email raising passing on yet more info (stuff I haven’t published here too). It’s… frustrating.

      I’m sure there is lots more too, but the above would be a good start.

  12. Phoenix! Thank you for sharing! So glad to learn Amazon is listening and taking extreme action. Still, when I next submit to Bookbub, I won’t take a holiday such as Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc. Immediately I read this post, I sent an email to Amazon corporate Headquarters with just the link and “READ This” in the subject line. And not another word. BCC: Bookbub. Boo-ya. It is Amazon’s ballpark and Amazon’s responsibility to keep the games clean. Not ours.

  13. UPDATE!

    I just spot-checked most of the 22 books involved in the Easter freebie scam event. The titles are no longer searchable by ASIN. The product pages are not 404’d, but the pages are reachable only by direct link (so you have to know the ASIN to discover them). And they carry a “This title is not currently available for purchase” note on their product pages. Most of the author pages appear to be down, and where one author page is still up, the suspect freebie is not on the page.

    1. That sounds like they pulled the books themselves, which would fit in with the scam in its latest iteration. Since so many of the scammers kept the books up too long and wound up having funds withheld, they do it shorter term now and pull the books once the free run is over.

      Using free lists, they are far less likely to get reported and more likely to get picked up by auto-tweeters and such that show price drops.

      I’ve tracked several over the past month, and the author names drop a load, appear to be click farming the free, then click farm the KU during the free, then quickly drop all titles before they can get reported.

      Then they scramble the junk in the middle, republish under a new name, boom…another free run.

      I just did a long post with an example of a book on there right now. It’s likely to follow the same pattern, but I’ll watch it. 🙂

  14. I can’t keep up with the latest Amazon scams. Nor can authors seem to find solutions to these problems. A lot of us are mentally tired of the whole thing. We can only fight and lose so many battles before we wave the white flag…

    1. ^This. Besides the possibility of legitimate authors turning black hat, there’s also the very real possibility of legitimate authors just giving up. What’s the point of spending many, many hours crafting the best book I can when it ends up buried under dozens of scam books? I can convince myself to be content with low sales. NO sales is a whole ‘nother proposition.

      Every year I’ve been indie publishing, I’ve made less than the year before– and that’s with a longer list of titles. Each new title sells fewer than the one before, for a shorter span of time. Watching the lists, reading posts like this, I’m becoming convinced that it’s because of the ever-increasing flood of scam titles. It won’t be long before Amazon’s inventory is mostly scam titles with very few “real” books.

  15. Amazon investigates nothing, they react to complaints by arbitrarily removing whatever was complained about. This is done by people with English as a second language sitting in India or the Philippines.

  16. I haven’t had a chance to catch up on comments yet – I had to squeeze in a writing session between posting this earlier, and a scheduled appointment kicking off right now at the Indie Author Fringe. I’ll be there for the next hour answering questions on my post over there on Book Fair scams.

    The Book Fair scam post is here if you want to read it:

    And I’ll be answering questions here:

    And then I’ll try and pop back here later.

  17. I spent my first career dealing with complex problems on a very large scale. That part of me is shaking her head and knows what needs to be done. The author part of me that gets most of her writing income from Amazon dreads what needs to be done (though thankfully I don’t depend on it or I’d be freaking even more than I am).

    The best solution is one that Amazon most surely dreads taking too. They have to take the Google Play Nuclear Option here and simply suspend creation of new author accounts.

    But wait…there’s more!

    Because KDP isn’t Google, it will have to be a tiered attack and it can’t be defensive in nature. It has to be aggressive and sustained. Because the black hat cheaters are aggressive and their work is all too sustained and creative. And they’re winning.

    Aside from immediate suspension of new accounts within KDP for new authors (which will seriously suck for many legit authors) they will need to go back through everyone on there and weed out the cheaters, ban for life the egregious ones (I know the black hats get new EINs like candy, which is where new accounts comes in), ban for life all KU users who have circled these wagons (should be a fairly straightforward program there), stop expanding KU into countries where click-farms are so easily created, and create an actual customer service center with actual English speaking people who have more than 20 seconds on the timer to service calls.

    On top of that, they have to have probationary periods for new authors when they open it back up. Those get looked at by humans. Duplicated material (which will be a pain for anthology and box set authors) will get flagged for human attention.

    Will cheaters still get through? Absolutely! There will no doubt be black hats with new EINs that are “clean” and past the probationary period who will sell those EINs for major bank to cheaters who will then load up 100 cheat books in one day and click farm them to death.

