Reese's Rants

A Rambling Rant

September 17, 2019

I am sitting down to write this instead of writing the words I planned. Why? Because I am sick and tired of some of this crap.

First. I am unapologetic and unashamed of my stance against those who engage in activities and tactics that are not above board. I am tired of the counter arguments that they are “just trying to feed their families” or “just trying to make a living”. I am tired of hearing that their actions don’t impact me, so “just keep my eyes on my own paper”. Those are the words of people who are desperate to justify their own behavior, whether it’s the unabashed support of people who historically engage in practices that are decidedly not “best” or a deflection because they have engaged in some of those same tactics. And yes, almost all those shady tactics do impact me. It might be indirectly, but they do come back and bite me in the ass. So find someone else to admonish about keeping their eyes on their own paper. When my paper gets defaced because of what they are doing, I should speak up and I should say no more.

Let me give you the too long didn’t read version of the above paragraph. The above, in no way, defends anyone’s actions. I despise, more then the behavior of those who attempt to exploit every possible half-penny from the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) – Select system, the cries of, “you are defending scammers, therefore you must be one!” And that’s another thing. Let’s get rid of the term scammer when talking about people who have lost the privilege of publishing through KDP . Please. Once and for all. A scam is usually a fraud (although it can also be associated with cheating a system). An exploit is something that takes advantage of a flaw in a system and is a far better description of the behavior that causes some (not all, but probably most) people to lose their publishing privileges with Amazon.

With that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s move forward.

Stuffing
or how I learned to appreciate my college communications class lecture on clearly defining terms.

I want to address stuffing versus bonus content and why we all need to give up our death grip on the stuffing has always been against the rules therefore everyone who has included any bonus content at the end of a book ever is scammer. I have it on pretty good authority that every time someone riles up romancelandia on the twitterverse with cries of “They’re a stuffer; therefore a scammer” Amazon gets inundated with reports on books that fall well below the 10% threshold. (And this also goes along how it impacts me, albeit indirectly.)

Traditional publishers have long included bonus content at the end of books. Whether it’s a novella, a second short novel, or reader group questions and answers doesn’t matter, it’s always been included. What they didn’t do is include every book in an authors’ back catalog or every book in a series. But then traditional publishers aren’t part of a system that financially rewards them for every page read. But even if they were rewarded, I doubt they would include every book in a back catalog or series at the end of a new release. Traditional publishing isn’t always a pillar of ethics, but they aren’t the ones attempting to trademark words for book titles. They heed Dr. Ian Malcom’s words from Jurassic Park. Just because they could do something didn’t mean they should.

Unfortunately, some self-publishers haven’t grasped the could versus should concept. (And this is for everyone on both sides of the argument.) Of course, they also aren’t self-aware enough to realize how their actions impact others, so asking them to consider the ethical intricacies of could versus should is probably a long-shot attached to a pipe dream. The 1980s Green Bay Packers had a better chance of winning the Super Bowl.

And prior to June (or was it July, can’t remember) of 2018, Amazon had no explicit rule about including bonus content. They had a weebly-wobbly clause in the TOS about not including content that would ruin the reader’s experience and about publishing the same content over and over, but nothing against including bonus content. In June (or possibly July) Amazon added an explicit clause to the KDP TOS stating that a book could only include 10% bonus content. Multiple books could still be published in a bundle as long as they were clearly labeled as bundles and not as bonus content. The semantics are important here. Creating and accurately labeling a bundle as a bundle is acceptable. Publishing a new release and including several additional books is exploiting a flaw in the system.

Now, before we move on, let’s step back and clarify one thing that drives me bats in the belfry insane. No company, municipality, or government goes back and retroactively punishes someone for rule infractions prior to the establishment of the rule. In 1983, 18 year olds across the US legally bought beer and liquor. In 1984, it was against the law in most states for anyone under the age of 21 to buy alcohol. The police didn’t go knocking on everyone’s door who was 18 between the years of 1969 and 1984 to arrest them for buying alcohol.

Same goes with the 10% bonus content rule on Amazon. Amazon is not going to and have not (despite some weird commentary than insinuates they have) punish anyone retroactively. They aren’t going back through the system and saying, “Oh, look, you published a book in 2017 that had bonus content exceeding 10%. That same book is currently available with less than 10% backmatter, but we’re going to punish you for what you did in 2017 when there wasn’t an explicit rule.” And anyone who insists that including bonus content has always been “against the rules” needs to check their version of reality and how it compares to most reasonable adults.

