In this week's Self-Publishing News Special, ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway looks at Amazon's brush with brushing and artificial intelligence's narrative advances.
ALLi’s new guidebook, 150 Self-Publishing Questions Answered: ALLi’s Writing, Publishing, and Book Marketing Tips for Authors and Poets, written by ALLi’s Outreach Manager M.L. Ronn (Michael La Ronn), is available now. You can read an excerpt in this blog post and you can purchase the book here. As with all our guides, ALLi members can access their complimentary e-book copy in the member zone. Members: just log in and navigate to “Guidebooks”.
Amazon: Fake Reviews and Bookstore Wars
It feels like a while since Amazon headed up the news with a difficult week. (Checks back. It was last week. Oops). This week, two of Amazon’s perennial problems have reared their heads. First, there’s Amazon’s complicated relationship with bookstores. A year or so ago French booksellers boycotted literary awards en masse because shortlists contained books form Amazon imprints. Then during lockdown this year, Amazon offered £250,000 to support struggling independent bookstores. This week, bookstores are back on the front foot. The vast indie store (from what I understand it’s on the level of Foyles in the UK) Powell’s is saying no to Amazon. Specifically they are no longer using Amazon to sell books. No news yet on whether they will stop ordering from Amazon – either imprints or KDP print.
Then there’s the thorny issue of reviews. Specifically “fake” reviews. We know Amazon has a problem with this. In its early days many indies suffered from a spate of mysterious 1 and 2 star reviews as soon as they started to do well. And for several years there was a battle over puff reviews. Amazon sought to stop first friends and relatives leaving praise and then purchased reviews flooding books at launch. The BBC has now uncovered a whole seam of worrying dirty tricks on Amazon. It’s a really interesting exposé of the practice of buying fake 1 star reviews. And it comes as figures suggest £23bn of shopping in the UK alone is influenced by reviews. I’ll leave the last word to the article. “Amazon's one step behind, and they're always playing catch-up.”
What Is Brushing?
All of the above, and we haven’t even got to the big Amazon story of the week. Before this week, brushing, like catfishing before it, was a word most of us weren’t familiar with. Outside of the worlds of haberdashery, grooming, and curling that is. Yet those of us who’ve been Amazon-watching for years know what the deal is. Brushing is, in essence, setting up accounts to buy your own product and then send it to random people so your fake accounts can then write glowing reviews. It’s a more sophisticated, and underhand, version of gifting. Which is why Amazon has regularly cracked down on its gifting rules, most recently in relation to audiobooks.
The recent story has revolved around seeds. Random people have found seeds appearing in their mailboxes. As a result, Amazon has now banned sales of seeds to the US from overseas . It’s all rather extraordinary. But yet another illustration of the inventive lengths ne’er-do-well sellers will go to on Amazon.
Sales Tax on ebooks
Sales tax on ebooks has been a standing item here for several years. We've seen a whole cycle of campaigning and legislation in the European Union that has led to countries starting to axe the tax. Now it's Brazil's turn. Only this time, the tide is pointing the other way. Brazil is set to impose a sales tax on ebooks. This sets it in opposition to most markets in Latin America. And it has drawn criticism and calls for a reversal from the International Publishers Association.
Artificial Intelligence and Narrative
It was just last week that I was reporting on artificial intelligence (AI). And as if to confirm the sense that we are starting to see a real trend, along come two more items. The first is more of a feature than a new item. But Mariana Lin’s account of how to write a backstory for AI is beautiful, thought-provoking, and very valuable. How writers relate to AI in generating characters, stories, and worlds is going to be a fascinating subject in coming years. Lin’s piece focuses on the mechanics of the skills we need as writers to take the most of opportunities developments in technology will bring. But she does this in a way that eschews dry “how to” and takes us instead back to the most fundamental questions of what it means to be an author.
AI is also at the centre of one of the week's big viral stories. The Guardian asked a GPT-3 (that's Generative Pre-trained Transformer, referring to the way it learned) AI to write an article. The subject was why humans should not fear AI. The results are impressive. The programme was given minimal prompting and the whole internet to learn from. The result is something that feels like it could have been written for a fairly decent A level essay. AI is clearly here to stay in the narrative world. It would do us well to learn to work with it.How might the latest scam scandals affect indie authors, can AI write convincingly, and top #selfpub news stories for #indieauthors, in one quick read, by #ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway @agnieszkasshoes #digitaleconomy… Click To Tweet
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