Are Amazon’s “Also-Boughts” Going the Way of the Dodo?

Y’all know what I mean by “also-boughts,” right? They’re the line of products Amazon lists on every product’s sales page under the banner “Customers who bought this item also bought,” or if the product hasn’t sold quite enough, “Customers who viewed this item also viewed.” As an Amazon shopper, I love the also-boughts. They’re one of the central ways I find products: either they guide me to additional products people like me tend to want, or they guide me to products similar to but better than the one I’m considering. I also love also-boughts as an Amazon author.

Image shows the first set of 6 also-bought products on the Nolander book page, preceded by the headline "Customers who bought this item also abought"; the first also-bought product is Solatium; beneath the also-boughts, 3 more books appear under the headline "Sponsored products related to this item."

Nolander’s also-boughts (above) helpfully indicate that readers of my first book are likely to buy my second. They also show 16 pp. of books by other authors whose readership overlaps with mine. This function makes also-boughts a great way for readers to find new authors and for authors to find new readers. Win-win.

Worryingly, there’s a thread on KBoards reporting that some people aren’t seeing also-boughts on book pages right now. Others are reporting them moved to the bottom or side of the page and/or reduced in number.

I’m still seeing also-boughts in the usual number and location, on both my laptop and my phone, and others are too, so the differences some are reporting could be a glitch. But we have in the past noticed Amazon conducting A/B testing, wherein some users are shown one version of a page and others are shown another, with the behavior of the two groups of shoppers presumably being tracked and compared. If A/B testing is happening happening right now with also-boughts, it means Amazon may be considering doing away with them or making them less prominent.

If also-boughts disappear, what would replace them? Another line of sponsored products, perhaps? You can see these products in the image above: they appear under Nolander’s also-boughts. As you can see, there are only a few books. That’s because I’m a very small seller, so other authors are not targeting their book ads at my readership. Authors who move a lot of books have their readership targeted far more heavily. Here’s an example from another author’s book page:

image shows the text "Sponsored products related to this item," with book covers underneath, cropped for anonymity; to the right, smaller text reads "page 1 of 82," indicated we are seeing the first of 82 pages of sponsored products

This author’s also-boughts are heavily weighted toward their own books because readers like their books and tend to purchase them en masse. Their also-boughts thus function as a substantial advertisement for their own backlist. A free advertisement. close-up of the previous image, with the number of pages of also-boughts (82) circled in red for noticeabilityWhat’s not so free? The 82 pp. of “sponsored” books this page is hosting. You get one of these sponsored book slots by purchasing advertising through Amazon Marketing Services (AMS). So, each one of those advertised books represents a revenue source for Amazon. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine there might be some temptation to replace all those non-revenue-generating also-boughts with another line of sponsored books. Instead of 82 pp., 164! Surely any company would consider it.

But. BUT. Are also-boughts really non-revenue-generating? As a shopper — and I am a major Amazon shopper — I click on also-boughts all the time. They’re an amazing repository of crowd-sourced consumer wisdom. I click on also-boughts far more often than I click on sponsored products. Sponsored products represent what their sellers hope people like me want; also-boughts represent what people like me actually buy. They’re visual evidence of how tons of other shoppers have voted with their wallets, and that’s just about the best endorsement you can get.

If also-boughts make me buy stuff — and they do — then they’re revenue-generating, eh? Perhaps more reliably so than sponsored products, which are “cost-per-click” — Amazon only gets paid for the ad if someone clicks on it. And clicking on the ad does not necessarily lead to buying the product. An advertised product could, theoretically, earn Amazon $0, but no product makes it into the also-bought system unless it’s been, well, bought. Products appearing in the also-boughts are proven earners.

