KU Scammers on Amazon – What’s Going On?

This is extremely long and probably only of interest to indie authors, but it does impact readers who shop Amazon, so I’m putting it here for anyone.

Not many readers (who aren’t also authors) know any details about this, though readers sure are noticing the impacts of the scams. I see threads or posts all over the place about the difficulty readers are having with simply browsing on Amazon to find their next good read.

Discoverability is an author’s word when it comes to books…it’s the holy grail of the indie. If you say it in the tones of a voice-over in a serious movie, you can almost hear the slight echo: What is the secret of the grail (discoverability)?

Now, it is also a reader problem. The scammers have made finding books too difficult. Readers are going back to older methods for finding books or even worse, simply writing off any new author out of hand unless the recommendation comes from an actual person on Goodreads or forum or the like.

For those who don’t know, to be in KU, a book can’t be available at any other vendor. Amazon exclusive. The bonus is that it gets slightly better visibility simply because it can be a “recommendation” to KU browsers. Books not in KU are often not shown to them unless they are bigger names.

On to the issue of the scammers and what’s really going on…

KU pays authors based on a communal pot. It is not based on the price of the book. The amount KU subscribers pay is then divided between all authors based on how many of their pages were read by users.

So, it’s a pie. Some get a bigger slice, some a smaller, but the pie is finite and must be shared. So, if scammers take out of that pie, it comes directly out of the pockets of the others. That’s important.

KU 2.0 (which is what we’re in now) pays by the page. Not pages in books, but pages reader reads.

So, let’s say a reader checks out a book from KU, reads to page 100, decides they don’t like the book and returns it. The author gets paid for the 100 pages read. If it’s a page turner that the reader reads through to the end, the authors get paid for all 500 pages of wonderful and quality prose.

The pay per page is a small number and varies by a few thousandths of a penny each month, but it seems to be settling in at around $00.0045 per page. That equates to about $1.575 for a 350 page book.

One thing we were all assured by Amazon…many times…in writing…was that Amazon knew how much a reader was reading in each book and they would pay us for those pages.

Scammers being scammers, they realized Amazon was lying very early on. Amazon couldn’t tell what pages were read. They only knew the last place you were at in the book. And that’s what they were paying authors, the last place that the reader synced in the book.

So, a KU borrow on a device that didn’t sync until after the book was read and the reader flipped back to the front to check out what else you’d written? Yeah, no pages read.

But likewise, a reader who clicked a link on Page 1 offering them the opportunity to win a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and a $100 Amazon Gift Card….which then sent them to the back of a 3000 page book? Yep, you guessed it. They got paid for 3000 unread pages. (And no, there was no winner for those contests that  anyone knows off.)

Keep in mind, Amazon clearly knew this was happening, because the page limit for books in KU changed very recently (and abruptly) DOWN to 3000. There were 10,000 page books in KU doing this before that change. Even at $00.0041 per page (which is our lowest payout yet), that’s a big payout.

One of the scammers has YouTube tutorials on how to pull the scam. He showed a screen shot of a 15 year old kid’s KDP Dashboard who made over $70,000 in one month pulling this scam. And there are HUNDREDS of them.

Here’s the Scam:

1) Scammer acquires via advertisement (or sometimes actually writes) a bad book or part of it. Enough so that they can get past a quick look at the first few pages.

2) Scammer then puts 3000 pages of synonmizer garbage after that first portion.

3) Scammer creates 25 versions of that book with different nonsense after the first few pages to get past the automated checks.

4) Scammer creates a new KDP Account using a fresh EIN.

5) Scammer uploads each of the 25 versions under 25 author names, enters them into KDP Select and as soon as the books go live, they immediately use their 5 Days “free promo” allowed by being in select. This puts the book into KU and also makes it free to buy.

6) Scammer then either lets the KU Click-Farm or their Click Cooperative know that they’re books are live and gives the links.

7a) If Click-Farm (which might actually just be one guy sitting around in his underwear with 25 KU accounts), then the farmer clicks on every one of those newly published books, borrows each one, clicks to the *back* of the book. Rinse and repeat for every KU account the farmer has.

7b) If Click Cooperative, then the Scammer loads all his day’s book links into the cooperative’s page, and each person in the cooperative does what the Farmer did, but usually only with 2 or 3 KU accounts. (Each person in the cooperative does it for everyone else, possibly on a schedule).

8) Scammer has now made several thousand dollars.

Note: If Scammer is smart…and they are getting smarter…they will parse out those clicks over a three day period so that there is no possibility of an alert. Since the book is on the Free list, those savvy customers who report scam books aren’t likely to look. They look at the paid lists.

9) Scammer will often then hire a “free click farm” for a few bucks in some foreign country to have their farmers click the Buy For Free button to push up the rank of the book in the free ranks. This will get visibility for the book, enticing real KU browsers to click the scam book. (This works because with steady KU downloads and lots of free downloads, Amazon’s algorithms put the book into the recommendation engine.)

10) Scammer is now getting nervous. This is pinch time. If enough people report the book and it gets yanked by Amazon, then he or she won’t get their money for this EIN and will have to use one of their 100 other EINs of the month. Some scammers will yank the book now, unpublishing it before Amazon can and ensuring their payout. Others will let the Free period end and let it go to paid. This will put the book high in the paid ranks because of all the KU borrows (which count as sales) and they will get more sales from real people that Amazon recommends the book to. Before they can read it, Scammer yanks the book from sale.

11) Scammer then unpublishes everything and keeps the KDP account open only to collect the payday.

12) Scammer enjoys some champagne, then takes a day off, then does it again with the exact same books (maybe with new covers for $5 each from Fiverr), under a new KDP account with a new EIN and new author names.

The profit?

With a 25 member Click Coop that requires 2 KU accounts per member, a minimal scammer will make 600 bucks for each book. With an easily managed 25 books, that total is now $15,000. For a few days time and minimal work. Outlay can be as low as $20 for their two KU accounts plus $125 for new covers.

Doing this once a week (since Click Coops likely work on a schedule or max), the scammer has earned $60,000 in that month.

Some scammers are in the business in a much bigger way and they earn a great deal more.

That’s it in a nutshell. If you want some visual aids and some breakdown in more detail, keep reading. Otherwise, you’re now in the know!

