Amazon, book promotion, Uncategorized

Amazon bots, clickfarms, and trolls – oh, my!

Over the past couple of weeks, my feeds have been flooded with the same sorry tale: a book or box set has been stripped of its rank on Amazon. As Anne R. Allen notes, authors “who have NOT been doing anything wrong are getting hammered” with the following notice:

We are reaching out to you because we detected purchases or borrows of your book(s) originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, the sales rank on the following book(s) will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring that the strategies used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.

Any additional activity attempting to manipulate the Kindle services may result in account level [sic] action.

guilty-until-proven-innocentWhen a book’s sales rank spikes, it “apparently triggers punishment” and so far “Amazon is stonewalling anyone who tries to appeal.” Derek Murphy cites the only correct response: “Yes, I promise never to do it again.” There is no way to appeal it. Additionally, this is happening to new and seasoned authors alike, including some NYT bestselling authors.

David Gaughran suspects this issue stems from the following:

  1. Amazon has instituted a new fraud detection system, one which isn’t working very well, and is generating lots of false positives.
  2. Scammers are deliberately targeting innocent authors, pointing clickfarms/bots at their books or using some form of incentivized gifting, which is triggering Amazon’s fraud detection system.

Both theories have their merits – it could even be a combination of the two. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t seem to be taking him seriously on this matter.

Collateral Damage

scam-alert-1024x788More importantly, and as Derek Murphy rightly points out, “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.” For authors who have run legimate, ethical promotions to lose both their sales rank and earnings negates the entire purpose of running a promotion. And even after the situation is resolved, the damage has already been done. There is no way to undo the damage unless someone has a time machine.

Amazon is, of course, in a precarious position – they are attempting to eliminate scammers to foster a better customer experience – and accounts that use bots and/or clickfarms to artificially inflate page reads and so on thereby steal earnings from hard-working authors and deter readers from Amazon in one fell swoop.  It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved. Authors, Amazon, and readers are losing time and money because of these scams. For the time being, slow, organic growth is probably a safer bet than large promotions (e.g., BookBubs and other email list promotions). However, I wonder if there are ways that authors and Amazon could work together to improve this situation.

Collaboration

collaboration-definitionThe realtionship between Amazon and authors is problematic – we are neither customers nor employees. However, perhaps we could work together, regardless of the source of the problem. And, no. I’m not a programmer, so I don’t understand the logistics that would go into the system I’m about to propose, but I figured I’d put it into the bloggosphere anyway.

What if Amazon implemented an author ranking system that’s similar to its reviewer ranking system? More specifically, what if Amazon ranked author accounts then extended an optional author reviewer membership to established authors who have a history of ethical conduct – that is, Amazon ranks author accounts over time. I propose this because long-term accounts are unlikely to be scam accounts, and most authors that I know are helpful, generous people – see present company.

Authors who opt to review other accounts could take a spin through newer accounts that were flagged for suspicious activity or possible rank manipulation to ensure that new authors or books aren’t being unfairly stripped of their sales rank and that scammers aren’t screwing people out of their earnings and readers out of their time. I’m sure many of us wouldn’t mind chipping in a couple of hours a month to foster a better environment for ourselves, Amazon, and our readers (Amazon’s customers).

Marketing-for-Increasing-Exposure-Tip-5-Amazon-Author-CentralAdditionally, perhaps Amazon could add a widget inside Author Central so that authors can tell Amazon when they’re going to run a promotion — e.g., a form where the author can tell Amazon what promotion they’re running and for how long. Perhaps as Amazon gathers data about promotions through this widget, they’ll be able to fine-tune their detection methods.

No Solution is Without Its Problems

Sure, this solution is inherently problematic. As David Gaughran notes in “Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives”, even when authors manage to get their rank restored, they continue to be “accused of rank manipulation and … [are] on warning … [for] future conduct.” As such, some authors may end up excluded from the program because of false flags on their accounts.

