Fake books – powered by clickfarms – are gatecrashing Amazon’s charts. And despite being aware of the issue for well over a year, Amazon has failed to resolve it.
If you look at the Kindle Store Best Seller charts right now, and click over to Free Books, you will see that the Top 20 currently has five suspicious-looking titles.
None of them have reviews. All were published in the last week. They have no Also Boughts – meaning they have had very few sales. Each of these titles are around 2,500 pages long, seem to have duplicated content, and are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.
What is going on here?
For over fifteen months now, scammers have been raiding the Kindle Unlimited pot using a well-worn trick. They usually pilfer the content first of all – often by stealing an author’s original work and running it through a synonymizer – and then upload it to Amazon, thus avoiding the automatic plagiarism detectors. They make sure the “book” is as long as possible, but as they are enrolling the title in Kindle Unlimited, they keep it under the program’s limit of 3,000 pages.
These thieves make the book free for a few days, and then use a variety of banned methods to generate a huge and immediate surge in downloads – generally suspected to be bots or clickfarms or dummy accounts, or some combination thereof. These fake books then suddenly jump into the Top 20 of the free charts, displacing authors who have gone to considerable effort to put together an advertising campaign for their work.
As the Amazon staff tasked with dealing with reports of suspicious activity don’t seem to work weekends, when authors and readers report these fake books to Amazon, no action usually gets taken until the following Monday. By then it’s often too late, and these titles have returned to the paid listings, and the subsequent boost in page reads (which normally follows a free run), enables them to grab a huge chunk of the Kindle Unlimited pot – the same shared pot that all authors get paid from.
Sometimes Amazon zaps these fake books when staff return to work on Monday, and presumably then withhold KU payments (one hopes). But often Amazon takes no action and just leaves these titles up. And Amazon has had little effect in fixing the overall problem a full fifteen months after it was first made aware of the issue.
In fact, the situation has deteriorated to the point where these scammers are getting bolder in the face of Amazon’s increasingly lax attitude, often attacking the free charts during the week now also.
I hosted a guest post from Phoenix Sullivan back in April 2016 about all of this, after previously writing myself about other issues Amazon was having with scammers in Kindle Unlimited. At that time I reached out to contacts in KDP to make them aware of the issue and help them identify the relevant titles. The only solid action that I can see since is that that Amazon no longer responds to such emails.
I watched all this unfold live this weekend as I had a free run on Liberty Boy. I wasn’t too badly affected myself, as my main promo day was Wednesday, when I had a BookBub feature – although these fake books are currently keeping me out of the Top 20 and suppressing my visibility. The authors more severely affected are those who would have started their major promo on Thursday or Friday.
For those unaware: free promotions are one of the perks of going exclusive with Amazon, and an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Free runs can provide significant exposure, which leads to a bump in Kindle Unlimited page reads a few days later. They can also be useful by boosting sell through in a series, or by generating mailing list sign-ups for future launches. As such, authors invest significant resources in free runs, and those places in the Top 20 are high-visibility spots – i.e. incredibly valuable real estate.
In other words, authors are getting screwed.
A cynic might suggest that Amazon’s inaction is because these fake books aren’t really hurting their bottom line as it pays out the same amount to the KU pot anyway. I’m more of the opinion that it’s a typical tech company attitude, namely, misplaced faith that the market will take care of it all.
However, that isn’t happening. Amazon makes a huge deal about being obsessively focused on customers. Is customer experience not affected when the Top 20 is filled with fake books every weekend?
Amazon is also making a big PR play right now that its new Charts are so much more reliable then those of the New York Times and reflect what is really being read. Is that not undermined by having the charts stuffed with fake books, only downloaded by clickfarms?
And, of course, any authors with a free run are affected most of all.
I don’t know how to resolve this. Amazon is certainly aware of the issue and has had an inordinate amount of time to come up with a solution. Other retailers like Apple and Kobo have been able to solve this problem (usually with a combination of automated flagging, manual checking, and whitelisting of genuine publishers and authors).
I wish I could tell you Amazon is working hard to solve this problem. Unfortunately, lines of communication are particularly broken right now.
It seems like the only way to get Amazon to take action on anything is to go public and create a fuss – which is a shame, and it means campaigners like me have to burn bridges to get movement. Nevertheless, something must be done.
If you could retweet this, I’d appreciate it:
I had planned a big marketing post today, under which I was going to announce my freebie and some upcoming releases. I’ll save the marketing stuff for next week but let me get the housekeeping out of the way while these deals are still available:
You might be curious as to why I’m having a free run on the first book in a series when the rest isn’t out yet. Well, the primary goal with this campaign is to create an audience for the rest of the series. I was lucky enough to get a BookBub so decided to roll with it and put in a strong CTR at the start and end of Liberty Boy to generate sign-ups.
I also used this opportunity to finally take action on my Frankenstein mailing list and commencing the process of splitting it between writer peeps and historical fiction readers, while simultaneously initiating some overdue culling. I took advantage of Mailchimp’s cool automation to set up a basic sequence to keep my historical fiction people a bit more engaged in the future (my email game had slipped quite a bit tbh).
A secondary goal with this free run was to boost KU page reads, and, while there are no guarantees until you see how a book performs when back on the paid side, a download total of over 32,000, and a day still to go, means Liberty Boy looks pretty good for at least some kind of bump. Maybe even a decent one, we’ll see.
Finally, an ancillary aim of the whole campaign was to shake up my Also Boughts. If you were reading my two posts on Also Boughts last month Please Don’t Buy My Book and Who’s Pointing At You? then you would know how crucial they are, especially how having the wrong Also Boughts can totally bone you.
Liberty Boy’s Also Boughts are now looking healthier – far from pristine but certainly an improvement on before – and Yasiv.com shows that it’s hanging out in a much better neighborhood.
Finally, for those not on my writerly mailing list, my rough release schedule for the forseeable is as follows: the next book in my historical series Diemen’s Land should be out in the Fall. Before that, I’ll have two books for writers. The third edition of Let’s Get Digital and what was going to be an updated version of Let’s Get Visible.
That has now morphed into something much broader, and way cooler, with the working title of The Reader’s Journey: From Strangers to Superfans.
Expect both by end of summer.
Three things I should immediately point out:
1. This was actually a very tame weekend for clickfarmed books. Seeing 20-30 move in on the top of the charts as a group and blocking all/most other books out from the front page is not unusual.
2. Other authors who watch this more closely have confirmed that it’s not just a weekend thing anymore at all. Weekdays are very common too.
3. There are much more complex and serious angles to this phenomenon and I hope to have a follow-up post on that soon. In the meantime, you can read this KBoards thread from Phoenix Sullivan who is much more up to speed on this whole issue than me.
Amazon KDP Customer Support has replied to my complaint about the five clickfarmed books currently in the Top 20. This is their response in full:
UPDATE JUNE 12:
For a full blow-by-blow you’ll have to head to my Twitter timeline, but the short version is:
(a) I finally spoke with Amazon towards the end of last week about this issue. They seemed genuinely concerned and asked me to pull together some info for them. I’m still in the process of doing that but hope to sub it to them later or tomorrow (had family commitments this weekend).
(b) Amazon already appears to be taking steps against at least some suspicious titles.