Open letter to Jeff Bezos
I opened my email program and found I’d received a message from your company.
The mail came from ‘content review’, asking for my attention, and I got the immediate feeling that this would be bad. I didn’t know why I’d receive that message now; I’d done nothing with my account in almost six months, haven’t changed a bit of content at all. Thus, it was with no little consternation I opened the message and found that my account is in violation, and if it continues to be so, I’ll be faced with penalties up to and including the termination of that account.
What did I do wrong? Actually, nothing. Not a thing. Amazon claims that accounts suspected of ‘manipulation’ have borrowed my book and I therefore accrued ‘illegal page reads’. I’m told that Amazon doesn’t offer advice on marketing, but I’d better be careful because if this happens again, well, see the termination threat above. There’s only one problem with that: I don’t do marketing. I’ve never hired any marketer, and for the past year or more I’ve not even advertised any of my books. The only advertising I get is by word of mouth. Yes, I sometimes – but not always – put a notice in one of the infrequent entries in my blog, and I sometimes, but not always, make a mention of a new book in the two writers’ forums of which I’m a member. Other than that, nothing. I’m lazy, know nothing about marketing, and don’t want to spend the energy finding out about it when I could be writing.
So, because Amazon alleges that suspect accounts have borrowed my book through Kindle Unlimited, I’m in danger of losing my account with Amazon. I use the word alleges, because Amazon up front refuses to give any details on their ‘investigation’. At first I found myself just sitting there, stunned. Then I looked up my stats. I’d sold three books so far in April, and had 3000 page reads in nine days. What kind of manipulation was that? Like a fool, I asked.
Why do I use the words ‘like a fool’? Because we can rarely get any sort of a straight answer when dealing with Amazon KDP. I asked, “What sort of manipulation?” I got the reply that they rechecked my account and stand by their determination; I will not be paid for illegal page reads.
See what I mean? I didn’t ask them to assess the status of my account or to reinstate my page reads. For the leader of a multi-billion dollar industry, you can’t seem to hire anyone for KDP who can read and understand a simple sentence in plain English.
I keep daily records of my sales and pages read through Amazon-provided KDP reports. After receiving this letter, and conferring with other authors with whom I share certain authors’ forums, I discovered that the letter would refer to my March totals, not my April month-to-date. I checked my March figures. Of the 24,829 Kindle Pages read (from the daily reports), I find that Amazon has now removed 15,924 or 65%.
As the book which constituted over 80% of my previously counted page-reads contains upwards of 750 Kindle Pages, I have to suspect that your company believes that I contracted marketers to “read” a grand total of 21 copies during a 31 day span, grossing me some $72 (approx). You must think I engage the bottom of the barrel marketers.
Amazon has a great reputation with respect to customer service. In fact, I’ve enjoyed just such great service. Last year, a CD I ordered from one of your 3rd party suppliers in Germany failed to show up in the stated time – in fact, I didn’t complain until some weeks after that time had passed, wanting to give the CD every opportunity to show up. Within hours of my finally making a complaint, I received a choice of them sending a second CD or giving me my money back. I chose to receive the second CD. It took 8 weeks to arrive – but I don’t blame Amazon or the 3rd party retailer, because the postmark on it showed that the German Post Office had received it only 3 days after my complaint (and one of those days was a Sunday and Monday was New Years Day, as well). It was marked Luftpost (airmail). So, I blame the Post Office – either the German PO, the Canadian PO, or both. (The first CD never did arrive.)
Yes, you are rightly proud of your company’s customer service. However, the concern that you and your company show to your customers falters somewhat when dealing with your content providers – those of us who write books and place them in the Kindle Store and especially in Kindle Unlimited.
When I began providing content to Amazon in 2010, things were simple. If someone liked the presentation of an author’s book, they bought it outright or read the sample and then bought it. The author then collected the royalty. If the customers didn’t like our presentation or the sample, they didn’t buy it, and we received nothing. And, finally, if the book did not live up to their expectations, they returned it for a full refund and again we received nothing.