Personally, I think also-boughts are one of online shopping’s two great advantages over brick-and-mortar retail (the other being the availability of customer reviews). Also-boughts are me happening to run into an acquaintance in the grocery store and having her say, “Hey, I know you care about getting antibiotics out of the food supply, and I know one of your kids is a super-finicky eater. Did you know Foster Farms just came out with antibiotic-free chicken breast nuggets? My finicky eater loves them. They’re sort of hard to find, but if you go to Aisle 12 and look at the very bottom shelf, about five feet down from the corndogs, you’ll see them. The package is yellow. Oh, and you might want to buy some ketchup to go with them. Gross, I know, but finicky eaters … whatcha gonna do?” Except all that happens behind the scenes, via algorithms analyzing the purchasing patterns of millions of shoppers, and it happens every single time. You don’t have to hope to run into someone. You don’t have to ask around. It’s just there, making the stuff you really need findable in an environment that truly does have everything from A to Z.

It’s worth mentioning that, from an author’s perspective, also-boughts are one of the only ways to gain quality visibility on the Amazon site if you don’t publish frequently, aren’t in Kindle Unlimited, and/or don’t have a lot of money to spend on ads. But hey … I’m trying to come at this from Amazon’s perspective. It’s a corporation; it’s going to act in its own self-interest. My own experience as a shopper suggests that maintaining clearly visible also-boughts is very much in Amazon’s self-interest.

So, you know. Hopefully what some folks are seeing is just a glitch. Big old fingers-crossed on that one. But if it’s not a glitch … Amazon, please don’t get rid of also-boughts. Add more lines of sponsored products, if you really must, but don’t take away the way I shop.

Save 50% on Diane Duane’s ebooks and help save Diane Duane’s home

One of my favorite authors …

I’ve written a number of times about the occasional ebook sales Diane Duane runs on her self-owned ebook store, but this one has a special urgency. A series of medical expenses and lower-than-expected royalty payments have put Duane and her husband, Peter Morwood, in danger of losing the home where they’ve lived for the last twenty years.

To raise some money, Duane has slashed prices by 50% on Ebooks Direct, the ebook store she runs for the books to which she and her husband have the ebook rights. All titles are DRM-free and multiformat, and include the guarantee that if you ever lose the ebook files, they’ll replace them free.

There are some great books there—the Young Wizards New Millennium Editions, Feline Wizardry trilogy, and associated Young Wizards novellas, the Tale of the Five, and many more. If you haven’t read them yet, this would be a great…

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New Year, Old Problem: Innocent Author Rank-Stripped For Third Time

An important read …

David Gaughran

Kristi Belcamino is really being messed around by Amazon. Yesterday morning, she was rank-stripped for the third time, and it appears to be happening every time she puts a book free – even before she hits the promo sites or moves up the charts.

Back in September, Kristi was one of the unfortunate (and innocent) authors who were unfairly rank-stripped by Amazon for several weeks. She had a BookBub promotion which catapulted her up to #3 in the Free charts on September 18, was then rank-stripped, and didn’t have the sanction lifted until October 22 – over one month later.

Along with all the other authors I wrote about in October’s post Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives, Kristi received the standard form letter about rank manipulation from Amazon KDP’s Compliance team, regarding her book Blessed are the Peacemakers.

Hello,

We detected that purchases or borrows of your book(s)…

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Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives

Very alarming …

David Gaughran

Phoenix Sullivan is well-known in the indie community – I’ve known her myself since 2009 or 2010 and consider her a close friend.

Aside from being exceptionally generous with her time and knowledge, tirelessly sharing her insights on marketing and algorithms, Phoenix is also well known as a vocal campaigner against scammers and cheaters – particularly on the current big issues of book stuffing and clickfarming.

And now she is being targeted.

Phoenix made a box set free for a few days back in September, advertising on Freebooksy, KND/BookGorilla, and Digital Book World – all legitimate sites – and there was no other promotion involved with this title. No BookBub CPM ads, no Facebook campaign, no tweets, no newsletter swaps, no mailing lists.

On the third day of her free run, Phoenix’s box set was rank-stripped by Amazon, a punishment normally reserved for those who have used clickfarms or bots…

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Is Playster Rejecting LGBT+ Books? (Update: Situation Now Remedied)

PlaysterValuesLike many indie authors, I distribute my books to some retail platforms through Draft2Digital, a company I’ve always found to be competent, responsive, and trustworthy. At some point in the fairly recent past, D2D added Playster to its roster of retail platforms. Playster is a digital entertainment subscription service that includes ebooks, similar to Scribd, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, and the now-defunct Oyster: for $9.95 a month, you can access what Playster advertises as a library of more than 250,000 “premium titles” — “the world’s only truly unlimited ebook service” (source).

