2000 preorders cancelled! Incentivized purchases for book launches and Amazon’s fine print

I screwed up. Months ago I agreed to be part of a multi-author box set. I usually say no to these, but I have  personal relationship with Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (I even featured it in my PhD Thesis) so I submitted my chapter. The authors all offered a free course or bonus to incentivize preorder purchases, and these publishing bonuses were featured in our ads and marketing material. In one week, we sold 2000 copies and got around #200 in the Kindle store.

Tonight however there’s some chatter on Kboards about our boxset breaking Amazon’s TOS. Obviously, we don’t want to do that. Interestingly, Amazon’s Terms of Service had big changes recently – we should have acted faster to make sure our marketing and book launch were within the rules, but we didn’t.

So in this article I want to go through the rules carefully and see which rules, if any, we’re actually breaking (so we can fix it asap). I also want to address some of the comments on the Kboard discussion. The self-publishing community has been on high alert recently and has had some celebrations (as bigtime scammers were removed from Amazon) and controversies (as “regular” authors in good standings have found themselves and their books removed from Amazon even though they hadn’t done anything wrong).

Creativindie is a personal brand, which means my face and reputation is my business – so I’d rather come out in front of this rather than have you hear rumors about me from someone else. And it is REALLY important to fully understand Amazon’s TOS clearly, so you know what you can and can’t do in your book marketing.

I’m going to start with the issues raised on the forum.

 

Kboard questions

I’m paraphrasing, but these are all great and interesting comments.

“They should know better.”

That’s probably true. Offering bonuses for readers who preorder is pretty common in non-fiction, and it has been working well for several years. It’s also not uncommon for anthologies and boxsets to collect lots of books and stories, sell them cheap, and promote to their audiences in order to sell lots of books. But with Amazon recently changing its rules and finally getting more strict with scammers, we should have updated our offer quickly, if it were against the new TOS (which I’ll get to soon…)

Also, it’s important to note this book is NOT in KU, so it’s not a matter of page-stuffing or clickfarming or any of the other bad stuff you usually hear about in regards to Kindle.

“You only have one reputation.”

Also true, and I care about mine – hence this post. I can’t control how people respond to what I do, and because I have an online presence, it’s inevitable to be under the microscope. I’m also not perfect. I will continue to make big mistakes sometimes, because I’m juggling dozens of projects. I live in constant dread and fear about what people on the internet are saying about me, and wake up to check Facebook and put out fires (like this one).

I also get to deal with fun comments like this one just about every day. Because I talk too fast, or don’t get to the good stuff fast enough, or because I’m ugly or stupid or whatever. This is the reward for sharing free information online. It’s worth it to me, because I have knowledge people need.

 

“If you are successful, you don’t need to do crap like that.”

This is kind of true, but I also hear in it a touch of “good books sell themselves.” Authors wish they could just write good books and not do any marketing. That’s rarely true. Successful authors know book promotion is necessary – you need to constantly get in front of NEW readers and grow your platform, as well as write quality books. For years I’ve relied on content marketing: building amazing content, tools and resources for authors, almost always for free. That means I haven’t grown my platform very quickly, because I’m not aggressive about it and prefer to let people discover me organically.

But now I have lots and lots of great content. My reviews are stellar. People love my resources, tutorials and courses. But I still haven’t tried to grow or scale, neither with ads nor affiliates. I believe I’m just about the only “publishing expert” who can make that claim. However, in many ways, I’ve been letting fear hold me back, preferring to write novels rather than grow my business. I’m building a bunch of new tools and resources that will change the face of publishing. It’s all self-funded. I hope it will be useful. If possible, I’d like to at least make back my investment and earn enough to focus on writing novels for the next decade or so. If you are successful, you don’t need to do that stuff? Who among us can be content, without striving for more? It sounds a little bit too much like “Poverty is a state of mind.”

By the way, did you know Napoleon Hill was kind of a fraud, and never actually met all the people he quotes in the book? I’m fascinated with the book for two big reasons: first his introduction is sheer magic, in terms of persuasion and storytelling. Second, it isn’t about “thinking and growing rich.”

It’s about providing value.

“First, fix in your mind the exact amount of money you desire. Second, determine what you intend to give in return for the money you desire. (There is no reality as something for nothing.)”

 

“Without the bonuses, this could have been actually valuable.”

I think so too! The bonuses were meant as a thank you gift to our audiences. The book is not a 10 page fluff pieces. I’m 100% sure the content inside is worth at least $0.99. I don’t recommend things easily to my audience, and I made sure to provide as much value as I could in my chapter.

