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.

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).

Risks, Benefits, and Refugees

Like most people who are tuned in to current events, I’ve been hearing a lot, over the last few days, about the wisdom of admitting refugees to the U.S. As of Tuesday, twenty-six governors had voiced a desire to stop or delay the settlement of Syrian (and some other) refugees in their states (source). Whether governors actually have the power to deny refugees entry to their states seems unlikely to me, but for my purposes here, it’s the thought that counts.

These governors are thinking that one or more of the refugees we admit might actually be a terrorist in disguise. Or that one of their kids might grow up to be a terrorist. Despite the fact that the U.S. is quite capable of growing its own terrorists, it is, of course, perfectly possible that a refugee might be, become, or parent a terrorist. Even the best screening cannot unfailingly predict human behavior stretching decades into the future, and people arguing in favor of settling refugees in the U.S. do their position a disservice if they suggest that no refugee could ever become a terrorist or the parent of a terrorist. If you stake your argument on that kind of absolute claim, then your entire position collapses at the first exception, and whatever the situation, we can pretty much count on there always being an exception.

What we need to do instead, I think, is consider risk and benefit in a careful, rational way. Let’s use a less emotionally charged issue as an example: vehicular deaths. It’s well known that higher speed limits lead to increased traffic fatalities. Accidents that occur at higher speeds are more likely to be fatal because the g-force applied to the body is so much greater. The best airbags and seat belts in the world can’t help much with the fact that the organs in your body are going from 60 mph to 0 in half a second. That means all the fluids inside your organs are slamming up against structures that did not evolve to withstand those impacts. Even if you don’t suffer any blunt force trauma and remain safely inside your vehicle, a high-speed accident can kill you (source).

Cars have become a lot safer. Even as our population has grown, traffic fatalities have shrunk. That said, they’re still awfully high: between 30,000 and 35,000 people die this way in the U.S. every year. We could stop many of these deaths if we were to institute a nationwide maximum speed limit of 25 mph and all abide by that limit. Yes, it would take longer to get places, especially when traveling long distances. But saving, say, 25,000 lives a year would be pretty great. That’s tens of thousands of people who would suddenly not lose a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Not to mention a whole lot of non-fatal injuries prevented. Seems like a powerful incentive, right?

But instead of reducing speed limits, we’re raising them. When I was learning to drive, the nationwide speed limit was 55 mph. Now it’s as high as 85 in some places.

We can map high speed limits in terms of risk vs. benefit:

Risk Benefit
33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries (2013 numbers) convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast; etc.

Now, I like driving fast. And I like my Amazon Prime free two-day shipping. And I’m not eager to have my 45-minute commute become a hour-and-a-half commute. I am, in other words, a typical American: pretty much willing to trade many thousands of lives, families forever disrupted, and hideous injuries for cost savings and convenience. When I think about it rationally, it doesn’t seem sensible. The risk is so great, and the benefits are so superficial. And yet, I am not out there trying to start a 25 to Save Lives movement.

Now, let’s look at a yearly risk-vs.-benefit table for admitting refugees to the U.S. To be generous to the anti’s, we’ll take the worst-ever year for U.S. terrorism fatalities as our measure of risk:

Risk Benefit
several thousand deaths; immediate injuries and possible longterm illnesses; economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

Admittedly, this doesn’t look so good. “Trading” several thousand U.S. lives in order to help 10,000 refugees could be seen as deeply irresponsible. Our governments’ primary responsibility is, after all, to protect us, not to help citizens of other nations.

On the other hand, we have to remember that the September 11 attacks have not been replicated. In a number of the years since, we’ve had zero domestic deaths linked to “Islamic” terrorism. Using this site, I’m counting thirty-three such deaths in the fourteen years since September 11. This article, written prior to this year’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, attacks, puts the figure slightly lower. However you count it, the number of people killed in the U.S. by self-identified jihadists is far exceeded by the number killed by right-wing extremists, such as the wretched specimen who gunned down nine people in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year (source).

What this record suggests is that domestic jihadist strikes pose a minuscule risk to American lives during most years. In years other than 2001, more Americans have been killed by lightning and dogs. Large strikes like those on September 11 are, at least so far, rare. And even when they do occur, the lose of life is small compared to any number of other significant threats that may seem less scary. Like, for instance, car accidents (more than ten times as many Americans killed every single year). And hospital acquired infections (75,000 U.S. deaths/year). And suicide (about 40,000/year). And falls (about 30,000/year). And drowning (approaching 4,000/year). If it’s your loved one who’s killed in a domestic jihadist strike, it’s unbearable. But it’s also unbearable if it’s your two-year-old who’s mauled to death by a dog. Or your mother who goes in for routine surgery and dies of an infection. Or your husband who dies in a car accident. However we lose those we love, it’s unbearable.

So, here’s another way to think about risk: as comparative. We’re willing to trade some tens of thousands of traffic deaths for the convenience and cost-savings that come with high speed limits, but the governors of twenty-six U.S. states are unwilling to trade a handful of yearly deaths, plus the much smaller risk of a larger strike, to help tens of thousands of people who are absolutely desperate. You know how desperate–you’ve seen the pictures.

Let’s do one more risks-vs.-benefits table, this time thinking of September 11 not as a yearly event, which it clearly is not, but as a once-every-fourteen-years level of event (and even that may be way too pessimistic … maybe it’s a thirty- or fifty-year event):

Risk Benefit
High Speed Limits 33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries, on average convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast
Welcoming Refugees at Current Levels 215 deaths per year, on average, plus injuries and economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

An average of 215 deaths a year … why does that terrify us so much? Why are we willing to “spend” tens of thousands of lives purchases fun, cost-savings, and convenience but are not willing to spend 215 on compassion?

