Scammers Break The Kindle Store

Kindle scammers are gatecrashing the Amazon charts with impunity and it’s clear that the Kindle Store is officially broken. On Friday, a book jumped to the #1 spot on Amazon, out of nowhere; it quickly became obvious that the author had used a clickfarm to power his inexplicable rise.

This post is from 15 July 2017. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open.

This is not the first time this has happened and Amazon’s continued inaction is increasingly baffling. Last Sunday, a clickfarmed title also hit #1 in the Kindle Store. And Amazon took no action.

Over the last six weeks, one particularly brazen author has put four separate titles in the Top 10, and Amazon did nothing whatsoever. There are many such examples.

I wrote at the start of June about how scammers were taking over Amazon’s free charts. That post led to a phone conversation with KDP’s Executive Customer Relations.

Repeated assurances were given that the entire leadership team at Amazon was taking the scammer problem very seriously indeed. But it was also stressed that the problem wasn’t quite as bad as I was making out, and that this stuff never hits the charts and remains largely invisible to customers.

I explained in detail how none of those contentions were true, that readers are leaving angry reviews under these books, which regularly hit the charts, and further that KDP has singularly failed to act on 18 months-worth of complaints.

Amazon asked me to compile more information for them – and I did that with a report submitted on Wednesday.

Clickfarming Your Way To The Top

Developments since then have made a mockery of the claim that this stuff doesn’t hit the charts as a book titled Dragonsoul by some unknown writer called Kayl Karadjian hit #1 in the store yesterday. The paid store, not free. Paid.

Authors immediately expressed skepticism – and for good reason. I don’t want to give a playbook on how to spot clickfarmed books, but this was a particularly obvious case. Dragonsoul had very few reviews. It had been out for 9 months with little or no sales history. There was no promo footprint either – it didn’t have ads on BookBub or elsewhere.

There was no Facebook campaign, the author only has 57 likes on his Facebook Page. In fact, the author seemed to have no platform at all – just a few dozen followers on Twitter, and no other discernible internet presence aside from a blog with 9 subscribers and a Patreon with no patrons.

Earlier yesterday, before its great leap forwards, Dragonsoul was languishing at #385,841 in the Kindle Store – meaning Kayl Karadjian was selling roughly one copy every fortnight or so.

And then he suddenly appeared at #1.

kindle scammers

To say this was a dramatic increase in this book’s fortunes would be an understatement. Amazon has another chart called Movers and Shakers, which tracks the books which have made the biggest leaps up the charts in the last 24 hours (a tool which could be easily used to spot scammers, but I digress).

Check this out:

kindle scammers

An increase of 38,584,000%! How does that not set off alarm bells in Seattle?

Aside from emailing Amazon directly, I began including them in all the tweets yesterday. Please feel free to retweet these as Amazon are yet to respond or take any action:

How Clickfarms Work

As I explained in my post last month, unscrupulous authors and publishers are now adopting scammer tactics, and it’s pretty obvious this guy used a clickfarm to artificially borrow his book. Those fake borrows are equivalent to a sale for ranking purposes. A few thousand of them at the same time can be enough to put you at the top of the charts.

For those who don’t know what a clickfarm is, read this or this, but the basics are as follows. Clickfarms can do a number of things for those with flexible morals. Depending on what the author is trying to achieve, they can download free books, or borrow KU books, and/or page through borrowed books to generate reads – which will then be paid out of the communal KU pot. These services are easy to find, they are all over Google and Fiverr. They are especially popular in shady internet marketing circles and places like Warrior Forum.

We aren’t taking about the darknet here. These services are open to the public and incredibly easy to find. I’m not going to link to them directly, but here’s an example of the kind of services they offer:

  • 100 guaranteed KU borrows for $59
  • 200 KU borrows with a guaranteed Top 100 ranking for $109
  • 1000 KU borrows with a guaranteed Top 5 ranking in any category for $209

They also provide paid reviews, ghostwriting services, the works. Fake authors, fake books, fake borrows, all parlayed into real chart position stolen from genuine authors and significant funds paid out of the communal KU pot.

Other companies will guarantee 300 to 500 sales over a certain period, or 15,000 free downloads, and appearance on Amazon’s Movers & Shakers list, or a guaranteed sales rank of 1,000 or better in the US Kindle Store. Anyone who has had a BookBub in the last few months will probably have been spammed afterwards by one of these shady sites looking for business.

These services are cheap – cheaper than genuine promo services. And they have been repeatedly reported to Amazon without any action taken.

A Growing Problem

Kayl Karadjian isn’t the first author to do this. Another suspicious book hit #1 last Sunday. Amazon did nothing about it. In fact, that title is still at 1,682 in the charts at the time of writing, hoovering up borrows, sucking down money from the communal author pot, and stealing visibility from genuine, hard-working authors – despite the irate reviews from readers.

Yet another author – who has been engaging in various shady tactics for years with impunity – has gatecrashed the Top 10 four times in the last six weeks using clickfarms. His books tend to immediately slink back to around 100,000 in the charts and don’t have Also Boughts weeks after publishing (meaning that he didn’t manage to rustle up 50 genuine sales yet – borrows don’t count towards Also Boughts).

On the same day that this clickfarmed book hit #1 on Amazon, KDP announced yet another drop in rates for Kindle Unlimited authors – and rates have been steadily dropping for some time now.

They are lower again in markets outside the US – countries like Australia, Germany, the UK, and Canada.