EDIT: For those who want details of all the scams I tracked and their various methods, see my follow on post here.

Here’s a LIVE example from Amazon:

I typed “scifi romance” into the search box on Amazon. Before you try this yourself, make sure no child who might be scarred for life is in eye-shot of the screen. You’ll get such beauties as this title,ROMANCE: BWWM: Between Love & Friendship (BWWM Paranormal Scifi Romance Collection) (Interracial Alpha Male Pregnancy Short Stories).” 

CAVEAT! HUGE CAVEAT! I don’t want to get sued, so I’m going to make it clear from here on out that this book example is chosen at random from search results (first result). All that I say is my opinion and my assessment based on what I can see, evaluate, and judge as a human person who is allowed to make evaluations and judgments based on my common sense. If this is a real author and this is a real book and not a scam, then they have made a HUGE boo-boo in…uh…formatting?…and it needs to be corrected.

Here’s a little sneaky peek inside the above book. It is thousands of pages long and has about a hundred pages of actual content at the start to fool any casual browser. What’s pictured below then starts and to get to the rest of the story, you have to click the table of contents and trigger a full 3000 page read to get past all the pages of this. (Click to embiggen.)

ScambookInside - Edited

Now, this is supposed to be a book full of sexy romance shorts by “award winning” authors. Does that look anything like that to you?

The first part of the book is actually a story, so you can get a hundred pages or so into it and read actual words. Badly written, poorly formatted, and not very good…but it’s a book. Then that mess starts.

So, this is a prime example of the scams book. There’s a reason they do this on the free lists. They don’t want customers to see it right away.

Now for the Amazon page. Click to embiggen.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 at 2.16.39 PM - Edited

What you see there is the cover, the title (what a title!) and that it is free right now. It’s also in Kindle Unlimited. So far, despite a really bad blurb, it looks like a bad…but semi-real book.

Now check the ranks of this badly blurbed, terribly titled, and generally unattractive book.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 at 2.18.14 PM - Edited

What is that? That is the rank (#2,974 in the entire Kindle Free Store).  In terms of free, that means a whole boatload of copies moved.

You also see the size of the file: 2837 KB, which is huge and for a non-illustrated book, means a whole lot of pages. And also you’ll see the publishing date of April 10th, so less than a week ago.

 

The rank is the product of a click farm to have thousands more “buy” the book for free, raising it in the ranks and creating visibility for the book so real readers will see and maybe accidentally click, thinking it’s an actual book. Those kinds of click farms are far cheaper that KU Farms. You can buy thousands of clicks for very little. They are openly advertised out there. (If you’re an author, don’t even think about it. Once Amazon does do something, they will likely take down all who participated.)

And what’s more, when the “free days” allowed by KDP end, the book will appear very high on the Paid ranks because of all the KU borrows, which means REAL consumers will see the book, think it’s a popular book and click it, creating some extra cash flow.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Remember how I said the authors share the KU funds from a communal pot? That means for each $100,000 bucks these scammers get (and since they are getting KU All Star Bonuses for being the biggest sellers of the month, they are doing very well indeed), that is $100,000 that isn’t being shared by actual authors. Amazon doesn’t pay that, it comes out of the Author pot so *we* pay it.

For Strikers, I earn about $2 per borrow if the reader actually finishes the book. For some of the others, less. For the PePr novellas? About 40 cents.

Why? Because the per-page pot is diluted to lower and lower amounts with the millions and millions of pages the scammers get paid for, but no one reads.

In essence, this is an unbeatable system of scam-age that KU fosters simply by it’s nature. And Amazon’s automated systems are so automated that there’s not a darn thing they can do to stop it *under their current system.*

Ah, their current system! What can they do? Scammers gonna’ scam, right? Well, up till now that’s been their attitude. Only us little guys are really harmed since we’re barely visible anyway. But the scammers have now started stepping on much more dainty and well-paid toes and hopefully, things will get action.

David Gaughran is a well known voice in the book world, and he’s been posting some amazing and insightful pieces that help to make sense of the current KU problem. His latest is depressingly on point and in a way, I’m actually glad the scam has risen to this level.

Why would I be glad? That’s awful!

Simple. Because up till now the scam was primarily impacting the mid-lister or tiny prawn in the self-publishing world. It stripped us of whatever small visibility we could get and pushed us into oblivion, where no reader would find us. The big names were still safe.

So, it wasn’t their problem. They were still banking 5 or 6 figures a month, so why should they care?

Now, it’s their problem too. Not only have KU scammers taken some of their All Star bonuses from the big names, prominent authors are now being pushed right off the main pages of the Top 100.

That’s serious. But again, why would I be happy because that’s happening to them? Am I bitter?

No! Not at all. It’s because Amazon has been ignoring all us mid-listers and prawns because, after all, we’re mid-listers and prawns. Our purpose is to make sure we put our books in so they can boast they have fourteen bagillion books in KU and then be happy with what we get. Now that it’s bigger names (the kind that have actual contacts in KDP Customer service), Amazon just might listen.

So, that’s me, breathing a big sigh of relief.

If you’re interested in the problem and finding out more about the latest iteration (along with a great example by Phoenix Sullivan, a smart, successful, and savvy publisher who has now felt that scammer burn), David’s wonderful post is here:  https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/ku-scammers-attack-amazons-free-ebook-charts

And if you’re not really interested in that, how about I just show you my comment to that article. It’s fairly aggressive in terms of a solution, but at this point, the problem is so pervasive, I have doubts whether anything less will be effective.

There are lots of people offering all kinds of solutions and mine may be no better, but I think it’s likely to be more effective than doing nothing. It will also be incredibly difficult for Amazon to actually get started and not spend money. They got lucky for a long time by just having us run amok out there, but the china shop is a wreck and there are bulls crapping in all the yards, so they really have to just do it.

Here it is:

I spent my first career dealing with complex problems on a very large scale. That part of me is shaking her head and knows what needs to be done. The author part of me that gets most of her writing income from Amazon dreads what needs to be done (though thankfully I don’t depend on it or I’d be freaking even more than I am).

 

The best solution is one that Amazon most surely dreads taking too. They have to take the Google Play Nuclear Option here and simply suspend creation of new author accounts.

 

But wait…there’s more!

