Using social pressure to enforce community standards

There is an interesting blogpost by David Gaughran here https://davidgaughran.com/2019/09/05/black-hat-riddle-scamming-amazon-self-publishing/

Frustrated by the multiple forms of bad-faith tactics deployed by authors, he is looking for new ways to cope. He poses the issues like this:

“Scamming and cheating hasn’t stopped just because fewer people are speaking about it – in many ways it is worse than ever, but the dangers of highlighting it today are such that many voices have retreated from the discussion. I’m not criticizing anyone who that applies to; it also applies to me, quite frankly. There are so many things going on right now that I would love to be explicit about, because there are really dangerous currents going on under the surface, and some particularly nasty people operating, worse than those that have come before, engaging in even more insidious practices. And the community can’t police itself like it used to.”

The heart of the problem is that Amazon enforces its terms of service very sporadically. Problems and bad behaviour festers and then Amazon might do some sort of blanket clampdown and then let the same issue fester again.

The personal cost in terms of time and emotion and money of calling out the authors acting in bad faith can be significant. So Gaughran is proposing doing something else instead:

“All this got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if we could do this all the time? I don’t mean cross-promote, that’s old hat, but exclusively focus on lifting up good people and skipping over those who engage in tawdry practices. We might not be able to end scammers and ban black hats, we might not be able to confront the sleazy internet marketer types directly, but maybe we could stop inviting them to our parties? Maybe we could stop exposing our audiences to these people?”

I have my doubts about that. It sounds too much like creating the kind of mutual support networks that end up excluding people. As we’ve seen, even well intentioned groups can create difficult situations for others, often fuelled by a belief that they are the ‘good guys’. Having said that, without any other recourse, it is hard to see what else these authors should be doing.

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21 thoughts on “Using social pressure to enforce community standards

  1. While there are quite a few self-published authors who don’t care whom they crosspromote with, the vast majority does not want anything to do with bad actors. And there are self-published authors I will never promote at the Speculative Fiction Showcase or include in my monthly new release round-ups, because they engage in problematic behaviour or because they are just plain jerks.

    But the truth is that you don’t always know who is engaging in black hat or grey hat tactics. There are certain signs, oif course, and there are whisper networks, but because there have been lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, the bad actors are often not publicly named. And even if there are signs of problematic behaviour, an author can be completely innocent.

    For example, there is a self-published author of fantasy with strong romance elements whose books I love and have repeatedly featured at the Speculative Fiction Showcase or in my new release round-up. One day, while browsing Amazon, I noticed that her also-boughts were full of puppiy books. I was shocked. Was this author I liked somehow affiliated with the puppies? In the end, it turned out that Larry Correia and randomly mentioned that author on his blog, because they’d met at a con, which led to his fans checking out their books which led to also-boughts full of puppies. The author, however, had zero connections to the puppy beyond having once talked to Correia at a con.

    So in short, it’s difficult to tell with any accuracy who the bad actors are and false positives happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These sort of things are so frustrating to me because they’re self-publishing authors who have no clue how the fiction market actually works and keep talking about age old practices as if it’s a new thing they’ve discovered. That and they keep talking about publishing and selling books as if it’s a movie of Rebel Alliance versus the Evil Empire.

    Amazon’s KU is not a “community.” It’s a selling platform that mainly makes Amazon money (and mainly not from the actual subscription selling of the books themselves.) While some authors — and some scammers — can make money off of it, it’s mainly set up to not help authors and keep authors from selling their books with other vendors. Amazon does not care what happens on it. Logically, if an author feels that KU is hurting their business and making them look bad, you take your books out of it. You can just sell on the regular Amazon platform. That may mean a lot less sales, at least at first, but it also likely means that when you make a sale, it will be to a reader who actually reads your book instead of just downloads it under subscription. And that gives you a chance to create a more solid fanbase, rather than a shifting bunch of browsing customers who won’t remember your name.

    Fiction readers are marketing resistant. They don’t like most types of marketing and advertising for fiction and don’t respond to it. Instead, they do most of their buying from two things — browsing for something that looks interesting and word of mouth from friends and family — not from reviews by strangers. Despite decades of trying, publishers have not been able to change this, and self-publishers don’t change it either. Positive reviews can still help, snagging a few readers who may then spread word of mouth. Negative reviews have very little impact on sales — people don’t trust them even from trusted sources necessarily because they are aware they may have a different reaction. Readers don’t, for the most part, ever look at sales rankings at all. Sales rankings are used by Amazon and other vendors simply as a carrot — if your sales ranking is high, they may give you some forms of publicity display for free. But frankly, given the amount of money many self-publishers are willing to spend on marketing and learning marketing techniques, they might as well just buy marketing and display services from Amazon for that cash. It’s what the publishers do.

