New Year, Old Problem: Innocent Author Rank-Stripped For Third Time

Kristi Belcamino is really being messed around by Amazon. Yesterday morning, she was rank-stripped for the third time, and it appears to be happening every time she puts a book free – even before she hits the promo sites or moves up the charts.

Back in September, Kristi was one of the unfortunate (and innocent) authors who were unfairly rank-stripped by Amazon for several weeks. She had a BookBub promotion which catapulted her up to #3 in the Free charts on September 18, was then rank-stripped, and didn’t have the sanction lifted until October 22 – over one month later.

Along with all the other authors I wrote about in October’s post Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives, Kristi received the standard form letter about rank manipulation from Amazon KDP’s Compliance team, regarding her book Blessed are the Peacemakers.

Hello,

We detected that purchases or borrows of your book(s) are originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, your sales rank will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

While we fully support the efforts of our publishers to promote their books, we take activities that jeopardize the experience of our readers and other authors seriously. Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions.  We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.

You may email us at crm-sra-compliance@amazon.com with any questions.

Thanks for publishing with Amazon KDP.

Regards,

[Name Withheld]
Kindle Direct Publishing

Kristi did as anyone would in this situation and asked for more information, as she was confused and didn’t understand what she had done wrong. But Amazon refused to engage meaningfully on this, or to provide any evidence for its claims.

This was the response:

Hello,

As we previously stated, we still detect purchases or borrows of your book(s) are originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. You are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions.

We cannot offer advice on marketing services or details of our investigations.

Please be aware we will not be providing additional details.

Best regards,

[Name Withheld]

After a few weeks of “investigating,” Amazon returned the rank to Kristi’s book. She did not receive an apology from KDP, or any kind of compensation for this visibility-killing sanction. In fact, Amazon threatened to take similar action in the future.

And Amazon made good on that threat.

In early December, Kristi made another book free – Gia in the City of Dead – as part of a KDP Select promotion from December 1 to December 5. When she woke on December 1, she saw that her book had been stripped of its rank – before any promotion had even kicked in. She immediately emailed Amazon to ask them why this had happened. This was the nonsensical reply she received the following day:

Hello,

In the Kindle Store, the Bestsellers Rank is divided into Free and Paid lists. During the period when your book is being offered for free, it will have a ranking in the Free list. Once the free promotion is over, your title will show up again in the Paid list.

The Bestsellers Rank calculation is based on Amazon sales and is updated hourly to reflect newer and historical sales of every item sold on our website, with recent sales being weighted more heavily. With this in mind, titles that are part of a free promotion may see a drop in the sales rank under the Paid list after the promotion is over. However, since your sales rank takes into account recent and historical sales data, your previous Paid rank will influence your new Paid rank.

Category rankings will appear in the Product Details section of a book’s detail page to display the appropriate rank information.

While monitoring your book’s Amazon sales rank may be helpful in gaining general insight into the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and other initiatives to drive book sales, it is not an accurate way to track your book’s sales or compare your sales in relation to books in other categories, since a particular item’s sales rank does not absolutely reflect its sales.

While monitoring your book’s Amazon sales rank may be helpful in gaining general insight into the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and other initiatives to drive book sales, it is not an accurate way to track your book’s sales or pages read. Neither is it an accurate way to compare your sales in relation to books in other categories, since a particular item’s sales rank does not absolutely reflect its sales or Kindle Unlimited (KU) / Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) activity.

Your paperback which is linked to your eBook shows the following:
Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #409,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
#1296 in Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers & Suspense > Crime > Organized Crime

Thanks for using Amazon KDP.

[Name Withheld]

It appears that a customer service rep has rushed a reply after misreading Kristi’s query and pasted in a bunch of irrelevant canned responses. I merely copy it here to show that this kind of botched reply is becoming typical with KDP customer service – a situation which is frustrating normally, but critically so when you have a major issue like Kristi did at the time.

Two of the four guiding principles of Amazon are “customer obsession” and “commitment to operational excellence” – I’d love to know if KDP thinks it is meeting those benchmarks with this type of response.