 

Because KDP isn’t Google, it will have to be a tiered attack and it can’t be defensive in nature. It has to be aggressive and sustained. Because the black hat cheaters are aggressive and their work is all too sustained and creative. And they’re winning.

 

Aside from immediate suspension of new accounts within KDP for new authors (which will seriously suck for many legit authors) they will need to go back through everyone on there and weed out the cheaters, ban for life the egregious ones (I know the black hats get new EINs like candy, which is where new accounts comes in), ban for life all KU users who have circled these wagons (should be a fairly straightforward program there), stop expanding KU into countries where click-farms are so easily created, and create an actual customer service center with actual English speaking people who have more than 20 seconds on the timer to service calls.

 

On top of that, they have to have probationary periods for new authors when they open it back up. Those get looked at by humans. Duplicated material (which will be a pain for anthology and box set authors) will get flagged for human attention.

 

Will cheaters still get through? Absolutely! There will no doubt be black hats with new EINs that are “clean” and past the probationary period who will sell those EINs for major bank to cheaters who will then load up 100 cheat books in one day and click farm them to death.

 

But by then, the ranks will have cleared and reports can then be dealt with in a far more timely manner. Right now, they’re holding very tiny fingers in giant holes popping up all over their dam and the water is running right over them. The only way to do anything at this point is to go nuclear.

 

There will be those that say Amazon would never do that (and they may be right). But consider that even though KDP and Amazon book sales consist of a high percentage of indie titles, that doesn’t mean they don’t have enough to keep readers busy already. They do. There are enough legit titles on Zon for them to stop new authors from joining for a while. There are enough legit authors already on Zon that they can fill up the new releases lists and jump for joy while no one new joins.

 

So yes, Amazon could feasibly do this and not suffer one single missed dollar due to millions of titles already in hand.

 

But will they? Or will they wait too long and doom KU for themselves, for readers, and for authors.

 

That said, I’ve unchecked yet another series from KDP Select. Like many others, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather get a little less now than be slammed later when things totally fall apart. So, I’m taking that series wide.

112 Responses to KU Scammers on Amazon – What’s Going On?

  • Michael Hyatt says:

    But I was so looking forward to “BWWM Paranormal Scifi Romance Collection (Interracial Alpha Male Pregnancy Short Stories)” — very disappointed to learn it’s all a scam! Seriously, thanks for sharing this — I had no idea this was going on. Raising a hue and cry will hopefully help light a fire under Mr. Bezos and Amazon to correct this madness.

    • Ruby Madden says:

      Ironically and as funny as it is, that may very well be a legit story. That is the lengths that authors have had to go to so that their book can be found or discovered by a reader. Its about discoverability. They keyword stuff the titles so that when readers do searches for a certain type of content, hopefully their story will come up.

      • Ann Christy says:

        That’s the scam book in my example. It’s 3000 pages of synonimizer. Michael was just having a bit of fun with me. That said, I’m having a bit of fun with him now too…because he’s editing my WIP! LOL…red pen of death!

    • Alex Oh says:

      Jeff Bezos will respond in the following way:

      1. He create a new e-mail being sent to the head of the department responsible for KU.
      2. He will copy and paste the link to this blog post in the e-mail body.
      3. He will write “?” for the subject line.
      4. He will then send the e-mail.

  • Tim Ward says:

    Thank you for your time and insight! Wow, that was very tough to read, but also very informative. I only have one novel published, a Sand shared world novel, but plan for two more in the next few months. This has me seriously considering avoiding KU for all of them. It has been months since I’ve had any pages read via KUs system, but I also sold 0 on ithr platforms for the first month or so, making the switch to KU easier. Anyway, thanks and good luck!

  • Julie-Anne says:

    Hi Ann
    I read your comment on David’s blog and followed your link here. I have to thank you for breaking this situation down into tangible parts – I’ve heard about the various internet marketing scams on Amazon before but I haven’t truly understood how it all works. You’ve helped me to see the exact process and how damaging it is for authors, readers and also for Amazon. So thank-you for taking the time to break it all down and I hope Amazon moves forward quickly and effectively with a solution, not just a knee-jerk reaction.
    Cheers

  • A.J. Goode says:

    I think one of the scariest things about these scams is how easy they seem to be. I’m just a prawn who’s lucky enough to pull in a few bucks every month with my books, so it’s not as though I’m in the running for an All Star Bonus at this point anyway. But it hurts me just the same because it cheapens the image of all indies, and let’s be honest — it’s a huge temptation for some of us. When I’m typing my books on a broken laptop and chasing the “e” key across the room each time it pops off, I’ll admit to wondering how many scam-books I’d have to “write” to be able to afford a better computer, or to pay off my car, or whatever. I won’t do it, but the temptation is strong.

    I wish I had the courage to pull my books out of KU, but right now I make more money from borrows than I do from sales. If I tried to go wide right now, I’d lose what little money I earn, and I’m not brave enough for that. So I just keep plugging along, resisting temptation and earning a dollar or two per day in pages read and just hoping for the best.

    • Ann Christy says:

      Just keep doing what you’re doing. Once these scammers are gone (and possibly in jail for fraud) you’ll still be there, ready with a good book to offer a reader who needs to escape for a while. That’s important.

    • Debra says:

      I’m right there with you A.J.!!

  • Peter Rey says:

    This post is both a depressing and shocking read. But it’s also incredibly informative and necessary. We writers are generally considered the creative ones, but by comparison with these scammers…
    Thanks a lot for sharing.

  • Great write-up, Ann!

    Hey, will you hit me up if you have any interest on coming on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast and chatting about the KU scam stuff and of course about your own work, including writing in the Wool world (we haven’t had a guest yet who’s done Kindle Worlds)? We get about 1000 listens per show, lots of SF&F authors and fans. 🙂

    Thanks!

    Lindsay

  • Nirmala says:

    It seems to me Amazon could at least limit this activity by making Kindle Unlimited less unlimited. If there was a reasonable limit on how many ebooks you could borrow in a day or week, then the whole system would break down, or at least be a lot harder to pull off. If each KU account could only download say 10 books a day maximum, then it costs more to run a click farm as you would need many more KU accounts.