    Amanda Hocking got name awareness built by appearing on other people’s blogs and group promoting on her blog, which got some people trying her stuff and then had massive word of mouth. J.K. Rowling had little promotion from her publisher and no network of marketing authors, but she got massive word of mouth from kids and their parents that then increased. It’s in large part unpredictable and involves luck. It also has very little to do with the nature of the authors themselves and whatever charisma they may have (which is why a lot of fiction authors being introverts with little experience in public speaking has not necessarily been a detriment to them.) Fiction readers mostly don’t care that much about the authors except as a source for the stories. They care about the characters and worlds of the stories the authors present. Self-pub authors keep trying to come up with some sort of marketing formula that will guarantee they get to X sales goal, as if fiction buying is done like breakfast cereal. Not going to happen.

    Most readers aren’t interested in buying works from those authors they don’t know who are new. When they are willing on a regular basis to buy new authors, it’s usually for a particular type of fiction and we call those fan readers. We’ve built entire adjunct book-selling category markets for those sets of fan readers. Fiction authors are symbiotic — they help each other sell simply by existing. Each fiction author brings in readers and some of those readers browse outward to other authors and spread word of mouth. It happens whether you like other authors and what they write or not. Readers and fan readers tend to find groups of authors more interesting to encounter than lone authors. So that’s why we have conventions with panels — you group the authors together and they help introduce each other to various reader groups, some of whom may try the new author and spread word of mouth. Authors will get together to do joint signings and events, because it attracts more visitors.

    So yes, cross-promotion can help because it can introduce your name to each others’ readers. It’s one of the oldest things authors have done — talk to each other, talk about books. But it’s not a failsafe either unless word of mouth spreads. Self-pub authors also gain advantages in teaming up for some things and acting like a publishing-distribution group in that regard. But it’s not like starting a religious splinter group of “good” people. It’s more that authors make friends and trust each other enough to do some promo together. Authors talked about them and/or gave them advice when they were coming up and you pass it along to the new authors coming up.

    Guaghran did do a nice service to other authors about alerting to problems he was having that they were also having. (Although those problems were talked about at the very beginning of KU’s existence.) But it’s good that he’s figured out that he isn’t the KU police and that it’s not authors’ job to chase down scammers. There are always going to be scammers in book publishing and it’s easier for them now. There are a lot of scammers grabbing cash from self-pub authors for business advice and publishing and marketing services too, sadly. Book pirates are actually a bigger problem for license authors and self-pub authors than scammers trying to grab KU money. Of course, “darker undercurrents” may involve violent and intimidation tactics against authors, I don’t know, but that again seems to me to be incentive to stay off KU for most stuff. It’s a business decision authors have to weigh — exposure that might lead to word of mouth in KU against being lost in a sea of words most people aren’t even paying attention to and possibly dealing with nasty, harassing folk.

    If you do accidentally recommend an author’s work and then find out that the person has horrible anti-equality views and/or cheats folks, well it happens and you just let that person go if you confirm that info is true and never rec again. Sometimes we grow up with hidden monsters who are our childhood idols. These days I try not to get too attached. 🙂 And sometimes we think authors are awful and they are massive bestsellers and others we love only have a limited audience.

    Right now the electronic self-pub market is in its teen years, and as such, highly melodramatic. I’m really not sure how much it’s going to grow at this point because it’s so narrow in terms of vendors. But I don’t know that KU has been a great contribution to it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “It sounds too much like creating the kind of mutual support networks that end up excluding people.”

    I suspect its very likely this is already happening. The nature of such groups is that they ar typically born informally, and continue to operate that way. Like the Friday afterwork drinks group that forms when one person at work shows a little bit of sincerity and a sympathetic ear is present. Most people are either part of the group or ignorant of its existence.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think that where he goes a bit wrong here is that he targets his solution at somehow fixing or defeating the bad actors that abound in Amazon’s market, rather than fixing that market.
    Whenever someone scams a customer via Amazon, Amazon make money! When someone gets more than their fair share of the KU pot, Amazon don’t lose money. Therefore Amazon won’t fix the market because it works for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How does Amazon make money when a customer gets scammed? The customer complains. Amazon makes them whole–no questions asked–and then Amazon goes after the scammer itself. Amazon has its problems, but failure to support their customers is not one of them.