    But by then, the ranks will have cleared and reports can then be dealt with in a far more timely manner. Right now, they’re holding very tiny fingers in giant holes popping up all over their dam and the water is running right over them. The only way to do anything at this point is to go nuclear.

    There will be those that say Amazon would never do that (and they may be right). But consider that even though KDP and Amazon book sales consist of a high percentage of indie titles, that doesn’t mean they don’t have enough to keep readers busy already. They do. There are enough legit titles on Zon for them to stop new authors from joining for a while. There are enough legit authors already on Zon that they can fill up the new releases lists and jump for joy while no one new joins.

    So yes, Amazon could feasibly do this and not suffer one single missed dollar due to millions of titles already in hand.

    But will they? Or will they wait too long and doom KU for themselves, for readers, and for authors.

    That said, I’ve unchecked yet another series from KDP Select. Like many others, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather get a little less now than be slammed later when things totally fall apart. So, I’m taking that series wide.

    1. I’m wondering why Amazon isn’t making more use of their customers to crowd-source quality checking. There is a “complain about this scammy book” link at the very bottom of the book listing screen, if they moved that up and graphically made it a more prominent button they’d get more reports. If they set up a bounty or reward program, they’d get even more. They would have to qualify the reporters of course — perhaps a contest only open to KU accounts of a certain age or seniority. At the very least there should be positive feedback given to customers who submit complaints congratulating them when a complaint is found to be valid and the malbook is pulled.

      1. It’s hard to get a reader that loved a book to leave a 20 word review, particularly books in KU right now. Going through several clicks to report a book when they can just unborrow it and move on to the next is just as hard.

      2. I don’t think any legit borrowers are borrowing these books. It seems like a closed system for the most part – scammers upload, click-farmers download, the wheel goes ’round. It’s like zombie botnets sending male enhancement spam to dead email addresses and getting out-of-office reply notices bouncing back.

      3. Actually a friend of mine just complained on Amazon about accidentally falling for one of these scammer books! The ones in the romance categories are pretty slick.

      4. Athena Grayson: You could well be correct. The problem for authors is that when the fake authors engage in organized pushes via click farms and take up the entire first pages of TOP 100 FREE, we cannot get our books visible for enough downloads to snag a good slot in Paid. Not to mention, the scam books are sucking money out of the KENP fund.

      5. @Athena

        Genuine readers are certainly downloading these books. Some are incredibly slick with really good covers that are tailored for the specific sub-category they are targeting (especially in romance). Some of them are hanging around at #500 or #1000 in the rankings. You can see by the huge number of angry one-star reviews that genuine readers are buying/borrowing these books.

    1. Here is another address to CC at Amazon’s headquarters:
      Nader Kabbani, VP of KDP –

      IMO: Bookbub and other high-end promoters need to step in and raise the scamming issue with Amazon Headquarters. If established promoters of integrity such as Bookbub, ENT, and fkbt cannot compete with scam books, we won’t see the results we need to earn a return on investment. Bookbub slots are not cheap. Those of us who snag slots on Bookbub depend upon Bookbub to get our books visible. As Phoenix Sullivan’s experience told, if we have the bad luck to promote on a day the scammers are making a block push, we’re D.E.A.D. in the water. Done. It is not just the paleo diet books, and romance books, now it is 29 page children’s books and of course, the old standby: ehow to indie publish or get reviews.

      Those of us in Select need to flood Amazon headquarters with emails. KDP responders don’t have a clue. They only know to respond by rote. What a mess.

  18. As a prospective author who wishes to one day perhaps self-publish some work, I find this a bit discouraging, although not surprising. I was thinking of one day using KU to promote my first book but will have to reconsider if it’s going to be a lost cause.

    1. I wouldn’t go that far just yet. This whole situation could be resolved before you self-publish. And I wouldn’t let it deter me anyway. Remember also that your books will be going into the exact same marketplace however you decide to publish. As for KU, it’s always good to reassess every so often as aspects of it do change – the tools we are given, the payouts, etc. But I don’t think this whole mess has made KU unviable or anything. Not yet. (IMO – opinions may vary widely on that).

  19. Fantastic work Dave! If this writing lark doesn’t work out, you’d be a great detective! As you suggested, I did a search on Amazon for To Kill A Mockingbird and was amazed by what turned up. One of these “books” was listed as being #1 in such categories as Arts & Photography and African Language Instruction! What didn’t I think of listing there 🙂 As most posters have already lamented, it may be a good while before Amazon gets round to sorting out this easily fixable problem. Who will suffer in the meantime? Innocent authors who followed the rules.

