Author Topic: The free book list - 1 year later; spoiler: the scammers are still winning  (Read 8558 times)  

Online PhoenixS

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So it was Easter last year that I went on a rant on David Gaughran's blog regarding all the obviously botted books in the free list.
https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/ku-scammers-attack-amazons-free-ebook-charts/

Over the next year, I watched. I reported. I verified and confirmed with others what certain publishers were doing. I stayed hopeful. Any day now, I kept thinking, Amazon would block the IPs of the blatant bot sites. If they can exclude BookBub's downloads and sales from the poplist algos simply because they want control of THAT customer experience, they can surely do the same on the bestseller side for obvious scammy, black hat tactics that mislead customers and make for a decidedly poor customer experience. Not to mention a poor author experience by taking up at least 20% of the highest-visibility, Top 100 chart spots every. single. day.

So, things have improved in the past year, right?

On the paid/borrows side, yes, some. There are still WAY too many scambooks getting through, and way too much turning a blind eye to certain authors, publishers and practices, but overall, yes, things have improved.

On the free front, though, I have seen zilch in the way of improvement. The SAME authors, the SAME publishers and obviously the SAME bot sites continue to operate with impunity. Really, Amazon? What's the secret to escaping the banhammer, because I'd like some of that immunity too.

So one year later, I took a scroll through the Top 100 Free (because yes, I have a personal bias today - one book is sitting at #113 and another at #114 as I write this, and this is far from the first time our catalog has been in this position), and I can easily pick out fully HALF of the Top 34 books as books that have been botted there (robo-clicked, paid-per-action - whatever the mechanism that isn't organic readers making uncompensated decisions to download free books). Of those 17 books, one author name has 7 books, ones which have seen the Top 20 quite a few times over the past year. Yet none of those books have any ad footprints whatsoever for any of their free runs.

And 50% is only the easily detectable number. I've certainly seen recognizable names who've obviously bought clicks to get to the top. And we here on KBoards have seen books that unless we were following their history closely we'd miss any clues of being bot-driven.

And this happens routinely now. Not occasionally. Not one-off. Every. Single. Day. Of. Every. Single. Week. Of. Every. Single. Month.

Think about it. Even if we put the number of bot-driven books at a conservative 10 per day in the Top 100, that's 3650 titles in the past year getting top visibility and shutting out books that legitimately belong there. Visibility = $$ in this game (whether from follow-on KU reads or cross-promo to other books in an author's catalog), and people scamming the system are not just figuratively but literally stealing from authors who aren't gaming their way to the top.

And the thing that sucks the most? Amazon is ENABLING this behavior. They have the means to shut it down the same way they clamped down on BookBub's influence in the poplists. That would shut it down at the IP level. They could also shut down the accounts of the authors/publishers engaging in this behavior over and over and over.

But they don't. Why? My speculation is that if this were happening on the paid side, where the Big 5 and Amazon's own imprints hang, it wouldn't last long. Sure, we see it happen (especially with bot-borrows and Facebook click-through groups), but not usually for as long or as blatantly as we see on the free side. Plus, the free side is more volatile. So many of the titles in the Top 100 are there at most for 5 days. Folk aren't watching those lists the same way they watch the paid ones. It's a more slippery list to pin down.

But pin down it can be, and those of us watching have been reporting to no avail. So, one year later, while we have seen improvement on the paid side, on the free side, it's still Scammers 1, Amazon 0.

Oh, and yes, there's at least one *same* suspect author today with books in the Top 30 list whose books were in the Top 20 list when I posted to David's blog 1 year ago. (And yes, I recognize that *I* too am running a campaign with 8 freebies almost exactly 1 year later with books in the Top 20 and with 3 just outside the Top 100 very reminiscent of last year. The difference is when our books hit in the Top 100 you can easily find their ad footprints and follow their trajectories -- and they don't all hit in a solid rank block at the same time. Lots of folk run several freebie ad campaigns per year. It's not when they're run or the frequency with which they're run, but HOW they're run that's at issue here.)

Some things just never change.

Grrr.

Offline Gabriella West

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That's too bad (understatement).