Yep, that’s right, folks. Amazon is not terminating publishing relationships on KDP because of behavior from two or three years ago. Get off the Stuffing Cross already, people need the wood to stay warm.

So, where was I before I digressed on rules and how they are normally implemented? That’s right, defining stuffing and why it’s not a scam, but an exploit. So, KDP-Select monetarily rewards publishers per page read. The more pages they have, the more money they earn. Some publishes exploited the flaw in that system and added entire back catalogs or multiple books. That is stuffing. Yes, even a single novel co-written with a bonus novel from each author would probably fall into the stuffing realm. Bonus content has traditionally meant a smaller treat. Buy that huge bottle of lotion and get a travel size for free. Buy that jumbo bottle of shampoo and get the little bottle of conditioner for free. That’s how bonuses traditionally work across all industries. No where else, no matter the industry, will you find anyone selling a jumbo bottle of shampoo and including every other shampoo they make as a bonus. Oh, and keep in mind that the other shampoos are full-sized and not travel sizes. In fact, you didn’t find ebooks on other stores with multiple full-sized books included as a bonus. These books were only available in Kindle Unlimited because some publishers exploited a flaw in the system. Reward for page reads + no clear definition of the term bonus = books filled to the brim with entire catalogs.

But this is no longer an issue. Or at least, it’s no longer a problem because Amazon is enforcing the 10% rule. How do I know? Because I’m wide and I had a novella with backmatter that began at 88% and Amazon told me to fix it, or else. I’m not even in KDP-Select. I am not getting rewarded for pages read. And this circles back to how bad behavior indirectly impacts others. I cannot include a holiday novella in my books published on Amazon because it would exceed the 10% bonus content rule. I can include that bonus novella in my books available on other stores, but not Amazon. Again, none of these books are enrolled in Select, but because of a bunch of people doing everything they could instead of bothering to consider whether they should, I am being punished.

Can we please, once and for all, drop the stuffing narrative. The horse is dead. No need to beat it anymore.

So, why did I just write 1500 words about stuffing? Especially if I am claiming it’s no longer a problem? Because, I had to explain the stuffing part to explain the next part.

Nuances and how important that word is going forward.

The nuance of nuances

Nuances are subtle. They are usually narrow. But most importantly they put us in a situation where we are all looking at the same thing, but seeing it differently.

With the most recent account terminations that achieved public notice, there’s been a group insisting that it’s about stuffing.

However, multiple people, completely unrelated to each other and (as far as I know) not likely to have any communication with one another, have all said that the account terminations happening at the end of June of this year came down to multiple warnings that were either ignored or repeated. I consider the people who shared this information with me reliable. They have no interest in pushing a narrative that supports their battle cries and whoops up the crowd and reinforces the group-think.

If those I have spoken with are to be believed, at least two of the publishers who are no longer able to publish on Amazon lost that privilege because they ignored warnings. This doesn’t mean that the warnings weren’t because of exceeding the 10% bonus content threshold, only that exceeding 10% bonus content wasn’t the reason. This is what I mean by nuances. We are all looking at the same scenario, but some of us are looking at the broader picture and not focusing on the details. And make no mistake, the devil is in the details here. If an Amazon representative is under oath, they can state that someone lost their account because of the number of warnings received about multiple infractions and be stating the entire truth. What those infractions might be are irrelevant to KDP and Amazon.

So, why do I think the warning narrative is more likely and more important than focusing on a narrative that doesn’t even matter any more because it’s already a rule, that surprisingly enough Amazon is pretty consistent about enforcing? Because ultimately, if the multiple warning narrative is true, this is a tactic we haven’t seen Amazon take before and it changes the entire landscape.

Again assuming the multiple warnings narrative is true…

I don’t know what those warnings were about, for all I know they might have been because they used a color on their book cover that Amazon didn’t like. But what it comes down to is actually very simple. It doesn’t matter why they received a warning, only how they chose to respond, or perhaps not respond to those warnings. Going forward does that mean if an account receives enough warnings and the publisher doesn’t course correct going forward, they will get more than a slap on the wrist? Ever since I received the firmly worded email that I needed to fix a wide book and decrease the bonus content to 10%, you better believe that I am triple checking to make sure every single book’s last line of the last chapter ends at the 91% mark. This is an example of course correcting. That I also fixed the book in question within a day of receiving an email from Amazon is an example of not ignoring a warning.

