Why is Amazon Banning Thousands of Authors?
That's the question. Why is Amazon suddenly banning thousands of authors with seemingly no explanation? In typical Amazon fashion, they're not saying. So all we're able to do is scoop up every bit of information we have and make our own inferences. Let's dig in. 1) The Verge article. If you haven't seen it, you can read the whole thing here. Brace yourself, it's a long read. To sum it up for those who want to save some time, The Verge spoke with indie authors and a PA named Lauren V., who gave them insights on all the shady dealings going on behind the scenes in the romance world. They talked about book stuffing, schemes within author groups to buy eachother's books, creating multiple emails to have a PA buy multiple copies of an author's book that she works for, rank manipulation, shady newsletter tactics, buying ghostwritten manuscripts, and they even devoted time to the cockygate scandal with Faleena Hopkins. What did it have to do with the bans? Possibly nothing. After all, the first big wave of bans came before this article was ever published(I should clarify here--there's no verification that these are indeed bans. The closest I've heard to a direct source called it a frozen account, but seeing as none of the accounts have returned, I think the difference between frozen and banned is becoming more semantic by the day). But for all we know, the article could've been given to Amazon before it was published prior to the first wave of bans. Regardless of what influenced the first bans, I think it's not a stretch to wonder if the article fueled the second wave. Why? Because Amazon is trying to protect its image. The Verge article makes the indie romance world look like a cesspool of black hat scammers trying to pull fast ones on readers. By extension, it makes Amazon look complicit at worst, and incompetent at best, because these tactics are made out to be rampant and obvious. In the business world, one quick fix for bad PR is to fire people. In this case, the easiest targets are romance authors, who aren't even technically employees with any kind of contract. Amazon has the right to shut our accounts down essentially at a whim, and as long as they don't withhold money we're owed, the legal options for authors in this position are dismal. This motivation has a pretty wide and scary range of implications. If Amazon is really banning/freezing author accounts to protect its own image, it means that no author is safe. They might not be worried about any real form of guilt. It could be as simple as grabbing the top 50 authors at a given time, skimming the list to make sure they don't catch any "real authors", and then mass banning accounts. They can then send out some vague email claiming they can't go into detail about the reason for the ban for fear of giving scammers ways to cover their butts in the future. On one hand, I almost *want* this to be true, because I know at least one author who had all her books pulled in the most recent wave. She's someone I've worked with literally from her first book, and I'd like to think I've acted as a mentor for her. Of course, I've only known her over the internet, but I feel so confident she would never do anything questionable that her books being pulled sent a real shockwave of doubt through me. And I don't mean doubt about her. It made me doubt my own safety. After all, I've never known or suspected her of doing anything against the rules. Was the only reason she got banned and not me because her books were doing well at the wrong time? Were they in front of someone's face who was handing out bans? I wish I knew. I haven't heard from her since the ban, so I can't say if there's any information provided from Amazon about the move, or whether it's a ban at all. But there could be other reasons for the actions against authors, and I want to get into those, too. 2) Kindle Unlimited manipulation. This is a broad one, but Amazon doesn't play around with it. Basically, anything that involves trying to trick the system and get yourself more pages read would fall under this umbrella. That could be something like manipulating the code in your ebook to add more spaces between words and paragraphs, even though Amazon has claimed this doesn't actually provide extra pages read. It could also mean providing incentives to click to the back of a book, whether it's stuffed with bonus content or not, like promising a free novella at the end or making readers click to the back to find your newsletter. Amazon also claims these tactics don't work or register as pages read, but I had still seen authors using these tactics right up until the bans started. Now here's the tricky one. Did