Amazon Scammers — An Unregulated Group Pushing out Women, LGBT+, and African American Authors in Romance Fiction

WARNING: Some of the material contained below is sexually graphic and might be triggering.

ETA 2: Due to Medium rules, I have been required to take down some of my confirming caps.

ETA 3: If you’d like to help authors who are legitimate and have been effected by Amazon’s uneven enforcing of rules and faulty algorithms, then please go here — https://www.change.org/p/amazon-amazon-to-change-it-s-policies-towards-authors-and-kenp-reads — and sign the petition.

I. Amazon has been in the news of late for various reasons, but something that might have escaped notice was a recent ruling that has been chronicled in Forbes this week and which author David Gaughran has explained in this thread:

In this particular case, Amazon is actively able to pursue a court case against an online publisher of diet books on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. KU is a subscription program for readers. If you pay $9.99 per month, you’re able to read as many books as you like as long as their authors have enrolled those stories into the KU library. The authors, in turn, get paid a certain portion per pages read (around $0.0047 as of last February). However, authors who are read at the highest levels and become KU All-Stars can make fifty thousand dollars a month or more in special bonuses. For the most successful KU writers, the earnings and incentives to support the program are huge. However, with big money has come big time scamming and ways to manipulate the system. See, the biggest catch in the KU system is that all the money available for every single author in the pot is pre-allotted.

It’s a zero-sum game.

If an author is doing exceedingly well and earning tons plus bonuses, then that’s less money collectively to pay the other authors from. When you have an author like the one in the case above, who has been “stuffing” books, a practice where a writer puts out a book of over a thousand pages where maybe the first 20% is original material and the rest is regurgitated and “stuffed in” old material in order to get thousands of pages read by readers and stack their odds of being an all star, that’s a problem. When they also work to “bot” the system or have readers at click farms page through their books for payouts, it’s an even bigger problem.

I know authors who, because the Kindle payouts have crashed due to large-scale scamming, have been forced to give up their writing. I know authors with toddlers who now don’t know how to make ends meet because of this program.


II. Amazon is a powerhouse in publishing. Every day, publishers are closing. Barnes and Noble has consolidated over the years, the publishing houses in New York are down to just five after Random House and Penguin merged, and some small presses are floundering. Everyone has wanted a piece of that Amazon pie, but it doesn’t appear to be regulated well enough for it to be divided fairly. Kindle Unlimited has been through a few iterations to try and weed out fake book and scam issues. Originally, it was just amount of books read, so the name of the game was putting out short stories and novellas as fast as possible. Then when page reads came out, it seemed to help benefit real authors and writers for a time, until scammers figured out how to marry two things together — ghostwriters and stuffing quickly churned out books into 1000 page-plus files.

Sites like Upwork are no secret. I’ve worked there for years to pick up odd jobs in editing and ghosting, myself. That’s when I first noticed the change from people who needed ghosts for one real novella every so often, to those who were demanding 50–70k works in under a month so that they could later be marketed under (usually) female pen names as the lead-off title in a book that was posing as a single story, but in reality was 80% stuffed with old books for page reads and money making ability. The lead story that ghosts are hired to write get combined with older stories past ghosts have written into giant tomes that have tables of contents as long as phone books:

Since a few particular groups of these scammers have banded together to set the tone of the books coming out in romance, coordinate the branding, and even set the themes and topics, they’ve become actually more transparent and easy to spot. At the same time, they’ve used the botting, click farming, ghosts en masse, and the book stuffing to monopolize Kindle Unlimited and push authors from the platform and into destitution.

Again, these scammers want to create a volume game so not only are they going to couple the new work by the ghost with tons of old ones for a stuffed book that’s against Amazon contract law, they’re also demanding the works be done in about 3 weeks so they’re always churning out new material to stay on top (Amazon algorithms favor every 30 day output) and to outmaneuver real authors.

A more disturbing trend I’ve witnessed first hand is that many of the individuals who hire and retain ghosts don’t just take on women’s pen names. They are often overwhelmingly male marketers who are creating a way to manipulate the KU system for profits and to shove out actual, usually women romance authors who are trying to make a living, especially in a landscape where more and more Amazon is publishing.

