To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm
On June 4th, a group of lawyers shuffled into a federal court in Manhattan to argue over two trademark registrations. The day’s hearing was the culmination of months of internet drama — furious blog posts, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, claims of doxxing, and death threats.
The lawyers carried with them full-color exhibits of the trademarks in context. First up, two shirtless men with stethoscopes, embracing a woman, with the words Her Cocky Doctors boldly printed below. Next: two shirtless men flanking a woman in a too-big firefighter’s jacket, with the words Her Cocky Firefighters emblazoned in the same font.
“What is in the content of Her Cocky Firefighters?” asked the judge, surveying the exhibits.
“It appears to be a male-female-male romance,” said a lawyer for one of the defendants. “Beyond that, I imagine it involves one or two of the male characters is a firefighter.”
The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”
“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.
They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
The fight over #Cockygate, as it was branded online, emerged from the strange universe of Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm. Trademark trolling is just the beginning: There are private chat groups, ebook exploits, conspiracies to seed hyperspecific trends like “Navy SEALs” and “mountain men,” and even a controversial sweepstakes in which a popular self-published author offered his readers a chance to win diamonds from Tiffany’s if they reviewed his new book.
Much of what’s alleged is perfectly legal, and even technically within Amazon’s terms of service. But for authors and fans, the genre is also a community, and the idea that unethical marketing and algorithmic tricks are running rampant has embroiled their world in controversy. Some authors even believe that the financial incentives set up by Kindle Unlimited are reshaping the romance genre — possibly even making it more misogynistic.
A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious. But at stake are revenues sometimes amounting to a million dollars a year, with some authors easily netting six figures a month. The top authors can drop $50,000 on a single ad campaign that will keep them in the charts — and see a worthwhile return on that investment.
In other words, self-published romance is no joke.
When author Dakota Willink attended the Romance Writers of America conference last year, she didn’t know anything about the “cocky” trademark. She hadn’t heard of Faleena Hopkins, the self-published author who registered the mark, or of Tara Crescent, the other author whom Hopkins is now suing.
The RWA conference is the beating heart of the romance industry, a business-first trade conference with editorial pitch meetings and marketing workshops. It’s also the center of the warm, accepting, and woman-focused culture that the romance community is so proud of. In an episode of This American Life in 2003, reporter Robin Epstein expresses surprise at the environment she encounters at RWA. “What the hell is going on here?” she asks herself rhetorically. “The famous writers are nice, the editors are nice, and this is the publishing business.”
This was Willink’s first time at RWA, and she was spending much of her time with her new personal assistant, Lauren Valderrama.
Valderrama is also the personal assistant for several other successful romance authors — names that frequently dominate the romance charts on Amazon. In the world of self-published romance, a personal assistant does anything from formatting books to handling social media and publicity to sending out advance review copies. It’s enough work that it was a little unusual for Valderrama to be handling so many top-ranking, prolific clients. But that track record was appealing when Valderrama had originally reached out to Willink, professing to be a fan and suggesting that they work together.
According to Willink, over the course of RWA, Valderrama told her about certain marketing and sales strategies, which she claimed to handle for other authors. Valderrama allegedly said that she organized newsletter swaps, in which authors would promote each other’s books to their respective mailing lists. She also claimed to manage review teams — groups of assigned readers who were expected to leave reviews for books online. According to Willink, Valderrama’s authors often bought each other’s books to improve their ranking on the charts — something that she arranged, coordinating payments through her own PayPal account. Valderrama also told her that she used multiple email addresses to buy authors’ books on iBooks when they were trying to hit the USA Today list.
When Valderrama invited Willink to a private chat group of romance authors, Willink learned practices like chart gaming and newsletter placement selling — and much more — were surprisingly common.
The Bookclicker chat group exists on Ryver, a clone of Slack (internal chat software for businesses). It was founded by a USA Today best-selling author named Chance Carter, known to some as a “notorious Kindle Unlimited abuser.” Carter’s name came up in half a dozen interviews as a pioneer of questionable and highly lucrative marketing practices. In the middle of reporting this story, almost of all of Carter’s very popular books were removed from Amazon, for reasons that remain unclear. A spokesperson for Amazon said that as a matter of policy, the company did not comment on individual cases.