I've noticed the KU pot keeps getting bigger each month.

I copyedit, too, at Edit for Indies: http://editforindies.com|Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gabriellawest|

Online AlecHutson

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That's too bad (understatement).

I've noticed the KU pot keeps getting bigger each month.

. . . . and yet the payout is shrinking. Scammers are winning over on the paid side, too.

Alec Hutson

Offline Gabriella West

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Yes... :(

I copyedit, too, at Edit for Indies: http://editforindies.com|Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gabriellawest|

Offline JNorth

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For those us who didn't know Kboards existed a year ago, could you elaborate on what you mean by Amazon blocks the Bookbub sales/downloads from the "poplist"?  Those sales don't count toward your book rank you mean? Or "also boughts"?  Does that only apply to Bookbub or all the similar (smaller) sites like ENT etc...?


Offline AliceW

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On one hand this is depressing to read, and on the other kind of no surprise.

I came to the conclusion last year that some authors/publishers are teflon coated and it doesn't matter what they do, how hard they game the systems, or what unethical bot driven methods they employ, Amazon simply will not bring down the ban hammer. I have no idea if it's to do with their visibility, amount of money they bring to Amazon's pockets, or maybe they found the right incantation to mutter under the full moon.

Do I wish Amazon would deal with everybody the same and clean house? Yip. Can I do anything about it? Nope. Would I like to be able to do something about it? Yip. But until there's a viable option I'm going to put my head down and keep my eyes on my own business. Otherwise lamenting the unfairness of it will eat you up :(

Offline MH Johnson

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On one hand this is depressing to read, and on the other kind of no surprise.

I came to the conclusion last year that some authors/publishers are teflon coated and it doesn't matter what they do, how hard they game the systems, or what unethical bot driven methods they employ, Amazon simply will not bring down the ban hammer. I have no idea if it's to do with their visibility, amount of money they bring to Amazon's pockets, or maybe they found the right incantation to mutter under the full moon.

Do I wish Amazon would deal with everybody the same and clean house? Yip. Can I do anything about it? Nope. Would I like to be able to do something about it? Yip. But until there's a viable option I'm going to put my head down and keep my eyes on my own business. Otherwise lamenting the unfairness of it will eat you up :(

Alice, you put it perfectly. It's frustrating, but the best thing we can do for our own peace of mind is to just focus on our business, enjoy our own entrepreneurial adventures, and know that even if the system isn't perfect, for a lot of us, this IS our chance to make it as authors where we might never have made it past the trad-pub gatekeepers just a decade ago. - That being said, in a perfect world, Amazon would level the playing field for all, and perhaps even recruit some Kboarders to at least point the flashlight at suspected botters, share the reasons behind their conclusions, and let a real live person at Amazon decide if bans or simply warnings are in order.

Offline brkingsolver

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I ran a FreeBooksy ad last week, hit #81 in the free store. When the book went back to paid, it had slipped from the 6,000-7,000 rank to 13,000. A week later, it's back to 6,800, but revenues haven't picked up, i.e. I'm not seeing a tail. I hadn't done any free stuff in almost a year, and this simply cements my attitude toward free. I'm done with giving books away.

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Offline doolittle03

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Are the books Phoenix mentions permafree or in Select 5-day free thing? I could see Amazon cutting off permafree in future to solve the problem, and maybe the 5-day thing isn't enough of an issue to make them take action...?
Just thinking out loud here....

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Offline usedtocare

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So it was Easter last year that I went on a rant on David Gaughran's blog regarding all the obviously botted books in the free list.
https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/ku-scammers-attack-amazons-free-ebook-charts/

Over the next year, I watched. I reported. I verified and confirmed with others what certain publishers were doing. I stayed hopeful. Any day now, I kept thinking, Amazon would block the IPs of the blatant bot sites. If they can exclude BookBub's downloads and sales from the poplist algos simply because they want control of THAT customer experience, they can surely do the same on the bestseller side for obvious scammy, black hat tactics that mislead customers and make for a decidedly poor customer experience. Not to mention a poor author experience by taking up at least 20% of the highest-visibility, Top 100 chart spots every. single. day.

