You Can Win Without Cheating FFS

Most self-publishers will agree: it’s getting tougher out there.

If you are in KU, then you’re pretty much dependent on one income stream and if Amazon sales dip or you run afoul of the Hall of Spinning Knives for whatever reason then you are totally boned. And it’s getting so competitive in KU that it seems to take more titles and quicker releases, along with multi-pronged marketing campaigns – which can be complex and/or expensive – to get any real traction or stickiness.

If you”re not in KU, hitting the charts on Amazon is increasingly difficult and holding on to position is near-impossible – especially when your book is being leapfrogged every hour by thousands of borrow-boosted KU salmon running all that mad marketing. And you can’t even advertise to the same level because they are getting reads on top of those sales to make ROI easier.

Getting visible at all is much trickier now too. The days are long gone when putting your book at 99c was enough to hit the genre charts, and when one small, cheap reader-site ad could put you in the overall Top 100.

But that’s only half the picture.

The rewards are much, much greater now also. The amount of money to be made at the top of the charts, and the upper end of KU, is incredible. I know authors who are regularly banking $10,000 to $50,000 a month from KU page reads alone. And they aren’t even close to what the top tier guys are making.

So, yes, it”s harder. But the prizes are bigger. You might even say it”s getting harder *because* the prizes are bigger. If the money was declining I”m sure many people would find another line of work.

Certainly, the scammers and cheaters would move on to an easier mark, just as most of them have done every few years since they started with their bullshit internet marketing scams and MLM pyramid schemes back in the 90s. WarriorForum is always ready to sell them the next “turnkey solution” and “passive income stream” – whether that”s real estate ads or importing pool noodles from China or selling bad boy romance by the ton.

But that doesn’t mean you must cheat.

Whenever an argument erupts in indieworld about some new skeavy tactic, there are always a bunch of writers ready to justify it, whether that’s review purchasing, bonus-stuffing, title-keyword-stuffing, click here inducements, or even clickfarming/botting – there’s always a group of vocal defenders. (Often anonymous.)

The defenses always involve the same fallacies. One being that all is fair in love and war – it’s all one big sales game, and whoever gets people to click on the buy buttons wins. These charming amoralists usually undercut that argument quite severely by whining how unfair it is on the rare occasions that Amazon takes action and strips rank from their books or boots them from Select.

The most popular defense is the old dopers’ one: everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t we? Obviously, these cheap justifications are really for the cheaters and scammers themselves, so they can sleep at night.

Some of these guys have openly claimed that it’s “impossible” to succeed without engaging in things like bonus stuffing. In case you don’t know what that is, this is the practice of taking four or five other books you have written, and stuffing them in the back of your books – and then doing that across your whole catalog.

Book A might have Books B, C, D and E in the back. Book B will have Books A, C, D and E in the back… and so on.

This artificially inflates the book’s page count, so that when it is borrowed the author will get paid for 2,000 pages instead of 400. Historically, this practice has been accompanied with a Click Here inducement, often by adding a bonus or exclusive short story to the very end of the book, and encouraging readers to click same. Recently, these bonus stuffers have been getting more artful – no doubt trying to avoid Amazon’s radar – by working these Click Here inducements directly into the text of the novel.

And when readers skipped to the end, these authors got a full payout for all 2,000 pages, no matter how little was actually read.

Obviously, this practice has a number of awful effects. These cheaters are taking four or five times the KU payout that they should from the pool. That’s money directly taken from more deserving authors who are all paid from a communal pot, an amount fixed by Amazon. In addition, as these skipped pages don’t represent actual reading by readers, this must be exerting downward pressure on KU payout rates. Meaning that we all suffer further. And it’s also a terrible experience for readers – which is why there are explicit KDP rules banning this practice, despite the continual denials of the practitioners.

For those authors engaging in review purchasing or various “street team” shenanigans, they are undermining the credibility of the whole review system, leading readers to question whether any reviews are real – including those that hard-working authors organically received from happy readers.

And of course those clickfarmers and botters and mass-gifters undermine the trust readers have in the charts, diminishing its value as a crucial discovery tool for authors and readers, while they simultaneously deny crucial visibility oxygen to books that should be there on merit.

But that doesn’t mean you have to cheat.

The idea that you can only get ahead by cheating is especially pernicious because it creates more cheaters. It’s like that old cliché about the underworld where you can only join the inner circle after your first kill. You have skin in the game now, and it’s attached to your own ass.