The primary purpose of Bookclicker is to allow authors to share marketing strategies and promote each others’ books. Some of this takes a fairly benign form. For example, Tara Crescent (the author of Her Cocky Firefighters and Her Cocky Doctors) and Faleena Hopkins (the author of Cocky Roomie, who later sued Crescent), like many other authors connected through Bookclicker, made an agreement to cross-promote each other’s upcoming releases in their respective newsletters. (After the two fell out over “cocky,” they canceled the cross-promotion).
“At first we were a healthy Romance chat group like any other,” Faleena Hopkins told The Verge via email. She distanced herself from Bookclicker over behavior she perceived as “dishonesty” that she said she witnessed inside the group.
Screencaps acquired by The Verge show that parts of Bookclicker contain a bustling underground community marketplace of ghostwriting, SEO gamesmanship, and ebook exploits, which some in the industry worry is warping the genre.
An author with access to the Bookclicker group who wished to remain anonymous provided The Verge with a number of screencaps. In some, various members solicit or sell ghostwritten content.
In another screencap, a member offers to sell a mailing list — presumably so the buyer can grow their own promotional mailing list.
In yet more screencaps, members discuss the mechanics of “book stuffing.”
Book stuffing is a term that encompasses a wide range of methods for taking advantage of the Kindle Unlimited revenue structure. In Kindle Unlimited, readers pay $9.99 a month to read as many books as they want that are available through the KU program. This includes both popular mainstream titles like the Harry Potter series and self-published romances put out by authors like Crescent and Hopkins. Authors are paid according to pages read, creating incentives to produce massively inflated and strangely structured books. The more pages Amazon thinks have been read, the more money an author receives.
The per-page payment model was actually an attempt to crack down on a previous strategy of capitalizing on Kindle mechanics. When Kindle Unlimited was first introduced, authors were paid a flat fee per book that readers “borrowed” through the program. “Those of a kind of a black hat mindset saw the opportunity,” says David Gaughran, a blogger who has been following the phenomenon of book stuffing since 2016. “They started producing these eight-page books … very short, like recipe books, how to lose weight, no-carb diet, whatever.”
Readers, as it turned out, hated checking out books and later finding out that the books were really pamphlets. Shortly thereafter, Amazon rolled out the next iteration of Kindle Unlimited — authors would now be paid per page read.
Many self-publishers, says Gaughran, moved on to producing books that were thousands of pages long. Some of the books would include multiple translations into several languages — all run through Google Translate. Others would include junk HTML code. These methods — blatant violations of the terms of services — weren’t tolerated. Books were removed and authors were banned.
It’s not clear if these early book-stuffers moved onto the self-publishing romance scene, or if some of the self-publishing romance authors began to pick up on these tricks. Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.
Book stuffing is particularly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a single communal pot. In other words, Kindle Unlimited is a zero-sum game. The more one author gets from Kindle Unlimited, the less the other authors get.
The romance authors Willink was discovering didn’t go in for clumsy stuffings of automatic translations or HTML cruft; rather, they stuffed their books with ghostwritten content or repackaged, previously published material. In the latter case, the author will bait readers with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of the book.
Every time a reader reads to the end of a 3,000-page book, the author earns almost 14 dollars. For titles that break into the top of the Kindle Unlimited charts, this trick can generate a fortune.
Of course, you might be wondering if any readers actually read through all 3000 pages. But authors deploy a host of tricks in service of gathering page reads — from big fonts and wide spacing to a “link back.” Some authors would place a link at the very front of the book, to sign up to a mailing list. The link would take them to the back of the book, thus counting all pages read. It’s not clear whether any of this actually works. A spokesperson for Amazon told The Verge that Amazon uses a standardized page count that won’t take big fonts or wide spacing into account. A June blog post by the Kindle Direct Publishing Team assured authors that the KENPC system (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count) recorded pages read with “high precision” and that the company was constantly working to improve its “fidelity.”
