Amazon Unlimited Fraud

Amazon Unlimited is an all-you-can-read service. You pay one price and can read anything that's in the program. Amazon pays authors out of a fixed pool, on the basis of how many people read their books. More interestingly, it pays by the page. An author makes more money if someone reads his book through to page 200 than if they give up at page 50, and even more if they make it through to the end. This makes sense; it doesn't pay authors for books people download but don't read, or read the first few pages of and then decide not to read the rest.

This payment structure requires surveillance, and the Kindle does watch people as they read. The problem is that the Kindle doesn't know if the reader actually reads the book -- only what page they're on. So Kindle Unlimited records the furthest page the reader synched, and pays based on that.

This opens up the possibility for fraud. If an author can create a thousand-page book and trick the reader into reading page 1,000, he gets paid the maximum. Scam authors are doing this through a variety of tricks.

What's interesting is that while Amazon is definitely concerned about this kind of fraud, it doesn't affect its bottom line. The fixed payment pool doesn't change; just who gets how much of it does.

EDITED TO ADD: John Scalzi comments.

Posted on April 28, 2016 at 8:20 AM • 31 Comments

Comments

de La BoetieApril 28, 2016 8:39 AM

One of the beauties of the language is you can parse the title in a number of ways....

Rather scarily from a privacy perspective, Amazon could "easily" monitor how long people spent and where on each book. By altering the apps (assuming this is not a Kindle), it would be straightforward to be able to generate a more accurate picture for billing purposes, but at the privacy expense of knowing exactly what the user read (by page) and when.

David Haywood YoungApril 28, 2016 8:40 AM

Since Amazon controls the size of the payout pool, which changes monthly at their discretion, and the pay per page "read" has remained relatively constant, it's not clear that authors are being harmed in practice--at least not via the scammers. Amazon's -reaction- to the scammers has caused a few issues, but that's somewhat separate.

Nate Hoffelder (@thDigitalReader) on the topic: http://the-digital-reader.com/2016/04/26/no-authors-are-not-losing-out-again-in-amazon-pay-per-page-scam/

And my thoughts from a few days ago: https://davidhaywoodyoung.com/2016/04/18/thoughts-kindle-unlimited-scammers/

book_gameApril 28, 2016 9:02 AM

Amazon doesn't lose, authors have a capped payout, and authors sign up for this?

"15 tons" all over again.

David Haywood YoungApril 28, 2016 9:07 AM

@book_game: Yeah, it's both better and worse than that. Amazon appears to be losing some (probably small) amount to the scammers at present, as the total payout pool keeps increasing to keep the pay per page read very close to constant (at least lately). OTOH participating authors also have to agree to keep their ebooks exclusive to Amazon, for a minimum of 90 days, to participate in Kindle Unlimited. Sounds horrible...kind of -is- horrible...but for a lot of people it's nevertheless the best game in town. Over the short term, sure, but 90 days isn't so long. Until you start to realize that for many books the first 90 days are the most profitable!

Good idea? Bad idea? Opinions vary. YMMV. Etc.

David LeppikApril 28, 2016 9:19 AM

It seems to me that there are quite a few ways that Amazon could fix this pretty easily. For example, if they encouraged readers to report fraud. Or even easier, if they paid based both on reading and high reviews.

The crux of the problem is that they are conflating maximum page read with the number of pages viewed. Both statistics are easy to calculate client-side, and if anything the latter is less personal.

Come to think of it, this isn't just a security problem, it's a usability problem. One of the really annoying things I've seen on a Kindle when reading a Terry Pratchett book is when you jump to a footnote (formatted as an endnote, unlike the print book) and then have to find your way back to the original page. But the max-page-read is now on the endnote, and the page you were on is just another page.

What they really should track is max-consecutive-page-read, which would only get set when you read three pages in a row (in case an endnote spans two pages).

This really isn't a hard problem to solve. Especially compared with, say, adding a few nice fonts and using a half-decent text layout algorithm.

Ian LamontApril 28, 2016 9:28 AM

Self-published authors who went “all in” with KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited are furious about this. You can see the discussion on Kboards. The upside of the attention (and complaints) is Amazon has removed many of the so-called "scam titles" ... but have also netted some innocent authors who triggered whatever filter Amazon is now using to screen for abuse.

The other issue this brings up is how Amazon has been pushing authors to join KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited and the Spotify-style payout structure. It’s a raw deal for most authors, the exception being prolific/well-known authors (and the scammers). Anyone joining the program gets some nice marketing tools, but they have to remove their books from other marketplaces (Google Play, iBooks, etc.) and end up cannibalizing the sale of digital downloads which pay more (typically 70% of list for titles priced $2.99 and above).