I’m hardly an expert on this stuff, but this is how it looks to me: if I’m willing to accept the risks inherent in 85 mph speed limits for benefits that, frankly, aren’t all that essential, I should also be willing to accept the comparatively tiny risks that come with welcoming refugees to my community, especially since the resulting benefits go right to the heart of what it means to be a decent person.

What If You Had No Recourse?

There are no jobs, no schools, maybe no food. No place is safe — from bombs, from human predators, from your own government. If you get hurt or sick, maybe there’s a hospital miles away. Maybe there isn’t. The dangers vary from place to place. What’s consistent is that few are attending to your happiness, your rights, your life, or the safety of your children. Whatever the exact situation, it goes on and on. Two years ago, you told yourself it’d be over by now, one way or another. Things would’ve settled down. Four years ago you told yourself this. Ten years ago. But it’s not over; if anything, it’s worse. That’s because it’s no one person’s fault. No one group’s. It’s a mess that only gets messier, and there’s no shortage of blame. The real world has a hell of a lot of hydras, and no Hercules.

This is the refugee crisis of the 21st century.

Though actually, I suspect “crisis” isn’t the right word for it. To me, a crisis is a sudden event of finite duration. I don’t think these mass human migrations will end — not in my lifetime, at any rate. I think they’ll shift, like a river in flood cutting new channels, but I don’t think they’ll stop.

So I’m committing to donating 10% of my writing proceeds to Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It’s not a whole lot of money, at this point, but hopefully, in time, it will grow.

eBooks and DMCA Abuse: A Few Suggestions Based on My Experience

Thanks to the fine people of the indie-publishing community, Nolander has recovered wonderfully from its week’s vacation. Folks on The Passive Voice blog and the Kboards Writers’ Cafe urged downloads, and a number of discounted/free book sites spontaneously advertised the book: big thanks to OHFB, Pixel of Ink, Flurries of Words, eBookDaily, and Free Kindle Books for your generous help. With so many people in its corner, Nolander got a couple thousand downloads and bounced up into the top two hundred free books on Amazon. It was an amazing and moving thing to see. The self-publishing community is strikingly diverse, and we don’t always agree on stuff. But we’re there for each other at the big moments, and that tendency to act together — fostered by those sites that give us places to gather — gives us some leverage. Thank you all so much for using that leverage on my behalf.

Now, I think we need to keep applying leverage: how retailers respond to DMCA take-down notices needs adjustment.

The best-case scenario is that my experience was a one-off event — that my scammer had something against me, personally, and this won’t happen to anyone else. Fingers crossed that’s the case. But it might not be. This could’ve been a money-making scheme, with the target being selected wholly or partly at random. Worst-case scenario, Nolander was a trial balloon for someone(s) with bigger plans.

I think distributors and retailers need to figure out how they’re going to deal with this sort of thing if it happens again. It’s obviously no good for retailer sites to become hunting preserves where scammers troll around, looking for their next mark. And if retailers unintentionally and unwittingly ended up making blackmail easier in a consistent way, that would be awful.

Solving this problem is probably above my pay grade. I hope the retailers have people working on it, and that they come up with better and more creative ideas than mine. But FWIW, here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Send the author the full name, email address, and physical mailing address of the filer of any DMCA notice immediately. Include a link to the evidence of copyright infringement the filer submitted. These things did not happen in my case. From one retailer, I received the name and email address only; from the other, I received none of the above.
  2. If the author submits a DMCA counter-notice, restore the book to the site within the time-frame stipulated by the DMCA. What I’m recommending here would, apparently, be a significant change of policy. Unlike ISPs, retailers consider themselves exempt from the counter-noticing provisions of the DMCA (I don’t know if this is a reasonable assumption, on their parts, or a legally established status). On the face of things, the exemption makes some sense: retailers have the right to sell whatever they want for whatever reasons they want, right? If Amazon wants to refuse to sell any book with the word “The” in the title, it can go ahead and do that, so far as I know. The problem with this approach is that the counter-noticing provision is the DMCA’s one and only safeguard against abuse by non-U.S. residents, who cannot be curbed through the U.S. courts. It was built into the law for a reason. If retailers react to noticing (as they must) while ignoring counter-noticing, they render the law dysfunctional and create a dangerous imbalance of power.
  3. Put some well trained people to work actually looking at the evidence submitted with DMCA notices and counter-notices. (So far as I can tell, this did not happen in my case. The evidence seems to have initially been accepted without examination.) A retailer must remove a book if it receives a DMCA notice. So far as I know, there’s no way around that rule, even if the notice is obviously fraudulent. But does the law say a retailer cannot then reach out to the book’s author and suggest independent resources that would help the author move forward with appropriate counter-noticing? Not that I know of. So, in cases where they see clear evidence of fraud, retailers should reach out to authors in this way, IMO. Perhaps authors identified as potential victims of fraud could be directed to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or some other source of assistance.
  4. Indie authors should support any organization that steps up to provide effective advice and assistance in these matters, especially if caseloads rise in the future. I’m sure even small donations would help. We don’t have large corporate legal departments standing behind us. (That’s something traditionally published authors get in exchange for their lower royalty rates.) Sending some of our profits to organizations that help with this sort of thing would probably be a good idea.

Would these changes solve the problem completely? I don’t think so. But they’re the best ideas I’ve been able to come up with. If you think of other possibilities, please share them.

Distributors and retailers obviously have a big stake in this issue, legally. But the repercussions for individual authors may be even bigger, when you consider possible career impact. If we have ideas to offer, we should make them heard. Perhaps we can help our book-selling partners make the marketplace safer for all.

With deep thanks, Happy reading to all!

Becca

P.S. Not sure what this is all about? Start here.