What would you do if you knew that scammers were cheating your company and your customers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars every single month? If you're Amazon, apparently not much. You might tweak your algorithms slightly and make a public example of one scammer. Then let the others continue as usual, perhaps because their scam is profitable for you, too.
That's what seems to be happening with a distasteful practice called "book stuffing" by some Kindle Unlimited authors. Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon program that works like Netflix for books: You can read as much as you want for a flat monthly fee. For various reasons, Kindle Unlimited is filled with books written and self-published by independent authors, many of them in the romance genre.
How do authors get compensated when readers pay a flat fee for the service? Amazon has created a pool of funds that authors are paid from, currently around $22.5 million. Up until 2015, authors earned a flat fee for each download of their books. But the company noticed that many of these Kindle Unlimited books were very, very short. So instead, Amazon began paying a bit less than 1/2 cent for each page that was actually read. That's how book stuffing was born.
It works like this. An Amazon author publishes a new book that's, say, 300 pages long. At 1/2 cent per page, the author would earn about $1.50 every time that book was read to the end.
To beef up their earnings, book stuffers add several other already-published books, or a long series of newsletters, to the end of the book as "bonus material." Most stuffed books run near 3,000 pages, the maximum that Amazon will pay for. In the current system, an author could earn about $13.50 per book this way, which is more than most authors earn from traditional publishers when their books are sold as hardcovers.
$1.2 million a year?
Serious book stuffers acquire email lists that they sometimes share with each other. They boost their sales by sending out promotional email to hundreds of thousands of email addresses. They also spend a lot of money on Amazon Marketing Services, promoting their books as "sponsored" to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and other Kindle shoppers. These tactics, in combination with artificially producing positive reviews (against Amazon's rules), help them rank high in Amazon's romance category, crowding out authors who take a more traditional approach.
Some book stuffers publish a new book every couple of weeks (they may use ghostwriters to actually write the books), doing a new promotion for each one. In this way, observers report, they can earn as much as $100,000 per month.
Who does this hurt? Many readers are disappointed with the books they download, but the books are either free in Kindle Unlimited, or usually cost 99 cents, so they may not be too upset. Amazon is paying big bucks to the book stuffers, but since they turn around and buy a lot of promotion on Amazon, it's recouping some of those funds. The biggest victims are other Kindle Unlimited authors who actually write their own books and publish them one at a time. They rank lower than the book stuffers and have sometimes gotten trampled in Amazon's disorganized efforts to crack down on scams.
Why would anyone read through 2,700 pages of uninteresting bonus material? They usually don't, but many authors do something that gets people to turn to the last page of the book, such as promising a contest or giveaway (forbidden by Amazon rules), or putting some new and perhaps particularly racy content right at the end of the book. On some devices, Amazon may simply be using the last page opened as a measure of how much of a book was "read." Thus, the author gets full credit for the book, even though the customer didn't read all of it.
Amazon claims in this recent blog post that it has closed this loophole. Blogger, author, and Amazon-watcher David Gaughran says this isn't true and that jumping to the end still makes it appear that the whole book was read on many devices. It's not clear at the moment who's right but it will be soon because if Amazon really is now counting pages actually read rather than the furthest page viewed, instances of book stuffing should drop dramatically over the next few months as book stuffers discover that the trick no longer works. If that doesn't happen, then chances are Amazon is wrong and Gaughran is right.
One book stuffer gets the boot.
Amazon made headlines this week when it removed books by the most notorious book stuffer, an author known as Chance Carter (real name unknown). Because he broke several of Amazon's rules, it's unclear whether his books were removed because of book stuffing or for some other reason.
Carter openly invited other authors to pay for the use of his "platform" to send out promotional emails to their own mailing lists and also share mailing lists and cross-promote with other authors/book stuffers. In fact, he was so proud of his book stuffing talents that he posted his credo for the world to see in a Kindle publishing forum:
Making content as long as possible.
Releasing as frequently as possible.
Advertising as hard as possible.
Ranking as high as possible.
And then doing it all over again.
While Carter's Kindle books are gone from the platform, his audiobooks remain available on Amazon. And several other book stuffers are still there. Other than Carter, "book stuffers are continuing largely as normal," according to Gaughran.
You can't exactly blame them. Amazon recently came out with some new guidelines to address book stuffing, but they're mild-mannered, to say the least. The new guidelines simply ask that if you want to include a bunch of other stories in your book, you "consider creating a collection of works." I'm sure every one of the book stuffers still selling on Amazon would say they did consider creating a collection before they went right on with what they were doing.
It doesn't have to be this way. Authors who publish on Kindle have made a variety of good suggestions for how to actually curtail book stuffing. Several have suggested capping the payout for downloaded books at 1,000 pages instead of 3,000. Gaughran says this isn't even necessary since most books stuffers are already breaking Amazon rules--as Carter was--and the company could remove them any time it chose.
The most intelligent suggestion I've seen is to cap the payout per book at the (non-Unlimited) price of the book. There is no other situation--not even on Amazon--where authors take in 100 percent of what readers pay for a book. So it's particularly absurd to have an author make $13.50 when someone reads a book that they paid 99 cents for. This simple change would instantly solve the problem because if book stuffers could earn no more than 99 cents per download, their whole enterprise would collapse. And if they raised their prices, they--and Amazon--would get flak from readers over all that "bonus" material.
Amazon hosts much of the data and computing for a significant portion of the world's businesses. It's figuring out how to deliver goods by drone. If it really wanted to put an end to book stuffing, the company is easily smart enough to do so. Instead, its leaders don't seem to care that much if readers buy books that are mostly useless and legitimate authors are crowded out of the rankings. It's a shame, because Kindle Unlimited used to be a good idea.
This piece has been updated to include information provided by Amazon.