The transcript of a conference call for Entangled authors was posted on reddit and then removed. (It’s still available, just google for “find removed posts on reddit” and the first item explains how to deleted or removed posts, as far as the link to the original post, you’ll have to find that on your own.) However, the gist of the conference call was that Amazon had a problem with the content of some books. Others claim to have screen shots of recent book stuffing, but as far as I know there is no actual evidence. The only images produced belonged to books published prior to Amazon implementing the 10% bonus content. Also, without all the variables considered (length of book and actual bonus content) it’s difficult to say that including a single additional book can be considered stuffing.

With the multiple warning narrative (and understanding nuances) both of these claims might be true, but I don’t think they should be what we focus on. Instead, consider all the warnings you might have received in the past and those you might receive in the future. Amazon can’t assume to understand your motive. There is no magic wand to wave and divine the reason a publisher erred and received a warning. Considering that self-publishers have proven to have a significant segment willing to exploit every chink in the fence, is it wrong for Amazon to assume that mistakes might not be innocent, but deliberate?

I have personally received a warning for a wide book with a bonus novella. I know of others who have received warnings for a book ending at 88% or 89%. I know others who have received warnings for not linking all backmatter in the TOC. Another received a warning regarding a box sets clearly labeled as a box set (this one ended up being fine as was, but it took some back and forth for the issue to be resolved). At what point do we as individuals reach a tipping point, where honest or unintentional mistakes will weigh the same as deliberate exploits to the system? And what happens when Amazon does draw another line in the sand, the way they did with the 10% bonus content? It would seem as though the only way for Amazon to effectively stop those who insist on exploiting the system is to create strict rules that will impact 100% of the publishers on KDP. So, as we race to retroactively fix what was previously okay because suddenly it’s no longer okay, what if we aren’t fast enough and get hit with a wave of warnings?

Suddenly, the reason for the warnings isn’t nearly as important as how many we might have received and what weight (if any) Amazon has given to individual warnings (such as whether one warning is worse than another). Assuming, for the moment, that most of us will be good actors and immediately fix any problems and do our best not to repeat offenses, this shouldn’t be a problem. However, what if the issue is something that hasn’t been clearly defined? (Although, at least in my experience, Amazon has historically been clear with me when there has been a problem as long as I have phrased my communication in such a way that clearly communicates my confusion about and issue and explicitly ask what I can do to resolve the problem.)

Okay, I am about to land a zinger here, and I fully admit that I buried the lede.

At the end of the day does it matter why someone loses publishing privileges? I suppose for those who routinely cross over the line and ignore best practices in order to make more money now, it does. If someone is constantly putting their accounts at risk, then yeah, they want to know the fine details so they can continue to take advantage of flaws in the system to their own benefit. But for those of us who aren’t finding ways to exploit the system, it’s not imperative to our remaining in business. If we want self-publishing to be a sustainable industry several years from now, the discussion we should probably be having isn’t about the what, how, or why of account terminations. And it also isn’t about whether Amazon is taking a different approach to handling publishers they consider to be problematic to the Select environment. The discussion we all should to be having revolves around best practices.

What I mean when I say Best Practices

Well, I am going the lazy route and opting for the Merriam-Webster definition: a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption. I am also bothering to add that for something to be considered a best practice, it can’t take advantage of a known flaw in the system. For the moment, I am going back to bonus content (yeah, I know I said I wanted the discussion to end with regards to stuffing and bonus content, but it’s a low-hanging example that almost everyone can comprehend). When it comes to bonus content, a best practice might have been to only include a single novella or novel, not, you know, an entire backlist. If some of the worst offenders had any understanding of game-theory, they’d realize that in the long run, they’d see more profit by limiting bonus content to a novella as opposed to dropping their entire catalog at the end of a new release. If publishers had limited themselves to using a novella or short novel as bonus content, we probably wouldn’t have a 10% rule.

If we, as a group, aren’t discussing best practices and coming to understand that our own actions could have a negative impact on the rest of the community, then we’re doomed to be repeating this same drama over and over. Amazon will eventually become so restrictive, it’s no longer possible to make a quick buck (which is great because most of the bad actors will have moved on instead of repeatedly attempting to sneak their way back into KDP-Select), but it also means that the landscape for self-publishers will be limited and narrow. I can see Amazon insisting we upload a plain-text document that their system converts to a mobi and all customized formatting is stripped out (more so than it already is). Perhaps, they’ll eventually disallow any external links and insist the only “also by” page an ebook can have is one produced by their system that they add. These what-ifs might seem extreme now, but a year and half ago, I would have said that limiting backmatter to 10% was extreme.