All of this was new to Willink, who didn’t know anything about this world until she met Valderrama and joined Bookclicker. To Willink, these techniques seemed “like scamming the system. How are they getting away with this?” Willink decided to part ways with her personal assistant and to distance herself from the group of writers on Bookclicker. “I don’t want to be associated with these people. I write totally different books than they do, I’m not even a good fit for the crowd.”
It’s not clear to what extent Valderrama was involved in book stuffing or other techniques, or how many of her other clients engaged in the kind of marketing strategies Willink says she told her about at RWA. Her current roster of clients includes multiple authors whom sources in the romance community named as prolific book-stuffers and who have regularly published books clocking in at a thousand pages or more, including Cassandra Dee. “[E]veryone in romance knows about Cassandra Dee,” wrote David Gaughran in a June blog post that dissected the contents of Pregnant By My Boss, a “compilation” of over a thousand pages. As of July, five of Valderrama’s clients — Cassandra Dee among them — have had all of their books removed from the Kindle Store, for unknown reasons.
Dee did not respond to a request for comment. Valderrama declined to answer specific questions for this story but said that all of her clients have always complied with any and all rules. Based on the screenshots from the Bookclicker group, it seems like these various tactics were employed frequently enough that they may have seemed completely normal — within this corner of the industry, at least.
The stereotype of a Kindle Unlimited author is someone who is “pumping out short, pulpy reads,” in the words of best-selling romance writer Zoe York. But even if you write well, write prolifically, and cater to the market, it still doesn’t mean you’ll find success. “That skill set of finding a cold audience, getting them to hook into your product, and then consume through your product backlist, that’s harder than it sounds,” says York. The people who do succeed have that skill set. “They’re not good writers, but they’re great marketers.”
There are over 5 million books available via Kindle, with over a million books available on the Kindle Unlimited system. Amazon is currently paying out approximately 20 million dollars every month to authors on Kindle Unlimited.
When it comes to Kindle Unlimited, visibility is everything, and yet the exact workings of the automated mechanisms that drive visibility can only be guessed at. Many of the authors who spoke with The Verge talked about the Amazon algorithms like they were a kind of black magic. Just as practices like book stuffing emerged in response to Amazon’s payment mechanisms, authors employ a range of techniques to win the favor of the algorithm.
The “best-seller” charts are easy enough to guess at — rank is largely determined by sales and Kindle Unlimited “borrows.” Buying a large number of advance review copies or asking devoted fans to both buy a copy and borrow the book on KU may very well inflate rank.
More inscrutable are the individual recommendations. Amazon is supposed to be predicting your tastes based on what products you’ve looked at before or bought previously. But only a handful of books are going to be appearing at the bottom of the page — which of the MFM menages are going to make the cut, and which are going to be consigned to ignominious darkness?
One of the few things known for certain is that there is a 30-day cliff — a book older than 30 days is likely to drop precipitously in the charts and be less likely to come up in recommendations. Genre writing has long been mocked for prolific, look-alike output, but the 30-day cliff sets a breakneck speed in which the top earners are hustling to put out new titles every 30 days.
Being on a best-seller list also improves the odds of appearing in individually tailored recommendations, which is why some authors frequently miscategorize their releases. A “reverse harem romance” is more likely to achieve best-seller rank when misplaced in a less competitive category, like “Fairy Tales.” Similarly, because fewer books overall fall into the “Multicultural & Interracial” romance category, books that don’t actually feature “multicultural” or “interracial” pairings can be found even on the first page of search. (One such “Multicultural & Interracial” book featured a blonde, blue-eyed human woman and a werewolf whose “pure lycanthropic” blood hailed from Germany. One could argue, I suppose, that werewolves are multicultural.)