  20. They don’t really care about authors. I’ve been in dispute with them for over a year over verification. They kept demanding documents that didn’t exist, barraging me with demands for months, promising to fix stuff. Then recently they changed the documents they would accept, and out of the blue they accepted a document that a year ago they claimed was unacceptable. I think they need a lot of people shouting at them to do anything. They know that you need them, and if you aren’t happy, you’re free to live – there’s always more people out there they can make money out of.

    1. I’ve had some of these verification emails. While the wording/conditions are dumb – 5 days to respond or the book is yanked (what if you are sick or on vacation?) – there’s usually no problem once I respond. I’m pretty sure I’ve responded with something very casual like “I’m the author and publisher and I’ve never sold or licensed the rights to this title to anyone, anywhere” and they have found that acceptable – just the assertion without documentary proof needed. What kind of trouble are you running into? Is it a more complicated situation involving pen names or an anthology some such?

  21. Many, many thanks for Phoenix Sullivan’s informative words and your commentary, David. I, too, had a coveted BookBub slot on the Easter weekend – Easter Sunday to be exact. As I watched my downloads rise, I noticed the cookbooks on the Top 100 page. Without a lot of experience, I chalked it up to a holiday weekend and people’s desire to cook – though the number of them seemed odd. Because my BookBub slot was on the Sunday, I did see my book reach #2 in the Top Free 100 on the Monday and cling on for at least part of the day. As you can imagine, I have read and re-read your post with my eyes bugging to realize my book was no-doubt subject to the same loss of visibility as the books Phoenix describes after I had gone through a similar process of following all the rules. I can only hope that posts such as yours and strong voices like Phoenix’s (of people who really know what they are talking about) will grab Amazon’s notice and lead to a more serious approach on their part to scammers and gamers and black hatters who steal money from the authors who play by the rules and actually make money for Amazon!

    1. Yeah I was watching the charts along with Phoenix. I think Joe Konrath had a BookBub on the Sunday too and, with the power of the thriller list and coming in a day after the scammer wave, he was able to leap-frog the whole bunch in one fell swoop. I’d say anyone running on a smaller/newer list might have had a little more trouble.

  22. None of those issues you listed explain why those scam books are doing so well. Here’s what you missed (b/c there is a huge veil of secrecy about it), Internet Marketers have networks of people in the third world who will download a freebie for a nominal cost. They have packaged those networks into paid services that will yield, 10-20,000 downloads for under $1000. Some legitimate authors were (maybe still are? I am not sure) using these services which is how I know about them. But legit authors are getting shut out b/c the effect on their also bots is atrocious–they get mixed up with all the junk spam so the long tail of the promo is kind of screwed up.

      1. NetWriterM,

        We’ve reached the limit of nested comments, so I’m replying to your question re: click-farms here. It’s easy to miss but it’s in this paragraph.

        “I’d seen this before periodically. A handful of freebies appearing high on the list out of nowhere, usually gone in 24-36 hours, most likely the result of click-farmed downloads. One such service was guinea-pigged and analyzed on KBoards here, and users were subsequently admonished by Amazon and advised not to use them again as noted here.”

      2. Ah okay. I remember that discussion on KB…what? About a year or so ago? Here’s the thing, they have click farms now that Amazon isn’t tracking, either because they can’t (cloaked IPs, faked IPs that look like they’re in the US) or won’t. The sites I’ve seen passed around are NOT on KB. They are in the shadow world of IM.

      3. NetwriterM, that’s why it was referred to as one such service. I think we all realize that Amazon isn’t tracking most of the click-farms and other black hat services. That’s one of the reasons why we’re in this mess.

    1. In the paragraph discussing click-farmed downloads, there are a couple of links to KBoards where one such service as you describe was discussed extensively with the owner of that service last year. That scammer is still in operation and still making money.

      What the authors currently using those types of services rely on is the visibility leading to a lot of the short books being downloaded as KU borrows (likely with the help of a network of folk with KU accounts) so they come off free at a respectable PAID rank. The #1 free book hit the paid ranks at around #1100, so it had continued visibility once it was back to paid.

      My suspicion for there being so many children’s picture books in the scam mix is that the bar is set relatively low for hitting the separate KU bonus lists for those books. A click-farm scam like this can easily push legit children’s picture book authors who *should* be making the bonus lists right off them.

      David notes that Amazon has said it will be retroactive in making it right with those who should have been KU All-Stars who were denied bonuses because of scams on the paid side of things. I wonder if they will also look into the rigging of the bonuses on the free side as well and make *everyone* deserving of All-Star bonuses whole?