DontFeedTheTrolls2Likewise, and as Anne R. Allen discusses in her article, trolls could be a potential problem – while trolls are discussed in the context of Amazon book reviews in Anne’s article, I think the same priniciple would apply to this system. There may be people who deliberately sabotage other authors because they’re jealous of their performance, bored, or whatever – I’d really like to believe that most of us are not like that, but it is conceivable that a couple trolls might squeak through. Those of us who have been here at the Writers Co-op likely remember our repeated encounter with a troll. As with most things, we tend to police ourselves, so perhaps there ought to be several reviews of an account to ensure that trolls don’t run wild.

What do you think?

Sources and Further Reading

Allen, Anne R. “Amazon’s Latest Crackdowns: Do They Include Amazon Review Trolls?” Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris. AnneRAllen.com, 22 Oct. 2017. http://annerallen.com/2017/10/amazon-crackdowns-amazon-review-trolls/ 28 Oct. 2017.

Baum, Cate. “What Book Promotions Are OK and Not OK on Amazon Now.” Self-Publishing Review. 6 Oct. 2017. http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/2017/10/what-book-promotions-are-ok-and-not-ok-on-amazon-now/ Accessed: 28 Oct. 2017.

Gaughran, David. “Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives.” Let’s Get Digital. WordPress.com, 20 Oct. 2017. https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2017/10/20/amazons-hall-of-spinning-knives/ Accessed: 28 Oct. 2017.

Murphy, Derek. “The Death of Book Promotion.” Creative Indie. Creativindie.com, 27 Oct. 2017. http://www.creativindie.com/the-death-of-book-promotion/ Accessed: 28 Oct. 2017.

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28 thoughts on “Amazon bots, clickfarms, and trolls – oh, my!

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Great article, Kris!

    So long as Amazon remains the powerhouse in publishing but makes most of its profits in other departments, they don’t have to care what individual authors think. We need a good class-action lawyer.

    A class action lawsuit could pay for itself and it could force Amazon to treat individual authors fairly. It might be the only thing that will.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s true, but I doubt it’ll ever happen. I’m still mystified as to why they don’t make use of us the same way as their customers/reviewers. It would save everyone a lot of aggravation and lost income, Amazon included. The joy of tyrannical monopolies…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. GD Deckard says:

    Oh, and, talk about passing the buck:
    “Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring that the strategies used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yep, and if you try to contact them, they just spam you with that again – yay… so helpful. If they had actual people willing to take a peek at the book in question (e.g., fine folks like you and me), this wouldn’t be an issue. It’s silly and unnecessary. Get it together, Amazon. I just heard from my proofreader, so my book will be going out soon, and I’m terrified of applying for any promotions. My strategy is to write some posts reviewing the top ten books in genres and host some book giveaways for books that overlap with mine to drive traffic. I’m not sure what other choice there is…

      Liked by 2 people

      • GD Deckard says:

        Amazon dropped my novel, The Phoenix Diary, over a year ago after a fight with the publisher. There was no impact on sales (they remain slow 🙂 ) because I am also on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Google Play & Kobo.
        I intend to put it back on Amazon when my WiP comes out. But Amazon does *not* provide most authors with a comfortable living. Having a book on Amazon sounds good but in reality it means very little to most of us.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, they dominate the market and many readers buy through them exclusively. However, there are some folks whose books outsell Amazon 5:1 (I’m guesstimating from memory). I’m going wide so that I’m not wholly dependent on Amazon’s whims and faulty bots…

          Liked by 2 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I’m not understanding this: Scammers are deliberately targeting innocent authors, pointing clickfarms/bots at their books or using some form of incentivized gifting, which is triggering Amazon’s fraud detection system.

    What do the scammers get out of this? Are they trying to injure an author?

    And this: accounts that use bots and/or clickfarms to artificially inflate page reads and so on thereby steal earnings from hard-working authors.

    How do the clickfarms steal earnings? Does the author sign up with them and pay a percentage of (phony) reads?

    But if the reads are artificially inflated, doesn’t the author get paid anyway? I suppose you mean by that trick of reading a few pages way back in the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In KU, authors earn money from a shared pot of potentials earnings (Kindle Unlimited subscription), which is based on page reads. A scammer can upload a fake book then use clickfarms to inflate page reads, and they therefore steal from the rest of us an Amazon. Gaughran wrote a great article about that here: https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/scammers-break-the-kindle-store/ The same goes for book downloads in the regular store, I assume.

