Self-publishing was once considered the nadir of the industry, with a reputation as a vanity pursuit for wannabe writers who couldn’t get their foot in the door the proper way. For the past several years, that’s changed dramatically, and self-publishing has become a legitimate route for authors who wish to bypass the constraints of the old-school publishing route. The romance world has seen particular success in this field. It’s a business, obviously, but one that, when done well, can reap immense benefits.
This is not a world without controversies. This year alone, we saw the chaos of self-published romance writer Faleena Hopkins trying to strengthen her stranglehold in a crowded field by trademarking the word ‘cocky’. That issue is ongoing, but it’s not the only problem plaguing the business of self-publishing.
Head over to the Amazon romance best-sellers list and you’ll see a curious commonality. Check out the book Accidental Husband by Nikki Chase. It seems like a standard contemporary romance until you see the length is 684 pages. For a romance book, that’s pretty long. The blurb reveals that this book, which otherwise advertises itself as a single novel, is actually three full-length novels of approximately 50,000 words each. This author was at least gracious enough to note the discrepancies. Another book, Pregnant by my Boss by Cassandra Dee and Kendall Blake, advertises itself as a ‘compilation’, although the cover is clearly that of only one story. One reviewer complains that the file is mostly packed with previously published material. Love Next Door by Tia Siren, on sale for $1.32, features no fewer than three full length novels and an excerpt for a fourth: 2665 pages in total. Out of the top 20 romance best-sellers currently on Amazon US, the vast majority of them are what is known as book stuffers.
Last week, Amazon removed the e-books of one Chance Carter, arguably the most infamous book stuffer on the market. Chance Carter may not actually exist, as it was revealed that the name was a mere pseudonym for someone publishing ghost-written books, including one that may have actually been commissioned via Fiverr. Carter had also broken Amazon’s terms and conditions by bribing readers to read his latest book and leave a verified review by offering to buy one lucky winner some diamond jewellery from Tiffany’s. One Twitter user posted screencaps revealing Carter’s PA explaining to readers how to game the reviews system in favour of her client getting maximum profits.
Back to Amazon KU scamming & chance carter. This is Chance's PA explaining a few times to readers how to do the "KU flip" & how to "double dip" & don't forget to flip that bonus content! we want chance to get max profits for the stories he probably bought from ghostwriters. pic.twitter.com/ixpXUjC2hy— nikki🐕 (@ease_dropper) May 31, 2018
Amazon are the undeniable kings of the self-publishing market. While there are other options available to authors, and other places for customers to buy such work, Amazon is almost a default mode for most shoppers. They head to the site without even thinking about it. Amazon are perfectly aware of their market domination, hence the way they pay authors via the Kindle Unlimited scheme. The program pays authors royalties for books borrowed not by the number of borrows but by the number of pages read. Authors have complained extensively about this problematic system, which Amazon insists is just good business for its customers. A book stuffer can dramatically change how much they earn a month by padding out their latest release with extra material, often going so far as adding 2500+ more pages than the advertising would suggest. According to Forbes, this has led to some authors earning around $100k a month. Earlier this year, Amazon took an author to court over the practice, which is against their terms and conditions.
Writer David Gaughran, whose reporting on this subject has been crucial, noted how, in the suit, Amazon called out the book stuffing practice for harming all authors working under the Kindle Unlimited program. He also pointed out how Amazon alleged the use of ‘click farms’ and bots to drive up page reads. Essentially, book stuffing is its own large and highly profitable sub-industry in the world of publishing.
Another common tactic of book stuffing is miscategorising the novels on Amazon. Contemporary romance novels may find themselves listed under medical fiction or inspirational literature or American satire solely because they’re less crowded fields and help them stand out. On top of being flat out dishonest, this pushes out books that are legitimate in those genres.
(This is for a romance about a single father. Holidays (meaning festive romances like Christmas ones), sports and action/adventure do not apply to its story.)
Some authors offer incentives to readers who pre-order, which is technically against Amazon’s terms and conditions. One prominent example happened last October, when a group of authors released a compilation of romance novels titled Dangerous Desires. In order to make their way onto the USA Today best-seller list, they held a prize draw for a Kindle Fire to every reader who proved they had pre-ordered the book. Other incentives included receiving the 99c book of the reader’s choice once they provided proof of their pre-order.
