Recently, there’s been a new uproar over Amazon authors who run BookBub promotions having their sales ranks stripped in response, sometimes within minutes. I’ve heard other reports that this happens with a lot of other legitimate promotions in addition to BookBub. Unlike many authors who’ve been (understandably) railing against the personal harm this has inflicted on them, I have mixed feelings about the issue.
For years now, authors and readers alike have been demanding that something be done about scams, ranking manipulation, and other bad actors generally turning Amazon’s Kindle store into a stinking trash heap. People have been gaming Kindle Unlimited pretty much from the moment it went online (as was warned about the moment they brought up the idea). Being an Amazon Best Seller is essentially meaningless when all you have to do is tag your book with such an obscure subgenre that you’re the only one in that group, or you can pay a Chinese clickfarm to game you onto the big lists. If you make it up there for even a few minutes and screen cap it, congrats, you’re technically a best seller now. I won’t even get started on how meaningless star ratings are when everyone’s default expectation is 5 stars for minimally acceptable work.
The problem with fixing this (aside from Amazon not listening to their customers or authors) is one of scale. How many millions of books is Amazon up to these days? How many billions of transactions on all those books? This is not a problem that can be fixed by a cubicle farm of underpaid humans alone. You have to automate it. However, in the hopeless, unending arms race, scammers figure out how to break new algorithms within days (or even hours) of the next best effort being implemented. That’s inevitable, but you still have to keep tweaking your system or it will collapse in on itself and the few remaining legitimate authors will drown in an ocean of sewage.
I applaud Amazon for making an effort, however flawed and token it often is. Their real failure here isn’t the effort to automate the fight. False positives are an inevitable consequence of automation. No matter how hard you try, how much you tweak, people who have done nothing wrong are going to get unjustly caught in the machine. Where Amazon has fallen on its face here is their process to fix those mistakes. You shouldn’t have to waste your day watching your rankings on Amazon like an obsessive hawk, but if you don’t, it could be a week before they bother to inform you that you were screwed in the first place. The first weeks of a new book release are absolutely vital to the overall success of a new novel, especially in establishing your rankings and visibility on Amazon. Trad publishers make a big deal of your first week’s sales numbers, and this could murder your book’s standing with them. Indie authors really need that cash to recoup the expense of publishing and promoting the new book (food and rent is a nice perk, too). You need all the momentum and enthusiasm you can drum up to get the word out there in order to be noticed at all. Once you know your new baby was dumped in the trash by the babysitter, you need a means of convincing her to dig the thing out of there before it suffocates.
The real difference between success and failure in this fight is how quickly the false positives can be fixed, how well the damages are mitigated, and how proactive the company is in keeping legitimate sellers aware of what’s going on and working with them to keep these mistakes to a minimum. Right now, Amazon seems to be failing miserably in that regard. There’s also a difficult, but important debate over the timing of such penalties. Do you warn an author that they were caught in the net before action is taken so that they have time to get it sorted out? That also delays the valid punishments, and gives the scammers a chance to tie up limited human resources that are needed to fix the real mistakes (during which time the scammers are still making their money). Or do you kill them all and let customer service sort them out? Authors are struggling these days (even more so than normal). This option moves the damage onto them at the same time that it hurts the scammers, and it’s hard to quantify the damage on lost sales from people not seeing your book.
Without omniscience and executions, I doubt this problem will ever be entirely fixed, but it could be handled far better than Amazon has been up to this point, and it needs to be handled better. Amazon bullied their way into a place of dominance over the marketplace and that comes with a responsibility to the livelihood of the people they now rule over. Far too many good people’s work is suffering because of it, and it’s in Amazon’s own best interest to support the production of good products worth buying.