So, things have improved in the past year, right?

On the paid/borrows side, yes, some. There are still WAY too many scambooks getting through, and way too much turning a blind eye to certain authors, publishers and practices, but overall, yes, things have improved.

On the free front, though, I have seen zilch in the way of improvement. The SAME authors, the SAME publishers and obviously the SAME bot sites continue to operate with impunity. Really, Amazon? What's the secret to escaping the banhammer, because I'd like some of that immunity too.

So one year later, I took a scroll through the Top 100 Free (because yes, I have a personal bias today - one book is sitting at #113 and another at #114 as I write this, and this is far from the first time our catalog has been in this position), and I can easily pick out fully HALF of the Top 34 books as books that have been botted there (robo-clicked, paid-per-action - whatever the mechanism that isn't organic readers making uncompensated decisions to download free books). Of those 17 books, one author name has 7 books, ones which have seen the Top 20 quite a few times over the past year. Yet none of those books have any ad footprints whatsoever for any of their free runs.

And 50% is only the easily detectable number. I've certainly seen recognizable names who've obviously bought clicks to get to the top. And we here on KBoards have seen books that unless we were following their history closely we'd miss any clues of being bot-driven.

And this happens routinely now. Not occasionally. Not one-off. Every. Single. Day. Of. Every. Single. Week. Of. Every. Single. Month.

Think about it. Even if we put the number of bot-driven books at a conservative 10 per day in the Top 100, that's 3650 titles in the past year getting top visibility and shutting out books that legitimately belong there. Visibility = $$ in this game (whether from follow-on KU reads or cross-promo to other books in an author's catalog), and people scamming the system are not just figuratively but literally stealing from authors who aren't gaming their way to the top.

And the thing that sucks the most? Amazon is ENABLING this behavior. They have the means to shut it down the same way they clamped down on BookBub's influence in the poplists. That would shut it down at the IP level. They could also shut down the accounts of the authors/publishers engaging in this behavior over and over and over.

But they don't. Why? My speculation is that if this were happening on the paid side, where the Big 5 and Amazon's own imprints hang, it wouldn't last long. Sure, we see it happen (especially with bot-borrows and Facebook click-through groups), but not usually for as long or as blatantly as we see on the free side. Plus, the free side is more volatile. So many of the titles in the Top 100 are there at most for 5 days. Folk aren't watching those lists the same way they watch the paid ones. It's a more slippery list to pin down.

But pin down it can be, and those of us watching have been reporting to no avail. So, one year later, while we have seen improvement on the paid side, on the free side, it's still Scammers 1, Amazon 0.

Oh, and yes, there's at least one *same* suspect author today with books in the Top 30 list whose books were in the Top 20 list when I posted to David's blog 1 year ago. (And yes, I recognize that *I* too am running a campaign with 8 freebies almost exactly 1 year later with books in the Top 20 and with 3 just outside the Top 100 very reminiscent of last year. The difference is when our books hit in the Top 100 you can easily find their ad footprints and follow their trajectories -- and they don't all hit in a solid rank block at the same time. Lots of folk run several freebie ad campaigns per year. It's not when they're run or the frequency with which they're run, but HOW they're run that's at issue here.)

Some things just never change.

Grrr.

And this is why you are one of my most favorite people. I know it takes a lot of your time and skills to analyze and track what is going on, but I always look forward to hearing what you have to say, and you're always spot-on. As disheartening as this is to hear, we need to hear it. I'm not sure how to get Amazon to listen, but at least we know what we're up against and present it in a reasonable manner.

And now I'm off to compose an email to 'Zon rep  :(

Offline Bill Hiatt

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As I recall, Amazon started trying to clean up the paid review situation when major news outlets started giving big coverage to paid reviews. Amazon doesn't like embarrassing publicity. The press making a big fuss might get the company moving in the right direction. (Recall that in that case the ban hammer came down on someone who had sold over a million books.)