Like Spotify, Kindle Unlimited is great for audiences and the platform owner. The publishers/creators who can scale do OK. Everyone else gets the scraps. Spotify shows us what happens when cheap all-you-can-eat buffets dominate the marketplace (Better Midler claims she received just $114 for more than 4 million plays on Spotify and Pandora). Kindle Unlimited doesn't dominate yet, but what happens when Bezos uses Amazon's market muscle to demand all authors join KU, or get kicked out of Amazon's store?

H.April 28, 2016 9:50 AM

Hi Bruce,

there's a somewhat similar fraud:

http://www.chrisrand.com/blog/2010/02/odd-tale-alphascript-publishing-betascript-publishing/

Robo-Authors aggregating spam "books" based on Wikipedia content, then selling them as print-on-demand. These spam books fill up the long tail of the Amazon search results and provide a healthy profit for the publishers. An example:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&sort=relevancerank&search-alias=books&ie=UTF8&field-author=Frederic%20P.%20Miller

This scam has been going on since quite some time, with several publishers doing this. Amazon & other book sellers do little to stop them.

Romain PrévostApril 28, 2016 9:53 AM

Well,

There seems to be an obvious solution, or maybe am I missing something.
Can't Amazon just averages the reader's speed from previous synchronizations?

Alice reads 75 pages a day on average. There is a sudden bump of 450 pages on a single day on Bob's "How to scam Amazon Unlimited". If for other readers the same bump appear on the same book, make a human decide if it is a scam or a future best-seller, and retaliate or market it appropriately. Either way its a win.

David Haywood YoungApril 28, 2016 10:00 AM

@Ian Lamont

Seems reasonable in theory. In actual practice, to date I've made more with Kindle Unlimited than without. I've benefited both from the per-page payouts (which, for novels, work out to being only very slightly less than the "purchase" option, at least for lower price points...and for the lowest price point, $.99, borrows pay much -more- than purchases) and from the improved "bestseller" rankings, which help with discoverability.

I don't think many indies would stick with Amazon if they tried to require exclusivity. I could be wrong, but I don't think I am. I know I wouldn't do it. In fact I'm deliberately pulling most of my stuff out of KU, because I'd rather not tie myself to the 'Zon quite that tightly...or at least not forever.

That said? I think there's another factor: many of the people who are willing to read indie-published work (to the extent readers are aware of the distinction) have already signed up for KU. I know at least one of my readers who waited for a few months before reading a recent novel, because she told me she was waiting for it to be in KU. And she's been reading my stuff for years. So, once readers sign up for KU, they may be less willing to pay for content more directly.

In the long run I think subscriptions will be just about the only game in town. However, they'll have to compete for both authors and readers. And they're getting easier and easier to set up. I figure it'll work out however it needs to.

book_gameApril 28, 2016 10:08 AM

Regarding Bette Midler's complaint, she's trapped in the old music business model where there are middlemen more or less owning her work and paying themselves with Ms. Midler getting some pennies.

Modern bands with no label deal do much better.

The record label part of the business is not dead, but you'd have to be kind of crazy to do it the old way where the label more or less owns the creative work.

And yet, here's Amazon reusing the model and authors signing up.

David Haywood YoungApril 28, 2016 10:36 AM

@book_game

...for 90 days. The real losers here, IMHO, are the authors who sign on with mainstream/legacy/traditional publishers. They're the ones who can't just switch to a better system...sometimes for the life of the copyright. And many of them sign non-compete agreements too. "Indies" can ditch Amazon whenever we want, and we seem to account for a large percentage of their ebook sales lately too: http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2016-author-earnings-report/

Also, we indies (see report above) as a group now make more money on Amazon than traditionally-published authors do. I suspect the trad-pub -publishers- are still making more, because they pay such low royalties to authors and that report focuses on author earnings, but the handwriting is on the wall. Over 60% of trad-pub earnings come from their massive backlists. For new stuff, they're barely in the ball game. And it's early innings.

For lots more on issues with "standard" contracts, here's Joe Konrath's "unconscionability" post: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/unconscionability.html

IOW, I don't think KU is the black hole it may seem to be, for those who haven't been immersed in it for a while. Though, yeah, I'd love to see competitors.

