The Death of Book Promotion

There are some interesting discussions that are happening right now. I’m going to massively paraphrase the situation as I understand it, without naming any of the main players involved.

The story goes like this:

Some people are cheating by uploading large collections of recycled content and getting people to click through to the end of the book, or using clickfarms to pay “readers” to read through those books to earn page read money from KU. Obvious scammers. 

Honest authors playing by the rules have been outspoken against Amazon for allowing this to continue, so Amazon (surprisingly) has been trying to clean up its act by identifying and flagging potential spammers.

The problem is, some authors running legit promos have started to be targeted by Amazon. They’ve had their rank disappear in the middle of a promo, losing a lot of visibility and earnings.

They might get an email warning from Amazon that this has happened because they are suspected of “rank manipulation” – which can mean, driving a lot of sales in a short period of time in order to get a higher sales rank and sell more books. This is, in a nutshell, how most indie authors market their books effectively. And it works. And there are dozens of sites that build genre-specific email lists just for this purpose.

BookBub is the biggest. Apparently, some books that got a BookBub promo were flagged and hidden, which obviously sucks for indie authors (if we can’t use the reputable book promo sites, what can we use?)

It’s easy to get angry at Amazon, because a human *should* be able to look at the books in the top 100 and make some reasonably sound judgments. Does it have a good cover? Does the author have other books that are selling well? Is the book quality decent? Does it have reviews? If it’s obviously a crappy book, and no reasonable person would buy it, but it keeps sticking at the top of the Amazon charts – for months – it seems reasonable to guess that spammy tactics must have been used.

Some authors will cram 10 books into one to earn more in page reads. And because these books seem to be selling, Amazon continues to give them KU all-star bonuses (an extra stipend on top of earnings). This is outrageous for hard-working authors in the KU program, who have to split the pot and earn less for their books because these scammers are hacking the system. 

Something needs to be done… but since it can be hard to distinguish between “scam” books and “real” books, you’re asking Amazon to judge book quality. And to do it for millions of books. (Though really, a daily look through the top charts should be enough).

You’re also asking Amazon to distinguish between intention, as in “good authors” and “bad authors.” This is difficult because Amazon is mostly a machine – a bunch of code looking for specific markers of potential dubious activity. They’ve obviously been experimenting with new screening measures that are overzealously penalizing indie authors.

Even with a BookBub deal, you’ll get tons of buys or downloads in a short period of time from a bunch of seemingly random people. You’ll show up at the top of Amazon, attracting more random people, who are also buying/downloading the other “bestselling” books appearing there, which will mess up your also-boughts and make it even more difficult for Amazon to distinguish between “legit” books and spam books. 

I don’t think this is a clear-cut or simple situation.

It should be easy to tell if all your sales and downloads come from the Philippines (although they’ll probably use IP redirection anyway); or if diverse books are getting the same buyer profile (50 buyers buy the same books across random categories). But it’s harder to distinguish between book promo lists, or list trades, or your own email list.

I agree something should be done, and it sucks for indie authors, but I’m also sympathetic to what Amazon is trying to achieve. They don’t want their bestseller lists to be full of whichever books are paying for promotion that day. They’d rather reward slow, stable earners with history. I hope Amazon will continue getting smarter, and I think it’s a positive step forward that they’re tightening the reigns, even though some authors are now feeling the (devastatingly negative) effects.

And I also know Amazon is customer-focused, and authors are not their customers (hence their strict review policies – I’ve lost my review privileges because I’m internet friends with too many authors, so now I can’t review anybody.) It might be impossible to judge every infraction on a case to case basis when they’re sorting through thousands of books, but 48hours in limbo can seem like forever when you’ve spent thousands of dollars on ad money that is going down the drain. 

Kafka-esque

The worst part about all of this is how robotic and repetitive their customer service email responses are.

Lots of authors are getting their ebooks flagged or removed and being sent a standard email that says you must agree to comply with all of Amazon rules and regulations or they’ll take more severe action including deleting your account. 

But if you respond with an email asking “which rules am I breaking?” you won’t get an actual response, they’ll just keep sending you the email.

“Do you comply?”

The only correct answer is “Yes, I promise never to do it again.” 

Even if you don’t know what “it” is that you’re accused of doing the first time.

In other words, there is no acceptable defense. You can only ask for forgiveness, you can’t plead “not guilty.”

