Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Stuffed with Words

This is a long tale.  Very long.  There's a great deal of time to cover, details to catch up on. Grab a cup of coffee, and have the pot handy for a refill.  Or a glass of wine and the bottle.  Or whatever beverage of choice you prefer.  And settle in.

Let's swing back to 2013, to the infamous Goodreads Purge.  The whole thing started in August over a 2-star review posted to a book that hadn't yet been released.  The author threw a hissy fit, wanted the review removed, wouldn't accept that GR had a policy of allowing reviews for unreleased books.  Her temper tantrum ended up garnering hundreds and hundreds of 5-star reviews for the book . . . which she then never released.  The book and its reviews remain on Goodreads to this day as far as I know.

Over the next several months, Goodreads, which had been purchased by Amazon in June of that year, began to tighten the rules on reviewing, specifically in the area of not allowing negative reviews based on the author's behavior if that behavior was unrelated to the writing in the book.  If, for instance, the author was spamming the various discussion groups on Goodreads and a reader wanted to note for her own reference that she didn't ever want to buy or read anything by that author because he was a spammer, she couldn't do it.  Shelf names indicating author misbehavior -- "Author spams," "Review troll," "Don't buy" --  were no longer allowed.  (Well, they weren't allowed for some reviewers though others got away with it.)  Slowly but surely, a lot of reviewers were either removed or silenced.

For the most part, those removed were reviewers who more often took a hard line when it came to poorly written books and/or poor author behavior.

I was one of those reviewers.

Between August 2013, when the whiny author fiasco started, and November 2014 when I was finally banned from Goodreads, I had become very active researching authors who purchased reviews from fiverr.com and the reviewers from whom they purchased those reviews.  Purchased reviews were absolutely forbidden on both Goodreads and Amazon, as being against both Terms of Service on the respective sites and against Federal Trade Commission guidelines on Amazon, where the books were actually sold.  With assistance from a small cadre of other reviewers, I got over 6,000 fraudulent reviews removed from Goodreads.  Several reviewers were banned from both Goodreads and Amazon, though most of them found ways to come back.  Some authors also had their GR accounts removed.  A couple of years later I was able to confirm that several of the reviewers were still in business under other names; I haven't bothered to research it further since then.

I don't mind admitting that there was a certain amount of self-righteousness involved in my crusade against the fake reviews.  For the most part, the books were published by their authors, often with little or no professional-level editing.  In other words, they were badly written. The authors couldn't generate positive reviews on the books' merits alone, so they bought reviews to gain visibility.  Some of them, I'm sure, believed that what they were doing was perfectly legitimate promotion.  Or they justified it somehow.

Most readers knew nothing about this, and there was nowhere to let them know.  They'd see a book with glowing reviews, buy it, and find out it was a dud.  But how were they to know?  And how many of them, not understanding that the five-star reviews were lies, thought it was their own fault for not liking the books?  Many of the paid reviewers had achieved high ranking in the Top 1000, Top 500, or even Top 100 Amazon reviewers.

What I realized through this experience was that too few people are willing to write a negative review.  They offer a lot of reasons, too, and I've discussed that often enough before that I won't go into great detail again here.  Suffice to say that there are issues with hurting the author's feelings or not knowing how to justify a negative review or even just wanting to make sure the free ARCs keep coming.

Taking into consideration that Amazon and Goodreads ultimately have the same bottom line, and that as a combined entity they are the single largest platform for book buying, book selling, book publishing, and book reviewing online, any author who steps in to review takes an enormous risk.

Under the same FTC guidelines mentioned above, authors are not allowed to review on the Amazon platform unless they are reviewing outside their own genre or they leave a positive review.  Most authors, for reasons of promotion and general public relations, tend not to write negative reviews anyway, even though in many cases they are the best qualified to do so.  Negative reviews from authors are more legal on Goodreads, but that's also the more social venue, so there are reasons why negative reviews from authors are less likely there.