The rating (out of five stars) on Amazon likely affects the algorithm as well. Some authors believe that the number of reviews also affects it, although David Gaughran — somewhat of an expert on Amazon SEO — says that it’s no longer calculated into the algorithm. Still, authors will heavily encourage their readers to leave reviews, encouragement that sometimes begins to resemble badgering. In one case, “encouragement” took the shape of a giveaway for literal diamonds.
In May, Chance Carter, the founder of Bookclicker, offered his readers a chance to win diamonds from Tiffany’s if they left a review for his new release Mr. Diamond. The bizarre extravagance of the gesture combined with a hint of astroturfing grated at the nerves of the romance community. The #Tiffanygate hashtag can be found right alongside the #Cockygate hashtag on Twitter.
Carter’s diamonds giveaway probably didn’t have an impact on his Amazon rankings. As described earlier, Carter’s books were removed from Amazon in June, for reasons that Amazon declines to explain. It could have been anything. Carter’s titles were often miscategorized, sometimes strategically. Many of his books were stuffed. And he allegedly coordinated mass buys of his books to game the charts.
But of all the techniques Carter and other book-stuffers employed to boost their visibility, one of the most dependable is also one of the most ordinary: buying ads through Amazon Marketing Services (AMS). Buying an ad through AMS is a surefire way to gain visibility in search, allowing a book to appear in a list of search results, differentiated only by the small word “Sponsored” in gray right above the title. One source suggested that because Carter and others pumped tens of thousands of dollars at a time into AMS, Amazon was not incentivized to root out book stuffing. An Amazon spokesperson denied this, saying that the company was proactive in addressing abuses of the system. The spokesperson also said that AMS and Kindle were separate divisions of the company. Carter did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
One awkward thing about the supposed book stuffing “scam” is that it walks so closely to accepted industry practices. Critics say that these compilations deceive readers by baiting them with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of a book which is otherwise all repackaged, previously published material. But mainstream authors do sometimes include bonus short stories or previews of upcoming titles in the back of a book — granted the book itself is usually original.
The incentives that Kindle Unlimited generates to put out longer and longer books aren’t completely new, either — Charles Dickens’ verbose, meandering prose may reflect the fact that he was paid per installment. The 30-day Amazon Kindle cliff may necessitate ghostwriting, repetitive plots, and copycat writing, but none of these things are new in genre writing. Publishing and marketing have long gone hand in hand. Gaming the best-seller charts happens outside of ebooks — arguably, the major publishing houses live and die by their ability to game the best-seller lists.
Yet there’s something about the strategies of the Bookclicker crowd that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. It’s as though they’ve taken normal marketing tactics and ratcheted them up to be 30 percent creepier. Some authors believe it’s warping the genre.
Authors like Suzan Tisdale, Zoe York, and Margaret Bates expressed the fear that book stuffing as a phenomenon was changing the culture of the genre. Romance, they assert, has gone from the kind and friendly, woman-centric atmosphere described by This American Life in 2003, to something scarier and more misogynistic.
They cite the culture of fear and silence around book stuffing and Amazon gamesmanship generally. Until the community began talking openly about #Cockygate, most people were too afraid to talk about how SEO gaming was taking over the genre. “There’s a whole sinister underbelly here that’s affecting the readers, it’s affecting the fans, it’s affecting the writers,” said Bates. “It’s no longer a space that people feel comfortable in.”
The topic was simply too hot to handle — speaking up carried the threat of doxxing and litigation. Some sources were initially too afraid to speak to The Verge.
One author openly discussed book stuffing on the internet, only to receive serious threats of litigation. She showed The Verge three separate cease-and-desists from other romance authors — one of whom claimed to be a lawyer, and threatened to sue her for “defamation, libel and intentional/tortious interference with business contracts.” The litigious author in question is also a client of Lauren Valderrama. As of July, her books have been removed from Amazon.
But it’s not just affecting the culture within the community, some worry it’s also changing the material they create. According to Willink, Valderrama told her that the Bookclicker crowd would purposefully set trends by all agreeing to write about the same theme at the same time, in order to game their visibility and drive book sales. Whether this actually worked is unclear. Month after month, they would simultaneously “put out ‘daddy’ books or ‘virgin’ books or ‘boss’ books.” The month after RWA, Willink said, was going to be Navy SEALs.