However, it’s a lie.

While competition is greater now, the tools we have to reach readers have improved immeasurably: Kindle Countdown Deals, reader magnets, BookBub CPM ads, permafree, Facebook Carousel ads, cross-promo, RobinReads, free runs (now gold again in KU btw), Kobo promos, BookFunnel, iBooks First Free in a Series, BookBarbarian, merchandizing opportunities, mailing list automation – this is just a tiny sample of the powerful options we have at our disposal today.

When you put them together, it”s a heady mix. Incredible marketing campaigns that catapult books into the charts, bringing in thousands of dollars a month, or even tens of thousands of dollars a month. And all cleanly.

If all that sounds too hard, you’re just going to have to pull on your big boy pants and get stuck in. No one owes you a chart position, a readership, or a living. You have to build it yourself. Okay, sometimes you do work hard and don’t get the reward you deserve. That sucks, but that’s life. You must persevere.

Don’t be fooled by the scammers and the cheaters. They just want everyone pissing in the pool to cover their tracks.

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.

45 Replies to “You Can Win Without Cheating FFS”

  1. Satisfied customers should be the only desirable outcome. That is different from such things as free downloads.

    Satisfied customers don"t like search pages crowded with obvious junk, product pages where random very different genre books are advertised (at least I don"t), and search results that always make me wonder WTF.

    Satisfied customers hate books full of typos. They don"t like getting extra chapters at the end from a different source to pad the page count.

    I don"t think it should be as hard as it is!

    And there should be some way – darned if I know how – for the fiction that is high quality and takes time to write properly. The system now favors fast writers who do minimum editing – not the John D. MacDonalds and Colleen McCulloughs and Nevil Shutes and Frank Herberts and even George RR Martins.

  2. For me, the question is whether you can win without being in KU right now. With borrows counting as sales on the charts, it"s tougher than ever to make Top 100 lists with a non-KU book. I wish Amazon would do the right thing and make different lists for the KU store just as they did for free books. A borrow is NOT a sale. Right now their bestseller lists are a joke because of that.

    1. The charts question is an intriguing one IMO. Other industries have been wrestling with this and I don"t think anyone has come to a satisfactory answer. Music started including downloads – they were first excluded – and then listens on subscription services like Spotify. But it gets murkier (and easier to game!) when they start including things like YouTube views. I guess the question ultimately comes down to what you want the charts for. Just to measure purchases? Or to reflect consumption? There are arguments for and against. My instinct would say you would want them to reflect consumption, but that brings other concerns too – like lots of old stuff dominating the charts and them then becoming less useful discover pathways for consumers.

      An interesting problem with all sorts of side-effects.

  3. The answer to solving the "link to the back" to cheat the pages read tracking is just better code by KDP to track page reads….it is so simple really. When a page is read set a counter to page current page number if page number is <= ten. Next record the number of each of the last 5 pages read and before setting the next highest page number as the new highest page read check for the last 4 pages being all read also, otherwise do not increment the highest read.

    Essentially they need to track locally consecutive page reads, in decent chunks, to validate the true highest page count read. This and AI algorithims that look for click farm-like activity for further scrutiny. I.E. lots of very fast, almost furious reading, by multiple readers simultaneously, for new releases in non-USA/UK IP address locations. There are clever people that could code ways to make this WAY HARDER for scammers.

    1. Not really that simple if you are one of the authors making $40,000 a month from Kindle Unlimited (or any author with a significant % coming from that stream). KU is paying out more royalties than all the non-Amazon retailers combined right now.

    1. The recommendations that KU subscribers get are largely powered by the Popularity List – which is quite different from the Bestseller list and includes free books also, albeit at a reduced weighting. The net effect of this is that, after a free run once you hit at least 5,000 downloads, you will see your book move up the Popularity lists for your sub-categories, and become more visible to KU subscribers, and then get lots of borrows. So you will see a page read bump a week or so after your free run. If you had a stellar free run of, say, 20,000 downloads or more, that read bump can turn into a considerable wave lasting weeks and weeks.

      And that"s on top of all the usual benefits from being free – driving sales to the next book of a series, collecting reviews, etc.

  4. Unfortunately, the moral argument will never affect those who already cheat. Hopefully it will keep those on the fence on the right side of the line. It"s certainly a passing temptation when we see others in our own genres blatantly cheating and botting their way to all-star bonuses–if you can"t beat "em, join "em, right?

