I Predicted the Kindle Unlimited Scam Exploit Before It Was Cool

If you don’t know what Kindle Unlimited is, and you should if you even pretend to care about publishing and books in general, you can enjoy these two write-ups in the situation by Ann Christy and Selena Kitt. Familiarize yourself with one of those first before you go on to read my substantially more personal entry.

Done? You back? Cool. Let’s cut to the chase, motherlickers: I knew this was gonna happen. Or, rather, I strongly suspected that something like this would be possible. From what I knew of how Kindle – the device in all its iterations, the app, the online reader – Amazon’s claims as to how KU should and would work seemed suspect. An old 2nd generation Kindle like mine (RIP) would not have the ability to measure time spent on a page, or to count individual pages. The thing could barely sync, and yet it and millions of other varied devices with varying features and connection capabilities would somehow plug into this magical mainframe of page-counting glory. Skipping ahead really fast, they said again and again, would not work. The Kindle sees and knows all, especially when you skim. I did not see that as a thing that could work.

But I decided to believe, because what could they do by lying but lose millions of dollars and the trust and good will of their authors and customers alike when the lie was finally exposed?

I also believed because I felt I didn’t have a choice. I was in a bit of a bind, in my mind, having spent so much of my time and energy building some limited recognizability as an erotica writer. Erotica writing may not have been my first choice, but in 2012 and 2013 it felt a lot like my last stand. I was struggling to get on my feet after dropping out of school to look for work, I’d had to move into the compulsively hoarded home of my abusive mother, and my general outlook on my survival prospects as a normal member of society had fallen to an absolute nadir. When I started writing Kindle singles as a lark, I was looking for coffee and beer money.

What I got was very different. Through grit and basic savvy – minding trends, editing well, promoting smartly on Amazon’s exclusivity-bound promotion engine – I found myself within months to have become a man with a vocation. I had a schedule that spanned weeks and weeks ahead, I wrote and edited and promoted for hours daily. I was always busy, but I was happy. The money I made correlated to how hard and how smart I worked. It felt honest, even if it was Dirty Work.

Within six months, I was ready move away again. I could pay rent, buy food, even stay somewhere besides the airport or a bus stop in the long hours between my late night arrival and my bus to my new place on Monday.

I was so happy. I’d go on to visit my parents again and pay for anything they’d let me. I took the whole family out to dinner on the first anniversary of publishing my first story. It was 2013 and I was doing well, very well. If I needed more money, I worked harder, got smarter, reached out, took the odd calculated risk. It worked. For the first time in my life I felt as though the effort I expended translated directly and flawlessly into reward. I made plans to start settling my student debt, socked money away because I finally could.

When Kindle Unlimited launched in 2014, it was a torpedo to my happy work:reward system. In exchange for a chance at visibility, I had to consent to competition against thousands upon thousands of books longer and more recognizable than mine, all just as ‘free’ to users who signed up for the service. I competed, also, I would later find out, with scamphlets: Super-short gibberish books uploaded exclusively to scam the pot out of the flat payment of around $1.34. Understand that under normal circumstances, I made about $2 on each book sold. It adds up, but it doesn’t add up when scammers are flooding and diluting the pool.

I resolved to work harder, and it worked for a time. It ameliorated the decline, but there was little space for a small fry author of niche titles who wouldn’t resort to scummy tactics. It was hard. It was draining. I lost a lot of sleep and a lot of revenue flailing to adjust to this system that so excluded me and what I’d specialized to do.

And then it changed again, presumably to try and combat the scamphlet posters. We would now be paid by page read, not book borrowed, a change Amazon assured us was fair to all. If you write more ,you deserve more money for your book. Simple.

And I wanted to believe it could work like that.I wanted to believe that it could become fair again. I worked harder, I released longer stories, I flung everything I had into the system to reap the supposed rewards of greater visibility.

Nothing.

Less than nothing, a staggering loss that went on for months.

And the greater my loss, the harder it got to keep going, the more I found myself thinking: I should see if I’m right. I should see if they’re lying, if putting a link to something like a table of contents or anything else at the front of the book that speeds a reader to the back would balloon my page count and my paycheck.

I wanted to do that. With all my spite and my desperation and my deep-set suspicions, I wanted to do that.

But I didn’t. I could say I didn’t want the potential strike against my account if it was recognized as an exploit, which is true, but it’s more than that. I didn’t even dare investigate whether or not anyone else had tried. I didn’t want that confirmation. I didn’t want it to be as bad as it looked. I didn’t want to have been lied to. I don’t think any of us wanted that.

What Amazon have done is a betrayal. It is deception and exploitation, plain and simple. They build their platform on our backs, on content we generate, on hard work that we do, and it uses us, and it turns right around and tells us that everything is just fine. Everything is working, they’ve fixed the problem, all is great and please keep chunking out content you’ll never get paid for again.

I could take it not working; that’s Amazon’s own goddamned problem and their thing to fix. It’s the lie I can’t stand, the condescending, smug supposition that we do not deserve transparency and are better off laboring without knowing the inner working of how we are (not) paid for content that stocks Amazon’s shelves and generates their page views and feeds their algorithms.

Am I angry at the scammers? No. It’s absurd, but I’m not. They and their chicanery are the end result of a fire they sure as Hell didn’t start, that Amazon feeds with each scattershot attempt at making HEY LOOK FREE BOOKS!! into a thing that works without having to pay authors. Desperate and unscrupulous people will do what they do in any system, but Amazon makes it uniquely possible by pretending they aren’t a problem. Or a possibility.

And they try to convince us of the same.

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