My Take on Scammers Breaking The Kindle Store

 

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. As a matter of fact, I’m going to go so far as to call total bullshit on his entire article and way of thinking. Judging by his reactions to some of the comments, he’s just another author who seems to be frustrated with the entire craptacular we indies are forced to deal with every day.

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 it. 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.

 

 

 

 

You are not a Special Snowflake – When it Comes to Writing, that is

I’ve heard writers say this all the time.  You are not special, you are not going to make it ‘big,’ you are not so great and so wonderful at what you do that publishers will want to snatch you up lickety split.  Well you sure as hell better be.  Because if you are not setting yourself apart as a writer then you sure better have one hell of an ego then. 

As a writer, you are going to have to have something that will set you apart from all the other writers out there.  Whether that be a fan-fucking-tastic storyline that no one has ever come across before,  a really unique style of writing, or even an ability to be the best weaver of a literary plotline in publication, you better make yourself into an individual snowflake somehow or else your work is going to get lost in a sea of all the other mediocre material floating around in publication land.

People are going to tell you that you are not the next Anne Rice, or Stephen King, or Stephanie Meyer, etc.  Believe it or not, that is actually a good thing.  Seriously, because who in their right mind wants to be like them?  If I want to read someone who writes like Anne Rice, I’ll go read Anne Rice, because anybody else is just going to be a very poor imitation.  Same thing with Stephen King, Charlene Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer, etc.  The most important thing you can do as a writer is write like you and stop trying to be like other famous writers.  Stop trying to be “the next -insert famous writer’s name here-” and just be you. 

That’s not to say that you will not have to abide by some basic English rules.  Incomplete sentences are fine, in moderation.  But don’t expect an entire 400 page novel with nothing but fragmented sentences to suddenly make you famous.  It might make you infamous…and very embarrassed if critics are talking about how poorly you write as opposed to what a fantastic story you have weaved.  Misspelled words?  Only if you are trying to imitate a Cajun accent during dialogue.  Actually, about the only time misspelled words could possibly be excusable is within a character’s dialogue with himself or another character.  Feel free, however, to make up a word…if it gets used a lot in the story (remember Laurell K. Hamilton using the term “wereanimals” when she referred to any type of lycanthrope in her stories) .  And all those too/to/two and there/their and but/butts being used incorrectly are not going to get you anything but a big, fat, red “rejection” stamp on the front cover of your manuscript.

Now about your ego.  Yes, it pays to have an ego.  Otherwise you are going to get stomped on by every writer, publisher, agent, critic, reader, editor, etc. that comes across your work.  That is not to say that you do not have any room for improvement.  Even Anne Rice is always pushing herself to the limits.  After all, you are only as good as your latest novel.  So yes, take criticism for what it is:  constructive, deconstructive, or at-a-glance (see articles on Criticism:  the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and adjust your work accordingly.  But never take, “you are not good enough to make it in the publishing world” as a final answer.  Seriously.  There are tons of really bad writers who get book deals all the time.  Just ask anyone who has ever read a lousy book.  We’ve all been there.  Ever remember picking up a book, start reading it only to think to yourself, ‘How the hell did this jackass ever get a book deal?’  This is where that whole “a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader” thing comes into play.  Trust me, when you are a writer then there are two things that will happen, regardless of how good or bad of a writer you are.  One, you will have someone out there who will absolutely love your work.  And two, you will have someone out there who will absolutely hate your work.  Your goal, as a writer, is to get as many people who like your work together, interested, and purchasing your work as possible.