Since this kind of scamming does make for a poorer customer experience, I can't see any obvious motive for Amazon to let it continue. It's not as if Amazon is making money on fake free downloads. I'm inclined to think it's just a case of corporate inertia that one sometimes sees in other large organizations. Perhaps the people theoretically in charge of this kind of issue are busy putting out other fires and don't have enough incentive to move this problem to the top of the to-do list.


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Online PhoenixS

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Are the books Phoenix mentions permafree or in Select 5-day free thing? I could see Amazon cutting off permafree in future to solve the problem, and maybe the 5-day thing isn't enough of an issue to make them take action...?
Just thinking out loud here....

These are KU books. Which is all part of the con. They're looking for borrows while free and the rank bump on the other side when the books return to paid that will give them more borrows.

Also, 16 suspect books are now ranking #5-20 on the Free list.

Online PhoenixS

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For those us who didn't know Kboards existed a year ago, could you elaborate on what you mean by Amazon blocks the Bookbub sales/downloads from the "poplist"?  Those sales don't count toward your book rank you mean? Or "also boughts"?  Does that only apply to Bookbub or all the similar (smaller) sites like ENT etc...?

Here's an older primer post on what the poplist is and the difference between it and the bestseller list and what some of the observable drivers of the poplist are. In addition, borrows do not appear to weight in the poplist either, which further advantages the Big 5 pubs. It also disadvantages the Amazon imprints if borrows don't weight with them, BUT I personally haven't done much work in the past couple of years around Amazon imprints and whether borrows are excluded from those titles or not. Since borrows are paid and credited separately, those borrows MAY count. Also, totally clueless about the Amazon Prime Reads and how those borrows may or may not factor in.

http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,211276.msg2955503.html#msg2955503

Offline AlexaKang

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Phoenix, thanks so much for sharing the stats and giving us so much details. I find them very interesting.

My own theory is that Amazon doesn't like the free books. I understand the argument that free 1st in series help some authors to sell the rest, and so Amazon should understand that and want the frees too, to help them sell more books. But from what I've observed, Amazon actually does the opposite. They've separated the frees from the paid rankings and they hide the free list. They have never offered authors the option to sell books free. It is only a side effect of their price-match policy. If they wanted the Zon platform to sell free books, it's so easy for them to make that happen. The fact that they don't, and in effect actively discourages free books' visibility, speaks volumes.

While free helps to sell some major genres when the books are serialized, this is not all that important to Amazon in the big scheme of things. It just is not. It's only important to writers who need a free as a loss leader. Amazon sells too many things, unlike other ebook retailers that only sell books.

Free also messes up their algo probably. Readers who download a lot of frees dilute the way their algo can show books to targeted readers.

I think this is why Amazon can care less that scammers remain on the top free list. Maybe they even hope that this will further discourage real authors from offer free books. Who knows?

As for scammers getting the KU pot? I think Freebooksy's latest report is that the payout per page has consistently been $0.045? (Don't quote me, I'm shooting from memory but the point is that no matter the pot total, they've ensured the payout per page remained consistent.)  Maybe Amazon thinks that letting the scammers get a cut is a good investment for driving more writers away from free?

And while some of us can complain till we're red in the face about scammers unfairly stealing from authors in KU, the fact is, KU is doing too well and writers are not leaving KU en mass. We've seen that when long novel writers left en mass, it was enough to get Amazon's attention and they did something about it. But we as a group have not be united in pressing this issue. We have not left KU en mass because of scammers. So Amazon has no incentive to do anything about this.

Anyway, it seems to me that free is not really such a great option anymore on the retail platforms. Too many readers are saying they have 1k+ free books they'll never get to. And unless you're in the big selling genres where also-bots can recover quickly, doing a free promo can screw your also-bots and it can take months and months to recover -- it does more harm than good. In Nov I ran a free promo, I got no tail. Last month I ran a 99c promo, the tail lasted for 2-3 weeks. For a while there I thought I finally made it...but I guess not. :D It was just a tail. I'm still happy though.

But Phoenix, I am sorry to hear all your frustrations. You're in much better position to devise sales strategies in light of this scammer problem, so I'm here to listen if you have any new words of wisdom to share.