And these newsletters the scammer-writers send to fans can be disturbing. Female fans can get fooled and led to assume their favorite authors are just women doing “girl talk” or “dishing” when asking invasively sexual stories. I’ve seen these “writers” in their emails ask their readers about how they discuss sexual topics with their teenage daughters and when the first time they discussed orgasms with them was as well. It can range from that to far more intense and frankly, XXX-rated inquiries.

Warning again for explicit content below sent by one author to their fan list that seems unaware their fave writer dishing for “girl talk” is an insidious marketer, but they go on to talk about things like “cummin on tits” and having anal sex in graphic detail. Other times, they’ll ask women about their first times or first orgasms or about sex advice they can share with fellow marketing email readers and followers.

Some of the “writers” will also solicit fan advice at Facebook fan groups, over Twitter, or in their own email newsletters so fans can share sex advice with other fans. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that there’s the lack of transparency, and women fans think they’re doing “girl talk” when they’re really having sexual discussions with someone potentially faking their real identity. If you want to have explicit sex secret trading with a guy author, great, but I think all readers deserve the chance to know exactly who they are interacting with.

Some of the authors who engage in this behavior have even gone to the indie author hangout space and public forum KBoards to talk about anonymously on sock accounts what they see as “normal” marketing behavior in order to reach their audience:

Here the anon author admits to engaging in “girl talk” with the readers who believe that he’s a woman as a way to build his success. He then actively admits that if readers knew the truth of who he was, then they’d be upset and might stop reading or interacting. He even cops to using a picture of his wife on his social media and author accounts to help perpetuate the image his author brand is really just a woman, golly gee engaging in some “girl talk.” As a side note why does this innocent “just girl talk” keep reminding me more and more of people dismissing the Access Hollywood bragging tape as just “locker room talk.” It all seems another way to diminish the sexual violation inherent in the lies and deceptions.

This goes, unfortunately, beyond just sometimes marketers who are often men pretending to be women to build invasive and sexy brands. There is also a movement for writers to create fake identities and accounts to pose as gay men and LGBT allies writing LGBT romance (when they’re not either of these things) as well as to seek out white ghosts to write for Urban Lit or pen names presented specifically as African American writers creating African American romance stories.


III.

Two huge scandals have been rocking romance in the last month. First, author Santino Hassell seems to have been revealed as allegedly a married couple perpetuating and creating the persona of an outspoken, sickly bisexual single father in New York who was an extremely popular writer of M/M romance fiction. Not only did “Santino” use this platform to speak out against bi issues and stereotypes, “he” also claimed he had severe liver cancer and set up a Patreon. It wasn’t explicit that fans needed to help the “ailing author” but many fans gave anyway and so the couple who created “Santino” may very well be found guilty of fraud in this case. Moreover, it was found that “Santino” was engaging in inappropriately explicit romances online with fans and then using this material to mine for material in future books. This couple masquerading as “Santino” was a one-off pair, and do not seem to be connected to any of the ghostwriting factories that flood Amazon’s top selling spots with scammer stuffed books, but it’s similar to what the marketers above have been doing with their faked personas to extract sexual details via girl talk from readers.

It does make one wonder if those details have the potential to be mined and abused by the scammers in a similar fashion to the way the explicit fan chats were by “Santino.”

In another scandal, this Facebook account was created as a prefabricated marketing attempt. The page, social media, and branding as a woman named “Mina Markell” with a gay son she was an ally for (all fake) was set up so a highest bidding potential author could buy the pre-established platform at market and slide into the persona. Once the word about the auction and fake persona was leaked, the account was toxic and left alone. But it’s just another example of creating a character to go with a pen name that’s not true to the author in order to become more popular among fans.

