I have been in the book world since 2012, and over those six years have found it to be a marvelous place where words conjure worlds to step into and away from the humdrum of everyday life. It’s a place filled to the brim with authors, bloggers, photographers, designers, cover models, and most importantly, readers. In short, it’s a large family, and like any family, there are instances where drama arises. Most of the time the issues at hand are petty and fade like a guttered candle, but recently a few issues have burst onto the scene faster than a Hero at the climax of a sex scene. And just like that Hero, I can’t stay silent and intend to #GetLoud.
This Twitter-led awareness campaign stemmed from one author, Faleena Hopkins, receiving a trademark for her series “The Cocker Brothers” in addition to two other word marks for “Cocky” – one in a stylized form and one without limitation on form, color, etc. It was brought to light by Bianca Sommerland, and gained traction when picked up by Jenny Trout, and most recently by Suzan Tisdale.
While the merit of “The Cocker Brothers” isn’t at debate, the stylized form of “Cocky” uses a licensed font that violates its terms of service (one cannot create a trademark using it), and the unhindered form of “Cocky” has since been used by the registrant turned apparent trademark troll to self-issue Cease & Desists and, in extreme cases, to have works removed from sale. There is even a lawsuit underway between her and another author, Tara Crescent, for the Defendant’s use of the word in her series and titles. Thankfully, Kevin Kneupper has filed a Petition to Cancel the trademark, and the Romance Writers of America/Author’s Guild has also stated they will pursue the same course of action.
The most apparent snag in this entire controversy? Registrant claims first use of the word yet there are multiple examples of the adjective in play beforehand.
Recent news broke from David Gaughran and Heather Leigh of author Chance Carter doing a giveaway of Tiffany’s diamonds in return for verified (i.e. purchased) reviews. This was the only way to enter that giveaway (unlike a Rafflecopter), and that would have been a violation of not only Amazon Terms of Service, but subject the giveaway to regulations suitable for a lottery (since participants would have to have made a purchase to enter).
This contest has since been rescinded, so is no longer an issue in itself, however, the deeper impact of what #TiffanyGate led to spawned #StuffingGate, explained below.
Harassing threats aside, this same author, along with others that were identified were found to be book stuffing. This is the practice of taking a book on Kindle Unlimited (hereafter KU) and adding 3-11 “bonuses” to the back of the book with extreme formatting. However, those bonus books are also their own titles on the Kindle store.
This leads to high rankings like this.
How is this a bad thing? Isn’t it good for a reader to get freebies?
Yes and no. If the material in question was new and met the requirement not to exceed 10% of the book’s content (e.g. a bonus scene or prequel to the next book in the series) then yes. This is good juju that needs to be promoted and helped. Some "legitimate authors who page stuff" would disagree. I don't feel like it's a bad thing.
The flip side is a vile place. Let’s quantify how bad KU scamming is and its impact:
KU pays on average $0.005 per page read out of a shared community pool of money. There’s only so much in that pool for ALL authors to get paid from.
One of my books - Homeward Bound for example - would earn $1.24 if read in KU (it’s 248 pages), or $2.09 if it was purchased outright (at $2.99).
A scamming stuffer with 6 books added to the back (let’s assume 2000 pages total) would earn $10 for that very same book (and they’re often priced at only $0.99, and much shorter).
Extend that dollar value over the month and include likely All-Star bonuses (yes, Amazon will even give you MORE money if you have the highest number of page reads) and it easily comes out to 5-6 figures earned a month. That’s $100,000 a month folks, with those same 6 stories recycled at the back of multiple books. So Book 1 may have Books 2-7 added, Book 2 has Books 1 and 3-7 added, etc.) Add to that easily clickable links to "flip" to the back of the book immediately and net all those page reads in a few seconds. Some even instruct their readers on how to do this shameful action.
Because the page reads get so high, Amazon will automatically promote your book for you as a bestseller (oftentimes these stuffers place books in easily ranked categories too – like placing a contemporary with no sports into sports romance anyway). This leads to decreased visibility on the platform and is why KU Stuffing/Scamming is damaging to legitimate authors.
Amazon really needs to enforce their own Terms of Service in these cases and stop being biased. I know of several authors that have been forcibly removed from KU without having done anything untoward, but the stuffer’s books seem to remain online and their “also bought” similarly covered allies remain in the Top 100. Drawing out a supposition, it would appear Amazon likes the high level of revenue garnered by these authors, which also undermines the KU platform as a whole (how do I know if my page reads are accurate if you’re allowing this sort of thing to continue unchecked)?
Another rising issue I’ll touch on but won’t go into too much detail on since it’s still developing is the issue of #BullyGate and one particular (former) male author who has taken it upon himself to prey on women who he believes are weaker than him. This comes in the form of setting up fake profiles and social media groups to badmouth authors, reporting their pen names/children’s accounts for violating Facebook Terms of Service (all while doing it from secondary or tertiary accounts), to spoofing email accounts then contacting event centers to try and cancel events, to – in my view the worst example – threatening physical violence at a place or to a person. Such actions should not be tolerated by anyone, and so those who speak out against such behavior (with evidence) have my support.
Now that was a lot to wade through, so what does all this mean and why should it matter to everyone in the industry? At the end of the day, #gates such as those above threaten more than just Jane Doe’s Facebook account, it affects publishing at large (by limiting the use of words and gaming established systems for illicit profit), and hits authors where it matters the most: their wallets. Fear and anxiety rightfully spread, people throw their hands up with a last, exhausted breath, and the words then diminish until they are gone forever. Authors spend a lot of time on their books, from the writing (which can take months and years in some cases), to editing, to getting the cover photo picked (either stock photos from a website or exclusive from a photographer), to having the cover designed, to scheduling release day promotions and advertising, to launching, to marketing, and the list goes on.
The trickle-down effect is designers have less work making covers, photographers have less work shooting exclusive stock photographs, and readers are affected the most by the loss of variety and diversity in storytelling.
I love this community, as a photographer/designer being able to capture the images that act as a gateway to your stories, and as an author being able to create stories and worlds of my own. None of us deserve to have that taken away from us. Those speaking out against these issues are not shit-stirrers, nor have ill intent. They’re not jealous. They’re not mean. They’re just trying to earn their keep and pay their bills without being shady.
We want our community back, our special place where words rule and smiles carry weigh more than gold.
Thanks for reading,
Owner/Photographer – FuriousFotog (www.onefuriousfotog.com)