Make no mistake. If you have heard me speak before almost anywhere or read anything I have to say about writing, I emphasize one thing above all else:

“You can be as artsy as you want to be while you are writing your book, but once it is finished, it is a product. A product you must distribute and market in order for it to sell.”

There’s another part to this reality of writing as a business: the number one distributor of ebooks remains Amazon, and for most authors about 80% of their sales would disappear, should the online giant refuse to sell their work. Discoverability on Amazon is the number one trick authors, publishers, and book marketers are trying to crack. Of course, if it works on Amazon, the same method will likely increase sales on iBooks and Nook as well, provided an author even offers their books for sale in those outlets.

There are strong pros and cons and arguments on both sides of offering books for sale exclusively on Amazon and taking advantage of Kindle Select features and having your books available in the questionably lucrative Kindle Unlimited.

The problem is, there are always those who want to cheat the system and try to skew it to their advantage. Their actions can also have an effect on the innocent. There are some things to be aware of, some new and some that have been around for a while.

Paid or Fake Reviews

You should never pay for a review. Give the reviewer a free book, sure. Although if you gift it to them through Amazon, it will show up as a verified purchase, something Amazon pays attention to (and makes it much less likely they will delete the review).

It is clearly against Amazon policy for sellers to purchase reviews. You might get away with it, but if you don’t, at the least the review will be deleted, and all of the other reviews of your work will be carefully scrutinized. At worst, your KDP account can be closed and your books removed from sale on Amazon.

Even worse are those who create fake Amazon accounts and review their own work, or have others do it for them through fictitious accounts. Some authors have amassed hundreds of reviews this way, and then have been penalized by Amazon as a result.

Why the push for more reviews? The simple fact of the matter is that Amazon weighs reviews heavily in rankings, and if a book has 50 or more mostly positive reviews, Amazon will promote it to readers in newsletters and other genre features.

How do authors get caught? Amazon cannot possibly analyze every review posted on its site manually, right? No, but they do have analytics that can red flag items for more scrutiny. This is where even honest authors can get tripped up.

Analytics Explained. Analytics is transforming the way companies do business, as they gather more and more data. Here’s how it works.

  • Big Data. Users offer a lot of information voluntarily, including their location, IP address, and the account they logged in with. This information from each customer is “enriched” automatically and put into a set of data. This amount of data is too big for a standard computer to process, and so is stored on large, fast servers and is known as “Big Data,” and is being used by businesses like Amazon to innovate in several areas.
  • Artificial Intelligence. Programs much like IBM’s Watson are then used to analyze the data for relationships and anomalies.
  • Thresholds. Once certain markers have reached certain thresholds, Amazon will act on the data, issuing a warning or penalizing the author’s account automatically.

Real, fake, or paid? Amazon flags reviewer accounts who are paid to do reviews. They discover this information in a number of ways, including author reporting, K-boards, and simple internet searches. These reviews are automatically flagged and removed.

Fake reviews are another matter. However, Amazon flags multiple accounts created from a single IP address or too many from the same physical location. Last year, they also flagged reviews from “people you know.”

This was discovered because of authors sharing long-tail and affiliate links on social media. Amazon picked up on this practice, and analyzed if a review came from a user clicking on one of those links who left a review, but was not a verified purchase. It was a mess for authors who gave out review copies.

Prevention Steps:

Don’t pay for reviews. This is against Amazon’s policies. If you do so, even from “reputable” reviewers, just know the reviews may be removed and you may be penalized.

Friends and Family: Be careful about this one. If your co-workers want to review your work, be sure they do so at home, and that several of them do not do so from your common work IP address. This will flag the reviews to Amazon. Also, discourage family from reviewing your work, or anyone who profited financially from it, including your editor, cover designer, and anyone associated with the book’s publication.

Be Wary of Review Offers. If you get an offer from someone you do not know to review your work, look them up on Amazon. Make sure their reviews are legit, and stay posted. Also be aware the user could be a pirate looking to steal your work. Offer them a copy through NetGalley if you use that service, or gift them a copy through Amazon. Your work will be better protected that way.

Don’t share affiliate or search links via social media. What does this mean? Share clean links: the difference is between link a and link b below:

  1. Not Clean:
  2. Clean:

Note the tail on the Not-Clean link. It tells Amazon where the link originated (in this case, my Amazon author page, so this is not a horrible link). The clean link is what comes up via a normal Google or Amazon search, and so leaves your potential connection to the reviewer confidential.

Kindle Unlimited Excessive Reads

The subject of much debate itself, Kindle Unlimited is the Amazon lending service much like a Netflix for books: for a monthly subscription fee, readers can read an unlimited amount of books.

How do authors get paid? Each month, Amazon sets up a pot of money, and authors are paid a percentage based on the number of pages readers read of their work: if someone finishes a book they borrowed, the author gets their max share of the pot.

The problem: As with any system, scammers saw a way to get more than their fair share. They would “hire” click farms who had created hundreds of Amazon Unlimited memberships. The “users” would then “borrow” a book and click through to the end, giving the author a full read, even though the user had not actually read the book.

As with other scams, Amazon caught on. So books that received a disproportionate number of reads in a single day were analyzed and removed from Amazon entirely.

But not everyone who received a spike in reads was guilty. Take Pauleen Creeden, an ordinary mid lister whose story was told recently on The Active Voice. Paulee woke one morning to a message from Amazon that her KDP account had been suspended and her books removed from Amazon for a violation of the company’s policies.

She didn’t think she had, but she did see a spike of Kindle Unlimited reads on one day. So she petitioned Amazon, and eventually got her account restored and her books once again for sale.

Prevention: Some things are difficult to prevent entirely, but you can protect yourself by following a few simple rules.

  • Don’t buy into scams. If you receive offers from promotional websites promising a certain number of reads or downloads of your book, stay away. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Even the best promotional websites like Bookbub don’t offer guaranteed numbers.
  • Watch your numbers. If you see an unusual spike, ask Amazon about it. Maybe one of the quick read “farms” got your book by accident, or maybe you got a natural bump. Either way, letting Amazon know you are aware of the unusual activity makes it more likely they will work with you to figure out what is really going on.

If you are honest and careful, you can avoid being flagged and having your KDP account removed, suspended, or otherwise penalized. Using only legitimate reviewers, clean Amazon links to your work, and paying attention to what is going on with your Kindle Unlimited activity will help.

But no one is guaranteed a place to sell books on Amazon. We operate in their house, under their rules. So abiding by them to the best of our ability is crucial to our continued presence and success on Amazon.