The last few months have seen a bizarre surge in ‘mountain men’ related titles. Arguably, these trends are merely responding to what readers want. Masculine stereotypes based on oddly specific career choices are par for the course in romance. But it’s just as possible that the single-minded pursuit of SEO is making romance less thoughtful — even socially harmful. The authors The Verge spoke to were careful to stipulate that there’s nothing wrong with erotica — and the SEO gamesmanship is certainly driving up erotica-forward books — but they were concerned that the genre was becoming artificially misogynistic.
Three years ago, Chance Carter, the founder of Bookclicker, wasn’t writing under the name “Chance Carter.” He was writing the same kind of racy romance he is currently known for under the name of “Abby Weeks.” His fans believed he was a woman writing about her own fantasies.
His identity, says Zoe York, wasn’t really a secret in publishing circles. “He started publishing more and more rape-y, really inappropriate content. He was pretending that he was a woman and they were his rape fantasies, but of course he’s a man. And at some point, that crossed a line for me, and so I outed him.”
“That didn’t go well,” says York ruefully. She received death threats for “doxxing” her fellow author.
Carter transitioned to writing under a male name — he now calls himself “a bad boy writing about bad boys.” As part of his brand, he flirts with his fans on Facebook. Carter also runs a special mailing list where he sends short erotica chapters that address the email recipient by their first name. The romance genre might be the butt of jokes for its sexy content and racy covers, but this particular practice was abhorred by the authors The Verge spoke to — it was just a little much, stepping too far outside the norms of the romance genre they all knew and loved.
Believe it or not, #Cockygate began with this practice of inorganic trendsetting. At one point, the group decided that the next trend should be “cocky.” But Faleena Hopkins — who was a client of Valderrama at the time — took exception.
“Faleena went crazy,” says Dakota Willink. “She said, ‘No, I already did that. That’s part of my series.’ And they said ‘No, what are you talking about? This is what we do.’ And she got all bent out of shape about the whole thing. It was a big fight and she disassociated herself with this group of authors.”
The topic apparently became quite sensitive for Hopkins, seemingly triggering her zealous enforcement of her trademark registrations. In an hour-and-forty-minute-long video that has been since deleted from YouTube but acquired by The Verge, Faleena Hopkins rails against the bullies of #Cockygate and the copycats who are trying to usurp her brand. She mentions in the video “this group of romance authors” that she left “when it started getting shady — which obviously, some of them are.”
When reached via email, Hopkins told The Verge that “[t]here was copying of what we were doing in order to be attached to us in keyword searches on Amazon.”
She didn’t name names. Exhibits filed in the #Cockygate lawsuit show a tense August 2017 conversation between Tara Crescent and Faleena Hopkins on Ryver — almost certainly within the Bookclicker group. Crescent’s Her Cocky Doctors was published in August 2017; it’s unlikely her books are related to the abortive “cocky” theme month. Crescent told The Verge in an email that she had only used Bookclicker “as a tool to network with authors” and that she had not been part of “Chance Carter’s mastermind group,” likely referring to a smaller clique that operated as a kind of business strategy brainstorming group.
An author with access to Bookclicker also provided screencaps of Hopkins ranting in a main channel about copycat authors who also used the “cocky” concept. Crescent took the conversation to a private message to try to assure Hopkins that her upcoming release Her Cocky Doctors wasn’t “piggybacking” off Hopkins’ audience.
“Look I’m sympathetic about the situation,” Crescent told her, in private messages that were later publicly aired in the lawsuit. But she insisted that the books are obviously different, emphasizing that the covers and subgenres can be easily distinguished at first glance. “You’re writing (1) a family-based series of romances (2) with white covers and manchest (mostly) and (3) with the word cocky in them. I’m writing small town menage romances, with entirely different looking covers, which happen to have the word Cocky in the title. My series/concept has nothing to do with yours.”
