When David Gaughran exposed clickfarming scams that were manipulating the sales rank of books on Amazon, authors expressed a wide range of reactions.
Some — a substantial majority by my reckoning — were furious that scammers were reaping the rewards of a “best-selling” title.
Some felt it was a victimless crime, and not a big deal.
Some sympathized with the accused authors, who claimed they had no idea that the services they'd hired would use fraudulent clickfarming practices.
Some objected to the whistleblower naming the accused authors, a decision critics felt incited the harassment and negative reviews that followed.
And some were angry at the whistleblower for sounding the alarm, declaring that he should “mind his own business.”
There's a lot to unpack here. Let's wade in.
“What's the big deal? It's not hurting anyone.”
Clickfarming operations use cheap labor to fraudulently download (and sometimes read) copies of an author's book. This fraud is harmful in a number of ways.
- It inflates the sales rank of a book, pushing down authors who rightfully earned that rank.
- The increased sales rank results in greater visibility on retailer websites like Amazon, shoving other titles out of the spotlight.
- Higher visibility deceives readers into thinking the book has succeeded on its own merits, and tricks them into buying an unsatisfying title.
- Substandard books that rise to the top of the best seller charts undermine reader confidence in all indie titles.
- Increased sales and downloads fraudulently seize a greater share of the title's share of the KDP Global Fund. That money doesn't come out of Amazon's account: it is stolen from other indie authors.
- Amazon is slow to act on abuses of their systems, but when they do, the collateral damage can be devastating. (Think review purges and “you know this author” policies.)
Clickfarming and other forms of manipulation are not victimless crimes. Because of the nature of Kindle Unlimited, the victims of those crimes are not corporate giants like Amazon, but rather the indie authors who are simultaneously robbed of their rightful share of the global fund and shoved further down the slippery ladder of the best seller lists.
“Those authors made an innocent mistake.”
It would have taken extraordinary negligence and naiveté to hire a clickfarming service without having any idea that one was buying an illicit service. Each of the authors implicated in Gaughran's article not only denied knowledge of clickfarming fraud, they adamantly refused to identify the companies involved once the clickfarming was exposed.
The services we hire to promote our work are our proxies. They represent us to the world. It is incumbent on each of us to research these representatives to ensure they behave ethically and responsibly on our behalf.
It's possible, albeit remotely, that these authors were initially unaware they were hiring an unethical (and potentially illegal) clickfarming service. However, actively protecting those fraudulent services by concealing their identity goes beyond ignorance or negligence; it's complicity. That deliberate cooperation with scammers shatters any plausibility of the author's innocence. They have become willing partners in the crime.
The reason for their silence isn't hard to figure out. If they name the companies, people will investigate them. And it will become immediately obvious that there's no way someone could mistake these operations for a legitimate marketing service.
“The exposé is responsible for those authors being harassed.”
Once the news of the clickfarming scandal broke, dozens of people left vindictive, one-star reviews on the authors' books. Some critics upset by David Gaughran's exposé felt that his naming of the authors was directly responsible for the tide of harassment and vigilante reviews.
Let's be clear: targeted harassment of an author is never warranted. Those individuals who left one-star reviews on the authors' books or who spewed venom at them in email acted inappropriately and unethically. It's reprehensible behavior.
But is Mr. Gaughran's whistleblowing responsible for those vigilante actions? Absolutely not. These are human beings with agency and responsibility for their actions. Their misbehavior cannot be pinned on any other party.
“It's none of your business what other people do.”
On the contrary: protecting the health of the industry is the responsibility of the entire indie author community. Part of that includes confronting detrimental practices that harm our sales, undermine reader confidence, and damage the reputation of the community as a whole.
Dedicated watchdogs like Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware, David Gaughran, and The Alliance of Independent Authors perform a valuable service in ferreting out instances of fraud or deception. It can be a thankless job. Watchdogs are sometimes targets of criticism, harassment, and abuse by those unhappy with an assessment. Watchdogs have been targeted with 1-star revenge reviews. They have been threatened with frivolous lawsuits. They have been libeled. They have been called every name in the book, and a few invented just for the occasion.
And yet they persevere, because turning a blind eye to scammers and con artists would allow those bad actors to damage the industry we depend on. Novice authors deserve better than to be preyed upon by scammers and snake oil salesmen.
These exposés act as a deterrent to fraud, but they also highlight critical problems in systems like Amazon's KDP Global Fund distribution. Authors have a right to know about issues that may affect their Amazon income and sales rank, and industry watchdogs are often the only objective source for that information.
