Something really scary happened to me on Monday 14th December. At 5.19pm, completely out of the blue, I received this email from Amazon:
We are reaching out to you because we detected purchases or borrows of your book(s) originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, the sales rank on the following book(s) will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.
Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies you have used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services you have employed for promotional purposes.
Please be aware, any additional activity attempting to manipulate the Kindle services may result in account level action.
If you have any questions, please email us at email@example.com.
Certain key phrases leapt to me from the screen:
attempting to manipulate sales rank
sales rank will not be visible
may result in account level action
What???!!!! What the heck did any of that mean?
I clicked onto the link they’d provided and it took me to my debut novel, Searching for Steven, on Amazon.com. Yes, that’s right, on Amazon.com rather than my home market of Amazon.co.uk. Weird. And even more weird is that:
- I had only sold ONE eBook in the USA in the past 90 days and that was nearly 2 months previously in late October. I repeat ONE copy. In 90 days
- I had a little over 1000 pages read in the USA in the same period. That’s the equivalent of 3 people reading the book in its entirety
There had to be a mistake, right? So I emailed the address given and nicely asked them to explain what this meant. They replied that same day with this:
We do not sponsor or endorse any 3rd party marketing services. You’re welcome to promote your book through third-party websites and other services, but we encourage you to monitor the tactics they use to promote your books. You are responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book manipulate the Kindle publishing service and/or Kindle programs.
We advise against using any sites that “guarantee” a return on your investment. We support our authors’ efforts to promote their books worldwide, but at the same time, we work to prevent any manipulation of the Kindle publishing service.
If you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did I have questions? Oh yes. I still had all the questions I’d asked in my first email that hadn’t been answered:
- What are you talking about?
- Have you seen my sales figures?
- Surely if I was manipulating sales or pages read, there’d actually be some sales or pages read?
I begged them – literally begged – to explain what was going on in words that actually made sense.
So they replied in the early hours of Tuesday and, is it just me, or does this pretty much say exactly the same thing as the others i.e. nothing that makes a shred of sense? Computer-generated jargon that has ignored all of my questions:
We detected that purchases or borrows of your book(s) are originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, your sales rank will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.
While we fully support the efforts of our publishers to promote their books, we take activities that jeopardize the experience of our readers and other authors seriously. Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.
You may email us at email@example.com with any questions.
So I wrote to them yet again – with questions – and they responded that evening with this even more aggressive email which basically told me I was STILL engaging in manipulative strategies but they refused to give me any information about this. There was no offer to get in touch with further questions. Case closed. Verdict: guilty…
As we previously stated, we still detect reading or borrow activity for your books originating from accounts attempting to manipulate Kindle services. You are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions. We cannot offer advice on marketing services or details of our investigations.
Please be aware we will not be providing additional details.
Cue another email from me begging them for some help and I received no response.
After the first email, Searching for Steven was immediately rank-stripped across all the markets in which Amazon operates, all of which offer my eBooks. What does this mean? This means all visibility of my book was lost because I was no longer featured in any Amazon charts. It didn’t mean that Searching for Steven couldn’t be found; it just meant that someone would need to specifically search for the book by title/author as it wouldn’t come up in any other sort of search. And yes, the irony of the book title and this situation is not lost on me!
So where did this leave me? Nowhere really. Amazon had made a massive administrative mistake based on some faulty algorithm yet their aggressive, threatening emails were all computer-generated and the system was clearly set up to spit out 4 barely-different emails then shut down any correspondence after the final version.
I turned to the closed Facebook page of the Romantic Novelists’ Association hoping that there’d been some sort of technical glitch and loads of members were in the same boat as me but it appeared I’d been singled out for Amazon’s super special Christmas gift. I am very grateful to one member, though, for pointing me to a blog run by a writer called David Gaughran who champions and supports writers and investigated several cases well over a year ago where this has happened to other writers. The emails were exactly the same but the scenarios different. In those cases, they were all participating in promotions – absolutely legitimate ones – and the spike in sales on the back of that seems to have been what generated the scary email. Not in my case. I hadn’t promoted Searching for Steven since I participated in a blog tour to celebrate his 3-year-book birthday in June last year and, as already stated, sales were pretty much non-existent. You can read his blog post here.
David responded to a comment I posted on his blog, asking for more information, and immediately contacted Amazon on my behalf using different email addresses that should help escalate the situation. All we can do was wait. And wait. And wait.
Back in December, how had this sorry tale affected me? It was pretty horrific. On the Monday night, after the first email, I couldn’t sleep. Would you be able to if you’d been accused of a crime that you didn’t commit and the punishment was already dished out (the rank-stripping) before you had a chance to plead your case? On the Tuesday night after the final ‘we’re not giving you any info so get lost’ email, I didn’t sleep either. Or on Wednesday night. By the Thursday, completely exhausted, I couldn’t stop crying all day and I only managed to get a bit of sleep that night thanks to David stepping in and a belief that something might happen after I’d had no joy.
You might think it’s not something to cry over but, believe me, it is:
- I was losing sales and pages read. Granted, not many because (a) it was Christmas and I had 4 x Christmas books out there which were the main sellers at that time and (b) I had barely any sales of that book anyway, particularly in the USA, although I did have a trickle of them in the UK and a steady 500 average pages a day read in the UK. These sales were likely to disappear, though
- Sadly, I do not sell many eBooks or have that many pages read so I cannot afford to lose this visibility
- I secured an audio deal for Searching for Steven and the Thursday of my horrible week was the release day. It should have been a happy day yet I didn’t see the point in doing any promotion of a title that could be removed at any moment and felt far too emotional to ‘celebrate’
- I felt like I’d been found guilty and locked up but nobody would tell me what my crime was or allow me to defend myself despite being completely innocent. I mean, let’s face it, if I was going to do something to manipulate sales, you’d think I’d actually trigger some sales. Going from zero to zero isn’t exactly yelling criminal mastermind, is it?
