Near Disaster: How One of my Books Almost Got Pulled From Amazon
I've had a *lot* of issues with the technical side of Amazon, which I'm sure I'll write a post on in the coming weeks, but the biggest near-miss I ever had wasn't necessarily Amazon's fault.
Just to set the scene a little bit, if you've read my posts so far you'll know that I was in a very scary spot before I hit the publish button for Knocked Up by the Dom. Early 2017 had been amazing for me. My books were suddenly all hitting the top 50 and I even had a few get as high as top 10. It started to feel like my writing had really resonated with readers and maybe I was reaching something close to a sense of security in this whole writing career.
But Punished by the Prince marked the start of a financial decline that was very, very steep. Within two or three months, I had gone from feeling like I could really keep doing this and supporting my family with my writing to wondering how many more books I could afford to launch before I'd have to look at getting a different job.
So Knocked Up by the Dom was my all-in. I knew I only had a few more tries to get back on track before I'd need to start looking more seriously at a plan B.
When I launch a new book, it's always a little different, but generally there are a few milestones that happen. First, the reviews start coming in from my ARC team. At this point, I still have no idea if the book is going to do well, because I've seen some of my best-reviewed books flop the hardest, but it's at least a relief for the writer in me to see that I'm not getting blasted with one-star reviews because the book was terrible and I was delusional to think it was worthy of release.
The next part is kind of torture. I have to wait a day or sometimes even three days while the book is live and gathering reviews for the paid promotions to start coming. This is also the phase when I'm setting up Facebook and Amazon ads, which I'll still talk about in another post for anyone who's interested. But I can get my first clue of how well the book is going to do based on the price of the clicks on my ads. For example, if the ads start showing up at $0.40 per click, it's not a great sign because that's on the expensive end of a cost-per-click ad. If they come in at $0.08 to $0.15 cents per click though, it's a great sign, and that's what happened with Knocked Up by the Dom.
The next sign that things were going in the right direction was when the book sold 450 copies on a day where I only had one newsletter send me out. I'd never seen a book do anything like that. It was just flying off the shelves and I wasn't even promoting it yet. I was starting to get cautiously optimistic, because I had so much riding on the book doing well that I didn't want to risk getting my hopes up only to have them dashed.
The next day, my promo hit, and the book was selling faster than anything I've ever seen again. The rank was skyrocketing through the top 100, sometimes jumping double digits with each update (which is a lot when the rank is in the top 100).
If I remember right, it was Wednesday and KUBTD (Knocked Up by the Dom) was rank 40 on the first day of promo. Then, one of my author friends sent me a message and said, "Hey, Penelope... You should check your product page for KUBTD. Something's wrong with the cover image."
Needless to say, my stomach was ice as soon as I read the message. I had been beside myself with relief and excitement and all the good things that come with something you put so much work into doing well, and in a single moment it all turned to complete panic. I checked the product page and saw what they were talking about.
There was just a little white box where my cover should've been and the words "No Cover Image Available" with a little orange arrow swooping around in the shape of a smiling mouth.
It was like being punched in the stomach.
I had dealt with countless Amazon glitches on books that were doing well in the past, but losing my cover image felt like it would immediately de-rail any success the book was on track to have. I had no idea what the problem could be, so I called support immediately.
Unfortunately, KDP support for authors is less than spectacular. You have to work your way through a front line of defenders who generally don't seem very informed, and they can't actually do anything for you but forward your message to the "technical team" in most cases, which always comes with a 4-5 business day response time. In my world, 4-5 business days is plenty of time for a book to die a very fast and very ugly death.
I managed to squeeze one bit of information out of the person I talked to on the phone: The system had a note that there was some sort of copyright claim against my book. I wasted some time explaining to the person on the phone that I had made the cover myself and had rights to every single image on it, and obviously had all the documents to prove my ownership of any single thing relating to the book on my computer. The person I was talking to, of course, forwarded this to the technical team and let me know I'd hear back in 4-5 business days.
Meanwhile, a good author friend of mine had their cover image disappear too. I thought maybe this was just the next Amazon bug and that we'd start to see it cropping up everywhere. Oddly enough, even without a cover, my book hardly slowed in sales and climbed to rank 20 by the evening.
A few hours after I noticed the missing cover, my friend and I noticed we seemed to be the only ones with missing covers, and we made a disturbing connection: we had both used the same cover model (different images of the same guy). Combining that with the fact that there was a copyright claim filed on my book potentially made us relatively certain that the cover model or someone who worked for him had filed DMCA takedown notices against our books.