Amending the Ethical Author Code
The Alliance of Independent Authors launched its Ethical Author campaign in 2014. The goal of the campaign was to highlight and support the ethical behavior of the vast majority of self-published authors. The campaign stands as a counterweight to tales of authors behaving badly, and an emphatic rejection of the notion that self-publishing is a lawless frontier where anything goes.
The Ethical Author Code continues to evolve with the industry. This week, we have added a new principle to explicitly address issues of review and sales manipulation.
I do not attempt to artificially manipulate reviews, downloads, or sales in any way. I understand that the promotional services I hire are an extension of my reputation, so I take the time to verify they use only legal and ethical methods.
Always research services before you hire them. You can often identify questionable services by a combination of too-good-to-be-true promises (such as guaranteeing best seller status) and a refusal to disclose their methods. You have the right to know how a company will operate on your behalf, and any company that refuses to disclose its methods is not to be trusted.
The consequences of unethical shortcuts like clickfarming are severe. They can result in loss of your royalties, a ban from Amazon, a lawsuit, and damage to your reputation and career. Choose your service providers wisely, and always remember that if it seems too good to be true, it likely is.
OVER TO YOU
The clickfarming scandal has given rise to strong, conflicting opinions. Where do you stand on the issue? Let us know in the comments below.
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Clickfarming is definitely NOT a victimless crime. However, although many of the implicated authors most likely knew what was going on, some probably did not.
It’s only been a few years since I was a new author and at that time, I would not have completely understood how publishing and marketing worked. I still don’t know everything, but I know a lot more now and research everything. As a board member of two writers’ guilds, I can unequivocally state that many new authors do not understand any of this. That’s why they need organizations like the ones I serve and ALLi to help them along the path.
This wasn’t a problem 20 years ago because 20 years ago there weren’t hundreds of thousands of “authors” vying for a slice of a small pie. Writing isn’t just about money; it’s a calling because a writer is convinced that he or she has something important to say and wants to say it and not simply relying on the repetition of the F word. For a real writer, the need to write is a urgent as the need to urinate. Unless you feel that urgency, please find something useful to do. But then, of course, I view a writer as an artist. And many of us die without ever being heard; but that’s the price you pay. Not cheating or gaming the system.
The problem is it’s more complicated than this.
“It would have taken extraordinary negligence and naiveté to hire a clickfarming service without any idea that one was buying an illicit service.”
Most first time authors have no idea what they’re doing and just google “book promotion”. If they find something that claims big results, they’ll pay for it. Of course they’re naive and they don’t know what to watch out for, but that isn’t their fault.
Even established authors use and recommend services like BooksButterfly, which guarantees a certain number of downloads – any service that guarantees exact results is probably not legit, but again, it takes a lot of experience to figure out why this is the case, and the majority of authors really don’t know any better.
If a new service pops up claiming big results, established authors will be quick to try it out and see whether or not it works. It’s difficult to verify whether services are definitely using clickfarms (you can know what to look for, but any new business could lie to sell you a service).
Unfortunately, as someone with a big list who can get into the top 100 in the free store with a single email, I now have to worry about getting too high out of nowhere. If I schedule a few (legit) promos and list trades, with my own emails, I can probably get into the top 10.
I think David is right to keep an eye out (love that guy) and things should definitely get better, but the culture is becoming risk averse, which means the authors who would normally experiment with new book marketing tactics to get ahead with rigorous case studies need to be careful not to succeed too greatly (and if the real authors are afraid to risk new strategies, of course the spammers will be the only ones who get ahead).
It’s great that we are talking about the problem, and hopefully Amazon will pay more attention to what’s happening. I do worry about attacking first time authors who may not know what they’re doing (I do also think that there are serial offenders who need to be monitored – that said, as Amazon learns to crack down, I’ve had several friends get their KU status or book pulled down in the middle of a big promotion, because Amazon saw all those sudden sales or downloads and the book got flagged; I believe this also happened to David G. himself recently… so Amazon is getting stricter, but for obvious reasons the robots aren’t smart enough to identify actual activity with clickfarm activity yet).
I agree 100% with your analysis of click farming. It is not a victimless crime and it does harm all book sales, not just indies, and thus it harms readers. I support this new part of being an ethical author as well.
I don’t know who has been excusing clickfarming as a victimless crime, but it’s clearly not. KU is a single pot divided by all the participants according to supposed page views, so any fraudulent distortion affects everyone else. Visibility on the bestseller lists is finite, even if potential sales aren’t.
Reader satisfaction and the reputation of the ebook industry as a whole is at stake, and there’s a real risk that if people can’t consistently find the kind of books they love to read they’ll go elsewhere for entertainment. Just as the Harry Potter books attracted millions more young readers, there is a risk that books that aren’t on the bestseller lists through merit will have the opposite effect, so I support this new ethical principle.