ChristianApril 28, 2016 11:42 AM

I wonder about the simple non cheating solution. Something like "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain", that basically forces you to skip to the final pages way before you finish the book.

AdrianApril 28, 2016 12:09 PM

This is interesting because all the stories I read when Amazon first announced the per-page plan said that they would use the time spent on each page as a sanity check to avoid exactly this type of fraud. So either this scheme doesn't actually work, or (more likely) the original articles all got it wrong.

I guess the benefit is that the surveillance is slightly less invasive this way.

As a reader, I'm more than happy with my Nook (though I wish I could purchase books anonymously). As an author, I couldn't imagine screwing my readers by making an exclusive deal with Amazon. Sure, they're the biggest, but they're certainly not the whole pie.

CallMeLateForSupperApril 28, 2016 1:44 PM

"... Kindle Unlimited records the furthest page the reader synched, and pays based on that. This opens up the possibility for fraud."

(OMG. Pages are "synched"; "readers" are electronic. Where are humans in this book story? Oh yeah... we are "buyers".)

The algo also seemingly fails to recognize that humans typically manipulate various type of books in different ways. A novel, for example, would in all likihood be accesed by sequential pages, starting just after the flyleaf. A technical tome would in all likihood *not* be accesed sequentially from the beginning but rather from index to [subject of interest]. Thus Amazon's algorithm would register the latter type of book 98% "read" at the very first access. Would it not?

tedApril 28, 2016 1:50 PM

The misalignment of incentives is sickening. Amazon doesn't care if the authors are getting scammed - they pay out the same $$ anyway.

WaelApril 28, 2016 2:22 PM

If an author can create a thousand-page book and trick the reader into reading page 1,000

Not far fetched! That's exactly how Shahrazad tricked Shahryar, except that she told him 1001 stories in the Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights. All it takes is a 1000 cliffhangers!

Marcos MaloApril 28, 2016 2:48 PM

One solution would be to track readers' gaze and pay authors per word. If the rate per page is a 1/2 ¢, that comes to 1/500th ¢ per page, based on 250 word/page standard. Micropayments? Forget it, we're talking nanopayments.

Even if Amazon adjusts the pool so that "legitimate writers aren't hurt", both readers and writers still have the problem of the catalog being too crammed with crap. Writers might maintain their per page revenue, but it will be harder for the reader to find them. A scammer with 1000 titles will still be taking away revenue from the legitimate writer with a single title.

David Haywood YoungApril 28, 2016 2:55 PM

In this case, it's more like a link saying "click here for the English translation," and voila! The reader is at the end of the book.

As far as screwing readers goes via choice of retailer goes, there isn't much of a proprietary relationship between readers and writers. Are authors screwing readers by having a book at a single site? At a single price? In a single language? A single format? Where do you draw the line? Why do you draw a line?

Are readers screwing writers by demanding that they provide books in a certain price range at a certain site in a certain format and a certain language?

I vote "no" on all of the above. I figure it's just a bunch of value-neutral decisions, best treated as opportunities to experiment.

Also, somebody -has- to get "screwed" here, if screwing indeed is the correct term--the Kindle Unlimited readers have already paid their subscription fees. Is it worse to make a book available to them, and to all Amazon customers, and tell everybody else to pound sand (for 90 days)...or to tell KU readers that they must pay full price for the book? Does it matter that there appear to be more KU readers at Amazon than there are readers on all other sites combined? So, if a writer wants the largest possible number of readers...what's the best choice? Try it and see, I say.

Plus, you know, it's kind of hard to build up readership outside of Amazon. Hard at Amazon, too, and I certainly haven't mastered it. But at least Amazon makes an attempt to match readers with books/products they might enjoy. I'm not aware of any other site with even a half-useful recommendation engine. Looked at that way, Amazon barely even has competitors to begin with--the others are more along the lines of cargo-cult imitators.

Oh, Amazon has a website? It sells books? Cool! We'll build a website too. And then try to tell readers what to buy, but we'll base that on what the publishers pay us more than anything else. Then, if it doesn't work very well, it'll be because Amazon is evil. Right?

Anyway. It's all a mess, and if there were simple fixes for either readers or writers, as things stand, we'd probably have found them by now.

YMMV

ianfApril 28, 2016 3:06 PM


@ Wael, your binary¹ tease! Tell us all about Kamasutra instead. Use all upper body digits.

[^¹] all ones and zeros.