In an email to The Verge, Hopkins discussed her concerns with piracy and intellectual property generally, claiming that other members in the Bookclicker group were pirating successful authors’ books and publishing them to iBooks to “get us kicked out of Kindle Unlimited,” which requires exclusivity. Hopkins did not provide any corroborating information for that particular claim. She also said that authors were “making up new pen names” and “using ghost writers” — which The Verge corroborated with screenshots from another source. Of course, writing under multiple names and hiring ghostwriters isn’t a crime. Some might even say it’s a perfectly reasonable business practice. But Hopkins disagreed.
“I quietly slipped out of the group when I finally understood the dishonesty that was growing,” Hopkins said. “I write under my real name, with my face, and write all of my own books. Integrity is vital.”
Sometime after parting ways with Bookclicker, Hopkins — who owns two trademark registrations for the word “cocky” in romance ebook titles — began to vigorously enforce those trademarks in 2017.
Hopkins isn’t the first or most notable romance author to use the word “cocky” in a book title. That honor goes to Penelope Ward and Vi Keeland’s Cocky Bastard, published in 2015. But her books — like the 19-book Cocker Brothers series — are quite popular. The series — as described by Hopkins’ lawyer in court — is about “six brothers” and later, their children, all of whom have the last name “Cocker” and are pretty cocky. There’s Cocky Roomie, Cocky Biker, Cocky Marine, Cocky Senator. Not all the books in the series follow the same exact formula — book 19 is Cocky Mother’s Day and book 7 is A Honey Badger Christmas — but in general, the title describes what you’re going to get. It’s a romance book about an arrogant man (or woman!) with a particular job description.
When Hopkins issued cease-and-desists to Amazon over titles like Cocky Fiance and Cocky Cowboy, the move kicked off an internet firestorm, with countless authors and romance fans criticizing Hopkins for trademark trolling. (The respective authors took dramatically different approaches: Cocky Fiance was subsequently renamed Arrogant Fiance; Cocky Cowboy was renamed The Cockiest Cowboy That Ever Cocked).
As the in-fighting escalated, a group of authors banded together to create an anthology dubbed Cocktales. According to the book’s Goodreads page, “The goal of the Cocktales Anthology is to raise funds to fight against obstruction of creative expression. Specifically, what we believe are obstruction attempts through the trademarking of common (single) words for titicular use in books / or as a book series (eBooks, print, and audio).”
In May, Kevin Kneupper, a lawyer and indie author, filed a motion with the US Patent and Trademark Office to invalidate the “cocky” trademarks. This seems to have been the last straw for Hopkins. She sued Kneupper, Rebecca Watson (the publicist for Cocktales), and Tara Crescent, who had written Her Cocky Doctors and Her Cocky Firefighters.
The Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit organization that represents authors of the romance genre and runs the RWA conference, paid for Crescent’s lawyer. The RWA said in an official statement that the organization had voted to fund her legal fees, fearing the larger ramifications of the lawsuit for the romance genre at large.
Despite all this high drama, getting a trademark registration for the word “cocky” hardly seems worth the $275 filing fee — let alone the legal fees incurred from dragging Kneupper, Crescent, and Watson into court. However, the world of self-published romance ebooks generates a lot of seemingly inexplicable behaviors, all incentivized by the ever-changing and opaque algorithms of Amazon Kindle.
If you try typing in “Faleena Hopkins” into the Amazon search bar, you’ll find both the satirical Cocktales anthology and the defiantly retitled The Cockiest Cowboy That Ever Cocked on page two. By page three, you’ll find the not-so-defiantly retitled Arrogant Fiance, and Tara Crescent’s allegedly infringing Her Cocky Doctors (A MFM Menage Romance) (The Cocky Series Book 1).
#Cockygate is, admittedly, very absurd. But the most absurd thing about #Cockygate is that Faleena Hopkins might have gotten something right. Crescent and others never intended to be associated with Hopkins, but the algorithm had other ideas.