      The major theories as I understand them are as follows: Amazon recently launched a new system, so it is theoretically possible that scammers are targeting legitimate authors’ books to learn how to get around it (but hurting the author is collateral damage) OR Amazon’s new, fraud-detection bots aren’t refined enough to distinguish between legitimate books that are running a promo and fake books trying to scam money from Amazon through page reads or downloads.

      Liked by 2 people

      • (Perhaps a better analogy for the page reads inflation issue is if we had five authors and $20 in a pot to go to them if their books were equally read, and one of those authors uploaded Loren Ipsum instead of an actual book and paid a clickfarm a few bucks to get the book read, they’d end up stealing a dollar from the other four who did the work and visibility in the Amazon store.)

        Liked by 3 people

    • Some people do. It’s a way to get Amazon to advertise for you, especially when you’re not well known. I have decided not to; I’d rather generate my own traffic so that I don’t become dependent on them and their whims. Here’s a video about an Indie who did go all in with KU (Kindle Unlimited) and then got kicked out: https://youtu.be/P2J3jJB7bYU He lists the reasons why he went into KU and what he got out of it (then ultimately lost).

      Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      The KU thing has probably made me more money than actual sales, but we’re talking tens of dollars, not hundreds or thousands. After a big giveaway, I usually get a fair number of page reads.

      But yes, you have to be exclusive to KU. Since all of my sales seemed to be on Amazon, I figured I might as well be on KU. Personally, I never made enough sales either way for it to be worth worrying about. But if 3000 people download my book for free, and say 30 actually read it, well hey, someone might like it enough to review it or give a copy to her cousin who happens to work for a Hollywood movie producer looking for new material…

      Yeah. I know. But it’s either that or waiting for money to suddenly pour out of the sky. The odds can’t be that much worse.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. My original publisher put the book in KU – I didn’t even know what it was back then. Till I tried to run a free promo and found out I couldn’t (or only 5 days in 3 months). Now it’s permafree so I’ll see what comes of that. The hope being that enough people will at least download it that way for a few to want more. Even if it’s only 1%, that’s probably more than are willing to pay to read someone unknown. But in the end it may all come to nothing anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Perry Palin says:

    I have worked carefully through all this information and I am disappointed with the drama that accrues when we market through Amazon. Perhaps there are no good alternatives in some genres.

    My story collections target niche readers who perhaps are not good Amazon customers. My publisher listed my first book on Amazon, and I think that yielded sales of two copies. I’ve done much better by finding my readership on other sites, and by doing local readings, and by placing my physical books in local brick and mortar stores that my readers might visit.

    I’m a broken record here, but the small handful of successful authors I have known all sell their books through personal appearances, through their personal websites, and through networking with lists of people who share the interests of the authors.Yes, they are on Amazon too, but that’s a minor part of their marketing program.

    Liked by 2 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      You make sense, Perry. Amazon is a successful book seller because they sell a few copies each of 11 million titles. So why do writers continue to work so hard and so long to create works that they then donate to Amazon? Maybe the mere thought of not having their book on Amazon is blindingly counter-intuitive.

      Liked by 1 person

        • GD Deckard says:

          Yes 🙂 but I gotta wonder what that “83% of eBook sales” means to individual authors other than “a handful of book sales.”
          I suspect Perry’s method actually sells more books for him, the individual author.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Perry Palin says:

            We all want readers, but we want to make a little money too. How much does an author make by selling 100 copies of an ebook? 100 copies of my trade paperbacks nets me royalties of $500-$800, depending on how they are sold. Highest return is for hand-selling books at a personal appearance.

            Liked by 2 people

            • GD Deckard says:

              I thought of you yesterday, Perry 🙂 when my Lady & I were walking through the local outdoor produce market. The Wall Street Journal had a stand there and I wondered, if they have people doing this around the country, why can’t writers sell books the same way? Have you seen any writers doing this?