Since that 2013 purge at Goodreads, the stand-alone review blogs have become more prolific, and by their very nature they are more likely to promote new books with positive reviews than they are to be analytical or critical of the not-so-good ones.  Well, that's the nature of the beast, and frankly, my disagreement with the philosophy that drives it doesn't really amount to a hill of beans.  I was booted off Goodreads in November 2014 (or thereabouts) and that was the end of it.

I had found a home of sorts at BookLikes.  I brought over some of my issues with bad books and skeevy reviewing, but there was less drama at BookLikes and that was fine.  A few odd little coincidences within the group I had joined there ended up leading me back to actual writing, and in July 2016, I published The Looking-Glass Portrait via Kindle Direct Publishing.  I had never had much luck with Smashwords, the only other platform I'd used for self-publishing, so I didn't even bother with it for LGP.  I had all my books on Amazon, and the five novels were all enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.  LGP did surprisingly well for me over the next eighteen months or so; I had no complaints at all.

What little reviewing I did on BookLikes was mostly related to books I read that I felt like sharing with others or to books I read for the games we played on BookLikes.  I didn't review everything I read, in part because I read a lot of stuff I knew no one else would be interested in.  I didn't have a huge following.

A good deal of my energy went into my crafting hobbies, and then my resurrected writing.

But I was also burned out on reviewing.  Not for the reasons you might think, however.  Or maybe so.

I had read a lot of crap.  I don't have a huge budget for book buying, so my digital purchases are pretty much restricted to the free stuff with the occasional bargain when something is on sale for $1.99 or less.  Rarely will I spend more than that on a digital book, unless it's a much-wanted non-fiction selection for research.

Reviewing a bad book is hard work, and given how few people would see it on BookLikes, I couldn't justify putting in the time and effort.  The negative reviews I had posted on Goodreads had brought a lot of negative feedback, some of it vicious to the point of death threats.  My own older books that I had republished on Amazon took the hit of dozens of one-star reviews, even though I knew none of the reviewers had read them.  I have a philosophy of never ever ever reading reviews of my work, which I maintain to this day, so I never read the nasty remarks, never reported them, never did anything.  Again, as far as I know most of those reviews are still there, on Goodreads and on Amazon, though some of the accounts were subsequently removed because other people reported them.  I never did.

And though I'm old and accustomed to that kind of stupid behavior, after November 2014 I had gradually lost contact with the writing and publishing aspect of the book world and I didn't make a special effort to renew that contact while writing LGP or even after publishing it.  The Amazon discussion boards, where I used to read a lot but never posted, became vicious when they weren't stupid; I walked away from even reading them long before Amazon shut them down.  I had never followed the Kboard platform very much, nor had I been more than peripherally involved with sites such as The Passive Voice or Absolute Write.  My time on social media became more and more devoted to arts and crafts via Etsy and Facebook.

Things took a slight turn in August 2016.  After I had published The Looking-Glass Portrait and was working on what I hoped would be my next book, I took a break one afternoon to browse through the freebies on Amazon.  I found this:

It's gone from Amazon now, but it was free that particular day and it looked harmless enough, so I downloaded it.  But I couldn't believe what I found.

It was garbage.

I won't bore you with the whole review -- which you can read on BookLikes here -- but it was pretty darn bad.  And I knew there were a whole bunch more like it, because I had downloaded them too.  I just didn't know what they were!

This was August of 2016.  Almost two years ago.  And if you read the comments posted to that review, even then there were questions about the Kindle Unlimited page views.  If I had stayed in the writing community, maybe I would have followed up on it.  I didn't.

This particular book was a collection of unrelated stories, a veritable hodgepodge of romances set in different eras and locations, with varying degrees of "heat."  Mafia romances, biker romances, shifter romances, Regency romances.  All of them poorly written, poorly formatted.  I had already downloaded several more of Sarah Thorn's other books, but I didn't even open them.  They weren't worth my time.

But I couldn't review on Amazon.  I was banned from Goodreads.  So I reviewed it on BookLikes where nothing much happened.  I didn't expect anything to happen.  BookLikes is too small a platform in terms of number of users.  There was no way for the word to spread about this type of

It wasn't until October 2017 that I encountered the next odd book on Kindle.  It, too, has disappeared from Amazon, but it was there last October. 