Hopkins’ lawyers walked away from the June 4th hearing having failed to get a temporary restraining order on Tara Crescent’s use of the word “cocky.” The loss signaled that the judge was not likely to take their side as the litigation proceeded. (The parties settled out in late June). But it wasn’t the biggest loss for Hopkins. A piece of legal jargon used by her lawyers galvanized the online romance community against her.
The lawyers made what was a fairly standard argument in trademark law: romance readers were “unsophisticated consumers,” and a title like Her Cocky Doctors would confuse Hopkins’ fans into buying the ebook. The phrase turned Twitter upside down.
“I am not stupid. I am not an unsophisticated reader. I KNOW HOW TO BUY A BOOK!” said one person on Twitter who professes to be a former fan.
I have a confession… I use to be a reader of @FaleenaHopkins. I’ve seen multiple examples of what she thinks of her readers. I am not stupid. I am not an unsophisticated reader. I KNOW HOW TO BUY A BOOK! #Iamnotyourexcuse #cockygate #stopinsultingyourREADERS
— Cocky BEEP (@cocky_beep) May 27, 2018
Calling a romance reader an “unsophisticated consumer” is not intended to denigrate the genre or its fans, says Pam Chestek, a trademark attorney who represents several romance authors. “What the argument really is, is this an impulse buy or is this a buy that someone will spend a lot of time figuring out before investing in?” Trademark law operates on the theory that people do less research on their impulse buys, so they are more easily confused by similar trademarks. “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily true, but that’s the theory.”
For a traditional hardcover that runs about $20, a reader is more likely to spend time reading reviews and weighing recommendations. For a cheaper genre paperback, this decision-making process might take a fraction of that time. But romance ebooks are even less expensive, running from 99 cents to $2.99. In the Kindle Unlimited program — where readers pay a $9.99 monthly subscription to “check out” as many books in the program as they want — a reader can indulge any passing impulse to peek behind a cover. Romance readers tend to consume large volumes of content, reading really anything they can get their hands on, and the KU program removes any of the barriers that might make readers examine a book closely before consuming it.
This doesn’t mean that the readers are unsophisticated or stupid, just that most of the thinking happens after purchasing or perusing a title, not before. In fact, romance readers are quite perceptive in spotting something wrong with their book. Some of Chestek’s clients are romance authors, and on more than one occasion, Chestek has dealt with cases where the author’s work was copied verbatim and republished on Amazon Kindle by someone else, with only names and places swapped out. In each of those cases, her client was tipped off by a fan who had read the copycat book and realized it was exactly like something they had read before.
The problem is that by the time they’ve bought or borrowed the book, the author has already been paid out. In this system, visibility often matters more than content.
Even Suzan Tisdale, a best-selling romance author who has been vehemently critical of the “unsophisticated consumer” argument made by Hopkins’ attorneys, is sensitive to the way superficial elements like titles and covers can influence the split-second decision to check out a book. Tisdale pointed out that both Hopkins and Crescent use a “swirly font” for the word “cocky” on their covers. “I can get Faleena being upset about that. Saying, you know, ‘Can you just change the font?’”
Tara Crescent, the author who eventually got dragged into court, understood the importance of that kind of visibility as well — in the Ryver conversation with Hopkins, she emphasizes the different style of covers (Crescent’s features dark backgrounds, Hopkins uniformly features white backgrounds).
The impulse consumption in the romance genre is perfect for Kindle Unlimited and perfect for gaming attention, engagement, and payouts. Readers aren’t unsophisticated, but Amazon’s reward system is set up so that any regret or dissatisfaction they feel after reading an inflated book that reached them through a variety of SEO tricks won’t make a dent in the pockets of one of these more market-savvy authors. All that matters is that the pages are marked as read.
It’s not like Amazon is doing nothing. On June 1st, right on the heels of #Cockygate and #Tiffanygate, Amazon changed its policies, requiring books to accurately reflect their contents — in other words, if the book was deceptively stuffed with additional content, it was going to get removed from the store.
