It doesn't take long for news to travel among indie authors. If you sprinkle a little drama into our world, we're worse than middle schoolers with a nasty rumor. Give it an hour, and 90% of the indie author community knows every available detail.
I'm writing this post more to talk about what I think is wrong with the way most of us as authors and some readers have been reacting when bans are announced. But I'm mostly talking to other authors here, because I think, as a group, we're the most guilty of the points I'll dig into in my post.
For a little background, Quite a few authors (and their accounts) were banned from publishing on Amazon about two or three months ago. At the time, I think everyone expected some juicy bit of information to leak out eventually that pointed a big, red finger at the unfortunate authors who lost their accounts. A little surprisingly, it never came. The only available facts are that dozens of authors, many of whom were regulars in the top 100, lost their Kindle Unlimited accounts in one of about four mass ban waves. All of the bans came without warning, and they came in batches.
I should clarify that none of them actually began as bans. It sounds like every author was contacted with the same, vague email. It was essentially a very, very brief email letting them know they were accused of trying to manipulate Kindle Unlimited and their account was suspended pending an investigation. Other than one or two cases, it sounded like the universal result was to ban the account and all pen names associated with it after a few weeks.
A lot of authors were banned, and nobody that I know of ever heard any conclusive reasons why. Amazon made it pretty clear that they don't want to explain how they caught the accused authors because they think it would let others find ways to sidestep their detection system. While I can understand the reasoning, it also puts authors in a frustrating position.
Everybody pretty much says they were innocent. Some are more credible than others, which makes everybody left standing more than a little nervous. After all, if you're 99% sure an author would've never done anything wrong, but they got banned, how safe are you? Does it matter if you're playing by all the rules and doing everything right, or is there still a potential of getting caught in a net that's being cast too wide?
We're left in a precarious position as authors. Everybody has to be at least a little worried about this. If you're doing something wrong, you should definitely be worried, but even those of us who know operating 100% within the rules have reason to be paranoid. There's no way to know for certain that no innocent authors were banned in any of these waves, and if you listen to rumors, some innocent authors have been caught in each banning segment.
My personal theory on how this could be possible is that authors might be using a newsletter service that is breaking the rules without their knowledge. For example, most authors book a few or sometimes a ton of paid newsletters to promote their new releases. Some of these are run by authors who have a rate they charge per click on the advertisement, and others are flat rates. Some are also not authors, but websites that are set up to be book recommendation services and they re-invest some of the money into growing their list and keeping it active.
Basically, as an author, these things usually get discovered by word of mouth. You ask an author friend, "hey, what newsletters do you use?" And they may list 3-6 places or more. Maybe you go on and book them all, thinking nothing of it except hoping that they were smart investments of your money.
Here is where the problem could come up... While authors should bear responsibility for looking into the reputation of anyone we use to promote us, there are some very clear limits on how much we can actually know. Let's assume I am 99% sure www.wearescammers.com (just making up a website, probably shouldn't test that url out) is run by somebody doing something suspicious, so I want to find out. I look at their website and they say they have 30k subscribers, they have a book recommendation section, samples of hundreds of newsletters they've sent in the past for other authors I recognize. I can even subscribe to their newsletter and confirm that they are indeed sending them out when they are supposed to and all the links work.
Annnnd that's about all you can do. You can't actually get into their statistics and view the subscriber behavior, so you won't ever know if the newsletter is actually reaching 30k readers. So, for all you know, this website does send out a newsletter to all its subscribers, but it only has a few hundred, and most of those aren't customers but the authors signing up to see when the NL goes out. They don't care if anyone actually interacts with the NL itself, because they have a clickfarm they use to buy some copies of the books they send out, just so authors feel like the service works. If they charge $50, maybe they buy 25 copies of your book at $0.99 and pocket the other $25.
The specifics aren't really important, but the general idea is, I think, clear.
The only way authors can defend against this is by doing what I did when the first wave of bans came. Just stop using any paid newsletter service that you aren't 100% sure is trustworthy. We have no way to know what people are doing behind the scenes. There's no way to know which authors could be using some kind of scheme to make their paid newsletter or even their swaps seem more valuable.
Unfortunately, this also means it's not even safe to do newsletter swaps with authors you don't trust 100%.
The worst part is that I could be completely off base. The bans might have nothing to do with this kind of thing, and there could be absolutely nobody who is doing what I'm talking about. We just don't know, but when I've tried my hardest to think how legitimate authors could get caught up in these bans, this feels like one of the only plausible explanations, short of clickfarms targeting random, related books to game the also-bought system or just to disguise activity for their clients (which would be something you'd literally have no power to stop at all).
It's not the most encouraging take on the situation, but I think it's worth considering. We all need to put on our cautious hats for a while and hope Amazon is able to fine-tune their detection system if it really is catching innocent authors in the mix. I appreciate that they're doing something about the problem, and the store is getting healthier because of it as far as I can tell, but the idea that completely innocent people could be getting caught in the crossfire makes it hard to celebrate any of this.
How Authors Are Reacting
Okay, so I've tried to type up a few drafts of this part of my post, and I keep coming off too preachy. I apologize if I still sound like I'm trying to play the part of the saint here, because I promise, I'm struggling internally with the same competitiveness and ugliness that I'm seeing a lot of people put out there publicly. I just think this is something most of us authors and some readers need to hear.
I skimmed over this idea in my points above, but it bears repeating: if we don't know who is actually guilty, we shouldn't be naming names and celebrating bans. What goes on in private groups or small social circles is one thing, but when it comes to blog posts and Facebook posts and that sort of thing, I don't think it's our job to beat any of these people when they're down. Yes, possibly most of the banned authors could have deserved it, but it's not our place to play judge and jury. We don't know which ones did and which didn't, so there's really no reason to pile on and fist pump over their bans.
The other frustrating reaction I've seen is bigger than just the bans. It's more like a mindset problem. I've seen a lot of authors showing a kind of relief at the news of the bans. They say something like, "Ohhhh, wow! I've been struggling for months now, and I was trying so hard to figure out why it seemed so much harder for me to do well than everyone else. This makes a ton of sense. All the people doing better than me were just cheating the whole time!"
I'm kind of extracting the essence here, because not all the examples were this obvious, but I've seen several versions of that reaction popping up among authors.
Here's the problem: Yes, people cheating is going to make it harder for you to do well. But one, it's not going to make it so much harder that you can't do well and shouldn't still try. And two, you shouldn't let yourselves off the hook like that. Look back at the example I gave, and ask yourself if that author is going to try extra hard on their next book now?
My guess is no. They just did some mental gymnastics and decided the reason they were failing to get the results they wanted was because of something outside their control. People were cheating the system, so I was failing. The truth is that the biggest obstacle to your own success is always going to be yourself. Cheaters or not, completely innocent, hard-working people are absolutely killing it every month in Kindle Unlimited. They're doing well because they are working hard, maybe finding a little bit of luck at the right time, and being persistent.
So without getting preachy, I just want to point out that the best chance any author has of digging themselves out of a pattern of disappointment is to look internally, not externally. Don't let yourself fall into the trap of thinking your disappointing results are caused by something outside your control. Even if there's direct evidence that they were. Maybe an Amazon bug meant you had no also-boughts for 7 days or something. Yes, that sucks, but you can't let go of the mindset that you're the one in control, and you're the one who still has to try to keep improving every time.