    Also even without setting a specific limit on the number of borrows per day, Amazon could crack down by simply identifying KU accounts where someone downloads and returns large numbers of books that are obviously not actually being read. If someone is downloading 25 books in a day and then returning them and downloading 25 other books the next day, they are obviously not reading them. So Amazon could just shut down these KU subscriber accounts as they appeared and short circuit the whole scam from that end. Amazon recently has shut down some Amazon accounts where someone returned too many general merchandise purchases, so this is something they could easily do, and also they could do it with a robot instead of a human.

    • Greg says:

      Absolutely agree, Nirmala. Ms. Christy’s solution is in fact the nuclear option, while yours would be 80% as effective at effectively zero cost. Impose a reasonable limit of 2 books per day (converted to, say, 14 per week, so that genuine readers can do a single checkout for the week instead of having to come back every day).

      This would drive the overhead of running a click farm up dramatically, which would wreck the scam. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that someone would want to read more than 14 KU books a week but their inconvenience benefits the many here. And they could sign up for a second account if it bothered them that much.

  • Nirmala says:

    It also seems they could catch people who are downloading lots of free ebooks everyday and close their accounts also to shut down the click farms for free downloads in the same way.

  • John Brown says:

    Wow. Thanks for explaining this. I’m totally torqued. I bust my chops to write the best story I can, and Amazon’s paying morons for trash.

  • This is really disheartening.

  • Thank you I will store this and re-read it. Maybe I am too innocence, but I cannot believe people can be so wicked cheating others like that.

  • Meghann Van Dolzer says:

    Amazon could also update the Kindle software to record actual pages read. That would make it very hard to click farm efficiently.

    • Ann Christy says:

      Agreed, though I’m sure they’re trying to balance privacy with technology as well. Even so, actually clicking to a page should be required to count that page and that doesn’t seem so hard to me.

      • Kim Lambert says:

        As a long time It tech person, as well as an author and publisher, I do need to say here that it is actually quite hard to do. Why ? because on Kindle, a page is not a page. Because you can read your Kindle book on any kindle device, on any android or iOS device, on any PC or in any browser on anything, depending on what Kindle reading app you choose, ‘page’ is an esoteric concept – the text reflows and scales depending on the device.

        So the ‘pages’ that Amazon talks about for Kindle devices are approximations, based on how many pages the print book would be, if you took your Kindle ready Word file, and set the page size setting to approx. those for a 6 x 9 inch print book (which gives you a result much like the screen size on a Kindle Fire HD). So Amazon has an algorithm that assesses your books size based on that sort of thing, allocates that a number of ‘pages then divides the book data file into that number of units (which they can then count, using that location’ thing that you see at the bottom of your kindle reading screen.).

        So how many pages they think you have read actually comes from the number of page units worth of locations you have moved through the book, where the number of location units per page’ in every book will be slightly different…..

        You see why I say its not easy. its not about pages clicked on, because every ones page is different. There algorithm is very clever, but getting more precise would be a nightmare.

  • Thank you for the thorough breakdown of this issue. I read a post yesterday about the scams but it skirted around how exactly these scams worked. I have just released my first book and allowed it to be in kdp select for the launch so I could get added exposure. It makes me mad that these people are screwing all the rest of us authors who put the time, energy, and creativity into our works to have them stuck in the black pits where they will very rarely catch even a glimpse of the light of day.

    This makes getting our books visible even harder. I have had alot of luck with organic growth via word of mouth so far but with the book being brand new I can imagine my beginners luck running out very soon. I think a very good edition would be for Amazon to no longer allow people to link to any part of their books and make advertisements a no no in the front of the book at all. It wouldn’t hurt them to have a real person actually read through the first few pages to see if their is something am miss, or even set up a system that checks for certain phrases and red flags them for review of an actual person.

    Hopefully Amazon will see the error of their ways and fix it before it’s too late for them since it’s already affecting readers, authors, and publishers alike.

    • Ann Christy says:

      Those ideas have merit, but get sticky. Linking to the next book in the series (if it’s a series) on the back page is common and shouldn’t be punished, nor a link to the author’s mailing list, since that is vital to success. It would be difficult to parse out which links are okay and which aren’t. Removing them from the front of the book is fine, but they can just put a great big piece of text…formatted like a title…that says, click to the back via your table of contents to win a kindle!

      It sounds crazy, but it will happen. They have to go to the source rather than muck about with making more rules that mostly trap the legit and that scammers will find a way around in less than a minute.

  • Lillian says:

    The top books sold or the ones that have top pages read should have an automatic red flag that Amazon should follow up by employing live readers who would read every 200th page. By the 600th page or 3 pages read by the reader, or even if they only read random pages starting halfway through the book, it would be obvious that it was fake e-book. The reader should be able to tell if the book is fake and flag the book for Amazon to deal with before payment is made. The people who are customers could also just fill out a short questionnaire that asks if the downloaded book was a complete novel or a scam. A lot of readers would respond because people don’t like to be scammed. Of course Amazon would have to care enough to change the way they deal with payments. Amazon did change their book reviews and made it mandatory that the reviewer had to purchase the book before they could submit a review to cut down on false reviews and flooding a book with five star reviews by people who had not purchased or read the book or gave negative reviews to a rival author. The payment system needs to be overhauled completely.. .

  • That is incredible. I knew that almost certainly there would be lots of bad books and even plagiarised ones, but I never imagined what an organized system of fraud there seems to be. Thanks for letting us know about this.

  • Phil says:

    Thanks for writing this, very informative article. As someone who is in the middle of writing his first SciFi novel I hope they don’t suspend new KDP accounts, because that’s the main target I have for launching the book on. I used to be an indie game developer and I left that world precisely because of similar issues with games.

    I think whenever you have digital markets, where users can have free accounts and can download items for free, you are going to get these issues. Having said that the problem in this example seems to lay with the system Amazon employs to read pages, if that was fixed it would help the problem.

    It certainly makes me think twice about putting my book into KU which is a shame because it’s something I was thinking seriously about.

  • Ged Byrne says:

    The nuclear options isn’t needed. This is a problem that Amazon could easily solve using machine learning.

    Here is a description of how Google identify spam blogs: http://www.lauradhamilton.com/how-google-uses-machine-learning-to-detect-spam-blogs-maybe.

