Amazon looms large when it comes to selling traditionally published books: 67 percent of all e-books and 41 percent of all books are sold through the online retailer, according to a study conducted by the Codex Group in March 2014. But Amazon’s influence might be even greater for self-published books, as it is sometimes the only platform self-published authors use to sell their books.
Recently, changes made to one of Amazon’s policies and the secrecy behind another related to book reviews and payment for e-books published through its Kindle Direct service have ruffled some feathers and led some authors to speak out against these practices.
Amazon Says: You Can’t Review That Book
In 2012, Amazon posted a notice on its website titled “About Customer Reviews” that read, in part, “We recently improved our detection of promotional reviews which resulted in the removal of reviews, both new and old. While our enforcement has improved, our guidelines have not changed.” David Streitfeld of The New York Times noted that the changes, intended to flag shady reviews perhaps purchased by an author or publisher, or reviews written by someone with a “close personal relationship” with the author, resulted in the removal of thousands of reviews—though Amazon wouldn’t say exactly how many were deleted.
At the time Amazon implemented these changes, authors and readers weighed in, some agreeing they were necessary to weed out misleading or bogus reviews, while others claimed that the secret process Amazon uses to detect such reviews often flags perfectly innocent ones.
Although Amazon won’t reveal precisely how it’s policing book reviews, its public statements indicate that it’s constantly tweaking its formulas.
Most recently, this summer, several self-published authors who have felt stung by this policy have spoken out against it, including one, novelist Jas T. Ward, who has launched a petition through Change.Org, “Change the ‘You Know This Author’ Policy.”
The petition, posted in July with a goal of garnering 15,000 signatures, has earned nearly 14,000 supporters as of press time. In the petition, Ward quotes a message she and readers of her books have received from Amazon: “We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally. Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.”
Ward, who’s ghostwritten books and written for newspapers as well as founding her own publishing house, Dead Bound Publishing, through which she releases her novels, argues that indie authors sell books by making connections through social media with their readers, and that they often “know” many of their fans through Goodreads, Facebook, or another platform. Ward constantly reaches out to fans, as she did for her first book, “Bits & Pieces: Tales and Sonnets.”
“We did enough pre-sales for the autographed copies of that book to cover its complete print and e-book expenses,” she wrote via email.
Ward noted that reviews people post on Amazon are often slow to appear.
“Then in the last month,” she said, “I was sent screenshots [giving] the reason [for rejecting a review] that Amazon determined the reviewer ‘knew me.’ It was ridiculous. I have over two thousand followers on my [Amazon] Author page, two thousand fans on the fan-fiction group I still write for and then close to one thousand in Twitter. I probably know two dozen of those people in my actual life. The rest are fans, readers, bloggers and fellow authors.”
While Amazon won’t tell reviewers exactly why their reviews are removed, several authors suspect it’s because of such a social media relationship. The problem for authors is that this often eliminates reviews by some of their biggest fans, nudging down the star rating that many find crucial for sales.
“I completely believe that Amazon is using our cookies, history and other data-mining techniques to cull through a user’s data to determine those they interact with most,” Ward said.
Ward’s petition is still gaining traction. She said she decided “to take on this battle” because “we’re using the tools given to us in the way of social media and we are now being told that makes everyone we have interacted with a personal connection.”
Ward said that while the rise of self-publishing has been a positive development with many authors’ “dreams of publishing becoming a reality,” she concedes it has also come with “just as many negatives. Authors lashing out against each other. Street teams attacking. Reviews being used to harm rather than recommend. It’s become a huge mess and stage for major drama. I get why Amazon feels they need to revise and stay on top of a monster that can devour the positive we’re all trying to seed. But they didn’t think this through.”
Another writer who has spoken out against Amazon’s policy of rejecting certain reviews is Imy Santiago, a New York-based romance writer who self-publishes her novels including her successful “Safelight“ series.
Santiago, too, sees the good that Amazon has done for indie authors. “Amazon’s self-publishing platform has made it incredibly easy for an aspiring author like me to start up my career as an indie writer,” she wrote in an email.
She entered the Amazon review fray through a July 2 post on her blog entitled, “Amazon…A Virtual Marketplace, or Big Brother?” Santiago said that on June 27, she tried to review a book by another author. “I read the author’s first two installments of the series and was able to successfully publish both reviews on Amazon, as that is where I acquired the books from. The issue arose when I tried to publish the review for the third novel. That was the first time I ever tried to publish a review that was vehemently rejected by Amazon.”
When Santiago received a generic rejection from Amazon (“Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form”) she published the review again, and received a more curt notice, “Sorry. You’re not eligible to review this product.” Both messages from Amazon pointed her toward the Customer Review Guidelines. She tried a third time and received a message that her review had been rejected “because your account activity indicates that you know the author.” Amazon suggested she send her review to the author, who could then post it as an editorial review.