Everyone thinks that they are a really great writer.  And if, at the end of the day, your grammatical mistakes and misspelled words have went the way of the dodo and you honestly do not think that anything could possibly make the story better, then sure, think that.  Just don’t expect others to think it.  Because if you are going to boast about how great of a writer you are, then you had better be able to back it up.  Now stop and think about this.  If you are going to start selling books/ebooks, then you are basically saying to the world, “Here, I wrote this.  I think it’s pretty good.  Read it and tell me what you think.”  Yes, when you put your work out there for others to read, you are inviting them to give you feedback whether you want it or not.  And if you think that is not how the publishing world works, then you are sadly mistaken and maybe even a bit naive.  It’s time to put on your big boy pants and smell the coffee.  Even books that are sitting in the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list have critics bashing them all the time.  It’s their job.  Your job is to decide if what they say has any actual merit to it and adjust your work accordingly.  Better yet, set out to prove the nay-sayers wrong by writing something even better than your last work.  Nothing says, “F – U!” like a few thousand fans telling critics that they are idiots.

Now, all you snowflakes go out there and make something of yourselves.  After all, being special means nothing if no one else knows it.

How to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys

The number one reason why authors get burned when it comes to self-publication is the fact that they are usually woefully undereducated on the subject.   Just like buying a good used car, insurance, or a house, the lack of education and knowledge on the subject attracts all sorts of shady characters to the playing field.  Like anything else that you are thinking about doing for the first time, a good knowledge of the field will help you make the best decision for you.  The self-publishing business is no different.

Many companies will often try to sell you products or services that are ineffective, are drastically overpriced, or maybe even be something that you really don’t need.  Often they will charge you hundreds of dollars for services that you could have easily done yourself, have contracted out for a much smaller fee, or even gotten for free through creative marketing.

Here are a few things that you need to ask yourself when shopping for a self-publishing company.  By answering these questions honestly and doing some research, you will be better prepared to help weed out The Good Guys from The Bad Guys.

1:  Is this company charging me for something that I could easily get for free?  One thing that you have to keep in mind is that with today’s technology, the amount of free advertisement and ways to get your name out there are about as limited as your imagination.  That’s not to say that you should never spend a dime on advertisement.  Just keep in mind that if you can do the same thing on your own, for free, then your money is better spent on the type of advertisement that you cannot get for free.

2:  Is this company charging me for something that I can do for myself?  If you have extensive knowledge of document formatting and can format your own manuscript, then paying someone else to do it for you is a waste of money.

3:  Is this company charging me for something that I know I can get done for a much cheaper price elsewhere?  If you have your own tried-and-true editor that you know you can afford, spending money on one that you have never used before can spell disaster. 

4:  Is this company rushing me to make a decision?  Forcing an author to make a rash and uneducated decision is a ploy that some companies use to bully an author into spending a lot more money than they had planned on services and products that they may not have wanted or needed.  If their offer is good today, then it should still be there tomorrow or next week.  Sure, that 15% off offer might expire, but if the entire offer expires, then there is something fishy in the mist.  If they give you an unrealistic time frame to make a decision (Act now!  This offer good only for the next 4 hours!), then your best bet is to let the ‘offer’ get on by.  But keep in mind that companies cannot be expected to sit around and wait on you forever.  They should, however, be willing to give you a few days to think about it.  If not, you might want to try a different company.

5:  What, exactly, am I getting for my money?  If you are going to spend a lot of money, you need to know beforehand exactly what you are getting for that price.  How many books will I receive?  Exactly where are you going to submit my work?  Who all will be receiving the news release?  What type of guarantee is the company making in regards to the amount of success of their services?  How long will it take for them to deliver on their promises? 

6:  Read the fine print!  You will definitely want to read their disclaimer.  Most companies will allude to the idea that you will have instant success with their company.  Usually the disclaimer tells another story entirely.  Make sure you understand the difference between what they can guarantee, what they hope to achieve for you, and what you can realistically expect with their services. 

7:  GET SAMPLES!  What is my finished book going to look like?  The best way to gage the company’s quality of work is to order a few random books from the company’s site.  If you are going to use their editors or designers, make sure you request samples of their work first.  If they don’t have samples, then they are most likely a scam.