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      1. I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t report, or don’t even realise they’re getting a rip off copy, or whatever.
        I’m sure Amazon are pretty robust when things come properly to their attention – but things like prevalence of cheating the KU algorithms indicate that they’re only getting the tip of the iceberg.
        There’s also things like gaming the recommendation algorithm – Amazon seem fairly unconcerned unless it’s really blatant – because Amazon don’t really mind which stocked product customer spends their dollar on, and persuading a customer to buy your product rather than a rivals by fair means or foul isn’t technically scamming.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I never worked on KU, so I don’t know their thinking, but I expect they’re aware of the problems but unable to fix them for one reason or another. My general experience at Amazon was that whenever I saw a problem that seemed to have an obvious solution, that just meant there was some aspect of the problem I didn’t properly understand. Sometimes a relatively trivial one like “you’d have to rewrite a substantial part of the North American Stack and risk bringing all US sales to a stop for hours” but more usually something related to a serious misunderstanding of the product itself. (“What do you mean there are more than 1 million possible shoe sizes?!”)

        In the case of KU, I think the right solution would be to say that money is distributed not from a common pot but from the monthly fee of each user. So someone who reads a lot will contribute fairly little per word read whereas someone who just read one book will send his/her whole monthly fee (minus Amazon’s cut) to that author. That would eliminate the value of bot readers entirely, and (in my view) be more fair into the bargain.

        But there’s probably some reason that doesn’t work. Might need too many changes to Kindle firmware. Or might create worries about tracking what each person is reading. Or the economics might not pencil out for some reason. I really can’t say. I’m sure there’s something, though. There always was.

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      3. I suspect it is more of a case of letting customers and customer complaints be a substantial part of quality control. It’s cheaper to give refunds than employ people to check for issues that can’ be checked automatically.

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      4. Amazon won’t set up a system that can’t scale, and human inspection of all items doesn’t scale. The promise of machine learning at Amazon was that you could create a manual system that could scale. You start by having the humans manually inspect everything (or a sample, more realistically) and you train an ML system based on what they find. You then use that system to select the sample for the humans. (You can’t actually let it select the whole sample, and the sample needs to include things that generated complaints, but those are details.) Over time, the ML gets good enough that the humans only need to look at a small fraction of the whole–small enough that you’ve effectively got complete coverage.

        Where this often breaks down is where people want the ML to have an active role, not just a passive one. Instead of merely surfacing suspicious things for humans to evaluate, they want it to actively suppress suspicious content without involving a human. That requires a far more robust system, and if you’re not careful, you end up with the paperclip maximizer. A compromise might be to have it freeze the accounts of very suspicious individuals, but prioritize those for human inspection. That way, if the decision is that it was a false alarm, you didn’t mess up anyone’s sales plan, just their cash flow.

        However, they’re not paying me anymore, so I’m not sure what they’re actually doing. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Amazon deliberately set up the KU to be a pot of money that is split rather than a more direct sales system. Since Amazon decides the size of the pot, KU authors have no way of knowing if they’re actually competing for the profits Amazon is making off of subscribers or just a sub-set of it. Regardless, Amazon makes its money from the KU less off of subscribers’ fees than it does from offering KU as a service to attract customers whose marketing data they then sell and to whom they try to sell other more profit making products. So if the KU doesn’t work really well for authors, Amazon doesn’t care. If it doesn’t work well for individual customers, Amazon may try to fix complaints but as long as they already have the customer’s data, they aren’t that worried about it.

      Customers to the KU often download stuff that then they don’t get around to reading, or reading much, so scams about length and blank content are very effective since it’s a sea of text. Sometimes Amazon purges those and rearranges things, but those scammers, while they are causing a problem for getting KU’s pot of cash for self-pub authors, are not really blocking self-pub authors from building up a fanbase for their own work. Of more concern to KU authors are authors who are operating actually as book packagers with content farms. They hire other authors for small amounts to write lots of novels and novellas so that they can put out a mass of books relatively quickly. This has caused several cut and paste plagiarism cases that licensed authors have had to deal with. It also worries other KU authors because they feel the content farmers are scooping up all the KU subscribers with steady content and making it harder for others to become known to interested subscribers.

      That’s a problem because of the nature of how Amazon has set up KU to be a pot that authors compete for. Out in the rest of the market, fiction authors do not directly compete with each other (except for awards.) They are symbiotic, again. So every self-pub author has to weigh whether they really are getting an economic and/or fan-building benefit from KU or not. It may be that the best strategy is to have some works in KU and other works outside of it on Amazon’s regular selling platform and elsewhere. But you aren’t going to be able to build up groups of authors to try to take on other types of authors, like it’s sports teams. 99% of readers don’t buy fiction that way, even in subscription.