Offline Martitalbott

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As I recall, this and the page count cut ar the reasons I pulled my books out of KU and went back wide. It's depressing when you think you're being cheated. I feel the same about returns, but there's nothing I can do about it. It's taken me a year to build back my momentum on the other booksellers, but it's a lot less aggravating now that I have.

Offline brkingsolver

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Here's an older primer post on what the poplist is and the difference between it and the bestseller list and what some of the observable drivers of the poplist are. In addition, borrows do not appear to weight in the poplist either, which further advantages the Big 5 pubs.
I'm curious. Do the trad publishers pay Amazon co-op money like they do bookstores?

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Online Becca Mills

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I bet the central problem is that Amazon doesn't want to dedicate someone(s) to doing the kind of work Phoenix does: tracking all the major advertising sites (including discovering new ones as they appear), watching the way dozens of different books move up and down the free list (independently or in blocks), and cross-referencing those two groups of books; maintaining an ever-evolving list of targeted IP addresses; dealing with the annoyance of taking scammers' books off the site and their ensuing upset emails. Amazon's probably thinks in terms of maintaining a deterrent rather than really dealing with each and every scammer. So they've identified a few click-farms that aren't smart enough to swap out their IP addresses regularly, and people who use those particular farms get spanked while all the rest are ignored. The problem just isn't important to Amazon because it isn't keeping authors from enrolling their books in KU.

The above is 100% speculation, of course. It feels right to me ... which probably means it's wrong.  ::)

Anyway, it sure is discouraging.




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Meanwhile, at Amazon HQ...


"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." - Thomas Edison

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." - Sun Tzu

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Offline usedtocare

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I bet the central problem is that Amazon doesn't want to dedicate someone(s) to doing the kind of work Phoenix does: tracking all the major advertising sites (including discovering new ones as they appear), watching the way dozens of different books move up and down the free list (independently or in blocks), and cross-referencing those two groups of books; maintaining an ever-evolving list of targeted IP addresses; dealing with the annoyance of taking scammers' books off the site and their ensuing upset emails. Amazon's probably thinks in terms of maintaining a deterrent rather than really dealing with each and every scammer. So they've identified a few click-farms that aren't smart enough to swap out their IP addresses regularly, and people who use those particular farms get spanked while all the rest are ignored. The problem just isn't important to Amazon because it isn't keeping authors from enrolling their books in KU.

The above is 100% speculation, of course. It feels right to me ... which probably means it's wrong.  ::)

Anyway, it sure is discouraging.

Agree ^^. I can't see Amazon ever getting motivated enough to do something about the Free ranks and bot-driven free books.

Offline Marian

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I'm curious. Do the trad publishers pay Amazon co-op money like they do bookstores?

Great question! I've wondered when I've seen trade short story collections that have "Novel" in the title to mislead. And my jaw literally dropped when I saw the colossal example of title stuffing in the following link. You have to see it to believe it.   https://www.amazon.com/Second-Thought-Uplifting-Bestselling-Fiction-ebook/dp/B01G1FDJUU/

Offline KelliWolfe

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Amazon only cares when *they* start losing money. They don't care about "customer experience" or they'd clean out half of the junk they've dumped into the product pages in the last year to try to sell other things than what the customer is actually TRYING to see, and they'd fix the miscategorization issues, and they'd put in a plagiarism detection system instead of sending out "we don't think you have the copyright for that" emails apparently at random.

Amazon cares about money and increasing marketshare. Period. They did NOTHING about the blatant issues with KU scamming via scamlets and fake books until it got so blatant that it was causing subscribers to turn away. They handed out All-Stars bonuses to some of them that they had to know were bogus when they did it.

When I think of Amazon's business practices, I just think of this.

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Offline brkingsolver

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Amazon has a much larger fish to fry at the moment with the scam third-party seller scandal hitting the mainstream press.

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Offline J. Tanner

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Have you tried the jeff@amazon.com thing with info like this?
J. Tanner vs. the Page (blog)

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Offline jaehaerys

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This thread reads like an instructional in how to build the perfect Amazon competitor. If only I had a billion dollars.