And guess what? The scamming is even worse over there because it takes less fake borrows to hit the top of the charts. One day I looked at the Canadian Top 40 and one “author” had 14 books in the charts. Fourteen! Those exact same books were all over the Australian Top 20, and in a bloc together at the back of the UK Top 100, and at around #200 in the US Kindle Store also.

Could these phenomena be linked? A huge uptick in scamming and a drop in KU payouts? Gee, I wonder.

(Any time this topic comes up, people reflexively defend Amazon and claim that scammers don’t get paid so the money isn’t coming from our pot. This is demonstrably false. As I’ve shown again and again, the scammers don’t get taken down. Some have even received All Star bonuses in the past! I’ve been tracking scammers for 18 months, and some of the same names have been operating without interruption all that time. Let’s dispense with that canard once and for all.)

Amazon claims to be taking the problem seriously, but it isn’t even acting on reports of these assholes breaking in to the very top of the US Kindle Store, so that claim is hard to swallow.

And it’s even harder to believe when you understand how long Amazon has been aware of this problem.

Amazon’s Response… Or Lack Thereof

This is from a blog post I wrote 16 months ago, which gets to the heart of the problem – namely KU is based on a page read compensation system which is wide open to abuse (something we warned about when it launched, to no avail):

This is from an email I sent to an Amazon executive in October 2016 – who requested more information about the issue and promised to do something about it.

This is an email I sent to a different Amazon staffer who also requested more information about the scammers and their tactics. This was a year ago and I didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply…

I could quote these endlessly because I have been in communication with various people across different departments at both KDP and Amazon for 18 months now. And I’m not the only one.

Many other authors have submitted detailed reports to Amazon about this scamming – which went into overdrive with the launch of Kindle Unlimited (particularly the page read compensation model that forms the backbone of KU2).

Amazon has been sent spreadsheets containing dozens and dozens of ASINs of scammer books. Amazon has been given names of scammy “publishers” with 200+ titles each. And Amazon has been given an exact breakdown of who is using clickfarms and the services they are using.

And Amazon has done nothing.

Rewarding The Scammers

Actually, that’s not true. Amazon has done something. Remember I said that scammers have been given All Star Bonuses from the KU pot? Since I first wrote about that Amazon has made a change. The list of people who received All Stars is no longer publicly viewable. Well, great. The one shred of transparency and accountability in Kindle Unlimited is now gone.

Even worse, not only has Amazon failed to act, it is actively rewarding the scammers. Sounds incredible, right? But it’s happening.

You know that author I mentioned above who used clickfarms to hit the Top 10 on four separate occasions since the start of June? He recently bagged a much coveted spot in one of Amazon’s genre newsletters – a high visibility promo that will put good money into his pocket.

Another writer who regularly uses clickfarms to top the free charts currently has three bloody titles in one of Amazon’s hand-picked, on-site monthly promos.

The worst part of all that is that Amazon regularly removes books by rule-abiding, genuine authors for minor, accidental (and often non-existent) infractions. For example, an author I know had his new release removed from sale because it contained three goddamn typos. Without warning, removed from sale. And Amazon leaves up the scammers. It’s unbearable.

An Even More Serious Problem

Here’s my biggest fear: these guys are dumbasses – I mean it!

What kind of dumbass uses a clickfarm to go to #1 in the store in the space of an hour? What kind of dumbass puts 10 of their books in the Australian Top 20 at the same time? What kind of dumbass puts 20 of their 8-page weight loss books at the top of the free charts simultaneously?

Giant, big dumbasses, that’s who.

The smart ones won’t be so greedy. I know exactly how to do it where it would be barely detectable. And if I can figure out, you can be damn sure that the smarter scammers have already figured it out.

How widespread is this problem? Nobody knows, but I would bet anything that there are thousands and thousands of titles by scammers/authors using scammy tactics. It is absolutely rampant and Amazon is doing nothing – not even acting on reports anymore.

I keep wanting to believe that Amazon will take this problem seriously. And I keep hoping in vain.

Eroding Trust

There is one thing puzzling to me, though. The secret sauce of Amazon’s success was always the store. While Amazon’s competitors raced to build flashier devices, Amazon’s genius was in understanding that if they had the #1 buyer experience and the #1 recommendation engine they would trounce the competition.

Amazon has spent millions and millions of dollars and man-hours in building the most trusted recommendations in the world. The charts themselves are massively popular discovery tools for readers – as any author will tell you who has appeared in the charts and enjoyed the sales spike that this visibility brings.

The sales rank that powers those charts feeds into the recommendation engine tons of ways, so that if you can engineer a sales spike, Amazon’s system will start selling your book for you.

But now Amazon is recommending scammer crap – undercutting the years and years of work it did building up customer trust.

It genuinely baffles me. If this stuff was just happening down at 400,000 in the rankings, I could understand why Amazon would turn a blind eye. I wouldn’t agree with that approach, but at least I could understand it.

Ignoring the scammers gatecrashing the very top of the charts is just dumb. And it’s hugely disrespectful to every hard-working author, and every reader who has spent their hard-earned money on a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Readers: are you happy that your subscription fee is going to scammers instead of genuine authors? Please let Amazon know how you feel about this because real authors are getting paid less and less because of this scamming.

If you are curious why your favorite authors are leaving Kindle Unlimited, from talking to lots of them, I can tell you this is a huge factor. Feel free to share your feelings about this with Amazon. Maybe they will listen to you – because they are not listening to us.

Sorry guys, the Kindle Store is broken.

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.