Let’s Talk Scammers

The term scammer gets thrown around a lot. Especially this week. But the reality is that there is a continuum that exists between flat-out black hat sales tactics and white hat sales tactics. As someone whose background is in regulation I look at things and say, “that’s a violation of a rule”, “that’s a violation of a term of service”, “that’s just tacky and underhanded”, and “eh, okay whatever.”

But most people don’t come from a regulatory background so everything becomes a scam and everyone becomes a scammer. And in the world of publishing it can be hard or actually impossible for readers to know the difference between one or the other.

Nora Roberts on her Blowback thread made a comment along the lines of tell readers what they can look for to find a scammer. The answer is not pretty or simple. Some of the people who’ve engaged in shady tactics are best-selling authors who have engaged fan bases or authors who can flash USA Today best-seller and NYT best-seller credits.

So let’s try to walk through this.

Black hat tactics:

These are the easy ones. These are the people who flat out steal content from other writers. I think it was David Gaughran who mentioned that early on in his career someone took his book, with the same cover and author name, and slapped it up on Amazon and started to sell it.

This is not taking public domain content and reselling it, which it turns out is legal, but just flat out ripping off someone else’s book hook, line, and sinker.

Right behind that is what caused the latest flare up in this discussion. Which is taking parts of people’s books and using them in your own. We’re not talking four or five words here. We’re talking entire paragraphs of text that were pretty much used verbatim. If that work is under copyright, which pretty much anything written in the last couple decades will be, that’s theft.

Another black hat tactic is paying for fake reviews. People want social proof so some authors will go out and buy X five-star reviews. Or X social media followers.

Click farms are another one I’d put under this category. If a book is in KU the author gets paid in part based on page reads. Someone can borrow their book but if it isn’t read, the author doesn’t get paid. And some unscrupulous publishing types will pay someone in a poor area of the world to literally borrow and click through their book so they get paid. There was a point in time where they would put a link at the beginning of the book to the end of the book and all it took to get paid for a full read of that title was someone clicking that link.

(A gray hat version of this was to have the link and tell readers there was some special bonus at the back of the book that they should click to. Since the readers were legit, I’m putting it in the gray hat category. But it was meant to earn that author far more than they should have on a read of that specific book because they often put a ton of filler content between the story the reader bought and the back of the book. By clicking on the link the author was paid for all of it being read even if the reader skipped over the middle junk.)

We’re now sort of moving into dark dark gray territory. In this category, one of the things that’s done is paying readers incentives to buy a book during a set period of time. These are often readers who want the book and they’re offered some sort of bonus or some sort of rebate or some sort of prize entry if they provide proof that they bought the book during certain dates. There are TOS issues around this as well as some prize contest rules that can be violated.

The reason it’s done is what also contributes to making it so sketchy. This is often used to earn letters. So the reason those purchases have to happen during a specific period of time is so that the “book” in question can get enough sales to make the USA Today list. Prior to changes with the NYT list it was also used to game that list. (I put book in quotes there because often it’s a box set not a single novel that’s being pushed up the charts this way, usually one priced at 99 cents.)

Gray Hat Tactics:

These are the ones that violate terms of service, but probably not the law.

Incentivizing readers to leave reviews is a huge one that happens quite a lot. Often this is done innocently, but it’s a violation of the terms of service. “Hey, review my book and I’ll give you the next in the series free.” Or “I’ll enter you into a contest for a gift card.”

Trading reviews would also follow under this category. “You review my book, I’ll review yours.” (Do you honestly expect those reviews to be honest ones when the potential to end up with a negative review on your own book is so high?)

A lot of what she-who-shall-not-be-named-because-she-sues-people used to do was probably in the gray area. In her case it was things like having books that were required to be exclusive to KU also in pre-order box sets that were listed wide at the same time. Or swapping out the content of box sets after the first week of release so that what had been a twenty-novel box set was now a collection of novellas and short stories.

There was also a large amount of gifting books to readers to make the lists. So basically, we’ll spend $X to get Y number of sales so we hit the list even though we hit the list on sales that track back to us not legitimate readers off the street. But hey, now we’re all USA Today Bestselling Authors for life. Yippee.

Bad category placement is another one that goes here. So, for example, some of my competitors in cozy mystery list their books in the non-fiction pet category because they can rank there whereas ranking in cozy mystery requires getting into the sub-5K range, which is not easy.

Ridiculous titles with everything under the sun in the actual title is at the fringe of gray hat. It’s against Amazon’s TOS. You know “Take By The Alpha (A Bear Shifter Menage Reverse Harem Fantasy)”.

There’s also been some allegations of intentionally formatting books to get more page reads. Early on when KU first started paying by the page it was publicly discussed how to format books to get the highest KENP for a book. Later that went underground, but there are suspicions that some of the people banned last year were forcing the formatting of their books to be double and triple spaced in order to get paid more.