Finding a good quality self-publishing or POD company is easy when you keep these things in mind:

                *don’t pay for something you can easily get for free

                *don’t purchase a service if you can hire someone else to do the work for a lesser price

                *don’t pay for something you can do yourself or get done yourself for free

                *don’t get rushed into making a quick decision

                *don’t pay for ‘promises’ that they cannot deliver on

                *read the fine print

                *make sure you know what you are getting for your money

                *make sure you know what type of quality your work will have before purchasing anything

Another Type of Criticism

For me, there is a little known third category of criticism that exists somewhere between constructive criticism and deconstructive criticism.

I have already said that constructive criticism is basically designed as an honest opinion to help the writer clear up things that the reader did not understand or thought would make the story better in their eyes.  Deconstructive criticism, on the other hand, is designed to make the writer feel bad about their ability to write, to openly bash a piece of work, and seldom has any value or bearing on what the story is actually about.  I consider people who give negative feedback based solely on their dislike of the theme to be giving deconstructive criticism because it does not help the author in any way.  Not everyone is going to like a particular theme or storyline, so feedback based solely on such opinions is useless.

The third type of criticism is criticism at first glance.  It can be constructive criticism that, at first glance, sounds like deconstructive criticism.  It can even be criticism that you are not sure if it was meant to be helpful or if it is a sarcastic comment that is meant to make the author look like a fool for not getting facts straight.  It is often the result of a reader not really reading the story, not paying close attention to what is being written, or not fully understanding what is going on in the story.  I had this happen to me recently with the latest published installment of The Red Fang. 

Here is the excerpt in question:

…..” It is common vampiric knowledge that a human who ingests enough human blood over a long enough period would eventually die. There is a legend among our kind. A vampire named Tao came across a young girl named Addalynne. When he found her, she was mortally wounded. The legend has changed as time has changed. She was attacked; she was raped and left for dead; she was discovered in a car wreck on the side of the road. But the names have remained unchanged over the centuries.”…..Copyright 2010 Nicola Matthews.  All Rights Reserved.

I received this comment regarding this portion of the story:

“You are writing about an old legend where some girl is found raped in a CAR WRECK. Cars (that you can get into) were first made in the late 19th century.  Kind of a short time for a tale to turn into a legend… Unless your world is set like 8 centuries in the future.  I would really leave out the car wreck part or change it a bit.”

At first glance, you may not know if this is meant to be constructive criticism or a sarcastic comment meant to make me look like a fool.  In one aspect, it IS trying to be helpful by letting me know that having a ‘legend’ that has a girl found in a car wreck is a bit far-fetched and tends to make me look foolish.  On the other hand, the first lines of the comment almost sound sarcastic and could be interpreted as a stab at making me look foolish for not having facts straight as opposed to trying to keep me from  looking foolish by pointing out an discrepancy.  Either way, it doesn’t matter because it is the READER who is in the wrong.  The person making this comment misunderstood what the story actually said.  That passage does not state that the girl of legend was found raped in a car wreck.  What it DOES state is that the legend has changed over the years.  Her being found on the side of the road is one version of the legend, her being found attacked was another version, her being found raped and left for dead a third version, and her being found on the side of the road yet another version.  

At first glance I was not really sure what the reader was talking about, if they were sincere or trying to be sarcastic, and or if the comment had any bearing on the storyline at all.  I kept running the story over and over in my mind, wondering if I had really made such a blaring oversight in my story.  Had I made the legend specifically stating that she was found in a car wreck, and this legend had been passed down for centuries, then there would have definitely been egg on my face.  I had to go back and read the excerpt in question to fully understand what the reader was talking about and realized that, thankfully, it was the reader who had misunderstood what I had written.

It is up to the author to try to decipher if the criticism is worth investing any time in.  Is it helpful to the storyline?  Would taking the advice change the storyline to the point that you feel it would not work?  Do you just like the way you wrote the story regardless of what others think?  In the end, it is left up to the author and the individual story in question to determine whether or not to listen to the criticism at hand.