    Amazon are already using this approach to identify fake reviews, the can do the same for books. http://www.i-programmer.info/news/105-artificial-intelligence/8734-amazon-uses-machine-leaning-for-fraud-detection.html

    • Ann Christy says:

      While Google’s method to ID fake blogs works, it didn’t even work in their own Book store and they had to shut it down to new users. It just doesn’t work without a human and gets too many false positives. As for the fake reviews…it turns out that Amazon got rid of far more real reviews than fake ones.

      Here’s a nifty tidbit…one of the biggest flags for a false review is not having a “verified purchase” flag. Guess what doesn’t get a verified purchase flag? Anything borrowed by Kindle Unlimited. And guess what a lot of super-users are members of to get books cheaper? Kindle Unlimited.

      Another colossal screw up!

      • Ged Byrne says:

        It’s unfortunate that Amazon haven’t been able to develop this properly, because this problem could be resolved with a little development effort.

        1. The kindle device is quite capable of recording every page read, rather than just the final page. The actual pages visited could be recorded by the device and then summarized in a call to the Amazon servers. This is not challenging to code and Amazon have full control of the device for deploying the update.

        2. There are very clear signals that an alogrithm could be trained to identify.
        – For the scam to work the book has to be very large.
        – There must be a link in the initial pages that takes the reader to the end of the book
        – The book must reach the top of the rankings if it is to make money
        – Click farm behaviour is clearly distinct from real consumer behavior

        Machine learning isn’t every required. Signals this clear could be identified using crude statistical analysis.

        In your opinion, if I were to create a query that listed all books over 500 pages that contained a link in the first 5 pages that took the reader to the third quarter of the book what percentage of the results would be genuine? I’m guessing it would close to zero.

        There’s no technical reason why this problem couldn’t be solved if Amazon were willing to make the effort.

      • KellyNJ says:

        Another problem with that is beta readers that won’t have a purchase to verify. I also publish reviews on Amazon even though I don’t use a Kindle – the same as I publish on other reading sites. So not quite sure that’s the answer.

        • Ann Christy says:

          Requiring a verified purchase is a non-starter in every respect, particularly since Amazon doesn’t give a verified purchase tag to anything read via Kindle Unlimited, which is lame. Also, I buy stuff in stores and then love it so much I review it on the Zon. And…beta readers and ARC readers too. Even trad pub author will be hit by that.

  • someone says:

    “Scammer then either lets the KU Click-Farm or their Click Cooperative know that they’re books are live and gives the links.”

    The click farms are books ?

  • Gabe says:

    I hate to be a party pooper but Amazon, to me, is nothing but one big advertisement. Thankfully, anything I buy or borrow on the internet NEVER comes from Amazon (idiots). I would no more use a kindle nor have an acct. with them than I would sell drugs on the corner. I love to read and have over 4000 books on both my phone and tablet btw.

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  • Jess Walls says:

    I’m a huge fan of indie authors, and my Amazon library is embarrassingly large. Thank you for posting about this issue. I had no idea how the whole Amazon-paying-the-independents worked.
    All I can say is that that really sucks, and I’m so sorry.

  • Two questions (from a concerned indie author):

    1. If people can download the book for free, why are they borrowing? Or is it only the click farms that are borrowing? And if so, why does the book need to be free for this to happen?

    2. I understood that free books going back to paid did NOT get a ranking boost as they did pre-KU. Did I miss something? Not that anyone knows exactly how Amazon’s algorithms work, of course.

    Glad to be wide… Valerie

    • Ann Christy says:

      Hi Valerie! Let me see if I can clear it up.

      First off, the scam is evolving so things change quickly and they are tricky. What works today will be even trickier to find in two months.

      1) Why borrow when it’s free?

      Part One of the Answer (Real People): It’s a strange side-effect that is true whether you’re a real author or not. Many KU users are no longer wanting to clutter up their kindles with a bunch of books they won’t read. It’s a great tool to make sure that what you have, you’ll read. So, many do. During a BookBub feature, I got over 280,000 page reads even though the book was on a free run. That paid for my BookBub ad.
      Part Two of the Answer (Scam People): The Click Farms do it because a book on the Free Lists isn’t monitored the same way as a new paid book. When an author runs a promotion and uses their Free days for a book, Amazon *expects* that book to get many more downloads and KU reads, so a huge inrush at the book doesn’t raise any red flags. On the Paid Lists, it will rise quickly in the ranks and a savvy author or reader is more likely to report the book. That makes it risky, because if Amazon pulls the book down because it’s a scam before the scammer can unpublish, they get paid nothing.

      2) Paid rank post free run?

      Answer: Nice new twist! Since each KU borrow acts as a sale at the moment of the borrow (regardless of when pages are read), then those that borrow via KU instead of downloading free are raising the rank on the Paid file for that book. So, when it goes back to paid, it has a high rank. Free downloads do not count for that paid ranking.

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  • I’m close to publishing my first eBook and.was considering alternatives. I’ve never been fond of giving an exclusive to anyone and this article convinced me to stay on that track. That you for such a clear explanation.

  • Mark Entingh says:

    You’d probably be better off becoming one of the scammers.

  • E.S. Ivy says:

    I have been out of the writing game for awhile, but had wondered if there was another reason the borrows of my two children’s novels had fallen off a cliff. (Cliff was low. Maybe I should say fell off the curb.) My teenage son called my attention to this, so you have gotten some wide attention somewhere!

    Pulled my books out of KU.

  • John says:

    I’m not an author like most people posting here. I actually just found this post by someone sharing it on Facebook. I think your insight is very precise but at the same time, a double sided sword. Many people who are wondering how to make money on the internet can take this information and become a spammer themselves. I think it’s too precise. It says too much about the how-to.

    • Ann Christy says:

      Hi John – In deference to that possibility, I left out a couple of steps needed to ensure collection of the cash.

  • Great posting, Ann. Thanks for letting everyone know.

    MIchael

  • Markie Madden says:

    Hi Ann! I, too, would like to speak more in depth with you on this matter. I’ll be organizing a writing workshop (or maybe more a Publishing workshop) in September, and I’d love to have maybe a video discussion to play. I advocate all my author connections to stop making their work exclusive to Amazon, because I think Google will soon begin to give Kindle a run for its money. Anyway, I’d love to chat!

