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Caught red-handed:
Amazon's Dirty Tricks

If asked to name the world’s most unethical company, what would you say? For many, myself included, the answer would be obvious: Amazon. From exploiting workers in sweat shop conditions to tax dodging and more recently suppressing sellers whose products coincide with their own, when it comes to ethics Jeff Bezos’ company is amongst the very worst. And yet despite its awful track record, customers continue to buy from Amazon.
 

Monopolies are never good; when they attain a certain amount of power, they become laws unto themselves able to exert worrying levels of control over our lives. And Amazon is arguably the most dangerous of all monopolies. For me personally the real trouble began when I decided to make my books available with Amazon’s publishing arm, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and from where I’ve had a ringside view of its unethical practices.

Like many other writers when Amazon introduced KDP I believed liberation had arrived. No longer would us authors have to meekly approach publishers the way serfs approach Lords; no longer would our futures depend on the whims of a Bloomsbury publishing intern. We could publish our books as and when we liked; best of all the market would decide if our book had merit.

Vain hope! Better the Devil you know, for despite their many foibles, compared to Amazon, publishing houses are paragons of virtue, unblemished, saintly almost. Read on.

After publishing a couple of titles with KDP the Amazon experience had already left me somewhat bruised. There’s something inherently untrustworthy about this company’s whole ethos, something hollow behind all the slogans and slick corporatism. Of more immediate concern was its refusal to remove fake reviews from a critique I had written of the BBC. These 1-star ‘reviews’ were easy to spot: invariably unverified, they consist of a few ranty words and are inevitably posted by egg accounts of which the current review is often the one and only in their entire history.

Would Amazon kindly do something about this intolerable situation? Short answer: no.

It seems that Amazon was none too happy that I’d had the temerity to criticise the hallowed BBC. In pointing out the BBC’s dishonest reporting of the Trump presidency I had incurred the wrath of Bezos and co, or so it appears. I don’t give a damn about Trump, but I do care about honesty. But by attempting to discriminate betwixt BBC lies and the truth, It seems I have earned myself a place on Amazon’s naughty step.

Allowing fake reviews to litter the book’s product page was Amazon’s way of trying to damage its reputation. Sneaky, very sneaky. When a book by Hilary Clinton was similarly attacked by unverified 1-star reviews, Amazon immediately responded by wiping out every last one of them . . .

“No!” said the Amazon operative on the other end of the phone during one of my endless conversations with the company, “We would never suppress your book. That’s not the type of product we suppress.” How very, very reassuring . . .

Anyway, back to the present. When I published my recent true crime story ‘Imagining A Murder: The Cartland Case Revisited’ I did not do so without some amount of trepidation. Would Amazon similarly attempt to subvert the book and therefore its sales? I would not be disappointed. Its tricks began from the moment the book was published and have not ceased.

Usually, when a new book is released, it is tagged by Amazon as a “new release.” This helps greatly with promotion, especially for independent authors who do not have the backing of big publishers. Without massive resources behind you, launching a book is indeed a daunting prospect. Every little helps. Yet my new release I noticed was not tagged as a “new release.” Odd I thought.

Amazon came up with a litany of reasons why my newly-released book had not been tagged as such: “algorithm” was a favourite, but I was also reliably informed that “only Best Sellers are tagged as new releases” – a lie that could be instantly debunked by just a cursory search on the Amazon website. It soon became apparent that each operative had their own unique explanation. Clearly, Bezos’ company were intent on making life as difficult as possible for my new book.

And so it has continued. As far as the vast majority of browsers are concerned my true crime tale was and continues to be effectively invisible on the Amazon platform. Oases in the desert, sales became none existent. Oddly, throughout August and September the title was ranked number one as a ‘Most Gifted’ title. This could only mean that at least a few customers had purchased the book as a gift. However, upon checking sales the total was ‘zero.’

