• Sheila & Swede

Ethics in Indie Publishing: What Not to Do

As an indie author, your writing is also your business, and marketing is a big part of making that business run well enough to support your true passion – writing. It’s in your own best interest to study your fellow authors to learn from their success.

Note that I do not refer to fellow authors as competitors, because while there might only be a few spots on the bestseller lists and with the major publishing houses, the very nature of indie publishing means that you are able to offer your books on a market where the readers (or consumers) are voracious. Personally, I read between 100-200 books and novellas every year, and many have the same themes, tropes, plots, titles, and cover images.

For years, I’ve tried to make sense of the bestseller lists on Amazon. I’ve tried to learn from the covers, the descriptions, and the themes of the top selling books. Recently, however, I’ve learned about the shady strategies some authors use to get their books on those very lists. This post breaks down these unethical business strategies and why we, as indie authors, should resist the temptation to gain notoriety for the wrong reasons.

Can you trust the bestseller lists and reviews?

Book stuffing

Until recently, I didn’t know the term for this phenomenon, but I’d definitely noticed it. Now, as a reader, I don’t have KU/Prime, so I’m often buying free and .99 books for my Kindle. I’ll only buy Kindle books priced between 3.99 and 5.99 if I know of the author already or if there are a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads or my friends have recommended them to me.

I’d noticed that many free and .99 books included content that had nothing to do with the novella they were advertising as the book. I’d started to shy away from buying even .99 books that had an absurd number of pages. But then I learned why authors were doing this – and it had to do with Kindle Unlimited.

As an author, I have my books signed up with KU for the exposure it offers. I don’t see much in the way of income from it, and I’m never in the running for any kind of bonus. At most, my books are around 300 pages. My short stories are under 30 pages. Safe to say, when Amazon pays by pages read, I don’t stand a chance against those who offer books of 1,000 pages that can be clicked straight through to the end. Nor when it comes down to earning bonuses from the communal fund awarding those with most pages read.

Forbes contributor Adam Rowe wrote about an arbitration won by Amazon in April of 2018, where Amazon filed an arbitration case against a self-publisher violating Amazon’s terms by using bots or “click farms” (we’ll get to this in a moment) to inflate page views and manipulate their ranking. The petition also mentioned the practice of book stuffing, signaling that this practice is just as bad as the other schemes to gain readers and earn royalties.

After learning how the KU program is being abused at the expense of other indie authors, I have decided to withdraw my full-length novels from KU at the end of the current enrollment period. This will allow me to publish my books on other platforms. Sheila & Swede will not be enrolling in KU for just this reason. We wish to have our books available on a variety of platforms so that all readers are able to get a copy.

Click farms

What is a click farm? WhatIs.com defines “click farm” as a “business that pays employees to click on website elements to artificially boost the status of a client’s website or a product”. These businesses are often based in developing countries with low wages, bringing to mind the sweat shops used to make cheap clothes.

The Mirror wrote about this practice in May of 2017, showing footage from a click farm in China using more than 10,000 mobile phones to give product ratings and “like” social media posts.

In December 20217, Cracked.com published an article where a click farm worker spoke about his experiences. In addition to the horrendous working conditions described, the article brought up the conflict between a user’s frustration over being duped by click farms and food money lost to the click farm workers when they’re exposed.

How does this translate to book sales? Author David Gaughran has written a series of posts on this business practice, and in his article Scammers Break The Kindle Store, posted on July 15, 2017, he breaks down how click farms are used to send books to the bestseller lists, and how Amazon is responding. Basically, click farms may download free books en masse, making those books rocket up to the top selling spots, borrow books through KU and flip to the last page to earn the author pages read.

Buying reviews

Many readers buy books based on the reviews. I often look at the negative reviews on Goodreads to see what other readers disliked and decide if I am fine with those things described there. I used to go by the average rating, telling myself if it’s above 4.0 it must be a good read, but I realized too late that all those positive reviews were ARC reviews. While many, if not all, ARC reviewers are honest and fair in their reviews, there are a lot of reviews that have more to do with the author than the book. I’ve seen five-star reviews for books that haven’t been published yet, and it’s clear from the review itself that the reader hasn’t read an ARC, but rather that they love the author and can’t wait for their next book to come out.

