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Amazon alters publishing rules to deter Kindle Unlimited scammers (April 2016)

Scammers exploit a loophole in Amazon's automated Kindle Unlimited page view counts in order to turn quick profits. Amazon responds to mitigate this abuse, with some trade offs for authors.

Summary: In July 2014, Amazon announced its "Netflix, but for ebooks" service, Kindle Unlimited. Kindle Unlimited allowed readers access to hundreds of thousands of ebooks for a flat rate of $9.99/month.

Amazon paid authors from a subscriber fee pool. Authors were paid per page read by readers -- a system that was meant to reward more popular writers with a larger share of the Kindle Unlimited payment pool.

This system was abused by scammers once it became clear Amazon wasn't spying on Kindle Users to ensure books were actually being read -- i.e., keeping track of time spent on pages of text by readers or total amount of time spent reading. Since Amazon had no way to verify if readers were actually reading the content, scammers deployed a variety of tricks to increase their unearned earnings.

Part of the scam relied on Amazon's willingness to pay authors for partially-read books. If only 100 pages of a 500-page book were read, the author still got credit for the 100 pages read by an Unlimited user. Scammers inflated "pages read" counts by moving the table of contents to the end of the book or offering dozens of different languages in the same ebook, relying on readers skipping hundreds of pages into the ebook to access the most popular translation. Other scammers offered readers chances to win free products and gift cards via hyperlinks that brought readers to the end of the scammers' ebooks -- books that sometimes contained thousands of pages.

The other part of the scam equation was Amazon's hands-off approach to self-publishing. Amazon has opened its platform and appears to do very little to police the content of ebooks, other than requiring authors to follow certain formatting rules. Amazon is neither a publisher nor an editor, which has created a market for algorithmically-generated content as well as a home for writers seeking a distribution outlet for their bigoted and hateful writing.

Once Amazon realized the payout system was being gamed, it altered the way Kindle Unlimited operated. It began removing scammers, notifying authors and customers that it was doing this in response to Unlimited readers' complaints.

Some in the community have contacted us about the activities of a small minority of publishers who may attempt to inflate sales or pages read through the use of various techniques, such as adding unnecessary or confusing hyperlinks, misplacing the TOC [table of contents] or adding distracting content.

Unfortunately, Amazon's moderation efforts did affect a very small number of legitimate authors. Writer Walter Jon Williams was blocked from selling his ebook because his table of contents was located near the end of his book. Williams pointed out he had done this to maximize the amount of content prospective readers/purchasers could access using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature. After some back-and-forth, Williams' book and buy button were restored by Amazon.

Amazon continues to work to minimize abuse of the Kindle Unlimited system. The most noticeable and major change has been to cap earnings at 3,000 pages per ebook per reader. This limits the amount of money scammers can pull from the Unlimited payout pool. It also limits the number of times Kindle Unlimited readers will find themselves scrolling through ebooks solely designed to inflate page counts.

Decisions to be made by Amazon:

  • Can automated moderation alone determine whether an uploaded ebook is a legitimate offering?
  • Does altering the payout rules for Kindle Unlimited negatively affect legitimate authors?
  • Does the ongoing abuse of various Amazon ebook programs justify more data collection on customers and their reading habits?
  • Should authors be notified ahead of changes to Amazon services or would more transparency result in more abuse by scammers?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Does the flat rate subscriber fee cover the costs of policing an ebook publishing ecosystem of this size?
  • Who deserves more protection? Sellers/writers or customers? How do you strike the correct balance that provides more value to both sides of the transaction?
  • Is more vetting needed on the front end (ID verification, etc.) to prevent further abuse?

Resolution: Amazon reacted to abuse of its Unlimited system by clarifying rules for content placement and removing ebooks that violated the company's publishing guidelines. It also changed the way the pool of Kindle Unlimited funds were paid out, limiting the amount of pool money scammers could remove from the system by artificially inflating "read pages" counts.

Written by The Copia Institute, July 2020

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