There’s also the to-me-reprehensible part where authors pretend to be someone they’re not and engage in conversations with readers on that basis. Someone who is currently being dragged on another issue admitted last year to lying to readers about hobbies and interests. This was a man who found it okay to talk to female readers about book boyfriends and what he’d done that day (as a female pen name) even though it was all a lie and fabrication. We’re not talking lies of omission here, we’re talking out and out lies to people about who the author is. (And now someone will come along and point out that JK Rowling’s Galbraith biography claimed she was a man with a background in law enforcement and I’ll go on the record as saying I found that pretty darned shady to be honest.)

Tactics That Are Problematic But Not Illegal or Against TOS:

Now we get into the fun part where most of the drama happens. I have some questions about how copyright works with reused material and there’s been a lot a lot of debate around bundled books, but for now let’s assume what I’m going to talk about next is not actually a violation of the letter of the law or the letter of a terms of service.

Bundling books. This one was really a big deal last year. You had some where it was just horribly blatant. Book 1 was books A, B, and C. Book 2 was books C, B, and A. Book 3 was books B, C, and A. It was the same damned material just in a different order. And if you combined it with the link to the back it meant an author was paid for full reads of three books when the reader probably only wanted to read one.

Other authors argued that it had created an expectation within their genres for bundled books. So they started doing it, too. You’d have Book 1 with books A, Z, and E. Book 2 with books B, Y, and F. Etc. The argument was made that sometimes trade publishers include a bonus short story or something like that, but this really was a ploy to get KU page reads.

At the time the TOS on Amazon were not very clear so it was a big debate about spirit vs. letter of the requirement. But, honestly, I was never convinced that selling books A, B, and C in every possible combination to the same readers was ever about the reader.

Serials. In some romance genres serials are expected or even liked. This is taking a story and telling it in parts. So you don’t release Novel A, you release installment 1, 2, 3, etc.  It lets an author have rapid releases which lets them stay on the Amazon charts without the author having to write a novel a month. Where this one can shade towards questionable is when someone just splits a novel into five sections and releases each section without any concern or care about how complete the story in each section is. This one was a real issue during the first iteration of KU when it didn’t matter what length a published item was, authors were paid the same amount.

Ghostwriting. This has been a heavy subject of conversation this week and I already devoted a post to it. It comes in a lot of iterations, but the one that probably frustrates a lot of authors is the model that means such rapid releases by an author that there’s no breathing room at the top of the charts for anyone else. Interestingly, authors don’t tend to object as much to an author who can release rapidly if the author wrote that material, but when it’s ghost-written it can be really upsetting to the competition.

When done poorly this also creates a bad reader experience where there’s huge variation in quality between books.

Repackaging Existing Content: I’ve tried to relaunch a failed title or two. I’ve switched up titles and pen names to do so but always disclosed the original as well. On the far extreme of this one are the folks who take someone else’s story, swap out a few names, and republish the content as if it were new. Or the ones who gender flip erotica to make a M/M story F/F or a M/F story M/M with the assumption that they’re targeting a different group of readers so no one will ever notice.

Extreme ad spends. There’s a schism in self-publishing and maybe publishing in general between people who see this as a business like any other and those who see it as an artistic endeavor that they hope to make money at. And one of the places where this really comes up is in advertising. Because if you see this as a business like any other then you’re selling widgets. So when you find a widget that people will want you push the bejeezus out of it with ads. There are people spending tens of thousands a month on advertising to get their books up the charts. Some of those people are making money on those ads. Some are not. They’re aiming for KU bonuses.

Those who don’t have ad budgets to get their books up the charts tend to really resent this one because they can’t compete. (It’s the “pay-to-play” complaints that cropped up last year with respect to AMS ads.)

Low-pricing. There is a lot a lot of advice out there to price books at 99 cents or free. And it’s a tactic that has made many an indie career. Permafree first in series has been a game changer for a number of authors. A few large Bookbub ads have done the same thing for others. I can’t count the number of authors who said they had their first five-figure month because of a 99 cent or free promotion.

But the flip side of that is the devaluing of books. When so much of the book market is available for such a low price, it can make it hard to sell at the top of the market. I personally hate the “I’m an unknown and no one will buy my book at any price other than 99 cents” comments. Bullshit. I’m an unknown. And yet I’ve sold ebooks of my novels for as much as $7.99. Not thousands of copies at that price, but hundreds at prices indies supposedly can’t sell at.

KU. Clearly this is a legit service. Many authors have made livings having all of their books in KU. But the way that Amazon tilts things in favor of those in KU should be federally investigated IMO. A borrow should not be equal to a buy. Also, the way that it trains readers to just borrow crap and then throw it back after a few pages is highly damaging to the book ecosystem. The KU bonus system also encourages a lot of the behaviors discussed above. It’s a system that can be gamed and is gamed. (It’s also a nice discovery mechanism if you’re a new author worried people won’t pay for your books and a place where many voracious readers have converged so it’s hard to avoid these days. Even authors who advocated strongly for never ever going into KU a couple years ago have now. Either completely or with secret pen names.)

