News broke on Friday that Amazon was cracking down on authors and publishers who had put their TOCs at the end of the Kindle ebook, rather than at the beginning.
On Monday Amazon confirmed the report in a statement on the KDP support forums, while at the same time also confirming that the crackdown was indeed a response to a much larger problem.
But first, Amazon's statement:
We have recently received a number of questions on topics such as TOC formatting and our policing of abuse and fraud among KDP publishers.
In many cases, putting a book’s Table of Contents (TOC) at the end of a book can create a poor experience for readers, and in general we suggest authors locate TOCs to the beginning of a book. If the formatting of a book results in a poor experience or genuine reader confusion, or is designed to unnaturally inflate sales or pages read, we will take action to remove titles and protect readers. That said, absent any other issues of quality, locating the TOC at the end of a book is not in itself outside of our guidelines.
Relatedly, some in the community have contacted us about the activities of a small minority of publishers who may attempt to inflate sales or pages read through the use of various techniques, such as adding unnecessary or confusing hyperlinks, misplacing the TOC or adding distracting content. We both actively police for this type of activity on our own as well as investigate when the community points out such abuse (thank you to those of you who have helped us in this regard). Any abuse we find results in the immediate suspension of a title. Some circumstances, including repeat offenses, will result in KDP account suspension. In any abuse cases, we will also remove related pages read from the allocation of the monthly KDP Select Global Fund.
When I covered the story on Friday, I reported on the crackdown but not the speculation that authors were getting caught up in a response to scammers who were using various means to artificially inflate their page counts in Kindle Unlimited.
As David Gaughran explained, and as was laid out in detail over on KBoards, scammers were using tricks "such as adding unnecessary or confusing hyperlinks, misplacing the TOC, or adding distracting content" to artificially inflate the number of pages read by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
This details matters because in July of last year Amazon started paying authors and publishers with ebooks in Kindle Unlimited by the number of pages read, rather than the number of times an ebook is borrowed. This was generally viewed as a response to authors who were cheating the system by uploading really short works and getting paid each time one was borrowed, and it was supposed to level the playing field by making sure that longer works are valued the same as a short story.
That's the way things were supposed to work, but alas, the scammers are smarter than that.
As the theory goes, scammers had figured out that Amazon wasn't counting the pages a KU subscriber had read in an ebook; instead Amazon was only measuring how far into a book the reader gets. So if the scammer can trick a reader to jump to a point 90% of the way into a ebook, that scammer gets paid for that 90% of the ebook no matter whether it was actually read or not.
I have yet to confirm the accuracy of that theory, but it is the consensus opinion over at KBoards. David Gaughran also thinks that's what's going on:
The latest wheeze from this shady crew was to place a message at the start of their KU titles encouraging readers to click through to the end – because this fools Amazon’s system into thinking the entire book has been read, the author of that title then receives an inflated payout from the KU pot, and then honest, hard-working writers who aren’t pulling these cheap tricks on readers have less money to share. It’s a mess. These guys are peeing in the KU pool and Amazon is paying them by the gallon.
And it seems this is what triggered the TOC crackdown.
You can find one such book over here. The scammer's notice is visible when you read the sample on the Amazon website, and it looks like this:
I have yet to confirm first-hand that this theory is true, but I do believe that Gaughran was right all along.
Amazon's announcement this morning, as well as the spammy/scammy screensnap above, would only make sense if scammers had found a way to trick Amazon into paying for pages that weren't read.
And that is frankly shocking. Who would believe that Amazon would decide to charge by the pages read and then not bother to count the pages correctly?
That just doesn't make any sense, and yet it is what is happening here.
Clearly Amazon is going to have to come up with a more permanent solution. They could start by defining an algorithmic filter to catch the more obvious scams, but in the long run Amazon is going to have to change how they track what is read by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
image by Matt From London