It’s really too bad we’ve already upset members of the indie author community, which wasn’t our intent.

 

“Entering the receipt will add you to all those emails.”

Sometimes this is true. Not in our case. We asked readers to prove purchases while signing up to an email list, so that when the book comes out we can send them the bonuses. Inside the book, each of us have a simple call to action or offer. If you read the book and like a chapter, and you want the bonus the author is offering, you can choose to sign up and get it. If you do, they might also recommend other stuff or offer you a course. You don’t have to buy it. (Someone in the forum suggested they were already getting emails from all the authors: that’s not true. You don’t get on our lists unless you sign up willingly for the free bonus.)

In my case, I’m terrible at selling courses. They sell to my audience and people who know and trust me. Students tend to be overwhelmed by the amount of useful information, and I’m often told they’re better than other things that cost twice as much (because, again, I don’t use affiliates or ads, and I keep costs low). However, I don’t think I’m a better person because I sell my courses cheap. I’ve been learning this year, that not only can I help more people if I charge more, but they will take the information more seriously and actually do the work if they’re invested. It’s no great accomplishment to help 100 authors instead of helping 1000 authors, just like it’s not better to sell 100 books rather than 10,000 just because you’re too uncomfortable with marketing to spread the word and make an effort.

Selling is service, and service is selling.

If you have great content, products and services that really help people, it’s your responsibility to focus on profit so you can scale and help more people. It doesn’t mean you have to be skeezy about it. I’ll admit, I’m uncomfortable with marketing, so I often seem awkward when I try to “close the sale.”

That means, far too often, I work for free instead – helping authors, fixing covers, offering free advice, responding to dozens of emails – several hours a day working on other people’s books instead of working on my own.

 

 

BUT – it’s against the rules to upsell courses and products:

“You may not include in any Digital Book any advertisements or other content that is primarily intended to advertise or promote products or services.”

This is interesting. According to Kboards, our entire book is nothing more than one big advertisement, meant to promote our courses and services. But nobody has actually read it yet, so they don’t know what’s inside the book. Most nonfiction books are intended to broaden the author’s audience, often to sell speaking or consulting. There can’t be a direct pitch of offer for something for sale. We don’t have anything like that.

I give away a free book on marketing. It’s pretty awesome. But the content is the value. Having an email optin bonus in your book is not against TOS. Neither is trying to get readers on your email list so they can buy more books. According to this logic, every single fiction book for sale is against TOS, because they’re using the content to try and please fans enough to buy more content… so it’s a massive sales letter with the intent to make MONEY (The horror! Everyone knows writers shouldn’t get paid to do what they love because they’d do it for free anyway).

PS. I usually do this differently, where I’d add links to the bonus content in the backmatter of the preorder version, then remove it quickly, so only those who preordered would get the bonuses. As someone mentioned in the forum, it’s not absolutely clear what they get or how this works, or what happens when they sign up and what they’re signing up to… especially with the new GDPR rules, this should have been done better.

 

“Report the book to Amazon. It is running an illegal raffle.”

This is alarming for several reasons. First, I’m firmly against hordes of authors ganging up on each other. Even though, I admit it’s been more effective than I could have predicted at getting Amazon to crack down on scammers, in principle I’m not a fan of mobs. My thesis was literally about naming things as “evil” to strip them from all sympathy, so that they could be persecuted out of existence.

And actually, our book did disappear from Amazon for awhile. Then, everyone who preordered it got a message saying it was cancelled. So, thanks to diligent protesters, our book has been removed by Amazon. The 2000 people who bought the book had their preorders cancelled. But wait, what rules did it violate again?

 

“Incentivized buys are not allowed”

Ah, there it is. This seems pretty clear. People keep saying this and quoting stuff, but I read through the whole thread and I don’t see anybody actually showing how this books violates TOS, so now I’m reading the TOS. Actually, first I search for “incentivized” or anything by that root, and found nothing. Same for “buys”. 

Hmmm… I finished reading the TOS and still haven’t found anything.

I’d love to know where this came from and why people think it’s in Amazon’s TOS if it isn’t really. Of course there’s a ban on “incentivized reviews” (encouraging people to review your book in exchange for something) because that’s too close to a paid review. And I would totally understand if “incentivized buys are not allowed” – the product should stand for the product. They should buy the thing to get the thing, not to get something else.

Now in marketing, getting people to buy something with a bonus or deal, whether a discount, a free gift, or a “buy one get one free offer” – that’s all normal. But it’s Amazon’s platform, they make the rules. So here’s the question… are preorder bonuses illegal? It doesn’t seem to be in the TOS, and it’s been a common practice so far.