Amazon consider bonus books as KU manipulation when they were considering account actions? What we do know is that a new policy went out roughly three or four weeks before the bans started. The short version was that the book on the product page now had to be 90% or more of the total book content. No more bonus books. UNLESS, they were part of a collection or a box set, and that fact was made clear in both the title and on the cover. Naturally, everyone (myself included) decided Amazon's goal was just to make bonus books more obvious to consumers. We thought they didn't want people feeling confused or bamboozled when they opened a book and realized the advertised story ended at 30%, or even 10% in the case of some mega-stuffers. For two weeks, it was business as usual. People just slapped "A romance compilation" on their title and cover, including my friend who had all her books pulled. Coincidentally, I had already pulled my one book that was "a romance compilation" from sale before these bans for other reasons, which may have actually been a move that inadvertently saved me if Amazon was really targeting people for the compilation label. But here's the problem with this being the be-all end-all answer: not everyone who was banned still had their books labeled as compilations, and not all of them were using extra spacing or click to the back incentives. So it could be any one of these elements that led to a ban, or it could've been none at all. 3) Manipulating rank. This is a funny one. Technically, to me at least, you're "manipulating rank" for your book even if you decide to pay for ads or plan to send your newsletter out on the day you release. Manipulating rank is honestly the name of the game. It's why we aim to have a burst of promotions close to our release date, because we know high ranks help a book sustain itself and generate organic sales. Still, I don't think that's what Amazon is talking about. I think they are talking about practices like Lauren V. described in The Verge's article. She was making multiple emails to buy an author's book several times, and supposedly, authors she knew were setting up spreadsheets and organizing mass-buys of their friends' books to help boost them to high ratings, where they'd hopefully stick. This one is kind of a no-brainer to me. I think it's one thing to buy *a single copy* of your friend's book to support them. If that's against the rules, then it's ridiculous. But as soon as you dive into buying multiple copies of someone's book to help them out, I think you begin to tread into questionable territory. If these claims are true, I'm not sure I feel a whole lot of sympathy for anyone who got snagged because of this rule breach. 4) Targeting. This one may be controversial, but I'm going to put it out there because I think it has merit. Amazon may be banning people because they're targeted by the kind of roving band of angry people that make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. There's a large contingent of disgruntled authors and some fans, though I believe it's mostly authors of other genres or authors who write in more niche markets within romance, that put a lot of time and energy into trying to police Kindle Unlimited. KU sometimes feels like the wild west, where there's no real authority figure, so I can see why people would feel the need to act when it feels like no one with power is going to. This group is generally the most vocal about book stuffing. I believe their complaints may have been the cause for the rule change, because they were very upset about it for a very long time. In their eyes, it was generally argued that book stuffing was stealing from any author who chose not to do it. KU pays out roughly 20 million a month for pages read to all authors in the program. They pull the number out of their butts, more or less, but that number gets divided among all authors. So if one author makes more money, it means that money was taken from someone else. Basically, the prize pool is the same, no matter how many people are competing for it. And if somebody is stuffing 1000+ pages or even an extra 100 pages into their books with old, previously published material, the argument is that they're siphoning money out of that pool they don't deserve. I've always personally disliked bonus books, but I've also always included one or two in every release. Why? Well, I wrote a really big, detailed blog post on it, so I won't go into a ton of detail here. The TLDR version is because the people I compete with for visibility use bonus books to help afford more advertising per day. If I can't keep up with the money they are spending on advertising, my books get buried and my career dies.
