Amazon has laid out exactly how to game its self-publishing platform

Somewhere in there, a scammer is looking for a loophole.
Somewhere in there, a scammer is looking for a loophole.
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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Bestseller status, five stars, a large number of reviews—there’s a whole host of ways to figure out if a book on Amazon is good or popular, but they’re all at risk of fraud.

On September 6, Amazon took legal action against five alleged violations of its rules for self-published books. The company’s demands for arbitration, published by GeekWire, expose an abundance of services that exist to game Amazon’s bestsellers list, review systems, and self-publishing platform, creating the illusion of quality and popularity for certain books on the site.

Amazon’s own statements neatly summarize how its book rankings can be gamed through fake accounts and downloads. They also reveal how convoluted its author payment system for self-published books is to begin with.

Here are some of the ways people have hacked Amazon’s ebook self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), according to the company’s recent demands for arbitration.

Manufacturing “reads”

KDP Select is a program in which self-published authors sell their ebooks exclusively on Amazon for 90 days. In return, the authors’ books get promotional perks, like being included in its ebook subscription and its free ebook “library” for Prime members.

For these two services, royalty payments work differently compared to the rest of the industry. Instead of receiving a set percentage for each book sale, authors are paid a share of a collective royalty fund. Each monthly payment is determined not by book downloads, but by how many ebook pages your readers read. The larger your share becomes, the less other authors receive.

As the self-publishing marketplace gets more crowded with authors, making money this way gets harder. Indeed, since Amazon established its collective fund for self-published books, last month’s US pot, at $19.4 million, was the largest ever, but authors got the second lowest payout ever (the lowest had been the month before), at $0.00419 per page read. And according to Amazon, some authors have figured out how to fake the number of pages read.

Short of making readers take a recall quiz, it’s hard to prove that actual readers read actual words. Amazon alleges that one UK-based service used “bots and/or ‘clickfarms’ to improperly inflate the amount of page reads their books have received….” The company also claims that another person with “hundreds” of Amazon customer accounts is approaching authors with offers to artificially inflate their numbers for a 40% kickback.

Another way scammers inflate the number of pages read is by adding a link to the front of the text—like a promise of “bonus material” or a table of contents—that jumps to the end of the book. The reader’s device sees that she’s “completed” the book, even if she’s read 0% of it, and even if the book is full of nonsense. The Observer reported last year about one such book, no longer on Amazon, called Romance: BWWM: Between Love & Friendship. A sample passage:

My mother worked hard to be in recovery and I love her for that. For drug and alcohol treatments for you or someone you love call HELP. Brought to you by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bridging Resources in Communities BRIC is the acronym.

This kind of link front-loading has been explicitly banned by Amazon. As Amazon points out itself, “The KDP royalty system depends on the integrity of a fair allocation of page reads—i.e., that authors are not artificially inflating their page reads to the detriment of other authors.” In short, Amazon’s self-publishing platform creates a zero-sum game based on an honor system.

Capitalizing on promotion days

Scammers also take advantage of a KDP Select policy that lets authors provide their book for free one time for five days. This doesn’t really sound like a perk, but it can be exploited for bestseller status. During this window an author can create the illusion of massive downloads of her book at no cost by creating fake accounts and then downloading her own book, or paying someone else to do that. Though authors don’t earn royalties from these freebies, they do count toward bestseller status on an Amazon ranking of free books.

Publishing the same book with very minor changes

People also attempt to game bestseller status by combining the promotion day scam with another scam: Creating multiple copies of the same book, with minor changes, and registering them as different books. With very little work, an author could register nearly the same text as a few different books, run them as free books for a few days, download them repeatedly, and become a bestselling author over and over.

Amazon alleges that the same UK company from above had five books on an Amazon bestseller list at once during 2017, and they were all books reconstituted from each other.

Faking reviews

Online, reviews are essential marketing for any product. Potential customers make snap-judgments based on seeing a few stars, so it’s not surprising that an author might try to eke out another half star illegitimately. Amazon says it has sued over 1,000 parties who have sold fake reviews to authors and publishers. It claims that 80% of the 1000+ Amazon reviews for one particular language-learning book publisher were fake.

Fake reviews are a problem on at large, too; every few months the company has to deal with a flare up of reviews from people who have clearly not read the book, and are leading a concerted effort to change the average rating.

Amazon’s legal actions are part of an going effort to clean up bad behavior on their platforms. In an emailed statement the company says:

While the vast majority of authors and publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing are genuinely working in good faith to publish and promote their books, a small minority engage in fraud to gain an unfair competitive advantage. Today’s news reflects yet another step in our ongoing efforts to protect readers and authors from individuals who violate our terms of service and manipulate programs readers and authors rely on.

Given the company’s considerable financial power, it will likely get what it wants from arbitration—that the parties will be banned from the site and have to pay damages, in one case adding up to $440,000—and scare off potential scammers. Still, considering how many parties appear to have gamed Amazon’s system, perhaps the system is simply broken.