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.

KU Page-Reads May Be Reporting Inaccurately

Here’s the thing about electrons: no one can see them. That means those of us who produce digital wares are wholly dependent on retailers to report our sales, borrows, or page-reads accurately.

There are some worrisome indications that this may not be happening at Amazon.

Specifically, romance author Becca Fanning says in a Kboards thread that a number of writers have noticed weird changes in their Kindle Unlimited page-read* rates:

For the past few weeks dozens of authors have been reporting that their page read counts on new releases have been … off. Not off by ten percent, but by 50-95%. These are for consistent releases with expected patterns of performance (as expected as you can be in this industry). I don’t want this discussion to get bogged down in conjecture about bad books, bad promos, etc. Sales numbers and sales ranks are as expected, but page reads are drastically lower.

The problem seems to be affecting new releases, and perhaps also books whose metadata has recently been updated, as reported in the same thread by nonfiction author Kara King.

Now, before you roll your eyes and dismiss this claim as yet another case of authors unfairly blaming poor sales on a retail platform, these are books that are “selling well, ranking well,” but not accumulating page-reads at the rate expected, given their sales numbers and/or ranking. Fanning uses the example of promoting a book, selling 80 copies, and only getting 100 page-reads, whereas similar promotions in the recent past would generate 80 sales and 2,000 page-reads. It’s the ratio of sales to page-reads that’s off.

And here’s the kicker:

Emails began to fly, initially meeting with a stalwart wall of “We looked into your pages read and can confirm that they are accurate.” Most of us took that and gave up. But one didn’t. They insisted on getting someone on the phone and elevating their issue up the chain.

After thirty minutes on the phone, insisting something wasn’t right, something kind of miraculous happened: On Friday Sept 30, Amazon admitted that there’s a problem on their end and that they have to get their legal team involved.

That really pricked my ears. Amazon? Admitting a problem? Involving its legal department? Hello, Nearly Unprecedented, it’s nice to meet you!

So far, according to Fanning, only a few authors have received adjusted page-read figures, and the adjustments have been small. But quite a few people are reporting significant disruptions in their expected page-reads/sales ratios. Fanning says that “the pool of authors who have noticed things aren’t right includes those with fewer than five books under their belt and NYT bestselling authors with over 100 books who regularly break into the top 100 or top 50,” so if there’s a problem with page-read reporting, it could well involve big numbers.

At this point, most of our info is secondhand and anonymous. So far as I know, Fanning and some other authors participating in the Kboards thread are the only ones who’ve made their concerns public. Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to bring this possible problem to people’s attention.

If you have a book that’s selling/ranking well AND has been accumulating significantly fewer than the expected number of page-reads given its sales/rank, you may want to email KDP at kdp-support@amazon.com. It’s also worth reporting discrepancies between book rank and reported sales.

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*For those unfamiliar with Kindle Unlimited, it’s Amazon’s subscription book-borrowing program, populated mostly (but not entirely) but independently published books. For $9.99/month, readers can have up to 10 borrowed books at a time. Authors are paid not when someone borrows their book but page by page, as each book is read. In order to join KU, self-published authors must agree to sell their ebooks only through Amazon.

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Edit: Hidden Gems has blogged about this issue here (near the end of the post).

Compassion, Misplaced

This video, which came across my Facebook feed, annoys me.

Did you take a look? Okay. It’s very unlikely the duckling is feeding the fish out of “compassion,” as per the caption someone added on Facebook. Rather, the duckling is dipping its food in the water to soften it. Dabbling species like mallards do this routinely. You won’t find a domestic duck-care site that doesn’t remind you to offer water along with food, so that your ducks can do their thing.

So, what’s wrong with seeing this duckling as feeding the fish? Why be the Grinch who destroys the dream of nature as compassionate? Isn’t it a harmless, feel-good mistake?

Well, it’s simply not true. That alone is a defense. I wouldn’t be an educator if I weren’t invested in the idea that getting your facts straight matters. And I wouldn’t be a writer myself if I didn’t care about noticing details — like how the duckling moves away from the fish at a number of points. ‘Cause, you know … they’re taking its food. You can see people pointing this stuff out in the YouTube comments. Which is, perhaps, why the video is now making the rounds on Facebook, where, divorced from those skeptical comments, it’s been shared more than 6,000 and viewed almost 12 million times.

But more than that, seeing this as a Golden-Rule-following duckling destroys duckness and replaces it with humanness. When we anthropomorphize other species, we’re saying, “I’m not going to bother getting to know you as you really are. Instead, I’m going to assume you’re just like me.” And pretty soon, everything we look at in nature is just a mirror, showing us ourselves. Us, us, us … it’s all about us. It all is us — shells of other creatures, stuffed full of us. Our values, our priorities. It’s an unintentional but nevertheless profound kind of narcissism. Other creatures are not allowed to be themselves, and we’re not required to interact with the alien and the other, coming to understand it on its own terms instead of ours. We just take a pass on all that.

Real compassion is great, and one of the things that makes it great is that it’s unusual, not universal. Other species do display altruism; we certainly don’t have a lock on it. But those species that don’t display it, even those whose behaviors disturb us instead of charm us, still deserve to be known as they are.