One of the problems Amazon has as a major self-publishing market is that, every so often, it’s prone to making odd decisions. Sometimes those decisions are at least understandable in a certain light, such as cutting down on incest or monster erotica—but others seem to make very little sense at all.
Case in point: David Gaughran writes about a sudden decision by Amazon to start pulling from sale and requiring corrections to self-published e-books whose authors have the temerity to put the table of contents at the back of the book, rather than the front. For some authors, this can happen at the worst possible time.
For example, Walter Jon William had just put his “arcanepunk” novel Metropolitan on sale, with a Bookbub promotion, when Amazon abruptly pulled it without any warning and told him to correct that placement. What’s more, once he had, Amazon sent an email out to everyone who had previously bought the e-book saying that it had been changed to incorporate “Improved formatting for readability. Significant editorial changes have been made.” As Williams pointed out, he had made no changes whatsoever to the book apart from moving the table of contents.
Not only did this prevent his book from being sold during part of the Bookbub promotion, it also had the effect of torpedoing his Amazon sales rank. The Bookbub promotion would have cost him $570 and he won’t be able to run another such promotion for Metropolitan for another six months.
The thing is, it’s a fairly common practice among not only self-publishers but also some major publishers to put the table of contents in the back. This keeps it out of Amazon’s 10% previews, so there’s more actual text for readers to judge. Why would Amazon suddenly start cracking down on this practice? Well, that’s the interesting thing.
Gaughran suggests that this could be for similar reasons as Amazon changed Kindle Unlimited from a title-based to a pages-read-based payment scheme—to crack down on scammers trying to game the system. Under the old system, people only had to read a page or two of a very short Kindle title to pay the author for the whole thing. He writes:
The latest wheeze from this shady crew was to place a message at the start of their KU titles encouraging readers to click through to the end – because this fools Amazon’s system into thinking the entire book has been read, the author of that title then receives an inflated payout from the KU pot, and then honest, hard-working writers who aren’t pulling these cheap tricks on readers have less money to share. It’s a mess. These guys are peeing in the KU pool and Amazon is paying them by the gallon.
Gaughran believes Amazon seems to think people who put their table of contents in the back of the book are pulling a similar trick. It’s impossible to be certain because Amazon hasn’t said for sure, but it seems like a reasonable supposition on the face of it.
The thing is that Kindle e-books don’t even need a separate table of contents at all, so it shouldn’t matter whether it’s at the beginning or the end. If scammers was the main issue, you would think that Amazon should come up with some better system for judging how many pages in a book have actually been read.
But then again, some Kindle e-book readers have complained that when they jump to the table of contents, it resets their latest-page-read count to the end of the book, making it harder for them to jump back to the last place they’d read from another computer. So it could simply be that Amazon had heard enough complaints from readers who found that practice annoying without being scammed to want to crack down on it.
The requirement that the table of contents be at the beginning of the book is in Amazon’s Kindle publishing guidelines now, though it’s not clear whether it has always been there. Either way, Amazon’s certainly enforcing it now, so if any of your books are formatted with a TOC at the end, you might want to see about revising and re-uploading them before Amazon gets around to pulling them from sale.
There is a fix. Amazon should permit what the iBookstore allows authors to do—create their own sampler—rather than mindlessly grabbing the first 10% of the book, contents included.
For some fiction, that blind grab might be tolerable. But it does mean that some authors game the system by putting their good writing at the front and not bothering much with the later material. Other authors, as here, consider that 10% too little to hook their readers and do this contents-move cheat, and are getting burned although what they did wasn’t wrong.
For non-fiction, however, that front-only slice is often a bad idea. Introductions, even when they’re not dull, don’t necessarily reflect the book as a whole. For My Nights with Leukemia, I had to open talking about how, with just an EMT’s training, I ended up working in a top children’s hospital caring for kids with cancer—one of only two people caring for very sick children. The front had to be about me. The rest were stories about those kids. For the iBooks sampler, I could pick some of the best of those stories. For the Kindle version, I couldn’t.
Amazon is trapped by its own obsession with control. Whatever it does, some will game its system. When it attempts to block those gamers or to prevent what it sees as the failures of benighted authors, others get harmed.
I saw that when I attempted to get around Createspace’s sloppy POD printing, which often means an ugly, misaligned spine. On one try, I made my spine area on one book a bit large as the lesser of two evils. Amazon took it on itself to fix that, which resulted in horribly misaligned spines. Now I bypass that problem altogether by making essentially making spineless books. I make the front, back and spine similar enough that their alignment isn’t critical. For instance, in Lily’s Ride, the sunset red of the front cover blends into the spine when blends into the similar sunset red of the back cover. You can see that in using Amazon’s “Flip to back” on this book.
It’s not a perfect fix. When Createspace misaligns the spine the spine text is still off center. But it is better than leaving it all to them and this fix avoids their efforts to fix what wasn’t broken.
I went round and round with someone at Createspace about this problem and got nowhere. What Amazon needs is a better cover template system and more quality control in their printing. But that would cost money.
Here’s an important update to Gaughran’s article, from the comments section, that shows the extent of the real problem:
David Gaughran says:
March 12, 2016 at 11:40 am
I’ve posted an update above but I’ll copy it here for anyone following comments. The story gets worse.
UPDATE March 12:
Turns out there is a lot more to this story, all of it worrying and none of it reflecting well on Amazon. I have a contact at KDP who I emailed two days ago and didn’t get any response. Which is poor, but exactly fits with how Amazon has handled this issue.
The problem is much more serious than outlined above. And Amazon is fully aware of what is happening and is doing very little about it. The only conclusion I can draw is that Amazon doesn’t care.
So here’s what I’ve been hearing over the last 24 hours: the scammer examples I linked to are actually quite tame. The serious guys aren’t just using TOCs to inflate their page reads, but, as I speculated in the post, links to the back of the book, footnotes, and all sorts of other wheezes (like filling books with page breaks, filling books with the same text in 10 different languages – done by Google Translate – and then having a link go to the English version at the back, etc. etc.).
In other words, cracking down on rear TOCs is completely pointless and is only causing the innocent to suffer. Good job Amazon!
And these scammers are far more successful than the examples linked to above. Many have been in receipt of All-Star Bonuses – taking that money from the authors who truly deserved it. Again, all of this has been reported to Amazon. Aside from not demanding the return of these fraudulently achieved bonuses and giving it to the authors who should have received them, Amazon is failing to sanction the culprits other than taking down the individual reported book – meaning the scammers are allowed to continue using these tricks in the rest of their books (and the most successful have giant catalogs), which don’t seem to be checked. This is basic stuff. Amazon should be checking the rest of their books, banning repeat offenders, withholding royalties, and giving the bonuses to those who should have received them. But Amazon is simply not taking this seriously.
It gets worse.
The main guy at the centre of this has been printing money – getting up to a million page reads A DAY (from a screenshot he posted). He was named on a KBoards thread, and you can dig that info out yourself if you wish, and he also appears to be selling a turnkey scammer system for $47 a pop to internet marketer types who want to grab some of this “easy” KU cash – one of the reasons this has exploded lately. He also has a private Facebook group with over 1,000 members learning his tricks.
All of this was reported to Amazon publicly and privately weeks ago. Detailed information was sent to the jeff@ Amazon email address. But no action has been taken, aside from the piecemeal, half-hearted attempts to take down a book here and there. Meanwhile, these guys continue to rake it in – at everyone else’s expense.
This is simply not good enough, and we need to send that message very clearly to Amazon.