Anyway, Kristi persisted until she got someone to actually read her email. This is where things got really weird. On December 4, she received this unsigned email from KDP’s Compliance team:

Hello,

We detected that purchases or borrows of your book(s) are originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. We take activities that could jeopardize the experience of our readers and other authors seriously and may temporarily remove sales rank while we investigate. The sales rank(s) of your book(s) is now available.

If you have any questions, please email us at crm-sra-compliance@amazon.com.

Thanks for publishing with Amazon KDP.

Note that while the email stated that “The sales rank(s) of your book(s) is now available” – this was not the case. The rank had not been returned to Gia in the City of Dead, as I can vouch for myself. Kristi was in contact with me throughout this episode and I was able to watch events unfolding and verify her claims.

Kristi’s rank didn’t return the following day either, but when her free promotion ended on midnight of December 5, as scheduled, her rank returned. On December 6, Kristi received this email:

Hello Kristi,

I understand your frustration and I really appreciate your patience while we investigated this further. There was a technical issue that prevented your sales rank from displaying while our system was updating the rank. Our Technical Team has corrected the issue and your sales rank is now displaying accurately. Again, I’m very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused. You can confirm the sales rank is now appearing by accessing the link below.

[link to book]

Regards,

[Name Withheld]
Executive Customer Relations
Kindle Direct Publishing

Bizarrely, KDP was now claiming that a “technical issue” prevented her sales rank from displaying. This was obviously stretching credulity given the rank manipulation form letter that Kristi had again received from Amazon’s Compliance team, and she said that in response to this message. Then she received this message:

Hello Kristi,

I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. The email you received from crm-sra-compliance@amazon.com on December 4 was sent in error and the sales rank did not disappear due to free promotions or manipulation. Our Content Review team confirmed there was no manipulation and our Technical Team discovered that the disappearance of your sales rank was due to a internal issue.

Best regards,

[Name Withheld]

So, an “internal issue” caused the rank disappearance, and the rank manipulation email was sent in error. Hmmmmm. Quite the coincidence, don’t you think?

Nevertheless, at this point Kristi was relieved that her rank had been restored, even if Amazon had – once again – completely ruined a promotion which she had spent money on, killing her visibility and crippling her downloads.

Kristi was worried about this happening again in January, when she had a BookBub promotion scheduled. This time she decided to get ahead of the problem and emailed the same person she had been dealing with throughout at KDP Executive Customer Relations, explaining when her book would be free and detailing the (legit) promo sites she would be using. She expressed hope that there would be no “internal issue” like in early December.

I should note that Kristi has been remarkably restrained throughout this entire episode, showing much more composure than I would. For example, this is the email she sent in advance of her January promotion:

Dear [Name Withheld],

I’m hoping you can help prevent the rank stripping from happening to me a third time.

I’m going to have a Bookbub ad run Jan. 4 and I expect the ranking for my book, Gia in the City of the Dead, to change dramatically and I’m hoping this won’t trigger another bot to flag me for doing something wrong or trigger the internal issue situation like last time.

I’m writing to you in the hopes that you can alert someone that this is happening so I don’t get hurt by losing rank again in January.

Thank you for your time and help. It is greatly appreciated.

Best,

Kristi Belcamino

PS The book is this one: https://www.amazon.com/City-Dead-Santella-Crime-Thriller-ebook/dp/B0751LCQLQ

You might think that Kristi’s case would merit some careful attention from KDP at this point, given how they had mistreated her previously, but this is all she received in response. Note that this reply came from the Compliance team – the person at Executive Customer Relations didn’t even bother replying to her exceedingly polite email:

Hello,

We do not sponsor or endorse any 3rd party marketing services. You’re welcome to promote your book through third-party websites and other services, but we encourage you to monitor the tactics they use to promote your books.  You are responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book manipulate the Kindle publishing service and/or Kindle programs.

We advise against using any sites that “guarantee” a return on your investment. We support our authors’ efforts to promote their books worldwide, but at the same time, we work to prevent any manipulation of the Kindle publishing service.

If you have any questions, please email us at crm-sra-compliance@amazon.com.

Thanks for publishing with Amazon KDP.

Best regards,

[Name Withheld]

Despite Kristi flagging her promotion in advance to Amazon, her book was rank-stripped yesterday. And it was rank-stripped as soon as it went free – before any promotion kicked in.