David Haywood YoungApril 28, 2016 3:29 PM

@Marcos Malo

I agree completely about the list-corruption issue. Fortunately Amazon has other methods of matching readers and writers, but that's definitely a hit. I think it's the biggest/possibly-only issue that's actually affecting writers (aside from Amazon's somewhat weird gyrations apparently intended to thwart scammers that have instead made things more difficult for some authors).

That issue's pointed out in my post, which I linked to in my first comment. But by now, if people have read the comments here, there's very little reason left for anybody to click on the link! {8'>

WaelApril 28, 2016 3:40 PM

@ianf,

Tell us all about Kamasutra instead.

Sir! Please! stick to the subject proper of this thread! Kamasutra is OT simply because this sort of book has a surface of attack the size of Texas. Do you think it would be wise of Amazon to make such a book available for Kindle Unlimited readers?

bigmacbearApril 28, 2016 4:13 PM

For a moment I misread the title; it looked like "Unlimited" was a modifier for "Fraud" instead of the name of the service. ;)

WhiskersInMenloApril 28, 2016 4:50 PM

All my books have a glossary and character list at the end.
Like a baseball game you cannot tell one player from another
without a program so jump to and bookmark it. A snurdle
of truth to that is real.

Without an occasional glance at the character list
you cannot tell one almost bald headed wizard from another.
The hero often wears a vertically striped shirt and the imposter
wears a dark blue tie with a pink shirt.

I should note that in rural America a book mobile equipped
with a modern laser printer and book binder could print a
book so cheaply that the library need not worry about
returns. A couple inexpensive 5T disks can hold a gosh
golly large pile of books to print. Alas the copyright holders
raised a stink so inner-city schools and rural America have
been denied this component of an education.

George HollingsworthApril 28, 2016 5:11 PM

Amazon already knows what books you are reading. Does it matter if it knows which pages? Count the unique pages read and compensate the author on that.

Sancho_PApril 28, 2016 6:02 PM

Unlimited Fraud???

Oh no, this is the new capitalism, here is how it works:

Amaclown @Bruce:
“Congratulations, Bruce!
We’ve sold 236.731 copies of your book online.

However, we also have bad news, Bruce:
It seems only 14% of the pages have been read and understood.
Due to our T&C we can only pay you 14% per copy.

Don’t be discouraged, take it as an incentive!

Upgrade to our “Gold Member” status for monthly statistics regarding reader’s experience to improve your further writing.

(Free pro hint: Skip technical details, they want fantasy, sex and crime, no more)”

***
I’m old school, I know.
When I buy a book I do it because I like to do so.
It is no-one’s business whether I read it or not.

I love the idea to vote with my bucks.
This was capitalism.

SillyApril 28, 2016 8:56 PM

@Sancho_P
You really can't get more criminal than a cryptography textbook! Purchasing one of those things puts you on the same level as the guy who buys a rice cooker and a box of nails from the hardware store: a no-good terrorist!

Bruce had better be ready for when his local fire department stops by to torch his dwelling along with every extra copy of D&G he's got.

Harald KApril 29, 2016 5:12 AM

The main problem as I see it is that Amazon pools the fees before paying out. This is not in Amazon's interest. Amazon should be interested in paying authors corresponding to how much they matter for retaining subscribers. An author read by a million people might be missed by none of those people if gone, whereas another read by ten may be so important to those ten that they would have cancelled their subscription if it wasn't there.

Streaming services have the same problem.

It is this pooling which opens the system up for abuse. Quite possibly, you could sign up for Amazon unlimited and set up a bot to "read" your books all day - and get back more than the cost of subscription. Even if you couldn't get quite that much back, it could still be profitable if it pushed your books up on rankings, or if you already had an account (or could rent the use of others'). Without pooling, with the subscription fee following the customer as is natural, such abuse would be obviously impossible.

Probably, it's copyright holders insisting on being paid a fixed fee per impression which forces Amazon to pool before distributing.

For customers, the appeal of Patreon (and its rival Flattr, more similar to Amazon unlimited and Spotify in structure) is that your money goes to the artists you like, not the artists everyone on average likes. In a world where piracy is trivially easy, I for one pay primarily to have a vote in what culture gets made - but Amazon and Spotify dilute that vote by pooling before paying out to artists.

Jeff MartinApril 29, 2016 9:00 AM

I wonder how this would work: put in a feedback system to report scam books, and hold the payout for X number of days. If the scam reports go above a threshold, no payout and the money goes back into the pool.

Kyle RoseApril 29, 2016 11:31 AM

Seems like this might have SOX implications: using an untrusted client for billing is frowned upon, so I imagine the same might be true of payments.

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