ZDNet uncovers an apparent massive gaming of the Kindle publishing system

ZDNet uncovers an apparent massive gaming of the Kindle publishing system

There is what appears to be a great bit of investigative journalism in this

ZDNet article by Zack Whittaker

I don’t want to take away from them so I’ll just hit the very highlights.

It appears that one person used a sophisticated computer system to both publish inexpensive and low content e-books and open many, many accounts to download them when they were offered free, and perhaps to purchase them.

That drives up the books’ rankings.

That in turn creates real sales, even if only for a short period.

According to the article, this generated literally millions of dollars in royalties.

I’ll let you read the article, which I highly recommend.

What I’m going to do here is talk about this from a broader perspective.

There seem to me to be two main points here

First, it’s the idea of “fake” reviews.

These are probably pretty common, although Amazon does crack down on them.

They likely fall into three broad categories:

One is so-called “sock puppets”. That’s when an author, or someone else with a fiduciary interest in a book, pretends to be someone else (or has friends/family/coworkers pretend to be someone) to talk up a book.

I’ve seen this happen, sometimes not so subtly. Someone might post on the Amazon Kindle forum, or even in a comment to this blog, something like, “XYZ is a great novel! I’ve never read anything better. I was so surprised and it blew my mind.” While I often don’t know where a piece of fiction I am writing is going when I start, I can’t say I’ve ever been surprised reading one of my works after I finished it. 😉

I’ve seen this be done in a clumsy and unsophisticated way, but it can also be done in a very difficult way to discern.

The second source is, I would guess, purchased reviews.

That differs because they are more like mercenaries than loyal citizens.

This could be a literal payment for a good review (Amazon has caught people doing that before), or it might be an exchange. For example, two authors might write each other good reviews, even if they haven’t read the other’s book.

Reviewers are supposed to reveal if they got an e-book for free from the publisher when they review it. I’m sure not everybody does.

I pointed out the appropriateness of revealing it when some of my readers got free copies of my sibling’s first novel

One Murder More (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

If they got it from me, they probably wouldn’t have to reveal it (although I still think it’s a good thing to do), but if Kris Calvin paid for it, my understanding is that they should. Since readers couldn’t be sure if it was me or Kris who paid for it, I feel they should reveal…and I was happy when I saw that at least one of them did.

The third group of reviews are those with an ulterior motive…a political agenda might be one reason. For example, people of one political party might write that another party’s candidate’s book was poorly written or inaccurate, when they hadn’t even read it. I’ve seen something similar happen with people with a social issue do the same thing.

Those, I think, are the three main sources of fake reviews.

I said there were two main points…here’s the second.

This shows the value of reviews and purchases on Amazon.

The vast majority of people don’t write reviews of books they read…but this strongly suggest that doing so can make a difference. Please consider doing so for books you read that you like (or don’t like).

Oh, and more thing…many returns would have probably sunk this system.

You can “return” a USA Kindle store book for a refund within seven days of purchase by going to


If you return an anonymously high percentage of items (unspecified, of course), Amazon might ask you to call them before returning items, rather than being able to do it yourself.

Still, if you get a significantly deficient book, it makes sense to return it.

Of course, this is also an argument for downloading a sample before buying an e-book…but I’ll admit I rarely do that.

I also don’t return e-books…I’m not sure I ever have, but I’m not 100% positive. I think I might have returned one I accidentally bought which had text-to-speech access blocked by the publisher.

I generally have a pretty good idea what a book will be like before I get it, I’d say…certainly, if I’m paying for it.

I think I can tell quite a bit from the reviews…and that doesn’t mean I just go by the highest averages, or get dissuaded by the lowest ones. I always take a look at the low rankings to see if the reasons they give are ones with which I might agree; often they aren’t.

There will always be people who will try to game the system. I’m not going to judge whether this was legal or not…I don’t know enough about what the agreements were, and whether there might or might not be fraud involved. It certainly sounds like it might violate Amazon’s Terms of Services…and there were apparently efforts being made to conceal the activities, which is not a great argument for having confidence in the legitimacy of your actions.

I will again suggest you read the post: it wouldn’t surprise me if it is in contention for award consideration at some point, if it all holds up.

Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

5 Responses to “ZDNet uncovers an apparent massive gaming of the Kindle publishing system”

  1. Sandy Clemens Says:

    Could you possibly write a column in the future in regards to writing a book review? Many don’t feel comfortable writing these, and a little guidance would go a long way!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Sandy!

      That’s a good idea. I think I’ve written some on writing reviews before, but a whole post just on that makes sense.

  2. Man in the Middle Says:

    Occasionally I will become aware of a campaign to down vote without reading a book by an author whose work I admire. In such cases I may check a few one star reviews, and mark as unhelpful those which admit not having looked at the book before posting.

    However, I leave alone or mark as helpful one star reviews from folks who’ve actually read the book and explain what they don’t like about it, because I often learn things I need to know about a book or product from those negative reviews.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      I can understand that. I’m just not somebody who thumbs up or thumbs down…I have reported abuse, but that’s been people posting things like their own credit card numbers (the abuse gets quick action).

      I use 1-star reviews and 5-star reviews in decision making. Very often, the 1-star reviews are for reasons with which I don’t agree…maybe such as you mention, or because it’s not available to them, or something like that. That may change with the new review rules…for one thing, you have to have spent $50 at Amazon, which may cut down on sockpuppetry. Amazon says:

      “To post Customer Reviews or Customer Answers, post on Customer Discussion Forums, or submit content to followers, you must have spent at least $50 on Amazon.com using a valid credit or debit card. Prime subscriptions and promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the $50 minimum. You do not need to meet this requirement to post Customer Questions, create or modify Profile pages, Lists, or Registries, or to read content posted by other customers.”

  3. Round up #148: review rules tighten, Google announcement | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] ZDNet uncovers an apparent massive gaming of the Kindle publishing system […]

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