  • Hacker News at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11520212 led me here and the description of all the scams is depressing but still as a “prawn” author I am glad to find out what is going on. Thank you for describing the problem for us in such great detail. Oh, by the way, I am the creator of some new technology in artificial intelligence and over time there may be a sharply increasing opportunity for would-be authors to write books and tech manuals about my Ghost Perl Webserver artificial intelligence. I am too busy writing all the Perl code to write all the possible books about it. But I dread being scammed by bandits who will steal all our hard work and generate unearned profits from it. Good luck and good-bye.

  • Paul says:

    Shock! Outrage! Horror!

    Then I’m thinking … I could make $70,000 a month using this system? I barely make $700 a year in royalties through legitimate channels…

  • Jackie Weger says:

    Hello, Ann Christy; I read your reply on David’s blog about the scam. Excellent. My units are in Select. I’m not moving them out. I agree that Amazon has to take action by nailing the scammers/clickbait farms/clickbait books. However, it will take a vigorous investigation team to identify the culprits and stop them. It is not just those paleo diet books, scifi and romance novels. Children’s books are being targeted, too. Those scam books across all genres are showing up on Also Bought streams right along with legitimate titles. I am watching the patterns of the click farm ‘push’. The clickbait farm books took over Easter Sunday and undermined two Bookbub runs, and perhaps a 3rd. Next up is Mother’s Day. I am so not going to promote on holidays. Who can afford for a Bookbub promo to go awry? Not me or any author, indie or legacy published. Thus the tentacles of the fake book scams are affecting more than just the authors, but publishers and promoters, as well. IMO, Once Bookbub, ENT and fkb&t lose their cachet and reputations for moving books, we are all in a world of hurt. By-the-by: You did a real service to explain how the click farms work.

  • Mardi Maxwell says:

    This is the second article I’ve read about this scam but Amazon doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to fix it. This makes me question if they even care who gets the money, legitimate writers or scammers, as either way they have to pay it out. Then, of course, there is the added cost of fixing the problem. Although, they seemed to be willing to listen when writers who wrote longer books complained about writers who wrote shorter books earning the same amount on sales (and they changed to the pages read method). Either way its discouraging.

  • I know that ridiculous title you posted is absurd, but as someone who actually writes interracial romance and has been following this phenomenon for a while I’ve seen far worse. It didn’t dawn on me that they’re using click-farms, but of course they would. On one recent night I went through the multicultural best-sellers and hit 30 before I found a real author and then there were another couple dozen before I found another one. It’s maddening and frustrating and I don’t think Amazon is going to do a damned thing about it. People are leaving the genre like crazy, and I really don’t blame them.

  • Mike Kramlich says:

    Ann, great insight and detail, thank you! Though I’m not in KU I am an indie ebook author and feel the pain from phenomena like this. I bet that even out in the non-KU part of Amazon’s ebook market that scams like this are happening (click farming, buyers-for-hire, content piracy, etc.) Discoverability is a huge challenge and made worse by the fraudsters adding noise.

    Here’s my only consolation. Or my strategy, to cope. Try to improve my writing and become so darn good nobody can ignore me. (Well, eventually, before the stars die out and the universe collapses back into a black hole.) Also… tell myself to not rely on getting any discoverability from the marketplaces themselves. Either I have to promote. Or… become so darn good I can’t be ignored.

    Anyway, hoping this strategy works for me and my series, some day. (, a comedy romance in space with pirates and Earth ladies and mad AI minds and the occasional shopping for shoes while the pirates sleep. I feel so dirty. Yet refreshingly clear of conscience. :-P)

  • Hey Ann, you suggest “suspension of new accounts within KDP for new authors (which will seriously suck for many legit authors)”. As someone who is hoping to self-publish later this year (but who has nothing ready yet) should/could I get an author account now?

    • Ann Christy says:

      While I may suggest that, Amazon surely doesn’t listen to me. That said, Google Books found themselves in a similar position and they did suspend new partner accounts. It might not be a bad idea…just in case.

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  • BOBBY BROOKS says:

    Just read your whole post, I wondered how all that worked, When I started with KU I had 10 books and was doing okay, But now, I have 32 books and can’t make half as much, man has it all changed.

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  • Leenna says:

    Thanks for this, Ann. You’ve given a great explanation of a matter I couldn’t really get my head around. I’m not on KU, but scams like this are likely to affect all Indie’s, and eventually traditional publishers, in all distribution channels in future if not curtailed.
    I’m not sure about your solution, but it’s awesome that you’ve got one for the rest of us that are scratching our heads:-D
    Thanks, once again.

  • Chad says:

    I don’t think the nuclear option is the first / only choice here.

    Amazon can probably parse for the largest books, find which accounts are exploiting the system, and shut them down.

    Or, they could look at which accounts have had the biggest boost in earnings recently, and manually review them.

    Or, they could kick everyone out of KU (save trusted accounts), and make everyone pay a fee and apply to get each title back in. The fee could be refunded if approved, but it would also pay for labor for a manual review of each title. If not reviewing for quality, but only whether it’s a scam book or not, a real person could review lots of books quickly.

    Just a few ideas.

    • Ann Christy says:

      They’ve been trying. For months we’ve been reporting scam books and it’s just a drop in the bucket. Some of them are still up even after weeks of reporting, so clearly someone either doesn’t see the problem or they are seriously backlogged. The new scam takes much of the reporting danger out of the equation by running them only for a few days, keeping them on the free lists (KU reads from click farmers being the only ones who really need to see the book), and then yanking them before enough reports roll in.

      Having books in KU screened for entry sounds like a plan, but an extremely costly one.

      • I’ve always wondered why Amazon didn’t have some type of screening system like they do in the iBookstore and even Kobo. Having absolutely no quality control is nuts, even from a basic salesmanship viewpoint. I assume that their other products have some type of testing or review process, why does this not apply to books?

  • Rhubarb says:

    Simple solution: Amazon should distribute the KU fees of each member individually. That is the fees of each member is divided by the pages he/she read and distributed to authors.

  • Peter Hickman says:

    Perhaps they could have some sort of check on book length. A million word book, read on average at X words per minute, should take Y hours to read.

    Claiming to have read 3 inside an hour would be a sign that nothing got read and the entry is invalid.

    The same with borrowing, you borrowed 10,000,000 words yesterday and today you have borrowed another 10,000,000 more. Your account is invalid.