I’ll admit, I’ve tested recklessly, but I usually do this “gray hat” stuff to see if it works, before it’s explicitly against the rules. If it works and it’s a way for indie authors to outperform trad published authors with huge marketing budgets,I don’t see the harm, AS LONG AS readers are happy with what they bought for the price they paid.

I believe that’s the basis for Amazon’s TOS as well: as long as readers are happy with what they’ve bought, creative marketing isn’t illegal or immoral. If you have a great product and want to help or entertain more people, there’s nothing wrong with trying to reach them.

If you publish a crappy book and readers hate it, that’s a different thing. If it’s a bait and switch operation where the whole book is fluff, offers and upsells – that’s a different thing. If you were giving someone two dollars to buy your book, or buying thousands of your own books to give away, JUST to “sell” ten thousand copies and hit the USA Today Bestseller list, that would be a different thing. 

“Rank Manipulation” is against the terms:

Incidentally, so is claiming you are a bestseller because you hit #1 in a category – even though thousands of authors are still doing that in their sales description. But that’s no excuse. This passage is relevant:

“You may not provide compensation to buyers for purchasing your products or provide coupon claim codes to buyers for the purpose of inflating sales rank.”

We can’t offer coupon codes or discounts to courses in exchange for buying. We’re giving the courses away for free, but we do need to be careful: if the way we’re giving people access to our courses is through “coupon claim codes” then that could violate the TOS.

We can’t provide compensation to buyers for purchasing. There it is. Clear as day. We’re guilty! 

But, are the bonuses compensation for purchasing? Are readers getting paid to buy something they don’t actually want, something without intrinsic value? Also, what about the second part of the sentence, for the purpose of inflating sales rank?

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but as another comment on the forum points out:

“You can’t effectively police intent”

In other words, it’s only against the rules based on our intentions. In my reading of the rules, offering preorder bonuses to encourage fans to buy early is not against TOS. But according to the authors on Kboards, it absolutely and obviously is. Who’s right?

Well, luckily in these cases Amazon is the arbiter. So far, we have had to remove any mention of the preorder bonuses from the cover, the sales copy and inside the book. So offering the bonuses ON Amazon is against TOS. But with these changes made, it seems that Amazon is going to keep the book published.

We can offer preorder bonuses to our followersbut we can’t make them public to potential readers on Amazon. I’ll admit, since I’m not in charge of this project and I haven’t published any nonfiction for over a year, I’m out of touch with the TOS, though it’s basically the same as I remember it. One cool addition has been this section under Kindle Quality Regulations. 

This has been used to crack down on Kindle Stuffing, or recycling the same 10 books across 10 different “collections” and it’s a welcome change. But notice the main rule: don’t disappoint customers. If that’s the measuring stick, the real test will be whether those who preorder the book are satisfied with our collection of stories, or whether they feel cheated or ripped off. Since I know most of the authors in the collection, I’m sure that won’t be the case (though I could be proven wrong – and unfortunately I expect, because of this controversy, that our boxset will be spammed with rage-filled-reviews by people who didn’t read the book but disagree with our marketing tactics (which is, ironically, against Amazon’s TOS).

There is also a long section on links, but it relates to inner links that would make readers click through large portions of the book quickly; again, it’s against book stuffing to receive allstar bonuses in KU (which we’re not in).

 

“giveaways for rank manipulation”

I’m not actually sure how this is related to Write and Grow Rich but people are talking about it… so maybe one of the other authors set up a giveaway?

We prohibit and/or discourage the creation of giveaways which will lead to a poor customer or entrant experience.

I actually did write something about this years ago, and I was excited because I thought you could set up a giveaway and effectively buy and gift 50 copies of your books to boost rank. It kind of worked for awhile. It doesn’t anymore. They’ve just replaced it with “gifting” – which you could also and can still do. Basically, Amazon took the thing that some authors were abusing to manipulate rank and turned it into a feature to earn more from authors. You CAN gift books, but you can’t do it intentionally to manipulate rank… so again, this depends not on the action itself, but on the intent of the authors.

Unfortunately, this has meant that Amazon at first had TRIED not to police intent. If readers weren’t disappointed, Amazon didn’t take action. Except that meant some page stuffers were earning HUGE payouts that took away from other authors. So Amazon started cracking down (policing intent). The results: some big scammers got removed (YEAH!) but hundreds of authors also had their books flagged, accounts shut down, reviews deleted, and saw their income shrivel up overnight, for practices that had always been OK before – or in some cases, even when they are absolutely sure they’ve done nothing wrong.

