There’s this indie author I know a little bit from the Kboards.com forum. Her name is Pauline Creeden, and she’s an ordinary midlister, like so many of us. I remember PMing her some time ago and gushing about how particularly beautiful one of her book covers is—the one for Chronicles of Steele: Raven. Here, I’ll include an image. Gorgeous, eh?
Anyway, today I tuned in to Kboards and noticed that Pauline had started a thread. It contained what’s surely the worst news possible for an indie author: Amazon had closed her publishing account. All her ebooks had been taken off sale. Permanently. Here’s the email she got from Amazon:
We are reaching out to you because we have detected that borrows for your books are originating from systematically generated accounts. While we support the legitimate efforts of our publishers to promote their books, attempting to manipulate the Kindle platform and/or Kindle programs is not permitted. As a result of the irregular borrow activity, we have removed your books from the KDP store and are terminating your KDP account and your KDP Agreement effective immediately.
As part of the termination process, we will close your KDP account(s) and remove the books you have uploaded through KDP from the Kindle Store. We will issue a negative adjustment to any outstanding royalty payments. Additionally, as per our Terms and Conditions, you are not permitted to open new KDP accounts and will not receive future royalty payments from additional accounts created.
According to Pauline, she received no warnings. She just checked her email and discovered she’d been banned for life from selling on Amazon. Now, I don’t know Pauline well enough to ask about her sales details, but if this happened to me, 70% of my writing income would vanish. For most of us, Amazon is by far the best platform for selling books. Losing one’s account there would be a career-ending event for many of us.
While the email Pauline got sounds like a form letter, it does imply that her problem arose from two things: promotional activity and Kindle Unlimited (KU) borrows. Most of you are probably familiar with Amazon’s KU program. It’s a subscription service through which readers pay about $10/month to read as many books as they like. It’s a great deal for major bookworms. As a reader, I’m a member myself.
KU authors get paid as readers make their way through the books they borrow. So, if someone borrows your 300-page novel and reads the entire thing, you get paid for 300 page-reads (about $1.50). If they only get though half the book, you get paid half as much. When authors self-publish on Amazon, they have to choose whether or not to participate in KU. Many choose to do so, as the program includes promotional opportunities and enhanced visibility on the platform. The one downside is that Amazon demands the right to offer KU books exclusively; authors can’t upload those books to iTunes or Kobo or other sales sites. Therefore, authors who have their books enrolled in KU are even more dependent on the Amazon platform.
Amazon’s email to Pauline suggests that the KU accounts borrowing and reading her books were not legitimate. They’re implying, basically, that she paid a click-farm to borrow her books and race through them, so that she would get paid for pages that weren’t truly read. There are outfits that do this kind of thing. Someone in a developing nation will open twenty KU accounts, which are free for the first month, and then use those accounts to borrow books and either page though them at high speed or skip directly to the end, generating a pay-out for the author. This is a known scam plaguing KU. Scammers have been doing stuff like putting up 10,000-page “books” of gibberish, hiring click-farms to borrow and “read” them, and raking in the big bucks. It got particularly bad earlier this year, and Amazon has been cracking down on these scammers in recent months. Which is good, right? No one wants Amazon to be clotted with garbage.
But Pauline isn’t a scammer uploading gibberish. She’s a real writer uploading real books. True, there are probably outfits that real authors, not just gibberish-producing scammers, can hire to do this sort of thing. In fact, Amazon warns against using black-hat promoters:
You’re welcome to promote your book through third-party websites and other services, but we encourage you to keep a close eye on the tactics they use to promote your books. You are responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book manipulate the Kindle platform and/or Kindle programs. We advise against using any sites that “guarantee” a return on your investment.
We support our authors’ efforts to promote their books worldwide, but at the same time we work to prevent any manipulation of the Kindle platform.
But Pauline says she hasn’t used any shady promotional sites. The ones she says she’s hired are those most of us have used. They’re well known and, so far as we’ve heard, they’re perfectly legit, advertising real books to real readers.
Pauline does report that she saw a one-day increase in page-reads on one of her books (Raven, actually) in May—from the usual 80 per day to 25,000. (That’s a big spike, but not a terribly lucrative one. The payment rate for April was $.005/page; if May is similar, 25,000 page-reads will generate $125. Not enough to risk your KDP account over, that’s for sure!) Pauline doesn’t know what caused the spike. She hadn’t promoted the book recently. Did a click-farm hit her book by accident? Did someone with a grudge target her? Was it just a glitch? Was the one-day spike even the problem? The problem is that we don’t know what the problem was. No specifics have been shared.
Amazon has been “looking into” Pauline’s situation for ten days, now. They’re not telling her anything, and her ebooks remain offline, their rankings getting worse and worse. It’s got to be a terrifying situation for her.
You know who else is terrified? Everyone. Well, okay, not everyone. Not everyone knows about this. But I’ve seen quite a few authors wondering if they should take their books out of KU, wondering if the benefits are worth the risk.
To be clear, Amazon has the right to do what it did to Pauline. We all agree to the KDP Terms of Service when when we publish, and those terms make it clear that we sell on Amazon’s platform at Amazon’s pleasure. They can close us down any time for any reason. If they decide to take down every book containing the word “moist,” they can go ahead and do that with perfect legality, so far as I understand it.
But legality alone doesn’t make right. Taking career-destroying action without warning, in the shape of a form letter; offering no explanation as to why; sitting on the issue for day after day with no response … this isn’t nice or fair. It’s the way you treat adversaries, not partners. We want to be Amazon’s partners.
Beyond the issue of simple decency, there’s also the question of the damage this kind of thing will do to KU. Who’s going to put their books in the program if doing so makes one vulnerable to this sort of devastating blow? No one wants to risk account termination. No one. And what readers will sign up for the program if frightened authors pull out all their books?
For the good of the whole community, I think someone at Amazon needs to step up and give this situation some personalized attention.
Editing on the evening of June 21 to say Amazon has told Pauline her KDP account will be restored. Woo-hoo! Her ebooks aren’t back up yet, but hopefully they will be soon. :)
Editing on June 20 to add a few links to additional coverage:
Self-Publishing Roundtable, June 19, 2016
“Steal My Books, Please!” by P. J. Bayliss, June 6, 2016
“Authors Beware: A New Danger for KU Authors,” by K. J. Simmill, June 18, 2016
“Dangers for Prawny Authors,” comment by Ann Christy at The Passive Voice blog, June 17, 2016
Chronicles of Steele: Raven, by Pauline Creeden—click here for a quick check on the status of Pauline’s ebooks
Editing on January 28, 2017, to note that these bans are hitting more authors. See J.M. Poole/Jeffrey Poole’s experience and Adam Dreece’s experience. As with Pauline, these authors’ accounts were restored upon rigorous appeal.