A few years ago, I was offered a Goodreads review on one of my books in return for a review on another author’s book, but I declined. I don’t want fake reviews on my books, because then a new reader will be expecting something they might not be getting, and they’ll be (rightly) angry about that. I do review the Sheila’s books, and she reviews mine, but those reviews are genuine. We became friends from reading each other’s work online and enjoying what we read. I’m still the Sheila’s biggest fan (although I have a lot of competition for that spot because of her awesomeness 😊) and it’s only natural for me to review her work as I would any other favorite author’s books.

Goodreads is for readers, and every user has the right to review and rate books however they like, but if you’re looking for a good read, you might want to glance at what those five-star reviews are actually saying before making a decision on whether to buy or not.

When it comes to Amazon, we leave the personal (Goodreads) for the commercial. I’ll tell you straight off the bat, I never look at Amazon reviews. Even with those “verified purchase” checks, the reviews aren’t that informative. But this is also where fake reviews flourish. The New York post reported in May of 2017 that vendors were selling “list optimization” services, where hundreds of people are tasked with voting positive product reviews as helpful so they show at the top of the product page. They may also be tasked with voting negative reviews as helpful to hurt competitors.

One year later, in May 2018, the New Yorker reported on the "Never-Ending War on Fake Reviews". There is a market for fake reviews for anything from trips to electronics. The "Verified Purchase" requirement may be side-stepped through a fake reviewer buying and item, leaving a negative review, and immediately returning it for a refund in order to hurt a competitor.

Category scamming

One of the ways you can get on the bestseller lists is to list your book in a category that doesn’t have a lot of books – that whole ‘small pond, big fish’ idea. Don’t do this. You’re deceiving readers and hurting fellow authors who actually write books that belong in that category.

Lessons learned

Does this all mean that nothing is real anymore? That you can't trust anyone? It seems as if for every scammer who is exposed, dozens more pop up. What can you do about this problem?

  • Report scammers to Amazon (but make sure they are really scammers before you do so)

  • Read reviews carefully, check if the account leaving reviews has a credible history of reviewing

  • Sample books to get a feel for if you're going to enjoy the writing style

  • Check the table of contents to see if the book you're considering buying has been "stuffed"

  • If you're using KU, don't flip to the last page of a book because the author tells you to

  • Don't compare yourself to seemingly successful authors - they may have bought their way to the top of the bestsellers' lists, or they may have bought followers and likes on social media, or they may have bought reviews in some form or another

In summary, make sure your authorship and your books follow the ethical codes of publishing, and grow your readership organically instead of taking the 'fast route' to sales. In the long run, you'll be able to sleep better at night knowing you haven't resorted to dirty business tricks, and you can call out those abusing the market with good conscience.

For additional information on how indie authors and readers are fighting back against scammers, check the Twitter hashtag #GETLOUD or #bookstuffers


Post Author: The Swede


  1. Amazon Won Arbitration That Addresses The Six-Figure 'Book Stuffing' Kindle Scam, Adam Rowe, April 7, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2018/04/07/amazon-has-filed-suit-to-stop-the-six-figure-book-stuffing-kindle-scam/#6a3a03c87344

  2. WhatIs, https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/click-farm

  3. The bizarre 'click farm' of 10,000 phones that give FAKE 'likes' to our most-loved apps, Bradley Jolly, 15 May 2017, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/bizarre-click-farm-10000-phones-10419403

  4. The Hellish Reality Of Working At An Overseas 'Click Farm', Evan V. Symon, December 11, 2017, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-2550-the-hellish-reality-working-at-overseas-click-farm.html

  5. Scammers Break The Kindle Store, David Gaughran, July 15, 2017, http://davidgaughran.com/2017/07/15/scammers-break-the-kindle-store/

  6. Scammers elude Amazon crackdown on fake reviews with new tricks, Lisa Fickenscher, May 19, 2017, https://nypost.com/2017/05/19/scammers-elude-amazon-crackdown-on-fake-reviews-with-new-tricks/

  7. The Never Ending War on Fake Reviews, Simon Parkin, May 31, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-never-ending-war-on-fake-reviews

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