There’s something else bizarre going on here. I generally use affiliate links on this blog – when I remember to put them in, that is. I often forget. I can’t remember if I used affiliate links to point to rank-stripped books before, but I noticed something very strange when attempting to link to Kristi’s currently rank-stripped book Gia and the City of Dead.

In case you can’t read the above text, it says:

This product is one of the Amazon Associates Program Excluded Products. We do not support direct linking to this product. Please direct customers to another product or the category for this product instead.

In other words, Amazon is currently not supporting affiliate links to this book; it appears that rank-stripping sanctions have yet another dimension.

Kristi is due to have her BookBub promotion on January 4, something she would have spent a considerable amount on, and her book will be denied crucial visibility if this sanction isn’t lifted.

When a book is rank-stripped, it disappears from the charts completely, and is largely invisible to Amazon’s recommendation engine. In short, it kills downloads for a title while the rank is removed. It’s very damaging.

And to be absolutely clear: Kristi has done nothing wrong.

Authors are rightly angry about this, but I want to make an important distinction: this isn’t a BookBub problem. Most of the authors rank-stripped never used BookBub. It’s also not some kind of move by Amazon to squash third-party sites and force everyone to use AMS – that’s equally nonsensical, and demonstrably false: some of those rank-stripped didn’t use any third-party sites.

And as Kristi’s experience should prove: the rank-stripping is kicking in now before promotions even begin. In other words, this isn’t a BookBub problem; it’s an Amazon problem.

KDP is applying serious sanctions to authors who are completely innocent of any wrongdoing, refusing to show any evidence for its determinations or give authors any chance to appeal its decisions. And it’s doing all this while ignoring widespread scamming and cheating in the Kindle Store.

We must demand change.

UPDATE:

Some have asked in the comments here and on Facebook, how we can demand change and what form that should take.

First, I think we need to make as much noise as possible. Share your feelings on this with Amazon. Spread the word as much as possible. If you are a member of a writers’ org, then see if they will take an interest in this (RWA already has). If you have a press connection, see if they wish to write about it.

As for what Amazon should do, I don’t think KDP cares what I have to say, but here’s my suggested template for handling cases of suspected rank manipulation.

1. Investigations can and should happen quickly – there is no possible need for it to take weeks and weeks.

2. No sanction should be applied until guilt has been determined.

3. If guilt is determined, Amazon should furnish the purported evidence, and authors should have a right of appeal.

4. If innocence is established, Amazon should apologize to the author, and compensate them for any losses suffered under applied sanctions, if applicable.

Aside from how KDP handles such cases, I strongly suggest that it looks at its fraud detection systems which appear to be throwing up a large amount of false positives. If that’s NOT the case, and some third-party is targeting innocent authors to kick up dust or test the thresholds of the system, thus manipulating rank unbeknownst to the author, then Amazon needs to sanction that third-party, as clearly something malicious is in play.

UPDATE 2 (Jan 4): 

Kristi’s rank is back, in time for her BookBub promotion, which is great news. Amazon called to apologize and say that she hadn’t done anything wrong, but haven’t given any explanation beyond a “technical issue.”

Unfortunately, Kristi is not out of the woods yet. There is still something strange going on with this book. First, it’s invisible in the API – just gone. I’ve never seen that before. Second, when I tried to build an affiliate link to this book, I was informed that it is an “Excluded Product” as per the above screenshot.

Questions and issues remain, and obviously Kristi needs a full explanation, all issues resolved, and an assurance this won’t happen again. In the meantime, if you feel like helping Kristi recover some of her lost visibility, Gia and the City of Dead is free for the next couple of days.

Something else came up yesterday, which was quite timely. One of my main bugbears with Amazon right now is that they are being extremely heavy-handed when dealing with innocent authors, and are letting extreme gaming of the Kindle Unlimited system go unpunished – even rewarding those authors with All-Star bonuses every month.

It’s extremely difficult to get traction on the issue as it is quite technical. Author Heather C. Leigh has put together a helpful video explainer. As you watch this, and your blood boils, remember that Amazon is aware of ALL of this, and refuses to do anything – while cracking down on authors like Kristi who have done nothing wrong.

Source: davidgaughran.wordpress

 

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