  • Thanks Ann. I’m very grateful to people like yourself and David who are highlighting this mess. If we keep making enough noise, something will have to be done. People power and all that. Personally, I think I’m done with KU though. Exclusivity gives too much weight to Amazon and if these scams are our reward for putting out trust in their infrastructure, then going wide is the way forward.

    • Ann Christy says:

      I’m currently working my strategy for going with with another series as well. It gets more reads than sales, but I feel like I have to just try it at this point. I’m stuck in it until June anyway because of the timer, but that will be here soon enough.

  • Aoife says:

    We should all post reviews of the really obvious ones that just say SCAM! This is incredible. I’d say I can’t believe how organised it is, but sadly I can…

    • Ann Christy says:

      That can be risky!

      If it’s the scam that’s closed (meaning the scammer, click-farmer or click-coop members) then it won’t do any good because the books are up such a short time and not meant to be borrowed by real people really.

      If it’s the scam directed at readers (and some authors have actually descended into this) then they can target your books for retaliation.

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  • Opher says:

    Thanks for publicizing this severe problem. As someone who aspires to publish a book one day, I really don’t like your “nuclear option” solution, but I agree Amazon has to do something serious, which will require putting in some significant resources. What that something will be, time will tell (one hopes). However, for whatever it’s worth, here’s an idea that would not harm aspiring new authors and should be doable in some version.

    Amazon could hire from Fiverr a very large number of people to each read 10 random pages from 10 assigned long “books” – say in each book the reader reads a pair of randomly assigned consecutive pages between pages 0 and 150, another pair between 150 and 500, another between 500 and 1000, and two random pairs between 1000 and the end of the book.

    Then, if the Fiverr guy or gal says those 10 pages x 10 books make sense for the book title and description, and that the characters match in most pages, they get $5. For every bogus book they identify, Amazon has a real editor verify, and if the book *is* bogus, the Fiverr guy or gal gets a $50 Amazon gift card. I suspect the response will be huge, and they’d clear out the chaff in no time.

    I’m sure there are ways to game this suggested system too, but at least it can help get things somewhat cleaned up quickly.

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  • Ms. Christy-

    I’d like to be in touch with you outside of comments, if possible. I’m a reporter working on a story inspired by this post. I cover e-books pretty thoroughly and would like to get something done on this story. You have my email, hit me up if you are game to talk. I would also be happy to talk on the phone.

    -Brady Dale

  • Bryan says:

    I’m not an author (unless you consider our computer friends as ‘readers’ of software), but I am an avid consumer of books via KU.

    This probably shouldn’t shock me, but… it did. Here I was happily finding many new authors to feed my habit, only to have this veil suddenly ripped away. I’m left saddened for you and your colleagues, and feeling complicit, as well, somehow, even though I’m hardly a scammer.

    I found your blog via a posting on Hacker News, which has had a lively discussion.

    If you don’t know about Hacker News, it is mostly inhabited by programmers, the majority of whom really are hackers in the modern sense of the word. Many of the comments are around software solutions or improvements, rather than policy changes, but… you got our attention, and this is what we do.

    I truly hope that Amazon takes this issue seriously and does something meaningful to tackle it.

  • Thank you Ann for posting this very insightful article. I have long wished for better validation tools for many parts of the internet (reviews, books, reference sources) and scams like this only confirm that desire.

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  • Carol Manson says:

    Your article clearly explained to me something I have noticed on Amazon, i.e., when looking for Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice variations and sequels, I noted large numbers of offerings, similarly titled to your example “BWWM Alien . . . ” book, but with Austen or Pride and Prejudice in place of the “Alien” text. I never bought one, as it was apparently that these titles were no such thing (unknown authors, the same stock covers over and over, and the ridiculous titles). The “why” of it puzzled me, and now I know what their purpose is. Thank you for the enlightenment!

  • C.S. Trimmier says:

    As you’ve described it, the KU system doesn’t appear to contain much economic incentive for Amazon to stop the fraud, because the fraud takes money out of the pockets of legitimate authors rather than Amazon. Their only incentive is to prevent their offerings from becoming complete junk.

    I was planning to release Part One of Free America (SF political dystopia set in a near-future America ruled by militant Christians at war against Islam) on KU as of June 15, with subsequent parts releasing on approximately a quarterly basis before going to print next spring or summer, but your insights are making me think about going another direction even though I’ve committed. I’m also beginning to understand the reasoning behind some of their very curious rules. I’m going to take a look at what the consequences might be if I pull my commitment at this point.

    I would be grateful if you might share your candid advice about what you think the current best practices are for a new indy author’s first release (logistical advice like publication services/channels to use rather than craft advice like “use a professional copy editor” and “don’t DIY your cover art”).

    Also, LOVE your website, especially the multiple progress meters. I want to borrow that idea if you don’t mind… Who did your site?

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  • Crystal says:

    I was just asking some of my editor colleagues about something I’ve seen on Upwork. I no longer use the site, but since my profile is still there, I occasionally get invites to bid on jobs, and almost a third of the time it’s to write 10,000 word romance “novels” for $100 each and a week turnaround time. This has perplexed me for a variety of reasons, and I’ve always deleted them, but then I started wondering what use anyone would have for a “novel” that’s essentially a short story in length. I’m going to guess this scam is one possibility, since you mention that they fill the beginning of their garbage books with actual content.

    Thanks for such an insightful post, Ann.

    • Ann Christy says:

      I would guess so, though I’ve not specifically looked into that site’s job listing. Fiverr is another place.

      • Crystal says:

        If you’re interested, I can send you the listing text; it’s almost exactly the same every time I get invited. I went to go look at it again and the client withdrew my invite. A Google search shows nothing for the “publisher” name on the listing.

        • Ann Christy says:

          I would love that! My research binders for this project have enough room for a few more pages before I break the spines. 🙂

  • wil says:

    Absolutely fascinating read, Ann – Thanks! It makes me wonder about a problem I’ve mused over before. Will software simply be able to write actual books (of middle quality at least) – say, 10 years down the line – that will then be placed into the KU library system and gum up the works in a new way.

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  • I don’t know if this has been done already, or if it will help, but I’ve just sent an email with a link to this article to Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, the two New York Times writers who did the piece on Amazon’s treatment of employees a while ago. The Times has received a lot of blowback for “Amazon Derangement Syndrome” in its coverage of the company. I don’t know if that makes them more or less likely to dig into it, but hopefully they’ll see this as a legitimate target for investigation.