If you get a BookBub deal and giveaway 20,000 books, you might get a slap on the wrist from Amazon – or they’ll freeze your rank and make your book invisible until they get someone to manually check your book and approve it again. I’ve had dozens of friends who have had their launches ruined by an overzealous Amazon. When this happens, there’s a lot of blame, and I hear things like “If they weren’t doing anything wrong, then they wouldn’t have been punished.”

I’m extremely sensitive to language like that, and have little faith in Amazon as an arbiter for moral justice.

But in this case, all we can do is wait and see what Amazon decides. If they list our book again, after confirming that we’ve complied with their rules, as clarified to us, then they are effectively giving us a royal seal of approval.

 

“They have until October if they want to disassociate themselves from this mess.”

This comment caught my eye. The right thing to do, apparently, is to distance myself from the project altogether and save face. But that wouldn’t be fair to the other authors, or to those of you in my audience (who have already bought Write and Grow Rich, and are going to get my new $197 course on writing books that sell for free). It’s going to be awesome, there’s huge demand for it, and after we launch it’ll be full-price. Launching at $0.99 makes zero sense for me, except that if I can help people finish writing their books, then they might need my help with cover design or marketing later.

Also, I believe in owning up, not giving up. I don’t want to fight with anyone, I certainly don’t want to be on the receiving end of the full-fury of the indie publishing community, but I also hope those of you who already know me recognize I’m not a spammy online marketing guy (if I was, I’d be making a ton of money by now). If you don’t know me yet, I hope you’ll stick around so we can be friends.

I’m imperfect, but I’m trying my best, and you’ll always get the truth from me. (Most of my content is about how badly I screwed stuff up and what I learned from it). As I mentioned earlier, however, after years of being marginally successful, I’m feeling the anxiety of standing near the brink of Great Things – as Kierkegaard put it,

anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness.”

I have a choice to be quiet, to be invisible, to read books and drink coffee and walk among the pine trees and love my friends and family. Or I could adventure on, seeking out new challenges and dangers; putting myself at risk. Another quote I learned recently is “fear is excitement without the breath.” I believe in choosing the new over the comfortable, because growth and knowledge comes from friction and resistance.

If we screwed up, we’re sorry, to both our readers and Amazon. We played fast and loose with the rules as we understood them, but we bow to Amazon’s authority. I’ve always been reckless and prefer to ask forgiveness than permission – but I also accept and face the consequences when and where I’ve caused harm.

To me, offering free access to a ton of publishing resources, as a bonus for a cheap publishing book, aligns with everything I believe in: offering massive value, proving my worth with real content, helping more people, and building trust by being authentic and transparent.

My modus operandi is basically The Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

But I want more than that. I want to be an agent for positive change.

And I want you to be one, too.

 

You can read KDP’s terms of service here.

You can read Amazon’s prohibited seller activities here.

You can read Kindle Quality regulations here.

You can read KDP’s rules on gifting here.

 

UPDATE – It’s up on Amazon again.

And even though over 2000 preorders were cancelled… we got a message today from KDP saying this:

Greetings from Amazon KDP.

This e-mail is with regards to your pre-order title “Write and Grow Rich”, ASIN: B07FF2R3VT.

Please know that your pre-order title was never canceled and we’ve not sent any notification to the customers who pre-ordered your book mentioning that the title was canceled. Your pre-order title is available for purchase on Amazon. You can confirm the same here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FF2R3VT

Thanks for using Amazon KDP. 

Which is kind of hilarious, since I’ve received dozens of emails from readers who got the “shocking” cancellation message and were surprised by it. We’ve asked if, since the book wasn’t supposed to be cancelled, we can get all our preorders back instead of asking people to rebuy.

PS: Just as I published this, my site got hacked and went down for a few hours. I have a developer on call and Siteground fixed it for me quickly (yeah!). It’s probably a warning from the universe that I should keep my mouth shut and not fan the flames by responding to criticism in public forums… but I think you should know what’s going on and this info might help someone also understand publishing better.

I spend over $1000 a month just on keeping my platforms running, and if I stop focusing on income for a few months and let the bills stack up, some of my content starts breaking or disappearing. The internet is built on quick sand. Fortunes rise and fall quickly. But I can’t teach others unless I’m far enough ahead to continue exploring new territory and sending back reports of the terrain.

And so I boldly go.

I keep my eyes on the horizon and my feet off the ground… I’m not a details person and I tend to avoid conflict and problems. Which is why my Createspace account has been hacked since May and I haven’t fixed it yet. Not a justification, but some people might think this is all subterfuge and manipulation, by someone who obviously knew they were breaking the rules. 

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned 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 write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.
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