Again, the product was so . . . odd that I reviewed it on BookLikes in substantial detail.  And this time the comments were eye-popping.  One of them included a link to a David Gaughran blog post about book stuffers.  In that post, Gaughran stated that he had been in contact with Amazon about this problem for sixteen months.  Gaughran's post is dated July 2017.  So this issue of bookstuffing has been known and discussed with Amazon since at least March 2016.

I suspect Mr. Gaughran has gone way beyond frustrated by now.

I know a little bit about how he feels.  I went through the same thing when reporting on review buyers and sellers to Goodreads.  It became a bit of an obsession, and I wasn't even really writing at the time.  A few of my books had been republished on KDP, but I didn't really have a horse in the race.  It was all a matter of principle.

A principle that I should have risen to defend in October 2017, but I didn't.  And therefore I owe a huge apology to David Gaughran.

Because as I realized today, it's all related.  Or at least maybe it is.

So many critical voices were silenced as a result of the 2013 Goodreads Purge that maybe there were few to sound the alarms over the bookstuffing.

I had to stop and ask myself, as I pulled all this out of my personal wayback machine, how I had failed to pick up on it.  The answer was, sadly, pretty damn obvious.  In October 2017 I was just starting my annual season of arts and crafts shows.  When I wasn't preparing for one show, I was often recovering from another.  I went through several agonizing bouts of back spasms that often had me laid up for a week or more.  I was trying to write, too.  My brain was just going in too many directions.

Now here we are at June 2018.  My show season is over; outdoor temperatures are hitting triple digits so I'm comfortably settled for the summer.  Oh, I still have work to do to prepare for the 2018-2019 show season, but I shouldn't be bothered with back spasms or the tendonitis that flared up this winter in my left elbow.

As they say, getting old isn't for sissies.

I've been thinking for the past few months that it was time to resurrect this writing blog anyway.  So here I am, wondering what we do next about the book stuffing.  #GETLOUD at Twitter is, I guess one way.  But what are we up against?  And who cares?

Well, the authors sure ought to care.

Let's look at some numbers, just for fun.  The pot of Amazon money set aside for the Kindle Unlimited (and to a lesser extent the Kindle Owners Lending Library, or KOLL) is currently at $21.2 million for April 2018, to be paid in June.  At $10 per month for the KU subscription, that represents at least two million subscribers.  We can safely assume Amazon isn't turning over all the KU money to the fund, so if that $21.2 million is only $8 out of each subscription, that adds another half a million readers.  Plus all those who in any given month sign up for the free month and then cancel.

Is there anything scientific about this estimate?  No, not really.  What it does, however, is give an idea of how vast the pool of readers is out there who might care about book stuffing.

The KU subscriber who encounters a stuffed book might not care.  She's already paid her fee, so if she gets a dud book, it's no real loss.  She returns it and checks out another.  In that sense, she's not out anything and could be said to not have a dog in this race.

What about the non-KU reader?  She shells out $2.99 or $4.99 or even $0.99 for a stuffed book, discovers it's full of "stuff" she's already read, and she returns it.

Or will she?

Remember that Amazon recently instituted new policies about limiting returns.  What if the reader is now faced with the risk of returning a stuffed book . . . or losing her Amazon account altogether?

If she chooses not to return it, she's out the money, and the author is rewarded for his scam.  The reader may decide to be less eager to spend money on self-publishing authors and stick with the better-known, familiar names from the traditional publishers.  (This is why trad publishers are not likely to come to the assistance of readers or writers of author published material.  As long as the indie stuff remains bad, it sends more readers to the trad publishers.)

If the readers don't appear to be hurt by the book stuffing scam, what about the non-stuffing writers?  They're the ones who are really hurt.