    • Ann Christy says:

      I so feared being accused of ADS that I hesitated to post this for over a month! Thanks for forwarding it ~ Ann

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  • Jeff says:

    Hi Anne, love your site, and you have a new fan here in me. On this news, I’ve been following a couple of brand new books that were put up on the 20th, and they were all in the top 100, and then they vanished the next day. I don’t know if that’s amazon, or what. Any news or word on what is happening?

    • Ann Christy says:

      Hi Jeff! Thank you for coming to visit the site. As to those particular books, without titles I can’t tell if those are ones on my tracking chart (I have hundreds on there), but that’s the general pattern. Up quickly, click farm, down off the site before Amazon yanks them. So, they could be in that league.

      On the other hand, Amazon now appears to be doing something! While their new system appears to be automated and I’ve been able to correlate a couple of unifying factors that legitimate books being yanked share, it seems to be catching a whole lot of the scammers and very few real authors. I know that doesn’t help the few real authors being caught in the net, but it is working and they seem to be quick in reversing any accidents.

      • Jackie Weger says:

        Hello, Ann Christy: Here is what I’ve noticed the past two weeks. Scammers are invading Facebook, Kboards and Amazon author forums. The scammers are asking for comments on their covers etc. The books are 9 pages/14 pages and up to 34 pages in length. None have amazon author bios. The inside text reads like cut and paste from Wikipedia. All have excellent sales stats reflecting under the radar click farm activity. Up to 25 reviews, all carefully worded but English is skewed. The scammers are adjusting…Here is one:
        by George Silva
        Link: http://amzn.com/B01ED2TM8Q

        Not to be confused with Daniel Silva…. a legitimate author with similar books with above 3000 reviews… Playing on a name. I actually found a romance with my legal name on it. I emailed amazon and it disappeared. Amazon gave me some gobblygook about it. That the text was not mine… but hey! Identity theft and hijacking my reputation. Anyway, the book is gone, but I was targeted early in the scams.

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  • Thanks for posting this highly detailed and informative explanation of what is going on in KU.

    KU has a lot or problems that need to be fixed. 3000 page books of gibberish slipping through the cracks? Authors not getting paid because the reader goes back to the front matter after reading the entire book one page at a time?

    It seems to me that the previous version of KU was far superior in terms of fairness in splitting the pie. Amazon might want to go back to that in the short term while they try and sort things out.

    • Ann Christy says:

      Thank you for commenting and I’m glad it gave you a bit more info! As for KU 3.0…I would guess it would refine things a bit more, but 1.0 was also rife with scams. Since a 10 page book dashed off by skimming a wiki article earned the same as an 800 page epic novel that took years to write…well, you can imagine what filled up the KU bins during that period.

      We’ll see refinements, but let’s hope they don’t mess it up worse.

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  • Lucian Bane says:

    WOW. Im so FLOOOOOORED.

    My jaw dropped more and more as I read. Eyes widened. Then I was laughing the crazy kind of laughing that you do when you just cant believe the twisty plots you can find in the KU Underworld.

    Thank you for this IN-depth dig into the debauchery, it’s like sickening to read, I can’t imagine having to put all the nasty pieces together.

    On a side note, how the hell do you write so many things at one time??? Was looking at your WIP on the top right and my mind began to panic hahaha.

    On a double side note, it’s my first trip to your blog and I have to compliment you on how lovely it is. Well done.

    Lucian

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  • Yvonne Ellen says:

    First time reader and I’m staying around. More information here than I can find out from Amazon or even my ex-publisher.
    It took a long time for Amazon to do something about the obviously paid for reviews, as readers are notoriously poor at leaving reviews despite how nicely we authors ask them in our book and other places. The outrageous number of reviews became a joke and readers could hardly be guided by that forum. I even question those from best selling authors with Trad publishers. Do they solicit from every staff member worldwide? From what I can see Amazon has still not managed to shut this down.
    So what hope for these scammers? Not a lot that I can see. I forwarded your post to my ex-publishers who brushed it off as not as serious as it was made out to be, which is why they are ex and I am about to read your post about Literary Outlaws.

    • Ann Christy says:

      So glad you got something good from this. I think the review ecosystem is changing. Legit authors don’t want to ever be on the wrong side of their paycheck, (even if the rules change in the future), so market savvy ones have shifted a great deal of effort in that direction. Most important is the personal creation of an ARC list. No longer relying on the 1/1500 who will leave a review, they now make the effort to get those books into ARC reader hands. I know how much work it is to come out of the gate with 10 or 20 reviews, let alone a hundred. Some are better at it than me.

      Two things I’d like to see: KU Readers getting a KU Verified tag so they don’t look like unverified reviews. Second, a way to screen the reviews with verified reviews showing most. (That second one is now happening!)

  • Meg says:

    Thanks or the detailed post. It’s really heart breaking that amazon would allow their system to be scammed like this. Of course they don’t have enough reason to care since they are not directly paying for these scamsters but they should care enough for their brand and legit authors and readers alike. Instead of scammers taking a major share of the pie I would much rather amazon pay real human readers to identify scam books before they can be published. How much would it take amazon to hire 10 full time humans to sit and read through long books to see if they are legit, before actually allowing the books to be published? A 7- day wait period before a book gets published so that it can be checked by humans isn’t too hard to do and would stop these books from being published and clean up the system. In my opinion that’s far more simple and doable than your suggestion of disabling new accounts from new authors? Why should legit new authors have to suffer for this mess when it can be solved by simply having a few human authors on board? Pay them from the pie, I’m sure that’s alright for most authors on KU as it’s much better than being cheated out of their share.

    • Ann Christy says:

      The problem is…always…that scammers can change their tactics far quicker than Amazon can keep up. The larger entity will always have trouble with smaller, fleeter scamsters. They are trying though.

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  • Lee Gabel says:

    Some possible ideas to combat scammers:
    – Use IP addresses, geotracking and other methods to track click farms. They do this already to weed out suspect reviews.
    – Use AI to analyse the story structure (like http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/the-six-main-arcs-in-storytelling-identified-by-a-computer/490733/)
    – Write better page count software for the kindle devices.
    – hire a group of people to sample random interior pages for bogus text.

    All the best,
    Lee

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