              Liked by 1 person

          • Definitely. But again, much of that depends on geography and readers’ habits, which is to say that what works for one of us won’t necessarily work for all of us. Since 6 people who requested that I add them to my mailing list emailed me about availability on Amazon (4 for an eBook and 2 for a paperback), I would be remiss if I didn’t put my book there. Same goes for offering only an eBook because some have shown an interest in paperbacks. That said, several others have asked about Kobo (3), iBooks (2), Chapters/Indigo (3), and Google Play (1). Those who ask for Chapters are in Canada -no surprise there.

            There are a total of 9,000 people in the county where I live and no book stores. Period. For in-person, I plan to do the things in nearby cities (2-3 hour drive one way, depending on which city), but there’s nothing that I could do on a regular basis where I live. It also depends on country – Amazon claims 83% of eBook sales in the US, but it’s more like 87% in the UK and 54% in Canada. As far as royalties go, those are different across the various platforms (Amazon, Kobo, etc.) and formats (paperback, eBook, and audiobook). For example, Amazon’s eBook royalties depend on price – under $2.99 or over $9.99 is 35% but $2.99-$9.99 is 70% whereas GooglePlay’s eBook royalties are at a flat rate of 52%. To compete with trad pub in online venues, I’ll need to price my print books around $10, which’ll give me something around $1.32 for each book, whereas with a $2.99 eBook, I’ll make a little over $2 for each sale. So for me, eBook sales will net me higher royalties on Amazon but less on GooglePlay.

            Likewise, sales of the various formats will depend on reader preference – most folks who’ve shown interest in my work have asked for eBooks, followed by paperbacks, and one wants an audiobook (which may or may not happen, it’ll depend on how the other formats do). However, much of my networking has happened online rather than in person, so that may be why. When I start hitting shows and cons, that could change. There’s a similar issue with audience and genre – if I wrote middle grade fiction, I would expect most of my sales to be for print books. For college-aged sci-fi readers, I expect to see a close split that leans slightly more eBook. If I wrote paranormal romance, I’d expect to do better with eBooks. Again, these differences depend on what we write and for whom, as well as how we connect with people (online versus in person).

            Liked by 1 person

            • Perry Palin says:

              Yep. We have 44,000 residents in my county and no bookstores.

              Community libraries will host author events here. One guy who writes historical novels sited locally puts up a card table at community festivals. One woman who writes memoirs of the old days does readings at senior centers. I sell a few books at a visitor information center, and more at fishing tackle shops, and I’ve done presentations at outdoor sports club meetings. There are craft and gift stores that carry a few books and I’ve been remiss in not placing my books there.

              If we’re interested in selling hard copy books, we should look beyond the bookstore. One friend sells honey (I’m a beekeeper too) at a hardware store, and he sells a lot of it there.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I really miss libraries 😦 My area is less than a quarter of yours. The one place that may work for me is the local coffee shop – yes, there’s precisely one of those – and the seasonal farmer’s market. I doubt the main thoroughfares for my area – namely Walmart and TSC – would want my work, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to ask. I have former students who work there, so maybe… There’s an entire bookcase for bibles and prayer books and another bookcase devoted to deeply discounted romance, YA, and thrillers at Wally World. There’s also two shelves below the magazines for kids’ books. But I suppose it doesn’t hurt to order a few more and put them there – thanks for that. If they don’t sell, they’ll make some sexy paperweights until comic-con, which is drivable once a year. I’d expect that’s where I’m most likely to move SF hardcovers. Other than that, there’s online. In my situation, I don’t think I can get away without the online aspect. We’ll see how it goes… I’ll share my progress (if there is any).

                Like

  6. Fascinating and infuriating stuff, Kris! I understand your concern.

    In a related vein, The Guardian recently sent out this article which enumerates some of the same troubling practices and statistical manipulation techniques certain politically motivated “book hitmen” employ against titles they don’t like on Amazon. There’s got to be a better way. . . .

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/oct/09/how-amazon-reviews-became-the-new-battlefield-of-us-politics?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Bookmarks+-+Collections+2017&utm_term=248007&subid=22099271&CMP=bookmarks_collection

    Liked by 1 person

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