A kindle unlimited scam or how to make $15,000 with little work

This is extremely long and probably only of interest to indie authors, but it does impact readers who shop Amazon, so I’m putting it here for anyone.

Not many readers (who aren’t also authors) know any details about this, though readers sure are noticing the impacts of the scams. I see threads or posts all over the place about the difficulty readers are having with simply browsing on Amazon to find their next good read.

Discoverability is an author’s word when it comes to books…it’s the holy grail of the indie. If you say it in the tones of a voice-over in a serious movie, you can almost hear the slight echo: What is the secret of the grail (discoverability)?

Now, it is also a reader problem. The scammers have made finding books too difficult. Readers are going back to older methods for finding books or even worse, simply writing off any new author out of hand unless the recommendation comes from an actual person on Goodreads or forum or the like.

For those who don’t know, to be in KU, a book can’t be available at any other vendor. Amazon exclusive. The bonus is that it gets slightly better visibility simply because it can be a “recommendation” to KU browsers. Books not in KU are often not shown to them unless they are bigger names.

On to the issue of the scammers and what’s really going on…

KU pays authors based on a communal pot. It is not based on the price of the book. The amount KU subscribers pay is then divided between all authors based on how many of their pages were read by users.

So, it’s a pie. Some get a bigger slice, some a smaller, but the pie is finite and must be shared. So, if scammers take out of that pie, it comes directly out of the pockets of the others. That’s important.

KU 2.0 (which is what we’re in now) pays by the page. Not pages in books, but pages reader reads.

So, let’s say a reader checks out a book from KU, reads to page 100, decides they don’t like the book and returns it. The author gets paid for the 100 pages read. If it’s a page turner that the reader reads through to the end, the authors get paid for all 500 pages of wonderful and quality prose.

The pay per page is a small number and varies by a few thousandths of a penny each month, but it seems to be settling in at around $00.0045 per page. That equates to about $1.575 for a 350 page book.

One thing we were all assured by Amazon…many times…in writing…was that Amazon knew how much a reader was reading in each book and they would pay us for those pages.

Scammers being scammers, they realized Amazon was lying very early on. Amazon couldn’t tell what pages were read. They only knew the last place you were at in the book. And that’s what they were paying authors, the last place that the reader synced in the book.

So, a KU borrow on a device that didn’t sync until after the book was read and the reader flipped back to the front to check out what else you’d written? Yeah, no pages read.

But likewise, a reader who clicked a link on Page 1 offering them the opportunity to win a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and a $100 Amazon Gift Card….which then sent them to the back of a 3000 page book? Yep, you guessed it. They got paid for 3000 unread pages. (And no, there was no winner for those contests that  anyone knows off.)

Keep in mind, Amazon clearly knew this was happening, because the page limit for books in KU changed very recently (and abruptly) DOWN to 3000. There were 10,000 page books in KU doing this before that change. Even at $00.0041 per page (which is our lowest payout yet), that’s a big payout.

One of the scammers has YouTube tutorials on how to pull the scam. He showed a screen shot of a 15 year old kid’s KDP Dashboard who made over $70,000 in one month pulling this scam. And there are HUNDREDS of them.

Here’s the Scam:

1) Scammer acquires via advertisement (or sometimes actually writes) a bad book or part of it. Enough so that they can get past a quick look at the first few pages.

2) Scammer then puts 3000 pages of synonmizer garbage after that first portion.

3) Scammer creates 25 versions of that book with different nonsense after the first few pages to get past the automated checks.

4) Scammer creates a new KDP Account using a fresh EIN.

5) Scammer uploads each of the 25 versions under 25 author names, enters them into KDP Select and as soon as the books go live, they immediately use their 5 Days “free promo” allowed by being in select. This puts the book into KU and also makes it free to buy.

6) Scammer then either lets the KU Click-Farm or their Click Cooperative know that they’re books are live and gives the links.

7a) If Click-Farm (which might actually just be one guy sitting around in his underwear with 25 KU accounts), then the farmer clicks on every one of those newly published books, borrows each one, clicks to the *back* of the book. Rinse and repeat for every KU account the farmer has.

7b) If Click Cooperative, then the Scammer loads all his day’s book links into the cooperative’s page, and each person in the cooperative does what the Farmer did, but usually only with 2 or 3 KU accounts. (Each person in the cooperative does it for everyone else, possibly on a schedule).

8) Scammer has now made several thousand dollars.

Note: If Scammer is smart…and they are getting smarter…they will parse out those clicks over a three day period so that there is no possibility of an alert. Since the book is on the Free list, those savvy customers who report scam books aren’t likely to look. They look at the paid lists.