There existed no way to scam the system to get more royalties than we deserved. Customers either bought our books or they didn’t. They bought short books, long books, epics. They either paid the price we set – or they didn’t buy. No one had a valid complaint over length or price; if they didn’t feel they got value for money, they didn’t buy the book or they returned it. The only scamming that occurred came from a very tiny minority of readers who bought books and then returned them on a regular basis. Some authors noted that book after book of theirs got purchased and then returned, in order. This suggested a multiple returner. We lived with it.
Then came Kindle Unlimited. KU started out and remains an irredeemably and irretrievably broken system. Its terms and make-up were almost created with the interests of scammers in mind, and it continues to provide them with the means and opportunity to – let us not mince words – steal money from legitimate authors. That went for the original iteration of KU and every iteration since then.
We legitimate authors don’t know what to do. We can only complain, but that rarely gets us anywhere. We hate scammers even more than Amazon does. They steal our money, not Amazon’s. We hate the manipulation of rank that goes on. We believe in value rising to the top. We work very, very hard to provide the best reading entertainment we can. So, yes, we hate scammers. And, at times, we try to do something about it.
Example: One scam entailed putting up books full of repeated sentences, paragraphs, or short chapters – thousands of pages worth of repeated verbiage. A poorly-made cover and an enticing, though totally inaccurate description, accompanied the publication of these books. The authors in one of my groups spotted them, and we counted something like 40 obvious scam books in Amazon’s top 100. Eight “authors” with five books each. If a scammer had someone “read” one of these books (with 10,000 pages or more by my estimate), he’d make $50 for that one read.
I took it upon myself to report this to Amazon. All I wanted was an e-mail address to send the details to. Unable to find such on the Amazon site, I went the route of “Chat”. Upon discovering that I was not a customer who had been cheated out of money, nobody really wanted to hear from me. Over the next 45 minutes (I still have the transcript), I got passed through 6 different representatives, the last of which agreed with me and gave me an e-mail address. Those books quickly got taken down. I thought I had done my part. It took time, caused frustration, but a blow had been struck for justice.
You’d think that your company would be happy. I thought so, too. On my own time, I had investigated and presented the evidence. Amazon had struck quickly to maintain its honour. All was well with the world!
Then it occurred again just days later – the exact same sort of scam. Another 20-40 books. Annoyed with the scammers, I sent a second e-mail, only to get told that I should use “Chat” – they wanted to subject me to another 45 minutes of pass-along only to get told in the end to use the email address I’d just used? Not a chance; I then gave up.
So, if I’m a customer, I get treated royally. If I try to help Amazon prevent fraud in KU, I’m a nuisance. I’m a nuisance, because this fraud didn’t really hurt Amazon financially – they had already set aside the pool of money – it only hurt legitimate authors who would receive less for their page-reads.
We legitimate authors hate scammers with a passion. But then, Kindle Unlimited – as well as being a haven for scammers – is something of a scam in itself.
The contract we sign with KU gives Amazon exclusive right to sell and lend out our books; we can place them on no other platform. For this, Amazon undertakes that they will pay us per kindle-page read (present edition of KU). However, it turns out that Amazon does not have the ability to accurately determine how many pages get read. Scammers depend upon this weakness for their scams to bring in the money they steal from legitimate authors.
Authors have imaginations. You might consider possession of such as a prerequisite for the trade. We’re curious, inquisitive. Thus, when things seem just a little off, we investigate and talk among ourselves. At first we accepted Amazon’s word that they would pay us for pages read at face value. Then we noted strange things, and began experimenting. The result: we have determined that if someone borrows a book, downloads it to their Kindle reader and then turns off the wireless, bad things can happen. If that person then reads the book through – every page – but then returns to page one before again turning on the wireless and syncing with Amazon, the author gets credited with only one page read. This, in effect, is Amazon stealing from us. Amazon uses our content to entice readers to KU, promising to pay us for each page read, then paying us less than ½ cent for an entire book read – no matter how many pages.