 

Twitter

I also just heard about some authors getting their Twitter accounts blocked or banned – this is probably because they’re sending out or retweeting lots of spam. Lots of authors use automated Tweets and Twitter blasts – they don’t work but there are plenty of services offering them, and most authors just see what other people are doing on Twitter and follow their lead. I wrote about this years ago, and it seems Twitter is also starting to clean up its act. Even though this isn’t illegal, and authors have been doing it for years, there are some blocked hashtags that are still recommended by other book promotion sites. The key to Twitter and social media in general is to write real content for actual people… however, hashtags and keywords are important for getting found so it’s a delicate balance.

 

Solutions

You can quit KU and publish with Pronoun or another 3rd party site. That’s not my first recommendation, because I still think new authors with no platform (and even most established authors) will earn more in KU.

You can build your own platform and email list, which you should be doing anyway (though, Amazon is more likely to delete reviews that come from your own followers).

You can stop using promo sites or list trades and instead focus only on advertising – consistent daily sales rather than a huge spike in sales or downloads. This is where all the platform and traffic building strategies I talk about in Guerrilla Publishing come in useful.

This may be an unpopular post, because a lot of my friends are currently raging against the machine and demanding justice, and I sympathize. At the same time, a few months ago some authors were saying anybody who gets victimized by Amazon probably had it coming (several people used that argument against me when my books were nearly pulled from KU).

I think it’s dangerous to point fingers or accuse anyone in the top 100 of Amazon of scamming or cheating the system, or assuming that they absolutely knew exactly what they were doing. I’d rather accept that a lot of authors are just experimenting with new promotion services and don’t fully understand how they work or where those purchases/downloads are coming from. At the same time there are definitely scammers out there who continue to successfully hack Amazon’s system to their advantage using black hat tactics, and Amazon needs to fix its system without penalizing legitimate authors.

It’s important to understand that this is going on, and the road to recovery is going to be rocky. If you aren’t selling any books, this isn’t something to worry about – but if you are planning a book launch or promotion, you will need to be careful. Even if you try to distinguish between “legit” promos and others, the truth is any sudden spikes in activity could get your account flagged.

Of course there ARE some people who are cheating the system. I don’t like the term “manipulating rank” because every author tries to boost their rank to stay visible. I also don’t like judging based on intention, as in, it’s fine for “good authors” with “real books” to do things, but not find for “hacks” who are publishing “crap”. In some cases, this might work – if the books are so bad that truly no-one can enjoy them. But by the same argument, you could say that Twilight or Shades of Grey must have cheated because the quality is bad (when in truth, millions of people enjoyed them).

Anyway, it’s important for you to know what’s going on, in case it happens to you. If it HAS happened to you, I’m sorry. I’ve experienced the wrath of Amazon first-hand, so I know how frustrating it can be, especially if people are accusing you or grouping you with the spammers you’ve been protesting against.

 

Additional Comments

Amazon doesn’t allow anything that manipulates rank. Indie authors’ #1 book promotion strategy has been ads + list trades to spike rank and hit bestsellers lists – these are the most effective strategies and that’s why I recommend them. Scammers use similar strategies, though *probably* have teams of people buying/downloading the books.

I’m not surprised Amazon has trouble telling them apart, or distinguishing between “legit” / “real” authors and spammers.

It sucks that Amazon is cleaning up its act and accidentally penalizing authors; but the alternative is them not doing anything. The other argument I’m skeptical of is that “real authors” are good, moral people – so that Amazon needs to look behind the product and judge cases based on intention.

Yes, it seems like a human editor could easily go through and make judicious choices, rather than machines, but then things will operate more like the NYT bestseller lists, where someone is manually approving bestsellers rather than letting the market dictate (something else indie authors are very upset about; they think the NYT list should be numbers only). I don’t love Amazon, and right now my account has so many limitations it’s hardly functional, and it’s frustrating that they can’t just sort it out and figure out that I’m a good person.

The new theory is that spammers are deliberately targeting real authors with spammy tactics to muddy the waters – something I think sounds ridiculous, but I tend to assume people are too good or too lazy to do things link that. I don’t think there’s a big conspiracy against the little guy honest authors who are just trying to make a living. I think some authors got screwed as Amazon is trying to improve their system.

But of course, there could be. There are some smart people hacking the system for a big payout. They have time, money and resources to continue thwarting Amazon’s new regulations.

Something probably needs to be done, and it’s true that Amazon isn’t properly incentivized to treat its authors better. Trusting them to pay us well or treat us fairly probably isn’t the best strategy either, so I’m not saying “don’t worry about it.” We should be vigilant, and we should fight for what we want. Ask for that raise if you want it. But if your boss says no, you find another job, you don’t burn down the building.