9) Scammer will often then hire a “free click farm” for a few bucks in some foreign country to have their farmers click the Buy For Free button to push up the rank of the book in the free ranks. This will get visibility for the book, enticing real KU browsers to click the scam book. (This works because with steady KU downloads and lots of free downloads, Amazon’s algorithms put the book into the recommendation engine.)

10) Scammer is now getting nervous. This is pinch time. If enough people report the book and it gets yanked by Amazon, then he or she won’t get their money for this EIN and will have to use one of their 100 other EINs of the month. Some scammers will yank the book now, unpublishing it before Amazon can and ensuring their payout. Others will let the Free period end and let it go to paid. This will put the book high in the paid ranks because of all the KU borrows (which count as sales) and they will get more sales from real people that Amazon recommends the book to. Before they can read it, Scammer yanks the book from sale.

11) Scammer then unpublishes everything and keeps the KDP account open only to collect the payday.

12) Scammer enjoys some champagne, then takes a day off, then does it again with the exact same books (maybe with new covers for $5 each from Fiverr), under a new KDP account with a new EIN and new author names.

The profit?

With a 25 member Click Coop that requires 2 KU accounts per member, a minimal scammer will make 600 bucks for each book. With an easily managed 25 books, that total is now $15,000. For a few days time and minimal work. Outlay can be as low as $20 for their two KU accounts plus $125 for new covers.

Doing this once a week (since Click Coops likely work on a schedule or max), the scammer has earned $60,000 in that month.

Some scammers are in the business in a much bigger way and they earn a great deal more.

That’s it in a nutshell. If you want some visual aids and some breakdown in more detail, keep reading. Otherwise, you’re now in the know!

CAVEAT! HUGE CAVEAT! I don’t want to get sued, so I’m going to make it clear from here on out that this book example is chosen at random from search results (first result). All that I say is my opinion and my assessment based on what I can see, evaluate, and judge as a human person who is allowed to make evaluations and judgments based on my common sense. If this is a real author and this is a real book and not a scam, then they have made a HUGE boo-boo in…uh…formatting?…and it needs to be corrected.

Here’s a little sneaky peek inside the above book. It is thousands of pages long and has about a hundred pages of actual content at the start to fool any casual browser. What’s pictured below then starts and to get to the rest of the story, you have to click the table of contents and trigger a full 3000 page read to get past all the pages of this. (Click to embiggen.)

ScambookInside - Edited

Now, this is supposed to be a book full of sexy romance shorts by “award winning” authors. Does that look anything like that to you?

The first part of the book is actually a story, so you can get a hundred pages or so into it and read actual words. Badly written, poorly formatted, and not very good…but it’s a book. Then that mess starts.

So, this is a prime example of the scams book. There’s a reason they do this on the free lists. They don’t want customers to see it right away.

Now for the Amazon page. Click to embiggen.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 at 2.16.39 PM - Edited

What you see there is the cover, the title (what a title!) and that it is free right now. It’s also in Kindle Unlimited. So far, despite a really bad blurb, it looks like a bad…but semi-real book.

Now check the ranks of this badly blurbed, terribly titled, and generally unattractive book.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 at 2.18.14 PM - Edited

What is that? That is the rank (#2,974 in the entire Kindle Free Store).  In terms of free, that means a whole boatload of copies moved.

You also see the size of the file: 2837 KB, which is huge and for a non-illustrated book, means a whole lot of pages. And also you’ll see the publishing date of April 10th, so less than a week ago.

The rank is the product of a click farm to have thousands more “buy” the book for free, raising it in the ranks and creating visibility for the book so real readers will see and maybe accidentally click, thinking it’s an actual book. Those kinds of click farms are far cheaper that KU Farms. You can buy thousands of clicks for very little. They are openly advertised out there. (If you’re an author, don’t even think about it. Once Amazon does do something, they will likely take down all who participated.)

And what’s more, when the “free days” allowed by KDP end, the book will appear very high on the Paid ranks because of all the KU borrows, which means REAL consumers will see the book, think it’s a popular book and click it, creating some extra cash flow.

My Thoughts:

Remember how I said the authors share the KU funds from a communal pot? That means for each $100,000 bucks these scammers get (and since they are getting KU All Star Bonuses for being the biggest sellers of the month, they are doing very well indeed), that is $100,000 that isn’t being shared by actual authors. Amazon doesn’t pay that, it comes out of the Author pot so *we* pay it.

For Strikers, I earn about $2 per borrow if the reader actually finishes the book. For some of the others, less. For the PePr novellas? About 40 cents.

Why? Because the per-page pot is diluted to lower and lower amounts with the millions and millions of pages the scammers get paid for, but no one reads.