      What self-pub authors need to look at — and some of them are — is print production and distribution by combining forces as distributor groups, building their own book clubs that operate more like book clubs of old than the KU model, book conventions for readers put on and sponsored by self-pub authors and volunteers if they can manage it, online websites in the manner of Tor.com, etc. Build stuff instead of waiting for Amazon to build it for them. Because they are not a money-making source for Amazon. As self-pub authors, they are more valuable to Amazon not as authors with products, but as customers who will have brand loyalty to Amazon for many products, get friends and family to use Amazon for many products and services like Amazon Prime t.v., and provide well-heeled customer marketing data that Amazon can sell. That and they were a useful taunt in Amazon’s negotiations with publishers on fees when setting up the Kindle market.

      Self-pub authors need more vendors and ways to direct sell to customers in order to get more visibility and bring in more customers. That’s the next big frontier for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When you tell a bunch of self-published authors that maybe we should create the indie equivalent of Tor.com, the response is usually a resounding silence, because no one wants to do the actual work.

        My own Speculative Fiction Showcase was an attempt to create an indie-focussed SFF website, but we have a hard time getting any content other than the new release spotlights and the weekly link round-up, which is entirely compiled by me.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yes, it’s work. When authors were all being told to have blogs, lots of them set up group blogs or linked blog systems on the sound principle that it would attract more visitors to have a group of authors providing content. But of course, a lot of those then fell by the wayside after a few years because it requires organizational work, etc. It’s hard to do that stuff.

        But these self-pub authors are obsessed with marketing and want to work on marketing. They are the 20booksto50K people. As we learned in the Nebula dust-up, they’re spending thousands of dollars taking marketing seminars from that book packager to learn marketing techniques that they have to spend time implementing. The book packager is essentially providing various services for fees and those may be helpful for promotion, including providing one of the aspects of a site like Tor.com — publishing short fiction as part of promoting longer novels.

        If they’re willing to do all that, then they could also take some of the money they’re spending on that, pool their resources and hire someone to help them set up indie Tor.com and spend their efforts on that. I’m not saying that they should stop doing the fan mailing list thing — that’s a useful thing that authors have always done and is easier to do in the Internet age. But that’s the thing — they need to concentrate on marketing efforts that actually work on fiction readers.

        And one of the big things is having people know your work exists, which is hampered by only having Amazon and the sea of titles at Amazon. They don’t seem to get the difference between selling channels and promotion and how both have roles to play. Instead, they spend a lot of time trying to game an algorithm that Amazon isn’t even necessarily using and in the case of the KU, trying to get a part of a pot without actually knowing if Amazon is consistently operating by its own payment terms. Meanwhile you have the SFF category fan audience, second only to romance in their online activity and supported by a robust convention and specialty media system, and the indies are basically ignoring them. So right now, the indie fiction side is kind of anemic.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. At the moment, self-published authors focus their attention on online ads (Amazon, Facebook, BookBub), advertising/deal newsletters (BookBub, eBook Betty, Fuzzy Librarian and a host of others) and their own mailing lists and so-called mailing list swaps, where authors agree to promote their books to each other’s mailing lists. Blogging is considered a waste of time and many of these folks don’t even pay attention to any reviews other than Amazon customer reviews.

        I do believe that there is room for the indie equivalent to Tor.com or io9, but the same folks who spent thousands on Amazon ads and deal newsletters balk at writing a single guest post. And while they will write a tie-in short story for an indie anthology (see the 20Booksto50K shorts nominated for the Nebulas this year), they would never post it online. It’s a very weird attitude, especially since those folks are basically only marketing to bargain hunters and KU subscibers and ignoring everybody else.

        I know that people do appreciate the weekly link and news round-ups and the monthly new release round-ups at my two sites, because they’ve told me. I’ve also noticed that a couple of folks have copied my new release round-ups, only with fewer girl cooties, because I include a sweet lgbt werewolf romance along with the manly space marines doing manly stuff in space.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. The mailing list thing has been around forever so it’s a decent combine effort of getting some name awareness going which can lead to word of mouth.

        The ads — that’s where you get into the breakfast cereal thing. Fiction readers mostly ignore ads. Ads can possibly work if they are targeted or you’ve reached a level of name awareness, but the ratio to expense is not great. Facebook ads probably do the best for them. These newsletters and things sprung up specifically to get dollars from self-pub authors and they really need to evaluate whether it’s effectively getting them an audience or not.

        The thing is, Amazon can decide to shut down the KU tomorrow. It’s mainly a feeder operation to help with the Amazon Prime network and business/cloud services, get people used to doing a lot of subscription services. And if Amazon does shut it down, a lot of the readers aren’t going to stick with books that are no longer “free” in the subscription.