I’m not by any means saying don’t have a pen name. I’m also not saying that an author’s pen name has to match the gender that is on their driver’s license or birth records, especially among LBGT writers. This, like writer Jenny Trout pointed out, goes beyond that. The couple behind “Santino” created an entire person, used fake images, created a sob story to garner money from Patreon. That goes beyond a pen name, especially when “Santino” started engaging in sexual chats with fans in that persona. Similarly, creating a fake gay ally author in “Mina” also goes into fraudulent territory as the intention is to garner sympathy for a gay son who never existed and to have deeper inroads with which to exploit an unsuspecting fandom of often marginalized readers and writers.

And, yes, I’ve been propositioned as a ghost at Upwork to write for some of the marketer groups where they’re looking for stories under an “Urban” pen name or for an MM pen name where the eventual author persona is implied to be under a gay man’s name. I’ve been aware of the non-legit clients and the cabals of marketers since last summer at Upwork. After October, I stumbled into some of Gaughran’s information about it, albeit phrased as a parody, and I started doing more research and collecting files on the scammers myself. When I had an “Urban Romance” advertiser submit a proposal to me, I dug a bit deeper in conversation to see how far faking identities and brands went sometimes with Amazon scam book creators.

I’m not saying that a non-African American writer can’t create urban romance stories. It’s more that the way the pen name would have been set up or established would have most likely led to the interpretation that “writer/pen name” was actually an African American writing authentic “urban romance.”

At first, an interested client solicited me to write urban romance and then suggested I do some contemporary and m/m (male/male romance) for him first instead. As an honest probe, I asked if that was because I was a white writer and the persona/pen name would be African American. I was trying to see if the client had a problem with hiring ghosts to help create personas and pen names that were culturally appropriating or appropriating the identity of marginalized voices.

He seemed to confirm that it was more economics driving the decision to go into an m/m persona instead as well as into contemporary (I presumed white protagonists and author pen name) romance. Again, in this particular client’s case, it’s all a volume game of creating books that will get page reads and if he has to use ghosts to create fake pen names and authors who are supposedly in the m/m community or in the African American community writing and focusing on Urban Romance, it doesn’t really matter who the ghosts are underneath.

This is not an isolated incident, I had a similar exchange with another person hunting for African American Fiction earlier this week after he reached out to me based on my general writing dossier:

Again, it’s not as much about the writer having a range or not or being able to try and stretch and write about African American characters. It’s more a question of is the client trying to set up a persona/author identity that a white ghostwriter is feeding into that tries to pretend and present the image of a book about African American characters and life as supposedly and purportedly written by an authentic African American voice.

In this case, the client/funder was looking for a vigilante justice story and not romance, but still wanted to have “some cultural background” for the story even though I was saying “I’m a Caucasian writer, are you trying to do something based around cultural appropriation?”


IV.

So why does this all matter?

First, it matters that because Amazon hasn’t seemed to be fully enforcing its own terms of service, scammers have been able to overrun the Kindle Unlimited store and push legitimate writers out of business. Second, it matters because some of these marketers turned publishing kingpins are faking woman personas and author identities to engage in invasive sexual discussions and speech with their fans under false pretenses.

But it has the potential to be even more devastating to marginalized voices in the LGBT+ and the African American writer communities. The Santino Hassell scandal showed how susceptible that community is to being preyed upon, but it also revealed some ugly sides in small press publishing.

In a related scandal that came to light, Santino Hassell’s editor, Sarah Lyons, was fired from Riptide Publishing for not just inappropriate sexual relationships with “Santino” but also with being inappropriately sexual with authors she had editorial relationships with, including a biracial writer whom she manipulated for free sensitivity reading. She also became famous for saying that they didn’t put characters of color on the cover at Riptide as the stories then wouldn’t sell.

But this racism isn’t close to just a problem within LGBT publishing houses.

There’s been problems since the inception of romance publishing with it being systematically racist and overwhelmingly white. The Ripped Bodice has done a diversity in romance study for the past two years and the levels in 2017 were actually worse than those in 2016.

This year, the RITA awards, the highest award in romance writing, have been slammed for only having less than a percent (yes) of the nominated writers being writers of color. Some amazingly boneheaded solutions have included calling for a separate, diversity category each your for the RITAs, as if “separate but equal” wasn’t inherently racist. Luckily, such a terrible idea has been stomped dead by the Romance Writers of America.