In essence, this is an unbeatable system of scam-age that KU fosters simply by it’s nature. And Amazon’s automated systems are so automated that there’s not a darn thing they can do to stop it *under their current system.*

Ah, their current system! What can they do? Scammers gonna’ scam, right? Well, up till now that’s been their attitude. Only us little guys are really harmed since we’re barely visible anyway. But the scammers have now started stepping on much more dainty and well-paid toes and hopefully, things will get action.

David Gaughran is a well known voice in the book world, and he’s been posting some amazing and insightful pieces that help to make sense of the current KU problem. His latest is depressingly on point and in a way, I’m actually glad the scam has risen to this level.

Why would I be glad? That’s awful!

Simple. Because up till now the scam was primarily impacting the mid-lister or tiny prawn in the self-publishing world. It stripped us of whatever small visibility we could get and pushed us into oblivion, where no reader would find us. The big names were still safe.

So, it wasn’t their problem. They were still banking 5 or 6 figures a month, so why should they care?

Now, it’s their problem too. Not only have KU scammers taken some of their All Star bonuses from the big names, prominent authors are now being pushed right off the main pages of the Top 100.

That’s serious. But again, why would I be happy because that’s happening to them? Am I bitter?

No! Not at all. It’s because Amazon has been ignoring all us mid-listers and prawns because, after all, we’re mid-listers and prawns. Our purpose is to make sure we put our books in so they can boast they have fourteen bagillion books in KU and then be happy with what we get. Now that it’s bigger names (the kind that have actual contacts in KDP Customer service), Amazon just might listen.

So, that’s me, breathing a big sigh of relief.

If you’re interested in the problem and finding out more about the latest iteration (along with a great example by Phoenix Sullivan, a smart, successful, and savvy publisher who has now felt that scammer burn), David’s wonderful post is here:  https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/ku-scammers-attack-amazons-free-ebook-charts

And if you’re not really interested in that, how about I just show you my comment to that article. It’s fairly aggressive in terms of a solution, but at this point, the problem is so pervasive, I have doubts whether anything less will be effective.

There are lots of people offering all kinds of solutions and mine may be no better, but I think it’s likely to be more effective than doing nothing. It will also be incredibly difficult for Amazon to actually get started and not spend money. They got lucky for a long time by just having us run amok out there, but the china shop is a wreck and there are bulls crapping in all the yards, so they really have to just do it.

Here it is:

I spent my first career dealing with complex problems on a very large scale. That part of me is shaking her head and knows what needs to be done. The author part of me that gets most of her writing income from Amazon dreads what needs to be done (though thankfully I don’t depend on it or I’d be freaking even more than I am).

The best solution is one that Amazon most surely dreads taking too. They have to take the Google Play Nuclear Option here and simply suspend creation of new author accounts.

But wait…there’s more!

Because KDP isn’t Google, it will have to be a tiered attack and it can’t be defensive in nature. It has to be aggressive and sustained. Because the black hat cheaters are aggressive and their work is all too sustained and creative. And they’re winning.

Aside from immediate suspension of new accounts within KDP for new authors (which will seriously suck for many legit authors) they will need to go back through everyone on there and weed out the cheaters, ban for life the egregious ones (I know the black hats get new EINs like candy, which is where new accounts comes in), ban for life all KU users who have circled these wagons (should be a fairly straightforward program there), stop expanding KU into countries where click-farms are so easily created, and create an actual customer service center with actual English speaking people who have more than 20 seconds on the timer to service calls.

On top of that, they have to have probationary periods for new authors when they open it back up. Those get looked at by humans. Duplicated material (which will be a pain for anthology and box set authors) will get flagged for human attention.

Will cheaters still get through? Absolutely! There will no doubt be black hats with new EINs that are “clean” and past the probationary period who will sell those EINs for major bank to cheaters who will then load up 100 cheat books in one day and click farm them to death.

But by then, the ranks will have cleared and reports can then be dealt with in a far more timely manner. Right now, they’re holding very tiny fingers in giant holes popping up all over their dam and the water is running right over them. The only way to do anything at this point is to go nuclear.

There will be those that say Amazon would never do that (and they may be right). But consider that even though KDP and Amazon book sales consist of a high percentage of indie titles, that doesn’t mean they don’t have enough to keep readers busy already. They do. There are enough legit titles on Zon for them to stop new authors from joining for a while. There are enough legit authors already on Zon that they can fill up the new releases lists and jump for joy while no one new joins.

So yes, Amazon could feasibly do this and not suffer one single missed dollar due to millions of titles already in hand.

But will they? Or will they wait too long and doom KU for themselves, for readers, and for authors.

That said, I’ve unchecked yet another series from KDP Select. Like many others, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather get a little less now than be slammed later when things totally fall apart. So, I’m taking that series wide.

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