        I don’t balk at them not wanting to do articles, postings or other online text efforts. That’s something that each author has to evaluate as to what works for them in terms of effort, time, cost, etc. If ads is the easiest thing for them, then ads, but it tends to have the biggest cost for least return. What seems to be working for most of them is flooding KU with content (shelf stuffing,) so that browsers have a better chance of spotting something of theirs, which is part of what Gaughran is complaining about but is kind of a logical strategy for the KU set-up. But it is so narrow and frankly there are a lot of other ways and things you could sell that make money a lot more easily than what they are doing.

        Outside of the KU feeder pit, what Gaughran is talking about doing is tried and true symbiotic marketing and has been effective in simply building reader bases and gaining more name recognition that can lead to word of mouth by those who try out your stuff. But also outside of the KU feeder pit, other self-pub authors who are doing things you don’t like aren’t your opponents. They still help you sell by bringing readers into the pool. But that’s a non-subscription pot system. So Gaughran might want to get out of the KU itself and try some of the things you are doing, Cora, with his group of authors.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m kind of curious as to the nature of what the black hat writers are doing here. I don’t think the classic fake agent or vanity press scams apply here, but I am aware of authors using bots to inflate their KU numbers (sometimes with fake books), theft of books (hi Cam!) and use of bots to artificially increase sales numbers (from another David Gaughran blog post a few years ago).

    So is anything new happening? Are black hat writers going around breaking indie writer legs? Enquiring minds want to know.

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    1. Using bots to get page reads is a well known scam. Another one was book stuffing, i.e. you have a new book, maybe only a short story, and add all sorts of unretated older books, public domain books or just lorem ipsum text until you have a massive tome of 3000 or 5000 or more pages. Then you trick the reader to click directly to the back of the book, e.g. by putting the table of contents in the back or an important message from the author. And because KU payouts are by pages read, this click to the back triggers a big payout, even if 2900 of the 3000 pages of the book were pure junk and no one ever read them. Amazon cracked down on this some time ago. Then people started using formatting tricks, such as big fonts and a lot of space between paragraphs to drive up the page reads.

      There were also scams related to multi author boixsets and one enterprising fellow who ran an illegal lottery where readers could supposedly win a Tiffany bracelet or something. Because illegal lotteries are apparently a big deal in the US, that guy was swiftly banned.

      The main problem with KU is the complete intransparence of the system. Instead of Amazon telling you outright that you get amoung X per page read or amoung Y per borrow or percentage Z of the cover price per borrow, there is this pot authors are supposed to compete for and there are all star bonusses for particularly popular authors. This is not how any normal business treats its suppliers, but a lot of indies are clueless and go along with it. This is also the reason why I would never join KU, even if the exclusivity requirement wasn’t a dealbreaker in itself.

      An added problem with KU is that a KU borrow counts as much as a sale for ranking purposes, so books that are not in KU have a rank disadvantag. And while it’s true that readers don’t care about sales rank per se, sales rank strongly influences visibility, e.g. Amazon often only shows you the top 100 or 500 or whatever per category, so a book that sits at 750 in a category has almost visibility. And I do notice that my sales go up whenever one of my books hits a top 100 subcategory list, simply because more people see the book in question.

      In general, I sell my books via Amazon, but I don’t pay much attention to them otherwise and I certainly don’t buy ads there, because the content mills are outspending everybody anyway and people who use an ad blocker don’t even see the ads..

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  6. A lot of these discussions used to happen on Kboards and they always seem circular and semi pointless to me.
    There is also the fear that perfectly innocent behaviours could be seen as scams, and accusing someone of being a scammer obviously has ramifications particularly if you later find out you were wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, that’s another thing. A lot of perfectly harmless behaviour suddenly gets lumped in with scamming.

      For example, when the earliest version of KU benefitted very short books, legitimate short story authors were frequently called scammer, even if their stories were clearly labeled as short stories and were not even in KU.

      When the click to the back of the book scam was a thing, Amazon suddenly came down on authors who had the Table of Contents in the back of the book, even though that was the standard setting of Calibre, a program many people used to create e-books.

      And when Amazon finally cracked down on book stuffing, they also went after legitimate bonus content such as recipes related to the book, author’s notes, afterwords, backmatter and the like.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Amazon has a saying that it’s better to act even if you have to apologize later than to delay trying to avoid mistakes. Sometimes the only way you learn about a problem is when you roll something out. This was a big difference from Microsoft, but it makes a certain amount of sense since most things Amazon does can be rolled back if there’s a serious problem.

    But it certainly sucks to be one of the ones helping them learn.

    So you think I should contact the Kindle guys and tell them I’d like to come back and help them fix some of these things? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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