thumbdikeHere comes the Tragedy of the Commons again.

The Observer has a report on an ongoing Kindle Unlimited scam that we’ve touched upon briefly when Amazon started pulling e-books with tables of contents at the rear, and again when e-book scam watchdog David Gaughran weighed in on it. It seems to be endemic to the platform that people will figure out some way to take advantage of it.

That method used to be posting really short books that you would read enough to merit a salary just by paging down in once or twice, and they could get a full-book-sized payout for writing three or four pages. But since Amazon changed the Kindle Unlimited compensation scheme to pay by the number of pages read, the scams have switched to exactly the opposite kind: posting books that are really, really long.

These long books are basically thousands of pages of garbage whose only purpose is to occupy space, and they feature a link on the first page that jumps you to the last page, and suddenly they get credit for you having read thousands of pages of their book.

When coupled with click farms to manipulate the book rankings, and the fact that it doesn’t cost the Kindle Unlimited subscribers anything extra to download the book, this means the same garbage book could be downloaded and “read” hundreds or thousands of times. This, in turn, enables the scammers to siphon more than their share of the limited pool of money set up for paying all Kindle Unlimited authors—leaving less to go around for all the legitimate self-publishers.

Amazon has said that it has tools to deal with people who try to abuse the system, but in order to keep from revealing more information to abusers, it’s not talking about them—or even admitting that its system is being gamed.

What this all boils down to is that Kindle Unlimited is effectively a kludge. The Kindle as created was never intended to permit compensating authors for unlimited subscription reading. Nobody had the idea that unlimited subscriptions were even possible or desirable back in those days—in fact, it wasn’t clear anyone even actually wanted e-books at all beyond the dedicated early-adopters, until the Kindle turned out to be the breakthrough hit it was.

The Kindle’s last-page-read marker was meant to let readers stop reading on one device and start reading at the same place on another—it was never meant to track the amount you actually had read of a book so that someone could get paid based on that. And they only use it for that because they didn’t build in any real way of tracking how many pages you read. Again, they didn’t have any idea they might ever want to do such a thing.

When Kindle Unlimited came along, Amazon’s accountants resorted to the quick and dirty solution of using the last-page-read marker to indicate how much the author should get paid. I’ll bet they’re pretty sorry about that now. The thing about quick and dirty solutions is that they usually create a playground for exploits. If I looked into the halls of the Kindle software development division right now, it wouldn’t surprise me to find a bunch of balding programmers and a floor ankle-deep in torn-out hair.

It also wouldn’t surprise me to hear that those balding programmers are working on a way to retrofit more granular pages-read tracking into a future Kindle firmware update, if they can. Rather than jumping from page 1 to page 3,000 indicating you’d read 3,000 pages, it should be able to notice that you’ve only read two—page 1 and page 3,000. Surely they could add something of that nature, right?

But is such a retrofit even possible? Given that any Kindle can be used with Kindle Unlimited, it would have to go to every Kindle, no matter how old. And just look how much fuss there was recently around the simple task of downloading a small SSL certificate update to all extant Kindles. Are Kindle users really going to want to have to go through all that again? And are older Kindles even powerful enough to do that kind of page-tracking? What kind of toll would it take on the battery?

Whatever it does, Amazon is going to have to address it sooner or later. Kicking books out for tables of contents at the rear or links to the last page is just sticking thumbs in the dike. It’ll work for the time being, but it will tick off authors like Walter Jon Williams who believe they have a legitimate reason to put tables of contents at the back, and there will always be such books Amazon doesn’t catch. For a lasting solution, they need to apply a real patch to the underlying hole.

(Found via The Consumerist, found via BoingBoing.)


  1. I don’t think I will ever understand people who spend such an inordinate amount of time trying to cheat other people. They’d be better advised to create a good, readable book in the first place. Then it’d stay on Amazon and generate a steady stream of income. But then again, maybe they can’t write such as book. All they can do is lie and cheat.

    When I did drug counseling years ago, I saw something similar. Addicts went to enormous trouble the stick with drugs that were wrecking their lives and destroying their relationships. One addict of about twenty told me that a doctor who’d given him a medical exam told him he had a body of a forty-year-old. It made no difference.
    There is one effective way to deal with these troubles that I have not seen mentioned. That’s be to let readers vote on how much a book’s author should get paid by Kindle Unlimited. Voting a “0” would mean the author gets nothing. A “1” would mean the normal payment. A “2” would pay twice the normal. That’d not only put an end to these frauds, it’d reward better writers. And perhaps there might be a limit to how many “2” votes a reader could make each month.

    Of course, Amazon would have to come up with a way to ask readers for their vote without being a nag. But being able to vote like that might make readers happier, since they could reward the writers they like best and punish those trying to cheat the system. After all, this is not just an Amazon problem. These fraudlent books are wasting the time of readers.


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