Santiago maintains a lively social media presence and suspects that Amazon tracked a connection to the author through Twitter, Facebook, or some other platform. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how or why my review was flagged. As a reader, blogger, and writer, I use social media networking to close the gap of distance in hopes of connecting with readers and keeping up with the newest trends in self-publishing and marketing.”
Santiago, too, has some sympathy for Amazon’s policies. “I can see where Amazon is coming from,” she said. “They are trying to curb unethical reviews from reaching their marketplace, and I applaud them for that. The issue at stake here is, just because I am both a blogger and writer, it doesn’t diminish my capacity to provide an honest review for a product I purchased.” She added, “If Amazon is trying to curb unethical behavior by monitoring social media and online interactions, then they must come forward and say they are doing so. They want transparency in reviews. We as paying consumers deserve the same respect.”
Julie Law, who works in Amazon’s public relations department, said in an email, “We have a long standing policy of not commenting on individual customer accounts or on specific methods of determining review manipulation. However, when we detect that elements of a reviewer’s Amazon account match elements of an author’s Amazon account, we conclude that there is too much risk of review bias that would erode customer trust, and thus we remove the review. I can assure you that we investigate each case.”
She continued, “We have built mechanisms, both manual and automated over the years that detect, remove or prevent reviews which violate guidelines. We encourage authors to continue to build their network and community as they normally would. This will not impact customer reviews.”
Santiago acknowledges that she doesn’t have any leverage over Amazon—she can only ask Amazon “to revisit their policies.” As for Ward, she plans to send the petition to Amazon if it gains 15,000 supporters. Whether or not Amazon responds to petition or blog posts like Santiago’s, it can probably expect to keep hearing from authors and readers on the issue.
If It’s Not A Page-Turner, You’re Out of Luck
In July of 2014, Amazon launched its Kindle Unlimited service, available to subscribers for $9.99 a month, which entitles them to read or listen to an unlimited amount of e-books and audiobooks from a collection of more than 800,000 of them. Users can keep up to ten Kindle Unlimited books in their account at one time. Not all books are available through Kindle Unlimited—bestsellers, especially, rarely appear among the offerings.
Meanwhile, Kindle Unlimited Direct Publishing has become a popular way for self-published authors to release their books. The authors are paid through a cash pool that used to be distributed according to how many of an author’s books were borrowed by readers.
However, Amazon announced on its website that as of July 1, it’s changing how it pays Kindle Unlimited authors — instead of paying based on “qualified borrows,” Amazon now pays based on the number of pages read. According to the statement, “We made this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read.”
John Biggs of Tech Crunch noted that this policy will hurt authors who’ve chosen to publish their books as individual chapters or those who publish short stories or essays through the service, but it shouldn’t decrease the income as much of authors who publish book-length works, unless an overwhelming number of KU subscribers borrow books without reading them. Authors who write reference books, cookbooks, or other books that tend not to be read in their entirety could suffer too.
It’s too early to detect the repercussions of this change, but the authors who find their royalty checks significantly reduced in the coming months may well speak up on blogs or with petitions of their own.
Perhaps what is most striking about this pay-per-page policy is that it differs from how authors have ever been compensated before. Now authors who write page-turners that readers can’t put down will earn more. But it’s likely that all authors will earn less — particularly those who write books that readers are meaning to get to, but can never quite get around to cracking or finishing.
Kindle Unlimited is a rental service, more like a lending library than a bookstore — subscribers aren’t actually purchasing the books they borrow, and the tiny payments authors receive reflect this. Alex Hern of The Guardian noted that authors could receive as little as $0.006 per page read, compared to the $1.30 they used to get when a book was downloaded. A user would have to read every page of a 220-page book to earn the same amount.
When a library patron borrows an e-book from a library, authors receive no payments — nothing beyond the initial royalty they earned from selling the book to the library. In that sense, authors are earning more through KU than they would through other forms of lending libraries. Still, many authors who have staked their livelihoods on Amazon’s old formulas may have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to make a living.
When Amazon Sneezes, Authors Feel an Earthquake
What both of these stories make clear is that Amazon is now such a central figure in publishing, achieving a level of market dominance matched by no other entity, that many people try to make a living by figuring out its formulas and modifying their authorial output in order to earn the most possible money.
Take the case of this anonymous writer for The Hustle who says he earns $150,000 a year by analyzing bestselling Kindle e-books and then cranking out works that fit the formula by hiring Filipino ghost writers for cheap.
But just when authors or publishers think they’ve got a handle on the Amazon system, Amazon could make a change in policy at any time that could upend their expectations and revenue streams.
Amazon’s recent policy changes, on their surface, seem to strive to correct imbalances—since reviews are so crucial to purchases, they shouldn’t be biased, and authors should be paid for quality not quantity. But when a company as large as Amazon makes such a change, there are so many consequences that not all of them are beneficial to everyone.
Jenny Shank‘s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire, and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian and McSweeney’s.
Clarification: The headline and the second paragraph of this piece have been recast to clarify that only one of Amazon’s policies has been outright changed but that the secrecy and evolving enforcement of others is also riling some authors.