Before we could do anything on that front, my friend discovered a way to restore his cover by re-uploading the image to author central. I doubt Amazon intended for this workaround to be possible, but as soon as he figured it out I took advantage.
Next, I messaged the cover model on Facebook and via email, desperately trying to figure out what was going on. I also called the photographer (Michael Stokes, who was amazing through this whole process) and had a long chat with him to let him know my suspicion and find out if the model had any right to do something like this (he didn't).
The next day, KUBTD climbed to an all-time high rank for one of my books, reaching rank 8, but the excitement was very much muted because of the copyright issue still hanging over my head. I had no idea if my book was going to lose its cover again, or worse--get pulled from the store entirely.
Late Friday night, my friend's book disappeared from the store. They received an email about an hour later explaining that a copyright claim had been filed against them and the book would remain off the store until they could prove they had rights to the book. Frustratingly, they *still* didn't even explain what part of the book the copyright was claiming a violation for. For all we knew, it could've been the writing itself, a font on the cover, a texture, etc. We only knew it was the model because both our books were getting targeted and we only shared that one feature.
I was terrified. My book was rank 8, I was spending a ton of money on advertising and hadn't earned it back yet with the book's performance, and my book's life was hanging by a thread as far as I knew. I spent a very sleepless night waking up to check and see if my book was still live on the store again and again. By this point, I had sent several emails to the cover model in an attempt to get some kind of line of communication going. My friends told me I shouldn't even try to talk to him because it could complicate things legally if the issue was escalated to court at some point, but I just wanted to save my book and couldn't help myself from trying.
My message to him was basically explaining my side of the situation. I paid for his photo and saw the release form he signed which released his right to decide how the photo was used afterwards. I'd also been buying images of models for over a year now and falsely assumed that every cover model *wanted* the exposure of having their pictures appear on popular book covers.
Unfortunately, that's not always the case, which I'll explain in a little bit.
I basically was trying not to resort to threats, because I still felt like this was just a big misunderstanding.
The cover model's assistant finally got back to me and explained the issue. They were upset because my book wasn't the most flattering context to appear on, especially for someone who is involved in social media and has a persona to protect. As much as I sympathized (and still do) with the issue, the frustration I was feeling was at a boiling point. I mean, it wasn't their right to sabotage my book just because they sold the rights to a photo and didn't like how it was used, no matter how much I felt bad for them. I had worked so hard on the product and had no way of knowing.
But as frustrated as I was and as scared as I was, I tried to stay calm. I thought the best thing I could do was to try to work on some kind of compromise. At that point, my biggest frustration was that they didn't even try to reach out to me before filing the takedown notice. In all honesty, if they had explained all their concerns, I could've switched the model on the cover just out of kindness, even if I did have a right to use him. Whether I had a right or not, I didn't like the idea that he wasn't happy about being on my cover.
So by Sunday, I had finally gotten to some kind of agreement with the model and his assistant. It turned out that the model himself hadn't even filed the takedown notice or known about it. His assistant was trying to keep a watchful eye for him and protect his image. She saw the book covers and acted without his knowledge, even if it was well-intentioned.
Though they never said as much to me, I think both of them were a little scared when I showed them some of the legal implication of filing a false copyright takedown notice, which is a felony and could have made them liable for financial damages as well. Based on the model release he signed, it seemed pretty clear that the takedown notice wouldn't hold, even if Amazon's policy was to take the book down and ask questions later.
I still felt bad about the whole situation, whether the law would be on my side or not. So when his assistant made some requests to find a sort of compromise, I was happy to follow-through. They wanted an acknowledgment in the blurb and at the end of the book that the cover model didn't endorse the content, and they wanted me to remove any use of his image from my ads or my Facebook page (I had a banner with part of his body on my Facebook page at the time).
After ALL this, I *still* had no idea if he was going to actually withdraw his takedown notice. I also didn't know if Amazon would notice, or if they already had planned to take down my book.
I figured nothing was likely to happen over the weekend, but when Monday came, I couldn't stop checking to see if the book was available. Hour after hour, it still seemed okay, and then finally around noon I got an email from the model and his assistant explaining that they appreciated me working with them and that the model had called Amazon to rescind his takedown notice.
I felt my first shred of relief, but it wasn't until a couple days had passed that I finally, *finally*, began to trust that the book wasn't going to disappear from the store and I could enjoy the success.
In the end, KUBTD has been by far my most successful book and it earned me my first ever spot on the USA Today Bestseller list, but if it wasn't for a couple frantic emails and the eventual cooperation of the cover model, it could have actually been the book that ended my career.