Last Tuesday, an Amazon subsidiary filed in federal court seeking to confirm an arbitration award against British book publisher Jake Dryan and his companies, relating to claims that the publisher’s companies abused Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), the Amazon self-publishing program. According to Amazon Digital Services LLC’s petition, Law360 reports, the self-publisher breached Amazon’s terms by using bots or “clickfarms” to inflate page views and manipulate their ranking. However, the petition also identified another practice in violation of Kindle’s terms: The act of “combining selections of works they had already published into purportedly new books.” It’s a much-hated move that’s called “book stuffing” by the self-publishing community. While book stuffing is a minor element in the arbitration case, Amazon’s win is the first indication of a legal precedent against the practice.
Why is book stuffing so offensive that Amazon filed and won an arbitration case that included it alongside other more well-known abuses in the self-publishing sector? It comes down to the way the Kindle program pays authors: Through a global royalty fund that is split between all of the self-publishing authors included in the Kindle subscription services. The fund is doled out per number of pages read. Book stuffers slip entire books into the back of their latest ebook, getting significantly more pages in front of their reader’s eyeballs and taking a larger chunk of that month’s royalty fund as a result — earning as much as $100,000 per month.
“Authors have very strong feelings about any kind of cheating or scamming, but book stuffing stands out because it artificially inflates the payout that cheaters receive from Amazon — money which comes from a communal pot,” David Gaughran, author of several books on digital publishing, tells me. “Our end, in other words. Many feel that’s why Amazon has been very slow to do anything about this problem, because it is costing us more than them.
“It’s hard to know if this is the beginning of Amazon finally cracking down on cheaters and scammers, or a one-off warning shot. I hope it’s the former, but I’m skeptical because since arbitration was first filed in this matter in September 2017, Amazon has continued to reward the biggest cheaters every single month with huge All Star bonuses — money which should have gone to hard-working, honest authors. These cheaters are a plague on the Kindle Store,” Gaughran adds. Amazon first filed the legal action against Dryan, along with four other legal actions against other individuals, in September, covering a variety of alleged Kindle publishing abuses. The petition filed on Tuesday confirms that the Amazon subsidiary has won this arbitration against Dryan.
Amazon’s win may set a legal precedent, but the practice of book stuffing is still paying off. As David Gaughran noted on Twitter, the book ranked 17th in the Kindle Store as of yesterday had six additional books stuffed into the end of its table of contents. “This isn’t some kind of minor rule breaking we are taking about,” Gaughran explains. “The biggest stuffers are earning $100,000 a month. That’s one author. There are many more.”
Granted, any multi-billion-dollar operation the size of Amazon must be powered by algorithms, which make it tough to police fraudulent Kindle self-publishers. In many cases, Gaughran holds, these automated systems have the opposite of their intended effect. It’s an approach that “misses the worst offenders and has caught many innocent authors in its net,” as Gaughran puts it. “This automated fraud detection system strips rank away from authors, which yanks their books from the charts and kills their sales.”
While Gaughran sees an inconsistency in the legal action and the KDP authors that he says KDP has “explicitly known about as book stuffers for at least six months, but who KDP have continued to reward with huge payouts and bonuses,” the long, slow arm of the law certainly appears to have laid down a warning to any self-publishers currently taking advantage of the book stuffing approach to boosting their rankings and revenue. Book stuffing is not the full focus of Amazon’s arbitration win, but it is an acknowledgement of a problem that self-publishers like Gaughran have long been hoping to stop. This arbitration award may mark the beginning of the end for book stuffers everywhere.