The time to get our panties in a twist isn’t a year after a rule change that impacts 100% of the publishers on KDP, regardless if their books are in select or not. The time to get our panties in a twist is before the rule change is so extreme it actually limits legitimate business practices because a small, yet significant, percentage of self-publishers prefer the scorched earth policy to best practices.

There are other rules Amazon has implemented. Such as not being able to categorize your book in specific categories if it is also categorized in Romance. Want to know why that happened? Enough publishers of Romance books stuck their books in Science-Fiction and Fantasy and enough readers complained. Because others exploited the way they categorized their books, a book that genuinely fits both genres can’t be categorized in both. If authors actually followed best practices, this wouldn’t have to be turned into a rule (Although, I’m not sure Amazon actually enforces this rule. But with the way people abuse the categories, I imagine Amazons next step is to turn off all other categories once one category is selected.) For every exploit that some publishers use, Amazon tightens the noose a little tighter. When a small group doesn’t follow best practices, it will eventually cause problems for self-publishers as a whole.

When we focus on one element, that honestly isn’t even a problem because Amazon is strictly enforcing it, we allow all the other bad acts to establish themselves and grow. Then they finally become such a problem that yet another restrictive rule is put in place because, like a three year old with a bag of cookies, Amazon can’t trust a few of us not to exploit a loophole to the extreme.

How many of us, if we are being completely honest with ourselves, can say that we are good neighbors? Meaning, how many of us are able to say that for the most part we haven’t engaged in behavior that could cause future harm to others just because it’s advantageous to us in the immediate? How many of us engage (and even encouraged) others to use lesser utilized categories to boost visibility? How many of us engaged in republishing an old book as a brand new book to get that sweet new release bonus? How many of us have ignored best practices of sending out news letters and contaminated the shared IP pool putting others at risk of having their emails labeled as spam? How many of us have engaged in intimate conversations with readers, pretending to be someone we aren’t? How many of us have deliberately worked as a group to push a market trend and increase the cost of ads to push competitors out?

I expect that most of us would say yes. we are good neighbors and we haven’t done any of the things I’ve listed. But here’s the deal, everything I listed was done by a group of people at some time and no one raised the the point that maybe they shouldn’t be doing this. Some might even argue that silently sitting back and doing nothing, especially if you’re aware of the practices going on, is as bad as engaging in the bad acts.

Let me be clear, for most of us, there is no immediate benefit to speaking out. We get called names, attacked in emails, and called out in forums. I’ve even had a moderator of one community threaten to reveal everything about me to another community (one I had been a member of, but had left and no longer participated at). I am not selling anything, gaining more twitter followers, or increasing my sales. I don’t see any boost to anything. There is no immediate benefit to me. So then, why speak out and encourage a community to openly discuss best practices and be willing to call out those who continually exploit the system? Because there’s a long term benefit.

There’s no way to eradicate every bad actor and that’s not really the intent of this statement. And there’s definitely no way a large group could ever agree on a list of best practices must less two or three before it devolves into an argument about some minute detail that is debated down to the bare bones and everyone just wants it to stop already. But all that is okay. Because the more we talk about we should be doing instead of what we could be doing, the more likely someone might be to stop and consider their actions. Those who started self-publishing because it was a quick cash grab aren’t the biggest concern. They’re something to worry about, by all means, but they won’t be the problem a few years from now. The problem we’ll be facing in the future is that there are publishers and authors who are ignoring best practices because they don’t know any better, or maybe they’ve been encouraged to engage in them because that’s what “the experts” say. (Mind you, the experts are the same people putting their own accounts at risk and might have lost an account because they want to milk that fraction of a cent from Amazon at all costs.)

The problem self-publishing should be concerned about isn’t what someone did to cause them to lose their account. The problem self-publishing needs to worry about is how to actually discuss best practices without it turning into a fight where insults are volleyed back and forth and offense is taken at every single uttered word. Until open discussions can occur where critical thinking rules the day instead of rhetoric, we’re doomed to replay the same drama where all the actors repeat the same tired lines and the only (and I do mean the only) thing that changes is the Pen Name of the terminated account.

Little side note… If you wan to leave a comment anonymously, you can. I turned off the requirement for a name and email, but couldn’t change those fields without messing with a file I didn’t want to spend more time futzing with.

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