Guest Post: Amazon Bites Author

by Mary Rosenblum

Mary_Rosenblum

One of my clients, Brad Bayley, has his gaze firmly fixed on quitting the day job for good and has been putting a LOT of time, money, and effort into launching his career. He works very hard on his promotion and has kept his books in the top 50 in their category for two solid months on Amazon.com. He’s gaining momentum with his paid sales, too. All is going very well.

…and then Amazon sent him a ‘policy letter’ email telling him they were about to suspend his Amazon account and stop selling his books.

What? Why?

Hours of phone time later, three different Amazon employees had told him they had no idea why he had received the letter and no, they couldn’t fix it, sorry. That decision lay ‘way up the food chain’. Wow. Considering that he makes 80% of his sales on Amazon, a suspension there would derail the career track for a long time. My first thought was that he had run afoul of the Amazon algorithms that are going after the click farmers I described in a previous post, the ones that are scamming the Kindle Unlimited system by paying low cost labor to ‘read’ hundreds of long, poorly written or even faked books by clicking to the last page. A sudden spike in downloads seems to maybe trip that algorithm, and if you promote effectively, you GET sudden spikes in downloads when you, say, offer your book free on BookBub.

But Brad isn’t in Select and KU, he has too many readers on other platforms. One person he talked to at Amazon, a very helpful associate, suggested that his use of Fiver might have triggered the letter. The associate said they are ‘looking at’ Fiver ‘because of paid reviews’ and Amazon has also been cracking down on the paid review thing. The associate also said that paying for shipping of a free print book to a reader or  family members reviewing your bookcould cause a ‘paid review’ trip. However, he, as with the others, was scratching his head about why Brad got clobbered. The irony is that not only is Brad not scamming Amazon, he is making them money.

And they’re going to punish him for that.

He was told he should do no more promotion until this is resolved.

Great! So you can publish on Amazon.com, but if you’re successful they’ll yank your book? What kind of catch 22 is this? Ah, oh yes, all you authors who are trading reviews? Amazon.com, according to that helpful associate Brad spoke to, is ‘looking at’ Goodreads, too. Their own company! They’re looking at authors who connect up to swap reviews… If most of your reviews come from other authors, you might want to think about this.

Brad kept trying, and after quite a few hours on the phone with various Amazon people, the helpful and totally sympathetic associate who was initially shocked that he had gotten a suspension notice in the first place managed to contact the Amazon Investigation Team. Yesterday, Brad got an emailed apology from them.

They were sorry, it was a total mistake, he never should have gotten that letter, and his account was fully reinstated.

Happily Ever After…NOT!

Happily ever after? Not so fast. There are some things to think about here. My guess is that Amazon.com, which must see hundreds of thousands if not millions of transactions of all types daily, relies on algorithms to do time consuming high-volume jobs such as skimming through millions of sales and download transactions to catch scammers who are abusing systems such as KU. That’s fine, the scammers who do that hurt us authors, too, and of course Amazon is going to protect themselves. HOWEVER, they seem to lack an adequate human oversight levelwhere someone can quickly look at a particular case and say ‘yep, he’s fine, he’s just really good at selling his books and making us money’.

That is the bad part. Brad is only one of a number of authors who have had the same experience lately and I’ve heard second hand reports of quite a few more. I know one other author who has had her account reinstated, but without an apology and with a warning to be careful about using third party promotional firms. I don’t know the outcome of the other people who have run afoul of the algorithm. How many authors weren’t willing to put in the hours on the phone, were more easily discouraged than Brad, or got the wrong person on the other end of the call, and were erroneously barred from Amazon?

Will They Fix It?

Today, Amazon.com is THE bookstore for small press commercial and self published books. If you are barred from selling on Amazon.com, the future of your books — and your career — looks pretty grim. Amazon.com needs to fix this, but my guess is that they’ll be very slow to do so. (Please prove me wrong, Amazon!)

Why slow? Because the salary of the people who will spend hours looking into those cases will cost Amazon.com a lot more than the time a programmer spent to write and test the code for the algorithm that will flag any spike in sales or whatever ‘fraud alert’ they’re using. And when you look at the number of books and authors on the site and guess about the number of cases like Brad’s that are waiting for a ‘yes, scammer’ or ‘no, good salesperson’ decision, you are talking a LOT of salary money.

Be Scared…

Sadly, people are going to keep publishing books with ’em, and from the get-go, the company has made money from everybody selling just a few items. They don’t NEED your book to be a best seller, although they’ll benefit from your profits. Catching the frauders may be much more important to them, financially, than losing sales proceeds from successful authors who get caught in the net and kicked off.

That should scare all of us.  A lot! They’ll lose a few bucks from high selling authors they mistakenly kick out, but I bet it won’t hurt their bottom line, and they’ll save a lot of money by not hiring the flesh and blood people to investigate those reports. That is a grim prospect, folks. Let us hope I am wrong.

Meanwhile, I’ve been changing my client advice for career authors regarding Amazon.com. I no longer suggest going the Select/KU route. Clearly, Amazon is casting a net for scammers there and if you use book discounters and other promotions well, you may find yourself in Brad’s shoes. You can make your ebook free in other ways. Use the book discounters and free downloads to reach a lot of new readers and stay off the KU system. If your book is good and readers like the freebie, they’ll pay for the next book and become loyal fans.

Here are my new ‘rules’.  It’s a depressingly long list, isn’t it?

  • Never offer any kind of thank you gift, incentive, or what have you for a review.
  • Never post a free book offer on your Facebook page to solicit reviews.
  • Use only the email list you’ve acquired from your website (and this is why that list is SO important) to send an offer of an epub or mobi or pdf copy of the new book to those people and ask them to review the book when it’s out.
  • Never ask for a positive review, only ask for an honest review.
  • Never let family members review your book.
  • Never use a paid review service.
  • Use only honest book discounters such as Fussy Librarian and BookBub.
  • Never swap reviews with other authors.

We have almost a monopoly on bookselling by Amazon.com right now. I hope that will change, but for the moment, if you are kicked off of Amazon, your sales are going to take a hard hit. If you get one of these letters and you are innocent, keep calling, be persistent, you CAN get it reversed, but it’s going to take time and effort on your part..

Do let me know if something like this has happened to you.

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Mary Rosenblum has won the Compton Cook award for Best First Novel, the Sideways Award, and has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and just about every other SF award.  She has returned twice to teach at Clarion West and currently writes and works with new authors, editing and offering publishing and promotional support at New Writers Interface, where this post first appeared.

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