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Some thoughts on the Kindle Unlimited scammers

Have you guys heard about this? I’m kind of tired of hearing about it already. I mean, it’s a problem…but at the same time I see it as a self-inflicted sort of thing all around. Amazon’s not paying a lot of attention, we writers let them get away with it, and so forth.

Bright side: I don’t think it’s hurting readers at all. Or at least not yet. Or at least not much.

Here’s the scoop: fake books are being published via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service. They’re, sometimes, really long. Thousands of pages? Well, why not? These tomes have links near the beginning, intended to entice readers to click on them and thus move to the end of the book. So, this works. Readers click on the links. Readers then discover there’s not a lot of useful content (maybe even none at all), and they move on with their lives. Some will leave a bad review. Others don’t care a whole lot. The world doesn’t end, or at least not right away. The oceans have yet to boil, even.

On the writers’ side, things are very slightly worse. See, with Kindle Unlimited (an ebook subscription service, if you’ve been living under a rock but just emerged to read this here post), Amazon pays writers per page read. They standardize fonts & so forth for this calculation, and lately they pay a bit under half a cent per page. So if you read a book of mine that’s got 440 “Kindle Edition Normalized Pages” in it, I get a bit over two bucks.

Before we go any further, I want to say that I very much appreciate the KU readers who find and read what I’ve written and published. And I love the idea of ebook subscription services in general. I especially love that Amazon doesn’t try to force me to use DRM…as including that would prevent my participation entirely. (Pet peeve there; maybe I’ll post about that some other time.)

That said? This business of counting pages read is, clearly, creepazoidal all by itself. It’s why my Kindle can’t talk to Amazon anymore–I did other stuff to it, but mostly I just leave it in “airplane mode.” Next, the thing is, the money paid out each month by Amazon is determined by Amazon. Writers get a proportional share, depending on how many pages of theirs have been read, how many total pages (across all readers and writers in KU) have been read, and the set amount Amazon has decided to pay each month. So, theoretically, the more scammers scam, the less everybody else gets paid. This gets ever so slightly worse, because Amazon pays bonuses to the writers who have the very highest page-read counts each month. So the scammers have been scamming those too. I almost even care.

I do care, a bit, that the scammers have been simultaneously scamming the free book bestseller lists. Mostly because this keeps other books, perhaps some of them being a bit more deserving of algorithmic love (or at least lust), from moving up the bestseller lists and thus being pushed (by Amazon) to potential new readers. But they do it because, once they have enough Amazon accounts set up, it costs nothing to “buy” the freebies…which, once they’ve run up the freebie-charts, then retain a smidgen of digital sex appeal in the nonfree charts. It’s, you know, how the scam works after all.

But look: there are bigger problems.

Kindle Unlimited, while very cool, is only open to writers who are willing to make their ebooks exclusive to Amazon for 90 days at a time. Right now, it’s financially very unattractive to be left out of Kindle Unlimited. Participation pays directly, and there’s also the side benefit that Amazon appears to consider each “borrow” to be the equivalent of a sale for purposes of calculating a book’s bestseller ranking. Those rankings then determine many aspects of a book’s exposure on Amazon’s website. So KU participation opens up an income stream, and boosts exposure, thus (maybe?) leading to more outright sales. (I mean “licenses”…another rant for another time!) But this does mean writers must choose between Amazon and the rest of the world. There’s nothing inherently evil in this–it’s good business sense on Amazon’s part, and it’s just a choice each writer/publisher must make. But it’s only possible for Amazon to do this because we writers allow it. We could stand on principle, if we have any relevant principles on which to stand. But it’ll cost us if we do. What’s the solution? Well, somebody else can build a competing (as opposed to “merely also existing”) ebook subscription service without the exclusivity requirement. It’ll happen eventually. Sooner is better, as far as I’m concerned.

Also, about the “pages read” thing? I haven’t seen this written anywhere yet…but, given that the scam above works, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest this means Amazon didn’t really build any new system to count pages read at all. You know how your Kindles and Kindle apps will theoretically (this has never worked well for me) auto-sync to the last page you’ve read for each title? Well, to do that, Amazon must have already built a system to keep track of that last page. Right? So, barring evidence to the contrary, I’m thinking they’re using that same technology to pay out KU pages read.

Thing is…I really haven’t been able to get that “sync” thing to work for me. I can’t sync between an iPhone and a Paperwhite. Trying to use the Kindle apps for Windows and Android just leads to more problems.

So what do I think? I think Amazon is probably mis-counting pages all over the place. Since the sync errors I’ve seen have generally taken the form of “you are already at the last page read” (or whatever the message actually says; it’s been a while since I tried) I think this means Amazon is simply not counting a lot of pages that are, in fact, read.

Maybe this evens out, over time. As long as Amazon never admits to it, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. But I think it’s interesting. I also think it’s interesting that any readers out there who have a Kindle Unlimited membership, but always read the books offline, are still helping authors (via the bestseller rankings, because borrows count as if they were sales) but the authors are not getting paid.

Now, Amazon’s done goofy stuff. They’ve penalized some writers for putting their Table of Contents in the back of their ebooks, apparently because that can screw up their pages-read metric. Well, placing the ToC in the back has been considered good practice for years, especially for shorter ebooks–that way the “free sample” potential readers can check out has more meaningful content, after all. But Amazon doesn’t seem to have done much to stop, or even meaningfully hinder, the actual scammers. Easier, I guess, to harass the innocent.

So. You’re all caught up, if you weren’t already. Things are messy out there for writers and publishers, but readers can simply read books while we figure it all out.

You know what? That doesn’t sound so bad. So, the hell with it. I’m going to think about something else now. You can too, if you want.

Have fun out there!

2 Comments


  1. // Reply

    “Thing is…I really haven’t been able to get that “sync” thing to work for me. I can’t sync between an iPhone and a Paperwhite. Trying to use the Kindle apps for Windows and Android just leads to more problems.”

    This might be a redundant question, but did you check the settings?

    This is an option you can turn on and off.


    1. // Reply

      Ha. Yes, I’ve checked the settings, and flipped ’em back and forth, and contemplated contacting tech support…and decided the hell with it.

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