‘Most Gifted doesn’t mean that anybody is buying your book as a gift’ said the irony-free Amazon customer sales assistant when I queried this anomaly. As you might have guessed by now, I spend a lot of time on the phone to various Amazon offshoots who always explain that my fears are without substance, despite the actual evidence. ‘Really? So what precisely does being number one in Most Gifted mean then?’ A pause. I waited. This was going to be good:

‘It’s down to the algorithm . . .’

When in doubt, pull out the algorithm card, an Amazon maxim which I’m guessing is emblazoned on the walls of every Amazon office.

Mind you, the company’s latest dirty trick has surpassed all previous efforts. Recently I noticed a positive review of the book had been submitted making a grand total of ten. In common with all independent authors, in order to get the ball rolling, I send out as many free copies of the book as possible to just about any reviewer-reader who will accept one. The hope is that a positive review will follow. Many don’t bother, but some do.

A good job I happened to notice the review in question because a few hours later it had disappeared from the site! I e-mailed the person whom I thought might have posted it, a social media contact. He confirmed that he had indeed posted the review. He also expressed his surprise that it had been deleted. Caught red-handed, but only by sheer luck, how many more (positive) reviews have been deleted without my knowledge?

So, it was back to Amazon customer services for yet more interminable phone calls. Shortly afterwards I received a generic e-mail informing me that reviews whereby Amazon “detect a personal connection” are routinely deleted. “Elements” of my account coincided with those of the reviewer, apparently. Aside from my postal address Amazon do not possess any “elements” of mine that I know of, so the mystery only deepens. (Two weeks on and I'm still waiting for Amazon to divulge the precise nature of these "elements . . .")

This bizarre situation got me thinking. The review had been posted and deleted on the same day, the previous Monday. And then it dawned on me: in my communication with Amazon the following day I had stated that I send copies of my books to contacts/associates. My mistake, because this thoroughly dishonest operator was now using my candour against me: So, you got a buddy to write a review, oh dear that’s not allowed . . .

Of course, the only problem here is that Amazon had deleted the review the day before I had contacted them with this incriminating confession . . .  in other words, the “personal connection,” such as it was, had not been disclosed until after the deletion. It’s now a case of being sent round the houses by various operators, the assumption being that I’ll eventually give up out of sheer frustration. Dickens’ circumlocution office has nothing on these guys.

Just to rub salt into the wounds Amazon keeps making me an offer I can’t refuse: would I care to advertise my book – for a price? Yes, dear reader you read that correctly; the same company currently suppressing my book is urging me to buy ads to promote it. Subtle, huh?

It gets worse. When publishing a book with Amazon authors are promised a 60% royalty. Wow! However, after Amazon takes its cut an independent author can expect to receive about 13% of a book’s cover price. Priced at £7.99 I thus receive the grand total of £1.02 from a paperback sale. Amazon might take the lion’s share from the fruit of my labour, but clearly it’s not enough. In order for the book to become visible on its vast platform, I must now pay Bezos even more of my pittance. That, or his company will ensure customers never stumble upon the book.

So what can one do? If there was any other publishing alternative I’d go right there. But Amazon has a monopoly on the book market which means authors and writers have no choice: for better or worse we have to deal with this monolith. Maybe the time has come for a rethink: If we do business with an unethical operator does than not make us complicit? And if that holds true there really is just one course of action open: boycott all Amazon goods and services.

UPDATE

Miracle of miracles, after writing an article for Going Postal website I sold 2 ebooks on Amazon that same morning! Checking the book's Best Seller Rank (BSR) on the sale page its rank however remains around 850,000 and dropping. Odd. At 1600 hours I call Amazon:

Me: Six hours ago, I sold 2 e-books yet my Best Seller Rank continues to drop.

Amazon: Best Seller Ranks does not indicate sales.

Me: What does it indicate?

Amazon: Here's a link.

Me: What? You can't tell me?

Amazon: Check out the link.

And lo and behold, at 1615 hours my BSR magically drops from 850,000 to 45,000 . . .