      1. Where are the click farmed downloads mentioned? I checked 2x before I commented and just went back through two more times. Am I blind? Or was it another post?

        The thing is the keyword stuffing and all the other gimmicks are not pushing books to the top of the free list, they have a nominal effect (way back in the early days I experimented with these and I still use some keywords in my titles, although not 500 of them. Plus when all the spammers use the same gimmicks, they cancel each other out). It’s the paid downloads that do all the heavy lifting<–that's it, the one ingredient magic sauce.

        If Amazon doesn't start pushing back, these marketers have enough capital now to start taking over other retailers and even make serious bestseller list runs (although we can hope that USAT and NYTs have the intelligence to pass on a 10 page copy/paste cookbook…but Amazon doesn't so…).

  23. This is why I go wide. I don’t trust Amazon with my entire livelihood. After they created KU, my income went down by half and never recovered. I’ll never give them that kind of power over my career again.

  24. I was looking at a freebie site recently to get an idea of what readers saw when scanning for new free books in the historical fiction category, and most of the titles were keyword-stuffed rubbish. Page after page of this, with only the occasional genuine book. I can’t imagine any but the most dedicated free-seekers having the patience to click through all of the dross. This says to me that the top indie visibility strategy–the permafree first in series–is rapidly becoming less useful. From the account above, even Bookbub’s usefulness as a marketing tool is diminishing.

    I’ve also noticed that the lock screen on my Kindle is populated with crappy-looking books that scream cheap indie. So Amazon advertising is also less useful than it was! And yet most indie authors are still playing Amazon’s game by staying in KDP Select, directing readers to Amazon rather than other sites, and pouring their marketing dollars into Amazon-related promos because that’s still where we earn the most money.

    On certain sites, any anti-Amazon remarks are treated as almost treason. Isn’t it time we started to change that mindset? Thanks for leading the way, Mr. Gaughran.

    1. I think we should be able to talk openly and freely about any company. I’m usually painted as “pro” Amazon because I push back against some of the more ridiculous rubbish which is clearly designed to boost publishers, but that’s all pretty obvious and expected from that crowd.

      Anyway, I think the thing which has been most impacted so far is Search. I don’t think it’s the case that BookBub has been much affected (incidents like this are the exception so far at least). One would assume permafree would be at least somewhat affected. Non-fiction authors may be faring worse as I suspect those readers use Search a lot more to find new books than the average fiction reader (who uses it very little, I bet).

      The problem with Amazon advertising is that it is so incredibly ineffective so all the good/savvy/experienced authors are largely staying away from it. Amazon’s whole approach to advertising has been a little puzzling and sometimes you wonder if Amazon’s competition gives it so little of a challenge that it gets bored and decides to compete with itself.

      1. “I think we should be able to talk openly and freely about any company.”–yep. I believe that all authors (trad, indie, hybrid, whatever) should be aware of the fact that large corporations, however useful they may be to us at any given moment, pursue their own business interests above those of the individual artist. That’s not a criticism–it’s just the way corporations are. Our small businesses depend on an infrastructure we don’t own and, individually, have no bargaining power to influence. Collectively, on sites like yours, we can be heard–this post has been broadly referenced in the publishing world. And I don’t think you’re necessarily pro-Amazon–like me, you’re pro-indie first. And that, to me, means deciding for myself and respecting other indies’ decisions to do things differently.

  25. I view Amazon as a necessary evil, and treat it accordingly. THIS is why I go wide, even though, in the short term, it hurts me. It’s one thing to fight for visibility against a book that is better written than yours is, or has a more interesting premise, or a better known author who has already paid their dues, or a better cover, or the natural pressures of the publishing industry. But this has added an entire new element of unfairness, not only to those in KU, but also authors who do NOT list their books in KU and don’t only have to contend with more limited visibility (organically, due to the natural effects of Amazon favoring KU books), but also competing with those legitimate KU authors AND the scammers … so indies who go wide get doubly punched in the face.

    1. I agree. This whole system, and the abuse of it, is just making it harder for any legit author to get a foothold. I pulled my one book in KU out as soon as they switched to the new version and put it wide, not that it mattered. My books fell off a cliff and haven’t been able to recover.

    2. I think it’s important to keep a little perspective here. For starters, we should remember that it’s not Amazon doing the scamming here. What they are guilty of is failing to deal with the problem adequately. But perhaps we should also remember that other retailers have handled it worse – Google closed to all new publishers, and then arguably Kobo’s handling of Eroticagate a few year’s back was worse too. (And of course, others like Apple have handled it much, much better.)

