Wednesday, April 20, 2016

ScAmazon 2 - Mammoth Consequences: The Digital Sweatshop


Today, I saw a video from Dave Koziel on YouTube. He apparently felt it necessary to explain to his viewers that his methods weren't really "scammy" and why he, himself, is not really a scammer. Watch the video for yourself. (I don't recommend eating anything beforehand, though, if you have a tendency to get queasy...)


You see, Koziel admits he's not a writer but more of an internet marketer who hired ghostwriters to write his hundreds (literally, hundreds) of 8,000-10,000 word "books." He would then publish those books under pen names on Amazon. In KU 1.0, those 8-10K books would yield $1.30-ish a borrow. After KU 2.0, Dave clearly found himself with an abundance of short books that paid about half-a-penny per-page-read. So about $0.40-$0.50. That's quite a pay cut.

Then Dave realized, if he bundled all his books together (and, you know, published them under different titles, changing up that order with every new title) he'd get paid more and could maximize his "Kindle real estate" so to speak. In fact, he discovered, if he got his reader(s) to click to the end of that mass of titles, even if they didn't read them, he'd get paid for a full read!

This is particularly interesting to me because, as I revealed in a previous post, a representative at Amazon had directly told me, at the very beginning of KU 2.0, that "skipping to the end of a book" would not result in a full read. Dave Koziel, on the other hand, says that Amazon directly told him that yes, skipping to the end of a book does result in a full read, and that they somehow planned this by design.

So, Amazon - which is it?

Clearly, the evidence shows us that skipping to the end of a book does, indeed, result in a full read. We now have conflicting reports about whether or not that was intentional, or even known, by Amazon.

Dave Koziel took it upon himself to put a call out to his readers at the beginning of his books, asking them to click to the end if they wanted him to get paid for all his hard work (or in his case, his ghostwriters' hard work and his cash outlay...) He explained to them that Amazon had started paying authors by the page read, and in order to get fully paid, they had to skip to the end.

What reader, who picked up a book because they liked the cover/blurb enough to borrow it, wouldn't click to the end after that plea?

Koziel claims he was just being honest with his readers. And his scam wasn't a scam, or even a loophole - that Amazon told him they'd designed the system this way on purpose. I don't know if that's true or not. I do know that Koziel and the others he taught his "system" to clearly had some ethically questionable morals, but they weren't technically doing anything against Amazon's TOS. As with the short "scamphlets" (making books so short, just opening them would get a reader to 10% and count as a $1.30-ish borrow, no matter what content was inside) this "loophole" was built into Amazon's system.

The shocking thing, to me, was that Amazon decided to pay authors by "pages read," when in fact, they couldn't actually count those pages. They threw out a communal pot of money to the authors and like some literary Hunger Games, we were forced to fight over it. And the thing is - the game was rigged. Not just Amazon's algorithms that favor their own imprints (they do) or Amazon giving authors sweetheart deals in Kindle Unlimited.

No, this game was rigged by Amazon's own design. In the first version of Kindle Unlimited, they created a perfect storm where erotica authors (who already wrote short) could get $1.30-ish per borrow for a 5000 word story. This made authors of 100,000 word novels mad--and allowed scammers internet marketers like Dave Koziel to create scamphlets--so Amazon closed that loophole. But it turns out, Amazon had "fixed" the loophole in Krap Unlimited 1.0 only to create an even bigger one in Krap Unlimited 2.0.

So the game's still rigged.

David Gaughran and Phoenix Sullivan recently pointed out how many of these scammers have taken courses like Koziel's and run amok with them, adding even scammier ideas along the way to the mix. These scammers are using giant click-farms to drive their books up in rank on the free charts (and Kindle Unlimited subscribers can still borrow books while they're free).

They're stuffing their titles full of keywords (a practice Amazon cracked down on years ago and have since let run rampant again) even going so far as to put keywords at the beginning of each title so they'll appear high in the search rank. (This has made it nearly impossible to find anything on Amazon - they've effectively broken Amazon's amazing search engine.)

While many authors have learned that adding a "bonus book" at the end of their titles can increase pages read (a bird book in the hand, and all that) and actually add value for readers - scammers have taken it upon themselves to add thousands and thousands of pages of "bonus" content. Sometimes they just put all their ghostwritten books in to increase that page count to 3000. Or they translate those books with Google Translate into twenty different languages and put those at the back. Some are even so bold as to just put gobbeldygook culled from the internet with a link at the front with an incentive (win a Kindle Fire!) to skip to the end.

They're also putting their books into as many categories as possible (most of them unrelated to the actual content) and sometimes aping the looks of covers, titles and even author names, to appear high in searches for popular books.

So... why isn't every author out there doing this? Well, the reality is, some of them are. They've found out about the loophole and have jumped on the bandwagon because... if you can't beat them, join them? After all, the loophole is still open. Amazon has done nothing to close it. Skipping to the end of a book still results as a full read, right this very minute. Amazon recently capped the amount of pages read per book at 3000. They have also now disallowed (sort of... in certain cases... about what you'd expect?) putting the table of contents at the back of a book.