So What To Do

There’s probably more black and gray hat tactics I missed. There’s always more. We’re operating in a sort of Wild West new frontier situation where there are always new tactics and strategies emerging. And it can be scary and frustrating and as an author you can think you have to do certain things to compete.

For authors: As a friend of mine likes to say, question the premise. Don’t get sucked into the belief that X reviews sell books. If those reviews are organic that means there’s 100 times that number in sales behind each review. That’s what sells books. Just getting X reviews from some shifty Fiverr gig is not going to have the same effect. Ask yourself, would I be comfortable telling my grandma or my priest that this is what I did to achieve that? Would I be comfortable if my fans knew the truth? If they knew exactly how I got to where I am? If they knew who I am?

If not, don’t do it.

For readers: If you’re reading a book and it’s offering you a bunch of links and special shit, ask why. If you’re thinking of buying a book and you look at that book’s categories and they make no sense, ask why a legitimate publisher would put that book in that category. If you are thinking of buying a book and the also-boughts for that book have nothing to do with that book’s category, ask why. (I had a competitor in Excel whose also boughts were for InstaPot and Keto diet books. There is not that strong an overlap between those categories, which means that author had done something shady somewhere to get those also-boughts.) If someone claims to be a USA Today or NYT best-seller, check it out. Did they get that on their own merits? Or did they get that as part of a twenty-book box set with other authors you’ve never heard of for a book priced at 99 cents. Do you really think that puts them on a part with the Stephen Kings and Nora Roberts of the world? If the blurb isn’t even in good English, assume the rest of the book won’t be either. (Lots of cheap ghostwriters are not native English speakers.)

My Practical Wish List

There are many things I would love to see, but life doesn’t work the way I want it to. So on a practical, this could maybe even happen basis, this is what I would love to see happen on Amazon where most of this occurs:

-I’d love to see KU all-star bonuses go away because those have been alleged too many times to be the incentive behind a lot of this crap

-I’d love to see Amazon quit treating a borrow and a sale equally in its rankings.

-I’d also love to see audio, print, ebook, and KU ranking lists that are completely separate and have the KU list be based on page reads not borrows. (Although page reads can still be gamed.)

-I’d love to see 99 cent box sets no longer count towards any of the lists (USA Today) and I’d love to see only authors who made a list on a standalone full-price title actually use that designation, because really?

-I’d love to see books that are fiction only listed in fiction categories and only in relevant ones. Limit a book to two categories. Clear some space at the top for more variety.

-I’d love to see Amazon actually take all the gaming of their own rules seriously. It does not require a lot of manpower. But it does require willpower. Something they clearly don’t have.

Anyway. Figured I’d take a stab at laying some of this out. It is most definitely not a perfect system we’re working in.

One Final Note

What happens often in these situations is someone will look at what I laid out above and say something like, “Oh, well that person only has five-star reviews so they must be a scammer.” Or “Oh, that person says they’re a USA Today Bestselling Author and they did it on a box set so they must be a scammer”.

But it’s never that simple. That cozy I published last year? Over six hundred copies sold and so far all it has are five-star reviews on Amazon. Thankfully at least one person on Goodreads didn’t like it, but how absurd is that that an author has to hope that someone dislikes their book so they can look legitimate to people who see scammers everywhere?

And I know some of those USA Today bestsellers who got there off of box sets. They weren’t scammers. Misguided about what matters perhaps, but not scammers.

That’s been one of my big frustrations this week is watching all of the alarmist comments around this. Is it possible that scammers have managed to get a Bookbub promotion? Yeah, absolutely. Does that make Bookbub a scam? No. Are there some scammers who don’t set up social media accounts? Sure, maybe. (Although I gotta tell ya most of the scammers who are really good at this are slick operators who will tick all the boxes, including the social media boxes.)

All I can say is don’t use absolute rules. Watch. Listen. Ask if what you’re seeing makes sense. Don’t trust that because a book is high-ranked that it’s good. Don’t trust that because it’s packaged well that it’s good. Have standards. For yourself if you’re a writer and for the authors you read if you’re a reader.

 

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Scammers”

  1. Shady is very subjective: most people consider gifts that are effectively pay-for-review as dodgy, but some extend that to include offering free review copies of the book which has been an accepted practice since I wrote my first review in the early nineties (well before Amazon even existed); similarly, there are plenty of people who want to remove government safety warnings because anyone who doesn’t do their own research into how safe food/medicine/machinery is doesn’t deserve protection.

    So, I fully agree that not doing anything you couldn’t tell your grandmother about is a great guideline, I fear it suffers from some people being perfectly comfortable with telling their grandmother they shoved a child out of the way to get the last chocolate bar.

    Liked by 1 person

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