- The threat of having my books removed (this is what “account-level action” means) hung over me. Amazon have the power to do this whenever they want
- The emails take the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach with a bit of ‘and by the way, we don’t care if you’re innocent because our algorithms tell us you’re up to mischief so you’re black-listed for life and there will be consequences’ thrown in for good measure. I’m back in the playground at school being bullied again. Or work. Take your pick as bullies lurk everywhere
This all came at the end of a dire year for me writing-wise. Sales had started to look up in late 2017/early 2018 after I released Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes and Charlee and the Chocolate Shop. From selling hardly any eBooks and having very few pages read, the Christmas books got immediate attention and, whilst sales were still very low, they were steady. Hurrah! And this had a knock-on effect on the non-Christmas books suggesting readers had enjoyed my Christmas offerings and were seeking out other titles.
Then something happened in the spring of 2018. Sales dropped through the floor and so did pages read. My income from writing – which was never particularly good anyway – plummeted and, despite bringing out 2 x Christmas books in the November, this made little impact in November although December did see some recovery (not a patch on last year, though).
I write under a pen-name and the “real” me has a Kindle. I would regularly receive emails from Amazon promoting Jessica’s books but, cninciding with this plummet in sales, these seemed to stop. I have since had one for my novella, Raving About Rhys, but none with any my Christmas books on. Something strange is happening.
Alongside the plummeting sales and lack of promo was review-gate; the much-publicised situation where Amazon went through their system over a few months and removed all of the reviews that certain readers/reviewers has placed, accusing them of creating false reviews. Some noticed, complained and had reviews reinstated. Some probably haven’t noticed. Some will have spotted it and not have the energy to fight it. I lost up to 20 reviews during that time. As a struggling indie writer, this is a massive blow, especially when they were predominantly hard-earned 5-star reviews. I completely get that there are “rogue” practices out there and there are authors who pay for reviews. It’s right for these people to be stopped … but not to the detriment of those whose reviews are honest and genuine.
Then in early October, I think it was, a very successful author threatened me with legal action. All I’ll say about the situation is that it was very upsetting, especially as I was completely innocent again. Thankfully it went away, but it left scars.
And, on top of that, I had several rejections from publishers. They’re what we call ‘positive rejections’ i.e. they love my writing, my world, my voice but the story is not for them. I got a stack of rejections when I sent Searching for Steven out into the world and none of them hurt. These ones floored me.
I think you can probably see why Amazon’s accusations and subsequent sanctions tipped me over the edge. As Christmas approached, I felt mentally and emotionally drained. I had never felt so low and started questioning whether any of it was worth it. As an indie writer who still works full time because the writing income is so low I can’t afford not to, I struggle to make an impact on the charts but my love for writing and the amazing reviews I get have kept me going … until last year. For a few weeks there, publishing and me are not friends. I was hoping could find my optimism over the Christmas break and rise above all the crap that 2018 presented me. Something you love doing shouldn’t be so traumatic, should it? Sadly, that didn’t work and, if I’m honest, the Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company ruined my Christmas. I smiled, I laughed and I pretended everything was okay but it really wasn’t. They’d broken me.
The New Year arrived and clearly they weren’t going to respond to David’s chase email so I emailed ‘Jeff’; a general Amazon email address. I was thrilled when Jeff responded the day after (4th January 2019):
I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused.
I understand you have a question about Sales rank manipulation issue.
This issue requires input from another team. I’ve forwarded your email to them and someone will reply within 2 business days.
Thanks for using Amazon KDP !!!
Yes! At last! A human was going to deal with it. There was hope. So I waited two business days. I waited three. I waited several more. On 10th January, I chased Jeff again. And on 23rd. And on 30th. Jeff had obviously decided to blank me too.
So, on 4thFebruary, I emailed the 2 x addresses that David had used and tried a different tack; not forwarding the history on email in case fwd emails were getting kicked out the system.
On 7th February, they finally responded with this email:
We’ve restored the sales rank of your book and it will become available within the next 24 hours.
Please review your account or any promotional services that you may have paid. You’re responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book(s) manipulate the Kindle publishing service and/or Kindle programs.
No apology. No explanation. No offer of compensation for the inconvenience and stress. Just a factual statement and another telling off. Seriously. And by compensation, I don’t mean money but it would have been nice for them to do some promotion for me or even offer me a Prime deal.
I should have felt relieved but I was actually really angry that day because this is not how businesses should be run yet it happens all the time. I get that I am insignificant to Amazon. My limited sales make little financial impact on my life so they’re certainly not going to make an impact on Amazon’s billions but imagine if thousands of ‘little people’ are being treated in this way, with automated threats and no explanation. How many people are feeling low and have nowhere to turn?
The ranks have remained in the week that has followed and I’ve had no more threatening emails but I know it could happen again any time and that’s very scary. If anyone else is in this situation, please leave a comment. If you’re struggling, I’ll give you the email addresses I finally got a reply from. If you found a better way of resolving this, please let me know in case it happens again.
That’s the end of my story. It’s not a happy ever after. It’s not happy at all but it is an end … for now.
As an independent author, I am eternally grateful that Amazon exists. It has meant I can get my books out there without a publishing deal but a company that is so enormous that it has to operate on algorithms and automated responses scares me. There surely needs to be a ‘human’ way to have contact and get mistakes rectified without putting someone through what I’ve been through.