Of course, none of that has actually fixed the problem. And that is ALL the action they've taken. That's it. They still have a loophole big enough to drive a $100,000 a month Mack truck through!
As Phoenix Sullivan pointed out: "How many ethical authors are feeling pressured into adopting black hat techniques seeing how many black hatters are making bank on them with seeming impunity? Some days even I’m tempted to grab a few EINs and a handful of throwaway email accounts, put on a black hat and go to town. I understand the system—all I need is one good month to game it…"

Authors learned very quickly that Amazon is where the real money is. Amazon allowed self-publishing stars like Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and Hugh Howey to rise to the top after being rejected by the gatekeepers or legacy/traditional publishing, to make thousands, hundreds of thousands, from their work.

When self publishing first became a thing, everyone claimed that with no gatekeepers there was going to be a "ton of crap flooding the market!" Oh noez! Of course, what they meant was a "ton of crap writing" from authors who couldn't write up to legacy standards.

I don't think anyone thought, "from hundreds of ghostwriters paid by internet marketers!"

Forget devaluing our work by offering it for $0.99 or free. Forget devaluing "literature" by allowing self-published authors to publish directly to readers. That wasn't the "race to the bottom" everyone worried about. THIS is the true race to the bottom.

Dave Koziel claimed he wasn't doing anything wrong. He says he's not a scammer (even though he admits he's not really a writer.) He's a self-proclaimed "internet marketer," just looking to make a buck on the internet. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Actually, there is.

Koziel is just one example of his kind. (In fact, he teaches and sells internet courses to others who want to copy what he's done.) And if Koziel alone has hundreds of ghostwritten books, and they're not plagiarized or written like a third grader (two things he claims in his video...) then the reality is, he's accumulated material at a rate that no reasonable writer could accomplish. Only a few outliers (Amanda Lee, I'm looking at you, girl! :P ) can reasonably write 10K a day without burning out. But Koziel can hire 10 ghostwriters a day. 100 a week, if he wanted to. He can mass-produce titles at will.

Granted, the system itself is the problem when everyone is vying for a piece of the same pie. The more scammy you get, the more money you make. Yay you! But as the system starts to erode, and more and more mercenary types get on board, the further things collapse. While there's nothing inherently wrong with hiring a ghostwriter (Patterson does it all the time in the legacy world - and no one cares) there's a problem when people start taking advantage of ghostwriters and working it all like a "system."

If you pay a ghostwriter well, and that ghostwriter does a good job, that's a legitimate business transaction. But most (if not all) of these odesk-type ghostwriters are undercharging (that hurts legitimate ghostwriters) because they're overseas (there's outsourcing again) and IMers can (and do) take advantage of that. There's a difference between an author who has a story to tell who hires a ghostwriter (either because they don't have time to write it, or because they don't have the skills) and an IMer who gives an army of ghostwriters the trope-du-jour and says, "write me as many stories as possible."

These guys may hire click farms, as Gaughran and Sullivan noted - but guys like this are also getting legitimate readers and building a following. (They talk a lot about building mailing lists so they can accumulate a way to sell all their scammy internet marketing things, not just books...) So what's wrong with what he does? Clearly he doesn't see anything wrong with it. But there is something wrong with it. I call it the Jurassic Park problem. Remember Jeff Goldblum's speech to Hammond about cloning dinosaurs? When Hammond asked (like this guy Koziel) what's wrong with what he's done?

"I'll tell you what's wrong with it - it didn't require any discipline to acquire it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it. Well... you were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think if you should..."

Since Koziel likes YouTube videos so much - here's one he and all of his minions should watch:


The problem is now we really are competing for readers with this guy. It's like the outsourcing to other countries that corporations do to trim margins in any business - it's a slippery slope. And now what do we have? A digital sweat shop environment. Writers terrified of falling off a 30-day cliff, utilizing voice software like Dragon to keep up and write as many words as possible as fast as they can, creating shared pen names to try to get a foothold in a flooded market.

It's hard enough to gain visibility on Amazon these days, when there are plenty of excellent, legitimate writers out there putting out some great books. Because the reality of the gatekeepers was not that there was too much "garbage" out there to publish - the reality was always that there was never enough room at their table. There was plenty of stuff leftover that just went to waste - that's the stuff that writers can now self-publish, now that the traditional gatekeepers are gone. And much of it is great stuff - books readers prove, with their buying dollars - they actually want to read.

Today, self-publishing authors don't have to worry about getting past the gatekeepers. But they have to compete with internet marketers who see Kindle as a "business opportunity" and who are using it, solely, to make money. We're competing with someone who can scam Amazon's system (which, admittedly, is Amazon's fault - they've made it "scammable") and they've proven with hard numbers that they can take upwards of $100,000 or more a month out of the pot.

There are people in the world whose ethics are very fluid. Who think, "Why shouldn't I take advantage of this giant money-making loophole?" And when those people don't stop to think if they should, just because they can, and they decide to take advantage... there are plenty of people who come afterward who feel like they have to, as well - just to level the playing field.