 

A checklist

If you aren’t sure what counts as “spammy” or “cheating”, here’s a list.

  • adding duplicated content together to inflate page count (the same 5 books, repackaged 5 different ways, altogether, rather than just 5 books).
  • getting sales or downloads from a whole bunch of people at the same time to boost your rank, even if they aren’t normal, organic readers of your genre (if any service offers you guaranteed numbers of sales or downloads, that’s a red flag. They’ll usually have a team of people ready to buy or download your book) – the indicator is that, after the promo, your also boughts will be filled up with other people who bought the same promo (rather than actual organic also boughts based on authentic consumer habits)
  • Getting a book high in the free store, but earning from KU borrows (some people borrow even if it’s free) or switching to paid and earning some KU reads before the rank drops again – yes, free downloads do help boost paid rank substantially, if you get enough of them.

The differences might seem obvious to a human, but if you have a boxset or anthology with multiple other authors, and you’re all doing heavy promotion and ads and getting lots of sales or downloads quickly, your book might get flagged and removed from the system until Amazon can take a closer look.

Those books are using what have been “legitimate” promos – there’s nothing fishy or dodgy with their promotion strategies, but because Amazon has set conditions to try and isolate scammers based on specific rules, at the immediate moment (October 2017) they are getting penalized. This may not be a problem next month. This may never be a problem for most authors.

It’s probably not something you have to worry about unless you’re trying to hit a list by selling 6000 copies or more in a few days. You should be aware of the situation, but also know that this massive book promos aren’t the only way to sell books (I know tons of authors in multiauthor boxsets who hit the list but don’t make money, or see a significant increase in book sales).

Personally I’d rather have consistent, long term sales and stay in the top 10 of my categories, rather than shoot for higher.

PS. I’m only talking about the tricky stuff.

There are other books that are obvious click farming; if a book with no reviews (or only negative reviews) stays on top of Amazon for months, or suddenly shoots to the top, and everybody thinks “how is this book possibly doing this” – something fishy is probably going on. But they could just be spending a fortune on advertising. Just because a shitty book has access to adspend doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a scammer. Maybe it’s just some retiree with a dream and a large bank account. Maybe they don’t think their book sucks. They believe in the dream, and the advertising seems to work (people keep buying or borrowing, despite shitty reviews).

Sure, it could also be a click farm – and it probably is. I just don’t feel comfortable making that assumption.

Even so, how do the robots tell the humans what to look at more closely? Tons of preorders, ads and list trades will look the same short term. They identify sudden massive shifts in activity, flag the book, and check it out later. They should be able to flag it without actually impeding it until a human can take a look. But a new book that’s organized a ton of promos, ads, listtrades and gotten presales will shoot up pretty fast too, even with few reviews.

I agree Amazon probably isn’t too worried about this problem, and it’s not their main priority, and that is threatening when it’s literally your livelihood. So yes, authors should be pushing back and getting in touch with them so they recognize it’s important, and strive to get better.

 

Introducing…

I’ve been dragging my heels on my new course for months, partially because as soon as I add new lessons, Amazon changes. However, there’s still a ton of great content nobody else is talking about; and I’ve focused on adding in bonuses that will help support you through changes. I’ll be launching quietly to my list, at a discount and with extras that won’t be available after the initial launch, so if you want in, you should get it now.

 

 

PS. I’ve made some of the best content free for everyone; even if you don’t buy the course you should watch all the “preview” videos and get my best strategies for free. If you need more help, support and personal feedback – the course is a fraction of what I usually charge for consulting.

Check out Guerrilla Publishing here.

 

 

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me
  • Mrs. Thompson

    I don’t normally comment, but I feel compelled to respond to this post with a hearty Thank You! One of the things that has kept me coming back to you as a resource is your honesty and your authentic approach. You have always made it clear that there IS work involved in indie publishing, and I appreciate your voice in the midst of so many others who are selling “cheat-cuts”. Your integrity is encouraging, and I applaud your willingness to tell it like it is!

    • Thanks so much! I’m always happy to hear comments like this. 🙂

  • I’m really not that worried about this. I find multi-author box sets to be questionable. I don’t like Amazon as an ebook retailer (tho I love the Kindle). I don’t need to be #1 anywhere. I just want to find my audience and sell to them. Ideally, I’d like to sell to them direct. I like what BookFunnel is cooking up on that front.