But this problem has also led to romance writers of color expressing their concern and their stories of hurt on Twitter. This entire thread by author Courtney Milan goes into depth about the stark differences in the way top romance publisher Harlequin (with only 4% of their books by authors of color) treated an African American RITA nominee, Phyllis Bourne in 2016 as opposed to her white counterparts from Harlequin who’d also been nominated for a RITA.

The whole thread starts with that linked tweet above but basically Ms. Bourne was ignored, not invited to the RITA fan signings, and not given as big a promotional push as Harlequin’s white nominees. Moreover, 2016 was the year that the Kimani line at Harlequin or the African American line was cut. The authors there as a majority weren’t encouraged or brought into other Harlequin lines, but some were approached and asked to be sensitivity consultants or sat through phone conference calls where white writers in other lines at Harlequin were asked to just “write more diversely.” Somehow, it seems, Harlequin didn’t think of the obvious, not-racist solution of bringing in its Kimani authors to other lines to write diverse cowboys, billionaires…etc. This rings extremely similar to the complaints against Riptide and Sarah Lyons because that systemic racism is everywhere in publishing.

A good friend of mine, Dawn Ibanez, had a blog post about the whole problem with the lack of a chance for authors of color at the RITAs. She makes good points that white ally writers can help by recommending authors of color more and fans can help by working to read more diversely too. She’s also mentioned to me that publishing has to change too, that presses have to have more editors and agents and acquirers who are people of color because publishing as an industry (whether straight romance, gay romance or just general books) is hugely white and that’s suffocating other viewpoints and voices.

But now we circle back to how Amazon has a role in this too.

Amazon Founder and Richest Man on Earth, Jeff Bezos

Presses are closing and becoming more conservative with what they write. When you see more options for creators and actors of color on TV and streaming services and have had huge hits like Get Out and Black Panther this year on film, romance especially seems to be doubling down on staying white and ignoring a huge market potential and readers and creators who deserve to be served. One of the brightest success stories of 2017 was that Crimson Romance published 29.3% authors of color.

The terrible news is that last month Simon and Schuster announced it was going to have to close that imprint due to low sales.

In contrast, Amazon’s own romance line, Montlake has a much worse record:

Barely THREE PERCENT of the authors at Amazon’s own promoted and subsidized romance line are authors of color. While it’s pushing large presses to stay more conservative and also forcing smaller presses that are doing well by diversity to close, Amazon isn’t diversifying its own author base. Moreover, I would posit that the rise of Kindle Unlimited in the last few years, especially of stuffers and scammers dominating romance, has hurt small presses badly. We’ve watched All Romance ebooks, Crimson Romance, the Harlequin Kimani lines and others all fold as Amazon eats more and more of the market share.

And in part, its doing that by supporting and giving bonuses to All-Stars they now have declared are breaking contract and stealing from the communal pot by book-stuffing, creating churn out factories of romance with ghostwriters, and, yes, sometimes appropriating the identities of both LGBT+ and African American experiences and culture in order to make a quick buck. The end result is that an industry that’s always been hugely white is getting whiter, and marginalized voices, especially those of authors of color, are being squeezed out entirely.

The RITAs can get more diverse in part when there are more editors and agents and people of color higher up in publishing houses doing the acquisitions. That can’t happen if every other press in town is run out of business because of scammers at Amazon dominating the romance charts with stuffed books and, worse, by creating fake personas to market while real writers of color suffer and have to stop writing.

So, Amazon, you have the precedent and you can see right there in your own data which romance books are violating your terms of service and stealing from authors, what are you going to do about it?


ETA — The “writers” who tend to dominate romance these days are also often those who will category stuff. They will deliberately mislabel books to try and get visibility in subcategories of romance. Today, as I was speaking with an author, I noticed how many of the so-called “interracial” books are just category stuffed into a lower trafficked category and contain stories about two white people (including the two white people on the cover) for these “interracial romance.” Another way that these “writers” are pushing out visibility for writers of color and/or for authors interested in trying to write stories about interracial romance. It’s the same situation in multicultural romance.

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