Forword: please note this is an opinion piece.
A recent blog post entitled “Scammers Break the Kindle Store” has now been shared on FB more than 5 thousand times in just three days. If you haven’t read the article, I highly recommend it. You can CLICK HERE to read it in its entirety. It’s very interesting, to say the least. I suppose what bothers me the most about this article is it accuses this author of using black hat tactics to gain a #1 spot on Amazon’s paid list with no other proof than the author not having any type of social media presence and had not used any of the “traditional” marketing ploys most indies use – lack of self-promotion via social media platforms and no Bookbub ads, in conjunction with the fact this author is “unknown” to the writer of this article. (As a side note, I’m pretty sure Amanda Hocking did not have a social media platform nor did she use Bookbub before she became one of the first authors to successfully sell a million copies of her own self-published books prior to being offered a 7-figure publishing deal. Oh, and Anne Rice hit the big leagues long before social media was even a thing.)
As I was saying, I would like to point out the Amazon ranking system routinely catapults “unknown” authors into bestseller status. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve seen the words “NYT Bestselling Author” or “USA TODAY Bestselling Author” on the front of book covers on Amazon and have absolutely no clue who these authors are. I would also like to point out an incredibly wild notion – there are other ways to promote books outside of the internet. I know, crazy concept. I’m sure the author of the article actually has very good reasons for thinking this book hit this status with less than ethical practices, just as I know why he chose not to lay out the proof so other people can’t use the tactics to scam the system further. Unfortunately, by not giving a play-by-play and no other proof other than his gut, the entire article has become nothing more than an opinion piece, just like mine.
With that said, I’m about to voice a very unpopular opinion about this, but I’m hoping you will bear with me and read through to the end. At the very least, I hope this will get you thinking, because I honestly do not believe the thousands of indie authors who have been sharing this article fully understands how the publishing world works – and by “publishing world” I mean not just the indie scene, but the trade publishers as well. As I’ve stated many times, I’ve spent the last twenty-six some years in the publishing business, either trying to break into the trade pub scene, learning from it, interacting with both NYT and indie best-selling authors, being an active publisher and indie author, as well as having friends in both the modeling and music industries. To say I’ve learned a lot is a vast understatement. But I digress.
I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why indie authors are so upset over this. Well, I actually do get why, but it goes back to the reason they are so upset is they fail to see the broader scope of publishing from a business aspect. It’s like the authors who never once think about how their own business practices affect the industry as a whole, so long as they are making money right now.
Let’s look at this from a business standpoint. This type of “black hat” operations happens all the time with traditional publishers. The only difference is they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to “underground” marketing and PR firms to do the very same thing and are pretty much keeping how they operate their business a closely guarded secret shared only among other big-boy publishers. While this is going on every single day with bestseller books in the trade world, with millions of dollars being invested and earned off of Amazon, we have indies who want to crucify the indie authors who are following in the big boy’s footsteps using the resources at their disposal – which would be Fiverr and the like. It’s not pretty, and we have fewer “underground” resources at our disposal simply because we are not rubbing elbows with the big boy publishers enough to be “in the know” when it comes to which “secret” firms we should be hiring. We have to ask around, and doing so means our business becomes everyone else’s business. Remember, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and to be honest, as indies, even if we did have access to the same resources as the big boy publishing houses, most of us simply do not have the money required to hire these people.
So let’s look at a few case studies. Hugh Howey admitted he used his own money, one of these underground market PR firms, and a whole lot of Fiverr people to buy his way onto the NYT bestsellers list and pad his serialized book with fake reviews. He openly admitted this on his own website and did an in-depth interview outlining how he went about achieving his letters. And yet no one went raging to Amazon demanding his account be revoked, nor did Amazon demand his royalty payments be paid back. So pray tell how this is any different?
Purchasing dozens of “fake” reviews through businesses like Fiverr is no different than the author who band together all their family, friends, and fellow readers/authors to create huge review/reader teams and then not only enlist these huge review teams to leave reviews but oftentimes pay them as well to leave dozens upon dozens of reviews of a book which was just released. You ever see a book that literally has only been live for two hours with two hundred plus glowing 5-star reviews on it and wonder how they managed it? That’s how they did. Is doing that any more ethical than paying a bunch of random strangers to do the same thing? Does knowing the reviewers somehow make it okay as opposed to finding a complete stranger to do it for you? The only difference is Amazon’s ToS says you can’t “pay” for reviews, but they do not specify what “payment” is specifically. We all just assume they mean we can’t spend money but giving someone a book in exchange for a review is okay. In my eyes, it’s still payment. Just because Amazon lets us get away with it in their world does not make it an ethical business practice.
