Kindle Under Spam Attack: What It Means for Writers

Hello, Ivin here. I’ve secured contributions from Claude Forthomme and when we discussed what she will write as her debut article, I saw she had an article on her blog covering the recent Amazon ebook spam issue and told her I’d like to have that covered. You’ll see a lot of references to the principles I referred to in my article ‘Amanda Hocking ‘s Pricing strategy for Ebook Millions . In it was a video of M.J. DeMarco and my rebuttle on what he said. Some interesting things in this article and a small note from me at the end. Over to Claude.

Amazon is full of spam!

A Reuters article first rang the alarm bell two weeks ago (June 16). This was retweeted nearly 600 times and soon the whole blogosphere was buzzing with the news, including Laura Miller on Salon and even myself. The latest to join the unhappy crowd is Taleist.

When British marketer Mike Essex  found nearly three thousand 99-cent e-books “created” by one single person: Manuel Ortiz Braschi, everybody started to worry. Since then, Laura Miller found this “authorial dynamo” had added another thousand titles, for a grand total of nearly four thousand books – all of them crap or plagiarized.

Actually Amazon makes it so easy to publish directly on Kindle, that, according to Mike Essex, it’s possible to publish up to 10 books a day. Through something called Private Label Rights (PLR) one can buy for a pittance an incredible number of short articles to longer texts, and then one is free to rewrite and repackage them as one sees fit. Or simply compile “how to” manuals by cobbling together information material freely available on Internet (in the “public domain”).

Speaking of cobbling manuals together, the latest news according to Geoffrey K. Pullum (on Shannon’s blog) is that there’s a guy out there, a marketing expert called Philip M. Parker, who produces books by algorithm. It’s no joke: it seems that so far he has single-handedly produced between 100,000 and 200,000 titles pulling together freely available content like lists of disease symptoms and treatments or marketing data spreadsheets.

Obviously,  consumers may fall for this gambit once but they are not likely to fall for it again.

But it doesn’t end there. What is truly worrisome is how easily books published on the Kindle can be pirated. All you need do is change the cover and/or the author’s name and/or book title to hide the crime and direct the flow of purchases to your own (pirate’s) account. Mr. Parker has brought piracy up to a whole new level. It is rumored that he is going to produce romance novels with his algorithm. If true, writers can kiss good-bye to all the years of hard work in their garret. Mr. Parker will push buttons on his computer and voilà, love scenes are pulled together from different books floating on Internet and a “new” romance novel sees the light of day!

As Taleist says: “This is bad news for self-publishers for a number of reasons

  • Some buyers are so pissed off they’ve said in reviews that they won’t buy an ebook again
  • Spam clogs the system, making it hard to find the real books
  • “Many self-publishers set their prices low to encourage ebook buyers to take a chance on their titles, and ebook spam could end up discrediting the entire field of 99-cent books
  • A proliferation of junk ebooks might contribute to a view that “all writing can be regarded a freely exploitable resource”, i.e. a view that it’s all right to steal writers’ work (ebook, blog content, etc.) and package it up to sell for 99 cents

How real is the danger to self-publishers? In my view, not quite as bad as it sounds.

  1. People are going to be turned off from ebook buying is unlikely. If you’ve invested in a Kindle, Nook or iPad, you’re not going to stop buying books. You’re just going to be more careful about what you buy. But it is true that it could discourage some from buying a Kindle until Amazon hasn’t cleaned up its store.
  2. The argument that spam clogs the system, making it hard to find books – is less convincing. Amazon’s computer system is so powerful that such a situation is very unlikely. Book searches are based on key words, and if you know what you are looking for, like the author’s name or title, you can easily find the book.

That’s the whole point,  you don’t need to buy it right then and there. You can always download a sample and decide after reading it whether that’s the book you want and go ahead with your purchase. I bet a lot of people who have been burned with impulse purchases will now be more careful and download samples first!

So, impulse purchases might go down. And that means self-publishers had better be very, very careful about putting out there a fully proof-read and edited manuscript. But that has always been the case, hasn’t it? If your book is full of typos and badly structured and poorly paced, your readers won’t buy another book from you…

As to the idea that spam could end up discrediting the entire 99 cents field? Well, I don’t think so. It makes no economic sense.

You have to remember that 99 cents is not a value per se that flags out something special or good about a particular book. It is just a price that happens to be a fantastic promotional ploy: it triggers impulse buying, as John Locke has amply demonstrated by selling one million books at that price in just five months.

What is likely to happen is that impulse buying is simply going to be tempered down by downloading samples – which means it won’t work as fast but it will still work for all those self-published authors that have put a valid book out there.