      By the way, I don’t think this is having such a giant, macro effect on the market just yet – i.e. I don’t think it’s the case that there is so many of these scammer books that it is preventing genuine books from getting a foothold. We aren’t there yet, mercifully.

      1. Hi, David: Regarding your comment: “I think it’s important to keep a little perspective here…I don’t think this is having such a giant, macro effect on the market just yet – i.e. I don’t think it’s the case that there is so many of these scammer books that it is preventing genuine books from getting a foothold.” I agree that keeping a level head and not doing anything rash is smart. But when scammers and click farms organize a “push’ such as happened Easter Sunday that knocked a Bookbub promo to its knees, the scams most certainly have a deleterious effect on those of us who hope to promote successfully. It is a double whammy. The scam books take a huge slice of the KENP pot and while doing so, undercut a costly book promotion. That is NOT acceptable. No way. No how. Nuh, uh.

      2. Oh sure, I agree with all that. What I mean in terms of it not have a giant, macro effect on the market yet is that this block-rush of the free charts (on this scale at least) is new territory and, thus far, a once off. It’s not the case that Bookbub no longer works – some of the books being advertised on Sunday got to the top of the charts, unlike the Saturday ones. And I don’t think that something on this scale has happened since. As for the wider picture, I also don’t believe we are at the point where there are so many scammer books taking up so many chart positions that it’s near impossible to leapfrog them or grab any visibility in the market. So no giant, macro effect. Yet. From what I’ve seen at least. Except for Search – that’s not looking pretty right now.

        I’ve seen some people say they won’t self-publish or won’t put books on Amazon because of this, that the scammers are the reasons that “sales are down” (deliberately in scare quotes), and so on. I don’t believe that at all. I believe that the scammers are breaching the rules and grabbing a slice of the pie which isn’t theirs, and I believe Amazon’s reaction has been poor, but I don’t think the problem is so bad – yet – that it is having that wider impact on the Kindle Store that some fear. Obviously, I’m worried that the situation will deteriorate, hence all the posts, but I don’t think there is any reason to panic just yet.

      3. I get your end of things, David. I’m not in a panic and my books are staying in Select. Folks whose books don’t sell are always searching for a reason or excuse–because it ain’t ever their book, book cover, book description or a lack of promotion. For a fact, the market is tight and it is maturing and leveling out. Savvy indie authors are coping. The honcho who is teaching the scammers ehow is adjusting, too. Now the scam books show a cover and a title as if the unit is only one book, but look inside and the TOC reveals short stories up to the 3000 page limit. Some are a few pages under. Same 3000 pages shuffled around, different cover, different lead title. Same author. Not a mention that it is a collection. Does not matter if scam units are a small wrong in the scheme of things. It is not healthy for the industry or for the reputations of indie authorship or Amazon credibility. We did learn from this issue that Amazon does not count pages read as it explained to indie authors in the KENP email. That is a fail. I often see a 45,000 to 50,000 page discrepancy in KENP on the hourly chart and the KENP in the Month to Date Sales report. I asked Amazon and was told those KENP are not official until the owner of the Kindle connects to Amazon online and the KENP is recorded. HUH? Thus, if a Kindle goes dormant, we are not paid KENP. Another issue.

  26. Thanks for your work in highlighting this, David…

    the funny thing is, as rharrisonauthor said above, it’s not a hard fix, but by failing to address this relatively simple problem, Amazon becomes less useful to book consumers and less attractive to genuine authors.

    All online stores/facilitators are intermediaries in transactions between creator and end-user (whether that’s Airbnb, Uber or Amazon). The degree to which they will ultimately succeed or fail is determined by how seamless they make the transaction.

    Right now, Amazon – as far as books go – are neglecting both ends of the transaction pretty badly by failing to fix a simple-to-fix issue.

  27. I wish they (amazon) were easier to approach about this. My professional activity (when I’m not saving my sanity by writing goofy sweet romances or science fiction) is in machine learning and this does not look like a hard problem. I could easily put a student on it, or even do it myself.

  28. NOTE: I ran out of space above but I just wanted to tell you that the Indie Author Fringe is kicking off today – a free online conference running for the next 24 hours with all sorts of sessions taking place (including a post from me). I think you have to register, but, as I said, it’s all free and open to anyone. My session is on at 7pm GMT/1pm Eastern and I’ll be in the hotseat taking questions at that time too. You can see the agenda – and register – here:

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