How can a "real author" (as opposed to a
scammerinternet marketer) compete in a self-publishing world where scammers internet marketers can buy and publish hundreds of titles at a time? Where they can make enough money scamming publishing their deluge of titles to spend those ill-gotten gains on Amazon marketing (Dave Koziel says he was paying Amazon to market his "books") and Facebook ads, outspending legitimate authors by thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands?

Who can compete with that? Unless an author is going to throw up their hands and decide (a temptation that Phoenix Sullivan so eloquently expressed above) "The hell with it, if I can't beat them, I might as well join them!" how is that author going to have a chance?

In his video, Koziel says he can see why authors might be angry at him... but I don't think he really does see. He feels he's simply taking advantage of a legitimate business opportunity. Like most internet marketers, he's looking at the short-term gain, and not paying attention to the long-term consequences. Or any consequences at all.

Granted, Amazon created this monster. All of these loopholes, from the scamphlets in KU 1.0 to today's garbage-stuffed tomes in KU 2.0, could have been prevented with a little forethought on Amazon's part. I told them this was a risk when they decided to change to paying by pages-read and they either a) lied to me, knowing readers could skip to the end for a full-read or b) they actually didn't know that skipping to the end would result in a full-read. I'm not sure which is worse.

But if Amazon hadn't started down this road to begin with, most of these scammers "internet marketers" wouldn't have gained a foothold in the first place. Now they're like sharks circling in bloody waters, and they're not about to leave, unless someone cleans up this mess. And even if Amazon takes action, KDP and self-publishing is now a hunting ground they're not likely to give up any time soon.

Even if Amazon cleaned up the waters tomorrow, these scammers internet marketers would continue to work the system, looking for ways to game it. Like the raptors in Jurassic Park--they have no ethical dilemmas whatsoever--they'll continue to test the fences for weaknesses.

As Koziel's video goes to show. These internet marketers will say and do anything to make money in the system. They haven't paid their dues. Goldblum's argument applies categorically - no discipline was required to obtain it, so they take no responsibility for it. Because they're not writers, because they don't care about the craft, telling a story, supplying a reader with real value and creating a real relationship between author and reader (rather, they just want to collect mailing list subscribers so they can spam them...) They remove themselves from the "system" they are gaming, and see it as just that - a system to game.

To them, it is a game. And thanks to Amazon's lackadaisical attitude, they're winning.

It's readers and real authors who are losing. Because of the crap (real crap - now we know what it looks like) flooding Amazon's virtual shelves, because of the keyword-stuffed or deceptive titles muddying up the search waters, real authors and readers are the ones who lose in this game. Readers can't find what they want to read (I know, as a reader, I can't find anything on Amazon anymore in the Kindle store, because of the keyword stuffed crap) and authors can't compete with scammers internet marketers who could care less who they hurt with their scams.

They do hurt people. Real people. Because KDP Select is paid out of a communal pot, there is a finite number that decreases when scammers internet marketers decide to make "books" their "business." Except they're not writers, and they don't really care about books. Or readers. Or the self-publishing community. Their idea of "paying it forward" is to monetize their scams "knowledge of the system" and sell it to others so they, too, can be scammers internet marketers.

Not once do they talk about craft--about plots and voice and point of view. Those are pesky details they outsource to someone else. They're not even providing outlines - just pointing to the best-selling trope of the hour (what is it this month? is it shifters? billionaires? navy seal shifter billionaires?) and letting the ghostwriters do all the heavy lifting. While they sit back, package and re-package the "work," publish and republish titles (sometimes dozens of times - and Amazon doesn't care) with new ASINs when they drop too far in rank (to gain those extra five free days in KDP Select) and find any possible way to scam internet market themselves as high of a paycheck as they can manage for the month.

Never once thinking about or caring about the authors who are writing real stories, for real readers, who can't humanly produce on the mass level in the digital sweatshop environment these scammers internet marketers have created - where Amazon has allowed them to flourish. This is where we all work now, thanks to the scammers internet marketers.

Thanks to Amazon.

I hope Dave Koziel meant it when he said he could understand why authors were angry with him - perhaps his video is proof that maybe, just maybe, he's growing the seed of a conscience. Maybe he's finally thinking, albeit a little too late, whether or not he should do something, instead of focusing on whether or not he can. 

But I don't live in a fantasy world. I know Dave Koziel and those like him are just doing what they do. They've found a lucrative hunting ground, and they're going to continue doing what they do (while occasionally justifying or spinning it in a YouTube video) until they can't do it anymore.

In the meantime, authors and readers continue to lose - and their trust in Amazon wanes.

Selena Kitt

1 comment:

  1. I must say that I am enraged-furious even-that these scammers so easily take advantage of the average reader just to make a buck. Maybe I'm even a little jealous. Maybe I'm a little envious that they get away with it. Meanwhile, I've struggled to make menial sales on my stories. I've become so frustrated that I haven't published a thing in the last two years. I wish I could make a living writing stories but I just can't do it the same way of these scammers. My moral compass just will not point in that direction (this, coming from someone who writes erotica.) I agree wholeheartedly that the realization of this happening at Amazon and the fact that they basically allow it, lessens my trust of them. But what is a small independent writer to do? Amazon is huge and I need them... although, not completely.

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