prawn-greenAs I’ve mentioned before, Amazon is a victim of rampant click-fraud attempts, as scammers out there think they’ve found some new way of banging on the Amazon piñata until some money falls out. Frequently, Amazon’s attempts to rebuff this fraud sweep up innocent parties in the net. This was the case when Amazon attempted to crack down on biased reviews (and removed reviews from people who simply followed the author’s social media accounts), and when it took a hard line against people links to the back of their books (and pulled books by authors who thought tables of contents looked better at the back).

According to a series of posts on The Passive Voice today, it’s apparently happening again.

It started with author P.J. Bayliss announcing that Amazon had just closed his Kindle Direct Publishing account and delisted his books because it had determined his books had been borrowed by bot accounts. Bayliss wrote:

My problem is that I am completely an innocent party in this situation. I haven’t employed borrowers, enlisted in any ‘golden egg’ book marketing schemes, or sought any kind of third party help at all to escalate my book sales. Obviously, I barely find time to post a blog once a month for starters, so where am I going to find the time for all of that rigmarole? Even if I managed to find hundreds of borrowers per week it still wouldn’t fill my car with gas in order to get to work for my real job – so what would be my motivation to even consider doing such a thing?

Subsequently, another post revealed that it was happening to other midlist authors, such as Pauline Creeden. Author Becca Mills wrote:

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.

Finally, Passive Guy reposted a comment from the Bayliss story from Ann Christy, who had done research into KU scammers and thought she understood what was going on. She’d heard from another “prawny” (i.e. “not a big fish”) author in the same situation. She’d experienced a one-day spike on a book, and subsequently had her account shut down. Christy explains:

I researched the KU Scams extensively for months, but you don’t have to do that to figure out what’s happening. Bot driven KU accounts are hired by click-farms. Just like with Adsense and other such click schemes, how do they obfuscate that they are bot driven?

They download a random real book and make sure to do the same to that one. By doing it enough times interspersed with the books they’re hired to click-farm, they make it hard to figure out they’re a click farmer at first glance.

Unfortunately, now that Amazon has responded to the click farming, they are hammering the innocent victims of the click farmers’ attempts to hide what they are.

It follows the same old pattern: in an attempt to cut down on illegitimate activity, Amazon throws the baby out with the bathwater. To make it worse, there’s no easy way for authors to contact Amazon directly to protest their innocence. They have to reply by email and wait until Amazon deems it worth getting back to them.

This also provides a handy way for anyone to torpedo the account of an Amazon author they don’t like: just buy the services of a click-farmer and point it at their books. And given that Amazon accounts for the vast majority of many authors’ sales, this could effectively end many authors’ careers.

Presumably—hopefully—Amazon will figure it out and reinstate the unjustly-terminated authors before too long. But this is just another case where excessive automation turns out to sweep up too many false positives in Amazon’s many attempts to deal with fraudulent activity. It would be nice if Amazon could get its act together and be a little more discriminating in its targeting.

It would also be nice if there were a good competitor to Amazon who could provide a decent alternative, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.


  1. I talked on the phone with someone at Amazon who was involved in these in-house, clean-up-the-posting efforts. She lived in absolute terror of her superiors. She had to delivery what they wanted or else, the else probably being fired. Keep in mind the high-turn over at Amazon described in the NY Times last August.

    People in those situations don’t think well. Fearing punishment, they act without investigating and often over-react. Some clueless boss, perhaps even Bezos himself, must be appeased. A short time later we hear about the blunders and wonder about their cause. The cause is internal bullying and the resulting fear.

    Bad as the situations are now, imagine would they’ll be like if Amazon acquires even more dominance in book retailing. Abuse by Amazon won’t simply mean fewer sales, it’ll mean almost none.

    We’re already well passed the danger point. The danger point is where a boycott of Amazon by authors and publishers would force the latter to change. Now only the giant publishers can weild that leverage and even that’s doubtful.
    I know what I am talking about. I’ve seen that fear and paralysis in a different context—that of a major children’s hospital—and describe it in the book, Senior Nurse Mentor. A senior nurse mentor is a position at the hospital accountable only to the CEO and who can only be disciplined by being fired. She listens to nurses in confidence and can confront the nursing administration, the hospital administration or the senior physicians, demanding change. She has a carte blanche, she is someone with the complete freedom to act in whatever manner she chooses, under no one and responsible only for maintaining nursing morale.

    At one point, I offer an illustration in which this senior nurse mentor calls in the hospital’s surgeons and tells them bluntly: “Your surgery nurses are so overworked, of the 50, 15 have already applied at other hospitals and another 10 are thinking of doing so. What are you going to do if half your nurses quit in the space of a few weeks? You’lll have to cancel half your surgeries. What will happen to your patients then?” Hospitals need more of that.

    Amazon needs someone in a similar carte blanche position, but I doubt it will happen. The upper management is too addicted to bullying itself. It cares not for employee morale, except as a public relations problem. In the end, that may lead to its self-destruction.

  2. Looking at this from the click-fraud angle, the fraudsters have come up with a rather effective approach. Legit authors have become human shields. Amazon can’t clobber the guilty without harming innocents. You’d think that ought to stop Amazon in their tracks.
    While some are guessing that Amazon is clueless here, one could just as easily believe that they know exactly what’s happening and have simply taken the decision to accept the collateral damage. If we were writing and action thriller we might have our protagonist, Jeff Amazon, exclaim, “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.”

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