Trending: Engine test anomaly deals setback to Boeing’s plans for Starliner space taxi

Amazon promotes a wide selection of available ebooks to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. (Amazon Image)

Convenience. Portability. Access. All are reasons that consumers have embraced digital content. The ability we have to rapidly find an unimaginable variety of reading, viewing and listening material, and easily take it with us, has propelled non-physical media.

Quality. Ownership. Persistence. All are drawbacks, and in some cases unforeseen side effects, that dog digital media. We deal with continuing challenges of frequently lower-quality images and audio than analog, subscriptions in which availability can change overnight, and a lack of physical reminders that we’ve got something waiting to be experienced.

Now, add outright scams to the downside of digital products you can’t examine in advance. Consider how the pro of “bonus content” has been twisted into the con called “book stuffing.”

Bonus content has been around since the glory days of the paperback book. Remember the pages of the first chapter of a related work tucked after the end of the novel you’d purchased?

The digital age has enabled its evil twin.

The controversy over book stuffing became a big deal this month, when the publishing and ebook news blog The Digital Reader called out one allegedly egregious example. Simply described, book stuffing is cramming an ebook with a lot of extra content that has little to do with the title, just to make the ebook as long as possible.

Why do this? To try and game systems that pay authors based on pages, such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service.

Chance Carter’s author page, as captured by The Digital Reader before it changed earlier this month.

To hear The Digital Reader‘s Nate Hoffelder tell it, author Chance Carter is a poster child for the practice that began circa 2015. That’s roughly when Amazon switched to a Kindle Unlimited compensation system that paid authors based on pages read.

The recipe for book stuffing generally requires these ingredients:

  1. Write an ebook.
  2. Sign up as an independent author in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service to sell titles in the Kindle Store.
  3. Enroll in the KDP Select program and opt your book into the Kindle Unlimited subscription reading program.
  4. Liberally add multiple layers of unrelated text until the maximum allowable ebook size is reached.
  5. Finish with a final page freebie that encourages the reader click pages to the end.

Why encourage readers to skip to the end of the long book? Apparently, at one time and on some devices, that signaled Amazon the entire lengthy book had been read — and a large writer’s royalty check should be paid out of the KDP Select Global Fund pool (totaling $22.5 million in May, plus bonus payments for the most-read authors and titles).

In Carter’s case, Hoffelder said, one actual book title was less than 20 percent of the complete ebook, and the rest were other Carter novels. That was topped off by a free ebook offer on the last page, highlighted in the table of contents to get readers to click there quickly.

“A typical novel runs 250 to 300 pages,” Hoffelder told me, “But Carter’s books ran four to eight times that length.” Kindle Unlimited has a 3,000 page book limit.

If that ebook were a turkey, the bird would be buried deep inside the stuffing.

Hoffelder wrote that there were numerous complaints about Carter on Twitter and elsewhere, and he brought them to Amazon’s attention. A week later, The Digital Reader reported that Carter’s ebooks had been removed from the Kindle Store, along with ebooks written by Abby Weeks, thought to be a Carter pseudonym. (“Chance Carter,” itself, may be a nom de plume, and some of his books may have been ghost-written, an ebook-ish version of Winston Churchill’s famous “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”)

Around the same time, Amazon tightened its policy on bonus content. In addition to the requirements that it has to be at the end of the book and listed in the table of contents, Amazon now says that, “to provide an optimal customer experience, bonus content should make up no more than around 10% of your book.” That’s if the book is presented as a single title. There are different rules for collections of novels.

I reached out to Carter using the email on his Amazon author page to get his reaction to his ebooks being targeted and removed. As of this writing, I haven’t heard back, and Carter’s entire current Amazon presence is three paperbacks retailing for between $23 and $38 each titled, Most Eligible Baby Daddy, Wife Me Bad Boy, and Heart of the Hunter. That’s down from what apparently was a much larger number of 99 cent ebook romances.

The recent Amazon author page for ‘Chance Carter’ no longer lists ebooks.

The Digital Reader’s Hoffelder said the financial downside of cheats like this are limited, at least to the $10-per-month Kindle Unlimited subscriber. He speculates that other Kindle Unlimited authors may have a smaller pool of bonus dollars that scammers have drained. Plus Amazon is on the hook for whatever it paid the authors (at one point, Hoffelder estimated it could have been as much as $15 for each Kindle Unlimited reader).

“Readers aren’t really harmed by the book stuffing,” he said. “At worst they are disappointed by mediocre writing, but that is at worst a nuisance rather than harmful.”

That perspective would likely be echoed by Amazon. After all, Kindle Unlimited subscribers don’t pay per book, they pay per month. Just delete and download something else.

It’s not like book stuffing is the only problem Amazon and other ebook retailers are now facing, or have had to face over the years. Policies around KDP have changed a number of times.

And last September, in the first cases of their kind, Amazon filed arbitration demands against several authors, publishers and marketers, alleging abuse of the KDP system to artificially inflate royalties and rankings. Back then Amazon’s demands included one against a man who allegedly offered authors a service to boost the number of pages read by using hundreds of fake Amazon customer accounts.

I did contact Amazon for its take on this game of indie publishing abuse whac-a-mole. The company confirmed that last September’s arbitration cases have been resolved. While no details were provided, an Amazon spokesman told me, “We are pleased with the terms of the settlements of our claims with these parties and continue to work to protect authors and readers.”

Generally, the company said, “We relentlessly pursue any activity that undermines reader and author confidence in Kindle Unlimited.” That includes not just tightening policies, but also refining the behind-the-scenes tools that do things like measure pages read.

I didn’t expect Amazon to tell me much more. Like matters of national security, dealing with bad ebook actors requires opacity to avoid giving ideas to others straddling the line between the light and dark sides of self-publishing.

But Hoffelder believes one solution is a more human touch.

“I think Amazon should have real actual people more closely monitor the Kindle Store,” he said. “And it’s not just Amazon; I think that this cheating issue, YouTube’s ContentID, and the Google Play Books piracy problem all support the conclusion that large automated systems just don’t work without human supervision.”

Overall, Amazon states in its Kindle content quality guide, “We do not allow content that disappoints our customers.”

That highlights the real potential losers in this never-ending game of whac-a-mole. Not the scammers who are abruptly shut down. It’s the consumers of digital content who experience a slowly corrosive form of disappointment, one that could lead to the suspicion you won’t get what you pay for. Even if you didn’t pay extra, you wasted your time and can’t count on receiving what you thought was promised.

That’s an outcome that Amazon in particular, and digital content providers more generally, are working to prevent.

Chance Carter himself might consider that a bad ending to a promising digital romance.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline

Comments

Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.