Playster’s site is full of the rhetoric of freedom and limitlessness — attempts, I assume, to play off the name of Amazon’s program while distinguishing itself from Scribd, which restricts borrowing within certain genres. Just a sampling: “Entertainment Unlimited is about freedom of choice, and that’s what we’re giving you with Playster” (source); “The best thing about what we’re doing is its limitless potential. … we’re always looking at ways to give you more choice and bring you closer to the things you love” (source); “No Restrictions. … Spend as long as you like enjoying your favorite titles and discovering new things” (source); “World’s Most Diverse Digital Catalogue … Find everything you’re looking for” (source); “Anytime, Anywhere, Anyone … Playster is essential for families needing different things for different people” (source).

Sounds pretty good, right?

Unfortunately, at least four KBoards authors who attempted to distribute LGBT+ themed books to Playster are reporting that those books were rejected, even as their non-LGBT+ books were accepted. According to an email shared by one of these authors, Playster claims “erotic content” as the reason for her books’ rejection. The platform’s Terms of Service do reject content that’s “obscene, vulgar, pornographic, offensive, profane, contains or depicts nudity, contains or depicts sexual activity, or is otherwise inappropriate as determined by [Playster] in [its] sole discretion” (Source). But that prohibition doesn’t seem to offer a convincing rationale for the rejections. This author said her rejected books do have “steamy” scenes, but those scenes are no steamier than what appears in her straight romances that Playster accepted. Furthermore, Playster previously accepted the LGBT+ books of hers that it is now rejecting. Another author said none of her rejected books “has more sexual content than a kiss.” One isn’t even a romance.

Um.

So the catalog is “the world’s most diverse” … so long as we’re talking about straight folks? You can read books that “bring you closer to the things you love” … unless you’d love to read books about gay characters? It’s great for “families needing different things for different people” … but if they have a daughter who likes to read f/f romance, she’s sh*t out of luck? Using Playster “means no restrictions” … except, you know, that one? Seriously, I had to tie my hands behind my back to make myself end the second paragraph of this post. There’s so much “freedom” and “choice” rhetoric in Playster’s verbiage that I got a little irony-drunk.

In 2017, it should go without saying that a book is not “erotic” just because it focuses on gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender characters. Books about LGBT+ people can be erotic or not erotic, just like books about straight, cis-gender people.

I am really hoping this is some kind of mistake.

Playster

Hopefully D2D can liaise with Playster to shed some light on this situation and, if there really is a no-LGBT-books policy at Playster, help us get it changed. I mean, sure, Playster can sell and not sell whatever it chooses. But a policy to exclude LGBT+ books from its catalog would be unacceptable to many readers, as well as to authors on both the indie and traditional sides of publishing.

I encourage authors and readers to contact D2D and/or Playster* and express their concerns. I’ve written to D2D myself. I hadn’t yet distributed my books to Playster, but if I had, I would have pulled them, pending clarification. I’ll certainly update this post as new information comes in. Again, very much hoping these book rejections can be explained in some other way.

*Looks like you might need to use Playster’s live chat feature to contact them. I couldn’t get the “email us” link on the above-linked page to work. The person I chatted with said I would need to send my question here: publishing@playster.com. I’ve done that and will update this post when I get a response.

Update, 9/2/17: Dan Wood, director of author relations at D2D, has chimed in on the KBoards thread to say they’re “working on” the problem. He said he thinks it may be “just a misunderstanding over what is meant by some of the BISAC categories [D2D] sent Playster.”