    With BF, IF, the other retailers, blogging and working with fellow indie authors, I just wonder if one can’t build up a healthy income without worrying about the Amazon slot machine. Long term, that seems like a healthier way for the indie author ecosystem to go, rather than always attempting to manipulate (ethically or not) the Amazon rankings.

    • some of the books hit were standalones, so it’s not just boxsets. I agree in theory – I’d like to take my books wide and drive sales through my own site traffic, and launch to a huge list of fans. In practice however, KU is still the best/easiest way to build an audience and earn income from your books (even with all the problems, I don’t want to give up 2/3rds of my income).

    • Tom Southern

      I wonder if all this is a result of having such a dominant in the business?

  • Jane Ann McLachlan

    Very interesting, Derek. So I have been thinking of trying for a BookBub feature, along with Bookbub ads. Are you saying that you don’t recommend it at this time?

    • They’re still amazing and worth the risk, if you can get one.
      The solution isn’t to stop marketing, but to build up your traffic, visibility and conversion so your normal rank is already not terrible (so that when you do a promotion, it isn’t going from zero sales to many).

      • Jane Ann McLachlan

        Thanks again, Derek. My normal rank is pretty terrible, actually, but I’ve started taking marketing seriously. Grit my teeth and decided you can’t make money without spending it, and I know I’m at least breaking even at a higher level. Just have to get this stuff nailed. Wish I could be at that castle with you. Maybe you’ll have spots at some retreat next year.

  • Derek, I think your comments are spot on. Like you, without mentioning the name of the authors and the forum, my experience is bad actors populate a couple of forums. I almost got snagged into group promo…but I checked all of the books before I committed and found a click bait book in the set of authors I was assigned. I shouted loud and clear and reported the bad actor to Amazon. Too often indies anxious for exposure will promote with a site that enters the forum and offers free slots as a start up. Start ups have no reach, no subscribers, but newbies will often jump right in without checking Alexa ranking, whosis or even asking “Who are you?” or where the site is home based. Early on I was scammed in an author-to-author promo in a popular forum. Amazon finally caught up with the author, but I never got my $$ back. Great experience and learning curve. I network and co-promote with other indie authors, but now I check them out. Look at their books, and ask my colleagues for info. I figure any one of my titles can get snagged by an Amazon bot. I’ve been exclusive with Amazon since I went indie. I’ve had those scary emails from Amazon now and again, I reply courteously at once to that email and ask for a second tier supervisor for help to fix the problem real or not. Thus far, I’ve had satisfactory solutions. You wrote a good, sensible post.

    • Thanks – it’s difficult to judge, and I tend to think everyone is trying to do the best they can. I think there are some well-meaning book promotions or services that sound good, and some authors may not know they’re doing anything wrong or that violates Amazon’s terms (but also, this is about some projects that haven’t actually done anything wrong other than selling too many copies too quickly).

      • I hear you, Derek. But, that presents a conundrum because when I use my five free days, I pump that book in hopes of when it returns to priced, it holds a decent placement…and I see a halo effect i.e. sales and borrows on my list. That’s where the $$ is. The market has tightened, but in the past, I’ve moved as high 92K books in a free promo. Now 28K is just about tops. How does one judge too many downloads too fast? I stagger promos with established commercial promoters, plus I stagger newsletter sends to my audience of subscribers. I guess I’ll know the answer next month. But if Amazon is targeting free downloads that would put paid to the TOP 100 Free list. A Bookbub slot is a single day–and that is about 38K downloads in 24 hours in my genre to snag the #1 slot in FREE. IMO something else is afoot. We just don’t know what it is. All guess work. I hope the authors involved get it sorted. It’s still scary, but I’m gonna do my thing. And cope sensibly with any snafus. I failed to mention I really like your blogs. Take care.

  • Tom Southern

    I’m wondering if some trad publishers may be ‘playing the game’ as well as other bodies messing about and trying to game the system.

    Other than wondering where I may stand when I come to publish on Kindle, I think Amazon’s actions are similar to the algorithm updates Google carried out a few years ago (e.g. Penguin & Panda). Legitimate bloggers got caught up with all the spammies then. Now, it seems legitimate authors are getting caught up in the sweep.

    I hope these legitimate authors get their ranks and hard work back, or restored.

    • I agree, it’s similar – I’m not sure if trad publishers have any idea what they’re doing on Amazon. Generally I think you should play to win, even if that means exploiting weaknesses in the system (but only if that means getting visibility from readers who love your writing, without causing damage to anyone else). But of course the system should evolve to close the loopholes and even the playing field.

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