The one worrying observation is that ebooks priced at 99 cents have become the target of pirates. That in itself is extraordinary, because it was always thought that such low prices would discourage piracy: after all, a pirate doesn’t stand to make much from stealing a 99 cents book (Amazon pays 30% of the price at that level – it starts paying 70% only if the book is priced at $2.99 or above).

What has changed is that stealing has become all too easy if one can produce up to 10 different books, with different titles (and the same content) each day. Even if few copies are sold, that’s money going into the pirate’s pocket rather than in the legitimate author’s bank account.  And if someone manages to produce up to 4,000 titles like this Braschi guy, or 200,000 like Parker,  well, pirates are in business!

Amazon should set up a control system – even at the cost of slowing down its Kindle publishing system (now the turnaround is super fast: 24 hours, maximum 48 hours).

I’m sure writers would be willing to wait up to a week (or more) to allow for Amazon to clean up its house and get rid of spamming.

And Amazon has in principle the power to do so with search engines that can identify a book’s keywords and compare with others that carry the same keywords. Also a verification of author accounts: Mr. Parker, Mr. Braschi and others like them should be easy to identify. Finally, a quick check-up with a human editor should help determine whether the book is plagiarized or not, or whether it uses exclusively public domain content.

Authors would probably be willing to pay a small fee to make sure spammers are gone from Amazon.

But so far, Amazon hasn’t responded

What is your take on this?

Would you be willing to pay for spam control?

Would you be willing to wait before your book is published so Amazon control systems can go into action?

Should authors who have suffered income losses due to spammers be compensated by Amazon?

And last but not least, how would you as a reader react? Would you stop buying ebooks altogether or start systematically downloading samples before deciding on purchasing?

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About Claude Nougat

Claude is an economist, writer, painter, former development aid for the UN, passionate cook and has unforgettable experiences to share on her emergency work in Ethiopia and Kosovo. Having just published under pen name Claude Nougat: she released 'Forget the Past, Book 1 of her 'Fear of the Past trilogy'. Get it for the kindle and for the Nook and as an audiobook for the iPad. Claude blogs at It's Political, I't Artsy! with topics on politics, cooking and publishing. Read also the Claude Nougat Daily.

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2 Responses to “Kindle Under Spam Attack: What It Means for Writers”

  1. I checked MJ de Marco’s post,Ivin, as you suggested and found that he was prescient! The Kindle platform is seriously rocking, and it took less than 2 years for this to happen!

    Being an economist by training (Columbia U.), I especially liked his analysis and his argument using the “entry barrier” notion (a very important notion in an economist’s analytical arsenal).

    Sure, spamming has occured because the Kindle platform’s ENTRY BARRIER IS TOO LOW. It’s just too damn easy to publish on Kindle (as I say in the post, you can upload up to 10 books a day on Kindle, and some guys, like this Parker, have produced up to 200,000 titles, using an algorithm).

    So where does that leave us?

    You mentioned in that post on Amanda Hocking 2 very important things:
    1. Not everyone can be Amanda Hocking, i.e. not everyone is capable of producing a valuable book that people will want to read (and buy the next ones in the series). So there’s a natural limit to the amount of spamming that can actually work: people who have been burnt once are not likely to get burnt again!

    2. The e-book market on a global level is vast and expanding: you mentioned 10% of a 6 billion population is on Internet, meaning 600 million people are out there, sooner or later wanting to buy a book.

    The implication is that there is space for both valuable books and the spammed products of Internet pirates.

    The question is: can the Kindle platform handle both the “good” writers and the pirates?

    This is a question AMAZON SHOULD ANSWER. THEIR REPUTATION IS AT STAKE! They ought to set up gatekeeping measures (i.e. raise the barriers to entry)

    Yes, that is right: the answer is to RAISE THE BARRIERS TO ENTRY. Make sure writers who submit books are bona fidae writers, and not pirates like Parker. This is something Amazon could surely do: they are savvy people and have a lot of computer power.

    My guess? I think that they will move to improve the Kindle platform and ensure it is not subject to spam.

    So far, in the ten years Amazon has been active and expanding, it has not yet made a single mistake. I doubt that this is going to be their first mistake!

    I am optimistic, but I do think IT IS IMPORTANT THAT THE WRITER COMMUNITY MAKE IT KNOWN TO AMAZON HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT THIS and indicate a willingness to participate in Amazon’s efforts to secure the Kindle platform, raising the barriers to entry (even if that means paying a fee to have one’s book up on Kindle and having to wait 2 or 3 weeks before it is up…)
    Claude Nougat recently posted..Two Tips for Success in Book Marketing OnlineMy Profile

  2. This has been very good coverage of the issue, Claude. As I mentioned in the post, MJ Demarco predicted this would probably happen. Check out the post/Video and share your thoughts?

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