Update, 9/5/17: Playster has posted in the KBoards thread, saying that it is in “absolutely no way discriminating against LGBTQ+ content.” Their explanation for the rejections is that they have “been receiving books with underage characters, and therefore put a temporary ban on all books labelled ‘erotica’ that are delivered from self-publishing platforms.” They say they are “investigating the possibility that some books have been mislabeled.” I’m glad to see this message and to know Playster rejects discrimination and is trying to fix this problem. The difficulty for me comes in figuring out where and how the “mislabel[ing]” could have happened. An author submits Book MM and Book MF to D2D and chooses to distribute both books to Playster. These books have similar content, and the author does not give either book an “erotica” label or category. Book MM ends up banned by Playster as erotica and Book MF doesn’t. So … when and how was the “erotica” label placed on Book MM, and why wasn’t that label placed on the Book MF?

Update, 9/6/17: Playster posted further on KBoards that they are “investigating the labeling thoroughly, using some of the examples in [the KBoards] thread, to establish exactly what’s happening,” and asking for “patience.” Very glad to know they’re working on the problem.

Update, 9/7/17: Playster has updated the KBoards thread with the following:

After careful investigation of each step of our content ingestion process for self-publishing platforms, we discovered that our restriction on the ‘erotica’ category had unintentionally affected other tags and genres, including LGBTQ+ fiction. We are extremely sorry for our mistake and any hurt it may have caused – it was never our intention to block these titles.

What happens now? The books that were wrongfully declined are currently being added to the Playster catalog where they will join our existing collection of LGBTQ+ titles previously delivered by our other major publishing partners.

Playster takes an extra cautious approach when it comes to self-published fiction because we do not have a large in-house team that is able to thoroughly read and review all titles that are submitted. However, we accept that, in this case, our efforts to solve one problem inadvertently caused another.

We strongly encourage authors to contact us if they have any further problems submitting books to Playster or notice that any titles that should be present are missing. They can do so by emailing us directly at support@playster.com.

So, good news! And, I might add, quite a prompt response, given that the problem came to light over the U.S. Labor Day weekend.

I’ll admit to some lingering curiosity about exactly how Playster’s ban on erotica came to affect other tags and genres in ways not intended. I speculated on one possibility toward the end of this KBoards post, but I have no idea whether that’s actually what happened.

All in all, this seems like a positive resolution. Thanks to D2D and Playster for the quick and productive attention.

Update, 9/8/17: A number of authors are now reporting their LGBT+ books have successfully published to Playster.

Scammers Break The Kindle Store

Very much worth reading …

David Gaughran

On Friday, a book jumped to the #1 spot on Amazon, out of nowhere; it quickly became obvious that the author had used a clickfarm to gatecrash the charts.

The Kindle Store is officially broken.

This is not the first time this has happened and Amazon’s continued inaction is increasingly baffling. Last Sunday, a clickfarmed title also hit #1 in the Kindle Store. And Amazon took no action.

Over the last six weeks, one particularly brazen author has put four separate titles in the Top 10, and Amazon did nothing whatsoever. There are many such examples.

I wrote at the start of June about how scammers were taking over Amazon’s free charts. That post led to a phone conversation with KDP’s Executive Customer Relations.

Repeated assurances were given that the entire leadership team at Amazon was taking the scammer problem very seriously indeed. But it was also stressed that the…

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Authors Report Amazon Is Aware of KU Reporting Problem

Several authors are reporting having called Amazon and been told the company knows Kindle Unlimited pages-read are not reporting properly. One heard about “an ongoing problem on the pages appearing in the reports,” and another was told that

Amazon is aware of the problem and has received a lot of Emails and calls this week about it. He actually said it has been “elevated far above my position, to our highest team.” …  He assured me my complaint would be escalated to that team and I should be called or Emailed by them without a form response.

Still another reports having been assured via email that Amazon’s “technical team is looking into it.”

This information may not to have trickled down to the frontline KDP reps, who seem still to be sending out “everything’s fine” form letters in response to email queries. If you’re concerned about your pages-read figures, you may have to press for your query to be elevated or just call Amazon directly (866-216-1072) and ask to speak to KDP technical support.

I’m glad to hear Amazon is working on this problem. Kudos to those authors who noticed it and were insistent enough to get KDP’s attention.