So anyway, to get back to my original point about targeting... I think another possible explanation for the actions against people's accounts is that someone high up with Amazon may be listening to all the noise on social media. I kind of shudder to think this, but they might simply have snagged up any names that get mentioned by the witch-hunt crew and banned the accounts. I'm probably most skeptical of this possibility, because it would mean Amazon didn't even bother to investigate the claims with the tools on their end. 5) This is my last possibility, and maybe my most tinfoil hat of the bunch. I think maybe click farms are to blame. If you don't know what a click farm is, it's just a term for a business that will illegally buy your book en-masse for a fee. The reason these are illegal is that it's just, as the name implies, a sort of "farm" of fake accounts. No real person is interested in reading your book or owning it for purchases like this. From what I know, these were more widespread and obvious in the past. I know about a year ago, the most common suspects of click farming were two authors (I was going to name them because I thought they had been banned, but upon checking, both are still on the store so I don't want to slander them without having any proof). In the author community, it was widely believed that these two were click farming because their books would jump incredibly fast to unheard of ranks at the time for indie authors of rank 7 or even 5, only to fall rapidly back toward 100 and then shoot up again the next day. This kind of behavior on a book indicates a rapid influx of sales coming from a non-organic source. Organic sales are relatively stable and predictable, and they tend to cause a book's rank to perform in a predictable pattern. It won't climb rapidly except for the first week or two, and even that rapid climb tends to go generally in one direction, like a ball being pushed up a hill. It may slip backwards a bit as it goes, but it generally carries up and up until the momentum runs out, and then it falls. Their books didn't obey any of these rules, which was what led to suspicions about click farms. A click farm is a system where someone might have thousands of fake accounts set up. You pay them some amount that allows them to profit, and then they use your money to buy your books. Any author will tell you, if they could just spend $1000 to buy 1000 copies of their $0.99 book, that would be the best advertising money you could possibly spend. 1000 sales in one day would push a book easily into the top 50 on the paid store. But there's no legal way to do that within Amazon's rules, so anybody who values their account and has a hint of a moral code stays far away from them. Here's where it gets tricky. The person running a click farm presumably wants to protect the fake accounts they have. Many are probably stolen from legitimate users at the click farmer's expense. I'm not sure what kind of effort or money it takes to steal someone's account, but I'd guess it takes both. If Amazon detects unusual buying activity, they will suspend or ban accounts. To keep their fake accounts from looking suspicious, it may not be uncommon for click farmers to include the cost of buying some extra random books to pad their accounts and keep them from being 1000 accounts that buy the exact same 7 books all within 2 hours of each other. Maybe they have 100 accounts buy a random romance in the top 100, 100 buy a random cookbook, etc. This would at least disguise the activity to a certain extent. See the problem? If something like this was happening, it would mean that yes, there are definitely a-holes out there trying to cheat the system with click farms. But it would also mean these same fake accounts could be buying the books of legitimate authors without any way at all for those authors to know about it or stop it. If Amazon does find these 1000 fake accounts that it determines are click farming accounts, they might just assume every book purchased by these accounts was a client.
Summing it up. The most likely answer to all of this drama is that both innocent and guilty authors were banned. As much as I want to see the guilty authors punished. I think there are major flaws in the approach Amazon is taking. I firmly believe innocent authors have been swept up in this massive wave of bans, and I hate that Amazon is being so flippant with people's livelihoods. At the very least, Amazon needs to be providing people accused of KU manipulation with specific evidence of what they're supposedly guilty of. Without doing so, there's no way for innocent authors to defend themselves or know if they should be waiting for their accounts back or moving on. What does this mean for you as a reader? It means if you've been reading popular contemporary romance books over the last year, about 70% or more of the authors you've come to enjoy or read regularly are probably not on the store anymore. Do I think some of the people who got removed kind of had it coming? Yes, honestly. I know a handful of authors who were skirting the rules and morality for a long time, and I'm glad something happened. I'm not glad they were suspended, though. I wish Amazon could've just let them know what they were doing wrong, told them to stop, and given them an opportunity to kind of change course and play fair. Because at the end of the day, even the authors who are using questionable business tactics have fans. We should all be doing this because people love books and they love escaping with us. The business side of it shouldn't ever come between readers and the real purpose of what we're doing here. Fans aside, I wish they had given people an opportunity to respond and plead their case, because losing even one innocent author wasn't worth catching all the guilty parties.
That about does it for me! Here's to hoping the innocent authors get their accounts back and that I don't wind up with all of them in a few weeks or months. The only thing I think we can do about it is to make noise. Make sure you're talking about it on social media, email Amazon and ask them where your favorite authors went and explain that you don't feel your Kindle Unlimited subscription is as valuable when they keep stripping your favorites from the store. Hit them where it hurts: make them realize they're messing with their bottom line when they axe authors and their entire catalogs.
These are our books, not theirs. If they keep playing Gestapo with the site, then people are inevitably going to move somewhere else. Readers want to be able to read whoever they want, and authors don't want to have to worry about being unfairly and unjustly censored. This isn't good for anybody, and we need to make sure Amazon knows that.