    Just as with any other shady operators or criminals, there needs to be more enforcement. At the end of the day, if people won"t self-police, then those with the power and ownership need to police the system–meaning Amazon. That includes not only taking down the worst scammers, but making changes to the KU system to make it harder to scam in the first place.

    Just a handful of changes could cut down severely on the problem. For example, lowering the page cap to, say, 1000 would reduce by 2/3 the worst scammers" take. So simple! It"s exactly what they did when they capped the pages at 3000–they simply didn"t go far enough. Sure, it would marginally impact some legit authors" long books, but that would be a small price to pay IMHO.

    1. Agree with all of that. But not convinced the will is there on Amazon"s side to really stamp this out, as opposed to nibbling around the edges of the problem to keep a lid on things PR-wise. I hope to be proven wrong…

  5. I"ll consider it personal victory if I can finish my first book, regardless of the result. Thanks for sharing all the info you do, maybe it"ll help me in time!

      1. That is the last possible problem. There"s larger risk that I"ll just became overcome with social anxiety and never hit the publish button. Or that I"ll never be satisfied enough with the result, no matter how many passes I do…

      2. The second one is a real danger. I met a guy at a con last year who was working on the same book for ten years. He was so in love with the story – which is a good thing – but he couldn"t let go. It was his first, so his writing wasn"t up to the level that he wanted to realize his vision or whatever, so he kept doing another draft. And another draft. And never broke out of that loop. Here"s what I told him:

        I feel like all the stuff I learn writing one book doesn"t kick in until I start the next. If you (general you!) want to write great stories, the only way of doing that is by writing lots of them. You will not learn by writing lots and lots of drafts of the same story. At some point you have to either publish it, or trunk it. And start something else.

      3. Which is why I started trying to blog, in hopes of becoming a bit better, even though I realise that retelling my travels is vastly different from fantasy…
        Anyway, thanks again for the tips

  6. The information of the state of the marketplace is lucid and clear as always. For me the take home is that when scammers win, some writers, you point to the romance people and they are some working fools, who has cobbled together a great book and really delivers gets cheated. The tragedy in this scenario. Thanks for the information on book stuffing.

  7. Big marketing meeting yesterday, and then reading your blog this morning. I"m finishing my book today and starting on the first rewrite. So when I stop crying, I"ll try to put together a plan, I know I must, but it does get overwhelming. I"ve already used a couple of the tools, but you mention a system instead of stabs in the night. Maybe Monday.

    1. I"m giving a couple of workshops at NINC where I"m going to talk about a few different marketing approaches – including one or two new ones I"m developing myself. After I"m back from NINC, I"ll blog about them in some form or another, but I"m also working on a marketing book (which will have a short add-on regarding a specific higher-level topic) which I hope to finish soon enough.

      So… soon!

      In the meantime, check back over some of my previous posts for some of the elements about also bought pollution and general KU marketing strategies. They might not be meaty enough for you, more conceptual, but the meat is coming.

      And if you can"t wait, check out that free self-publishing course I blogged about a few weeks" back. It has some great, advanced marketing stuff in it too:

  8. Thanks for reminding everyone to look on the optimistic side of things and to get to work!
    You mentioned Bookbub ads. Never been able to snag a Bookbub feature as I am not wide but how are the ads working? Thanks again for all the information you share! Dan

    1. The ads are super easy to use but the clicks can be pricey for a short-term sale or whatever. I gather they are a good bit cheaper internationally, or on non-Amazon platforms, and if you are just doing a low budget drip to push a wide permafree or whatever.

      But if you are doing a 99c countdown deal, the clicks can be expensive. Or a KU free run. The ROI gets better if it"s part of a big blowout campaign though push a whole series or a box, or a big launch etc. Generally clicks are a good bit cheaper on FB if you can get your campaigns optimized over there, but I find conversion higher with BB.

      In short: something to add into the mix on big campaigns, but not yer first option.

      1. Another great post David! Love how you tell it like it is without no BS 🙂

        About BookBub ads, I tried to get one and was only able to get on a waiting list (apparently, though no confirmation). Are you aware of any requirements for their ads that you could share?


      2. Yep, still in closed beta, so invite only. But you can apply on the site and I got in a few months ago. Others have been there for a while. They are perfecting the platform before opening it up publicly.

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