The book-stuffers worked around the new rule almost immediately. Scattered throughout the top featured titles in the Romance category for Kindle Unlimited are books labeled “Compilation,” “Anthology,” “Collection,” or “Box Set,” running thousands of pages long. In June, one of the top books in romance was Cassandra Dee’s Pregnant By My Boss: A Romance Compilation, clocking in at over a thousand pages.
Amazon removed books by Cassandra Dee and several other authors by late June, following the mass removal of Chance Carter’s ebooks on June 7th. The company declined to comment on her individual case or any individual case and refused to say whether the removals were related to their new policy.
An Amazon spokesperson said the new policy had been implemented “to improve the shopping and reading experience for customers.” As for the phenomenon of book stuffing, the spokesperson said that the company “relentlessly pursue[s] any attempts to manipulate the number of pages read no matter how small a proportion of overall reading activity it comprises. We do this by employing a variety of tools, including automated and manual reviews. When we determine this type of abuse has occurred, we take immediate action to stop it.”
Many of the authors we spoke to wanted Amazon to fix the problem but were worried about rocking the boat. Many in the industry depend on Amazon for their living and are afraid of burning bridges with the company. (An Amazon spokesperson said that on their end, they “receive inquiries from authors daily” and “investigate all concerns raised.”)
Authors also say they’ve seen Amazon’s anti-fraud measures go awry — in the past few months, the authors say, Amazon has cracked down on legitimate authors for “fraudulent activity” that the company supposedly detected. The company has withheld Kindle Unlimited payments from these authors without an opportunity to appeal.
What exactly that was all about is not particularly clear. Companies are notoriously tight-lipped about things like spam detection because they don’t want spammers to reverse engineer their safeguards. Amazon is no exception, and a spokesperson declined to say more other than that the company does not count automated or fraudulent page reads as actual page reads. Some authors believed that Amazon was penalizing them for having eager fans who rushed to review new releases too quickly; other authors believed that malicious actors had bought clickfarms to target those legitimate authors. As with so much about Amazon’s black box, blind guesses flourish in the wake of unexplained decisions.
“I know they mean well, and I know they have millions of things to do and products to take care of,” says romance author Margaret Bates. “But if they’re only relying on algorithms, they’re going to find — like YouTube and like Facebook have been finding — they need human curators as well.”
She added, “I know companies like Kobo and Barnes & Noble online have human curation, and that’s why you don’t see stuffers there. Because they can’t get away with it there.”
Romance author Zoe York said that it was probably not fair to “rail” at Amazon. “Business isn’t fair, is the unfortunate reality,” she said.
York herself has moved away from Amazon and focused on other platforms and revenue streams. “All of these people, without exception, all of them, publish exclusively on Amazon,” she said of the book-stuffers. “This is not a problem on iBooks, on Kobo, on Barnes and Noble, or on Google Play, which are the other major ebook retailers.”
Kindle Unlimited isn’t the only game in town, but it’s an ecosystem big enough to make ripples across a genre. And while publishing has, for the most part, shrugged off the romance book-stuffing plague as a genre quirk, the rich financial incentives for gaming Kindle Unlimited are not limited by genre. “I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually they didn’t start moving into completely different categories outside romance altogether — like in sci-fi and fantasy — if they’re not already there,” said Bates.
Gaming best-seller charts was already a practice in the world of print, but technology enabled that kind of behavior on an entirely new level of sophistication. But there are signs that the epidemic of book stuffing is stopping at romance, with social media outrage acting as an immune reaction across this niche industry. Hashtags like #GetLoud go hand-in-hand with #Cockygate and #Tiffanygate, rousing up popular anger over the somewhat obscure topics of search engine optimization and Kindle Unlimited payouts.
The internet might have spawned book stuffing, but it also brought the romance community — veteran authors, upstart indies, and readers alike — into a hyper-connected space. New technology may have, for both better and worse, revolutionized the production of romance novels, but it’s also revolutionized their consumption. What the internet giveth, it taketh away.
Disclosure: Sarah Jeong has a personal relationship with an employee of Amazon Web Services.