I’ve seen authors gather together these large teams and then pay them to pre-order their book so when it hits, it shoots up the Amazon ranking with the potential to earn bestseller letters. Yet authors are okay with this because so many of them do it. How is enlisting these large review teams any different than someone buying the same exact services through places like Fiverr? Just because it is not technically against Amazon’s ToS does not necessarily make it ethical business practices. Yes, large trade publishers hire people to leave reviews yet indie authors seem okay with that, but are quick to crucify an indie who pads their reviews through Fiverr. Either way, the ToS are being broken no matter how much you want to justify it, the only difference is one of them everyone is doing, and the other one is being done just as often, authors just don’t talk about it.
Everyone keeps saying what this author did was not “ethical” and it displaces “legitimate, hardworking authors” right out of the ranking. “Hardworking”? You mean “hardworking” like erotica authors who have used a few friends with blogs to amass a huge army of rabid fans who not only cause his books to shoot up the Amazon charts, but an author who then turns a blind eye to said fans attacking other authors and leaving bad reviews on their books? You mean “hardworking” like those authors who gather up the large review teams, pay them to preorder their books, and have them leave glowing reviews on their work as soon as it goes live? You mean “hardworking” like those authors who spent thousands upon thousands of dollars using private PR firms to buy their way onto these bestseller lists? Or “hardworking” like the authors who join boxed sets and then spend thousands of dollars gifting the anthology right onto the USA Today’s bestsellers list? Or “hardworking” like the ring leaders of these anthologies who not only learned how to game the system, but who then instruct their 30+ authors to do less than ethical marketing and break a huge chunk of Amazon’s TOS just so they can say they earned their letters? No matter how much indies or trade publishers try to justify it, black hat tactics are black hat tactics, even when they do not go against Amazon’s ToS. So I will once again ask, how is any of that different from what this author is accused of?
I’ve had Anne Rice herself tell me on more than one occasion that I should use all the tools at my disposal, which means calling in every “favor” I’m owed by family and friends and have them leave me a nice review on my books. It flies in the face of Amazon’s TOS yet trade publishers do the exact same thing. They pay other big-name authors to write some small, glowing review to pop on the front cover or include in the blurb of a new release. And you know how movie trailers are quick to boast how the NY Times, USA Today, and other critics are calling this new movie “The must-see movie of the year”? Yeah, you bet your sweet ass they were paid to write those reviews. It’s extremely commonplace with the big trade publishers, yet no one is demanding Stephen King or EL James’ heads on a platter because their publisher engaged in questionable business practices to try to launch a new book into bestseller status. It’s being done en mass, yet indies either seem oblivious to it or just choose to ignore it. Just because they are large publishers does not make it any more ethical than an indie doing the same thing. So if trade publishers get to do it, then why not indies?
It concerns me greatly that indie authors are quick to bring out the pitchforks against this one author, yet they are more than willing to turn a blind eye to the authors who are gathering up huge review teams to leave stunning reviews on their new releases, or the authors who allow their fans to openly attack any other author they deem a ‘threat’ to their own success. They are quick to join the author who can launch their own books into bestseller status knowing they are doing things against Amazon’s TOS and then only get upset when they lose all the money they invested into the scheme without hitting those coveted lists. Again, just because Amazon is allowing it doesn’t make it ethical.
I do not quite understand why indies seem to think it is okay for publishers to hire these firms who then hire third parties to purchase these books en mass, thus skyrocketing the books into bestseller status, or think it is perfectly fine for them to use marketing and promotion techniques to create a grassroots movement thus tricking the general population into believing a certain book is just the most wonderful book on the planet. We all know which book I’m referring to, yet no one is demanding she be stripped of her bestseller title or give back the millions of dollars she earned when her publisher used the bit of momentum she had already started on her own to catapult a poorly written piece of literature into the history books.
So why are authors okay with turning a blind eye to the indies who have huge review teams pre-order these books and leave dozens of shiny 5-star reviews on these books within a few hours of release? Why are they okay with joining boxed sets where authors are gifting copies of the set to people, knowing these gifted copies count toward their sales numbers. Regardless of whether you are gifting 3% or 99% of your total sales numbers, regardless of whether you are giving away copies to get a few hundred reviews, regardless of whether you are hiring people off of Fiverr to buy your book, pad your reviews, or “paying” your review team by gifting them swag, paperbacks, or other “rewards” for being a part of your team, ultimately all these tactics still do the one thing which goes against Amazon’s ToS- these practices ultimately manipulate the sales ranking.