I’m sure there are people reading this post who don’t see why this is such a big deal. What’s wrong with getting four books in one, you may ask? Or for a hard-working author to goose the system in their favour, especially since it’s not like Amazon as a whole are all about helping the underdog? The publishing community is a close-knit one that can often feel like a second family, but they also suffer no fools. Nobody likes a cheater, and no matter how book stuffers dress up what they do as good business, they’re making this field so much harder for everyone else in it. Ultimately, what book stuffing and the scammers behind it do is add a few more mountains to the playing field. When the top 100 for a genre is packed to the rim with book stuffers and click-farm trickery that creates the illusion of popularity, it makes it that much harder for authors just trying to do their job to stay afloat. Amazon may be making steps to regulate their own market, but for many authors, it’s too little too late, and as evidenced by their best-seller charts, the same old people are still being rewarded by it.
Kindle Unlimited royalties work because of the KDP Select Global Fund, a pot of money that is paid out to authors whose work is downloaded through the service. Unlimited subscribers pay their monthly fee and get as many books as they want through the system. Of course, the money is not divided up equally: If you have more pages read, you get more money. Now, think of how that system is applied when people are cheating: When they stuff books, add big paragraph gaps, get readers to follow their whims with light bribery, and spread out visibility of their e-book by falsely labelling it in a niche category. Think of those authors getting a reported $100k a month from this one pot and think of the authors who are playing by the rules who will get a mere fraction of that. Livelihoods are at stake and it’s another kick in the teeth to the reputation of the already maligned romance community.
There’s a darker side to this cottage industry as well. A Medium post written by Margaret Bates extensively details how much of this work is written by men or male dominated marketing teams who don female pseudonyms to solicit fan advice (and often pretend to be women of colour or LGBTQ+ authors to fit into those subcategories of romance), have intimate discussions about love and sex, and create work under the guise of being a female romance author. Bates’ post includes screencaps of anonymous authors bragging about engaging in ‘girl talk with readers who believe that I am a woman.’ Not only are book stuffers and this insidious industry exploiting the business model they work in: They’re exploiting their readers under the shield of ‘girl talk’. David Gaughran has already detailed how Kira Blakely, a best-selling author who uses book stuffing tactics regularly, is actually a married man from Florida. This is made all the creepier given the way ‘Kira’ talks to ‘her fans’. Blakely’s books are published by AG Media LLC, which is run by a man named Earl Lewis.
Notorious book stuffer Kira Blakely is really a married man from Florida. Here's how HE talks to his female readers, without disclosing that.— David Gaughran (@DavidGaughran) June 5, 2018
(And yes, "Kira" is a Kindle Unlimited All Star - this is the world @AmazonKDP has created.) #Tiffanygate #GetLoud pic.twitter.com/Vv1130pBD6
The pressure put on fans by these authors, who may not be real people and are just marketing goons wanting to make money, is particularly sad. A source sent me various screencaps from Carter’s Facebook group, showing the difficulties many of these fans, who are uniformly women, went through to support the author who asked so much of them. This demand for clicks and reviews, organized through Facebook, can be dressed up as audience devotion but it’s tough to ignore how much it games the system, especially when bribery and other violations of Amazon’s terms are used throughout. The shamelessness of a writer’s PA asking readers to not even read the book but click through the pages so the author gets more money is staggering.
Kira Blakely’s Facebook group has also threatened fans who don’t review the book on time with removal from the group. Anyone leaving less than a four star review was also asked to get in touch privately first. This is also expressly prohibited by Amazon’s policy of reviews.
Amazon’s rules prohibit book stuffing and clampdowns have been made on authors practicing it, but the site seems uninterested in actively tackling the problem beyond one or two figures. As the best-seller list shows, stuffers still dominate the top spots.
Imagine you’re a romance reader. You see a book that appeals to your tastes, like a single father contemporary. You buy it and like it, so you want to be part of that author’s fandom. Then you see them and their PA pressuring you to not even read the book but keep clicking through upwards of 2000 pages (most of which you may have already read in another form), just so the author gets more money, which is taken from a single pot and will result in more honest authors not getting their fair share. You see pre-orders being incentivized. You see the author asking you to only leave 4 or 5-star reviews, and if you don’t get your review up by their chosen time then you’ll be removed from that group. Then you find out that this author may not even be real, that their work may be commissioned from Fiverr or similar gig economy sites. That book you love may have been written in 2 weeks by a freelancer making $10 per thousand words. The person/marketing team behind the name of that author you love then start asking inappropriate sexual questions under the guise of ‘girl talk’, which then become fuel for their next book. How does that make you feel as a reader, as a fan, and as a person?
So, when people read this and ask ‘what’s the big deal’, that’s my answer right there.
If you want to do a deeper dive on the issue of book stuffing, please follow David Gaughran and his website.
If you have any further information on this subject and wish to speak with me, on or off the record, my DMs are open on Twitter.