Amazon: The Games People Play

scam amazon

What’s the deal?

Unethical writers are using “click farms” to increase their earnings through Kindle Unlimited.

Why is it important?

In addition to robbing real authors of their potential share, these click-farms are getting unsuspecting and uninvolved authors banned from Amazon.

Long Story Short

The scam is called Prawning. An unethical writer publishes a book on Kindle. In many cases, the “book” is little more than 300 pages of nonsense. The “click farm” participants then borrow the book through Amazon’s Unlimited program, and with the assistance of another manipulation (explained below) they “read” the book. Click farms don’t conduct a dozen fake reads, but hundreds maybe thousands.  Click farms attempt to mask their unethical activity by selecting and “reading” other, legitimate books. Amazon became aware of the scam, and when they find these authors, they ban them. Unfortunately, Amazon’s investigation is mostly a numbers analysis, and the method doesn’t allow them to differentiate between a legitimate author caught in the masking from those that paid the click farms. The result is innocent authors are being banned from Amazon.

Long Story

Since the advent of the eBook market, there have been individuals who attempt to game the system. Unethical writers have manipulated keywords; they’ve engaged in sock puppets—that’s creating a hundred different emails to leave reviews for their own books—and to a lesser degree, they paid for “fake” reviews.

It’s important to note a distinction in the last.  The practice of using a marketing firm to find readers for your novel is not unethical. Provided these are real and interested readers who provide a fair review. Paying a company to post a 5-star review is, of course, unethical.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited Program is designed to work like Netflix for books. A reader pays a flat monthly fee and can borrow (read) as many eBooks as he or she would like. Authors receive payment based on the size of the monthly pool and as a percentage of the reads they received.

Initially, the author payment process paid an author for the “borrow.” So it was immaterial, regarding payment, whether or not the reader read the book. If they borrowed a book, the author received a portion of the pool.

Unethical “writers” published ten-page books, published the same books with different covers and divided existing books into two or three volumes.

Amazon responded by implementing a “pay-by-page” system. In the new iteration, authors were paid only if a reader read the book and the author’s payment were based on the total pages read. Longer books received larger payments than shorter books and downloads became less important than page reads.

Not to be deterred, the dishonest writers moved on to the use of click farms. Click farms are paid to “read” books en mass. These farms don’t read the book but scan through the pages. Also, many of these “books” contain a link within the table of contents that when “clicked” takes the reader to the end of the book. Amazon’s algorithm cannot tell the difference between a “read” book and a “skimmed” one.

The result is that these books receive a high number of reads and therefore the lion’s share of the Amazon payment pool.

The Prawning Scam also involves the inclusion of other, legitimate books in an attempt by to mask the actual book the click farms are being paid to skim. These unsuspecting authors see a “bump” in their readership, but of course not at the same rate as the intended target.

Amazon is combating these scammers and punishment includes a ban on ever publishing on Amazon. The problem is, however, legitimate authors, who had no knowledge or involvement, are also being banned—forever.

How can I avoid the potential of getting caught up in this scam?

Well, your choices are limited. The first is a decision not to make your work available in the Unlimited Program. But since most avid eBook readers use the program, you’ll be missing the best opportunity for sales.

Your second choice is to monitor your page reads weekly. If your average rises from a thousand a week to ten thousand, you might want to contact Amazon. Of course, they can be a big, impersonal company, and there is no guarantee that they might respond by banning your work.

As a final note

The real number of victims of this Pawning is unclear. It’s safe to assume that those who paid click farmers would scream their innocence as loudly as those who are real victims. Consequently, this may not be a problem at all—no offense to those who have been caught up in the scam…we just don’t know.

The best advice is to use only legitimate avenues and companies to promote your work. If someone can promise you five hundred reads or one thousand likes or one hundred five-star reviews–it probably is an unethical process.

Own the Conversation

You can read more about this current issue involving Amazon, Prawning, and click farms by reading these additional articles.