At the current limit of 3000 KENPC per book, the stuffer is paid $15 for each "first" read.  It's very easy to slip in a link at the beginning of the book that takes the reader immediately to the end.  It may be a link to a newsletter sign-up or even a link to a Table of Contents that's at the end of the book instead of the beginning!  Regardless what it is, as soon as the reader reaches the end of the book, the author is credited with a full read, even if 99.9% of the book has been skipped over.  Instant $15 profit.

Next month, the author shuffles the order of the "stories" in the book, slaps on a new cover and new title, and publishes again.  Another $15 royalty, even though none of the content is new!

Some of the stuffer/scammers boast of six-figure monthly incomes from their books.  That money comes out of the general pool, meaning it's less for the non-stuffing authors -- like me!  It's not just the per-page payout that's affected.  Amazon also pays All-Star bonuses for the most pages read.  My book at 637 pages doesn't stand a chance against those 3,000 KENPC stuffed monsters, with links that take the reader to the end from page one.  So the pool shrinks further.

Not to mention, of course, that Amazon sales are driven by reviews and reads and algorithms.  A book that gets lots of page reads will generate its own visibility, and when the book stuffers are all grouped together, they corral all the visibility to themselves.

A check of Tia Siren's Love Next Door: A Romance Compilation shows that the first four "Customers who bought this book also bought" recommendations are also stuffed books:

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What happens as a result is that independent, self-publishing authors find themselves unable to earn enough to keep writing.  Some have (reluctantly?) turned to book stuffing themselves, gaming a system that's rigged in favor of the gamesters.  Others have turned to other publishing platforms where at least they don't have to compete with the stuffers. Others have given up entirely.

Readers lose out and writers lose out, and the scammers win big.  Now that some people are speaking out, is it too late?  The scammers are being reported to Amazon, but is it doing any good?

If you look at a selection of these books, they get few negative reviews, if any.  So how is anyone to know they're not well-written, not well-formatted for the digital reader, and not stuffed with old stories?

Looking at just one at random, I can immediately see from the "Look Inside" preview that the formatting is off.

I downloaded the free sample to my plain Kindle, and the double spacing between paragraphs made the reading experience uncomfortable, but not impossible.  I've seen worse.

But here's the thing -- the writing is bad.  It's bad from the beginning.  It's bad on the micro level that few readers pay attention to.  It's bad on the level that would keep the writer from ever being considered by a traditional, gatekeeping publisher.

Parades don't arrive from the town square.  If there were to be a parade for the home-coming hero, he would be in it and it would go to the town square.  Is this important?  Is it nit-picky?  Yes, to both.

Unless, of course, this is just crappy erotica to be read for the titillation and the profit.

But the second paragraph is worse, because weapons aren't automated.  They're automatic, or semi-automatic.  This error tells me the author doesn't give a shit about the quality of the writing.

The few negative reviews contain references to the level of sexual content in the book as being quite high.  One review refers to it as porn.  I'd be willing to bet that most of the stuffed books that are topping the Amazon sales charts are also high on the sex level.

Is that what it's come down to?  Is it all just porn?  Is it all just fuck books with no attempt to write well, craft a story, create an imaginary world for the reader to slip into for a while?

I'd like to think not.

But no one criticizes these books.  No one points out how badly written they are.  Is it because no one cares?  Or is it because no one knows how to tell bad writing from good?  Is it because those who do know the difference have been bludgeoned into silence by the hordes of "Think of the author's feelings!" and "If you can't say something nice. . . " and "I have to leave good reviews if I want to keep getting free ARCs from the authors!"

The silence at Goodreads and Amazon when it comes to badly written and/or badly published books is at least part of what allowed this to happen.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they want to keep getting free books?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they don't want to hurt the authors' feelings?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because even though the books are bad they don't know how to tell anyone they're bad?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they're afraid of the backlash from fans or authors if they publish a negative review?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they are also authors and don't want anyone to give their books negative reviews in revenge?  Yes, they do.

Do readers have the right to read honest reviews of both good and bad books so they can make informed decisions on how to spend their money and their time?

Yes, they do.

If books are badly written, if they are poorly researched, if they are stuffed with other material to boost KU page reads, they deserve to be reviewed as such.  Readers deserve to know this.


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