People seem to forget while Amazon may allow you to gift copies of books, it doesn’t mean you should do it to the point where it is actively affecting your sales numbers. While Amazon may allow you to give a book away in exchange for a review, it does not mean authors should be doing it to the point where they have so many reviews in such a short amount of time it is actively affecting their visibility, ranking, and preferential treatment by Amazon to give those books with more reviews more exposure. Yet this is happening on a regular basis with both trade and indie books. So why are indies so quick to lynch one of their own over something like what this article talks about but are perfectly happy to turn a blind eye to everything else that is going on? Saying it is unfair to other, legitimate and “hardworking” authors is a total crock of bullshit to be honest. Trade publishers enlist underhanded practices to skew the rankings and both the NYT and USA Today bestsellers lists are highly vetted. The only difference between indies and trade publishers is Amazon is willing to turn a blind eye to anyone who is making them money.
While it certainly sucks this guy probably made a good $100K or more through this practice, how much did he pay out of his own pocket to get that ranking? I’ve seen my own books go from the 2 MILLION ranking mark to breaking the top 50K overall paid with only 3 sales. I’ve had authors tell me they had a book go from total obscurity to cracking the top 50 overall paid on less than a hundred total sales. And yet I myself have sold nearly one thousand copies of a single book in just under twelve hours and not have my overall ranking move more than a few places. The bottom line is, we don’t know how many sales or page reads it took for this guy to hit that bestselling status. It could have been tens of thousands of sales or it could have only been a few dozen. He could have easily spent a quarter of a million dollars to make a few thousand bucks or he could have spent $50 to make a few hundred thousand. Because of the way Amazon’s ranking system works, we simply have no idea what was actually gained off of this other than a bestselling ranking. It’s all purely speculation.
While it would be nice if everyone were playing on a level field, that simply is not the case nor will it ever be. So long as trade publishers are left to apply the same black hat techniques then indies are always going to be at a disadvantage. Even if Amazon began banning, removing, and revoking accounts and books of indies who engage in such behavior, there are still the trade publishers who are using questionable means to launch books into bestseller status, a practice which is always going to put indie authors at the bottom of the totem pole as far as both Amazon and readers are concerned.
It’s just another example of anyone who has the resources and money will always come out on top of this game, just like with any other business. It’s why I can’t exactly whine about not “making” it as an author when I know full well it takes a lot of money to hire professionals who know how to get me to where I need to be in order to make a name for myself. I simply do not have the money, and while I’d love to see those who do have the money be punished for doing what I cannot even though I may be a better writer, until Amazon starts enforcing that throughout their publishing platform and holding trade publishers to the same standards, I hardly see anything changing other than to make it even more difficult for indie authors to get a decent chunk of the publishing pie. And in all honesty, whining about such authors who do somehow manage to play with the “big boys” isn’t going to help any of us out. If anything, it just makes it that much more difficult for us to be seen.
First it’s this guy, but then what? They are already taking down reviews if the writer of the review is thought to somehow “know” the author. What happens when we are no longer able to have any type of social media platform with our readers because Amazon is removing all of our reviews? What happens when unverified reviews are no longer allowed because authors start complaining that giving away ARCs in exchange for a review is “unfair” to those who can’t find a huge review team? It certainly is unfair, but what if authors start complaining about it to such an extent that Amazon bans those types of reviews? What happens when boxed sets are banned because of all the shady tactics that are used to launch those into bestseller status?
The point, dear authors, is – be careful what you wish for. Nothing about the publishing game is fair, least of all to indies. We have to be smarter, more cunning, and somehow manage to dance toe-to-toe with the big boys with a whole hell of a lot less money and nowhere near the connections. The more you complain about authors using the resources at their disposal, the harder it becomes for all of us to make it in the industry. I’d hate to know gifting copies no longer counted toward sales, that Amazon no longer allowed unverified purchase reviews, that giving out ARCs for reviews was no longer an option, and that the small readership I have thanks to social media was all for nothing because Amazon would no longer let anyone who was following me on social media review my books, even if they purchased them through Amazon on their own. It’s a slippery slope, and once one person starts screaming “unfair”, it’s just a matter of time before people start pointing out the tactics which are at the very core of being indie as being “unfair” practices as well.