I have often seen my page reads tick up by one page. [Let’s face it; I’m not a heavy hitter. I don’t sell a lot of books, and I don’t get hundreds of thousands of pages read per month – or per day – like some do. So, I can note this sort of thing better than more popular authors might.] And seeing my stats tick up by one page, I wonder if someone read one page of my book before putting it down, or if someone read through my whole book and then returned to the beginning before syncing with Amazon. Did I get my half-cent for one page, or did I get paid a half-cent for seven hundred and fifty pages? Did Amazon pay me justly according to contract, or did Amazon scam me out of three dollars? I don’t know, and Amazon relies on non-transparency to ensure that we don’t have more than the minimum amount of information useful to finding out.
KU’s lack of transparency doesn’t stop there.
When it became obvious that scammers were getting the monthly “All-Star” awards, and authors made this clear in blogs, in posts on forums, etc., Amazon’s solution to the problem seemed to be to make it more difficult … no, not more difficult to scam an “all-star” status, but more difficult to see the results of the scamming. Amazon stopped publishing the names of the winners, making it even less transparent.
When Amazon reacts to problems, it often uses a shotgun, where a rifle should be used – in other words, the solution often hurts the innocent as well as the guilty – often more than the guilty, because the guilty, if caught, simply abandon that account and start another. We legitimate authors cannot do that – or, if we do, we lose all books previously published.
Take this present situation. I, who have absolutely no control over who reads my books, find myself in danger of losing my account. Why? Because someone Amazon considers a scammer has borrowed them. I didn’t ask anyone to; I didn’t pay anyone to; I didn’t do anything. And my sales figures should show this to be the case. I had an average of 800 pages read per day in March (initial figures) of which you claim an average of 513 per day were scammed. No scammer worth his salt would try for a $2.50 per day payout.
I put in a lot of work to write a novel. It takes me a minimum of about 400 hours work to get one ready for publishing – I’m not fast. Sometimes it works out; other times I get a flop. One of mine (which I still believe is a fine novel) has sold 103 copies in almost 4 years. That’s $200 for 400 hrs work, or $0.50/hr. Not near minimum wage. A scammer puts in a couple hours work and nets thousands. We legitimate authors don’t think this is fair. But that’s what KU invites, what by its very composition it has always invited.
As I said, I don’t advertise – not any more. I did try AMS, but it gave me a very poor return on investment. And AMS has authors bid against each other to get what the Amazon algorithms once gave for free. The last time I tried for an ad, the bid went up over $1 per click. I think I got about 1 impression and no clicks before I gave up. At $1 per click, I would need a 50% success rate to barely break even. In fact, more likely I’d be paying Amazon more than my book is worth for the privilege of finding a reader. And Amazon knows that and still operates AMS like this. If I were to pay those readers a dollar each from my own pocket to read my books in KU, I’d make money – but that would be scamming, and I’d lose my account. So, doesn’t that make Amazon Marketing Services somewhat of a scam in itself as well?
To finish, I’m threatened with termination of my account for no valid reason; AMS doesn’t work for the author; KU is filled with scammers, and the innocent are tarred with the same brush by what? association? by the fact that alleged scammers may actually have read our books?; Amazon doesn’t seem to care who they damage with their shotgun attacks; Amazon actually scams us by not paying us for pages read – because they don’t know how many pages are read, and they knew they didn’t know this from the introduction of Kindle Unlimited. Yet they said that they did, and made a contract with us on that basis.
To protect my account, you have forced me to withdraw all my books from Kindle Unlimited when their present terms finish (one’s turn was up today – my best earner – and it’s out, the others should be gone by the end of the month). I can’t stop anyone from borrowing my books if I leave them in – I have no control over that aspect – and if the wrong people continue to borrow them, I may lose my account. I understand: your game; your rules (even though they are generally undefined publicly, and the internal definitions change at a seeming whim and without notice).
There is much more I could say, but this letter is long enough as it is.
So, if you can, sir, please tell me one good reason that I or any other legitimate author should endanger our accounts by maintaining any books in KU? (I already know why scammers should: they get our money – and in large amounts.)
D. A. Boulter.
PS: As I’m not sure you’ll ever get to see this, I’ll be posting it to my blog as well, as an open letter to you. But don’t worry, I only have about 20 or so followers. Hopefully someone else will pick it up – word of mouth.
[Re-blogging or posting of this letter permitted with a link to the original.]
[Re-blogging or posting of this letter permitted with a link to the original.]