Amazon Kindle Unlimited: Fundamentally Broken

Update:  Quartz wrote a recent article that goes over how broken Amazon’s service is.  Also, Publishers Weekly wrote an article where third-party resellers are able to buy book sales as the first thing consumers see.  Hat tip to Ultimate LitRPG for these updates.  He covers these developments and more in an article, which you should read.

I covered Amazon Unlimited and why it can be a bad decision for authors.  For those who love the tl;dr version, Amazon thought they saw signs of manipulation and immediately hammer banned a bunch of different authors who didn’t do anything wrong.

I decided to look deeper into the problem and see if I could come up with a reasonable guess at what was going on, since Amazon has taken the Facebook/Twitter/Every other big corporation approach of not telling anyone anything.  If you work at one of these big companies, I would like to tell you that everyone loves this approach, please keep doing it.

This journey lead me to the conclusion that Amazon Kindle Unlimited is bad for readers as well as authors.  If nothing is done to stop it, Amazon will become similar to Steam’s Greenlight program.  Something designed for up-and-coming amateurs but is now a synonym for shovelware, abandonware, and poor games.  Good concept, atrocious execution.

If you want to dig deeper into it, there’s a concept called “Skin in the Game”.

The audio has a hiss to it, but what Taleb brings out is a concept called “Skin in the Game”.  A person who advocates for a war that he/she cannot fight in has no skin in the game.  Someone advocating for a war that they will be fighting in the front-lines for has skin in the game.  A commentator who says oil prices should lower has no skin in the game, someone who buys a short position on oil has skin in the game.

It is a corollary that the less skin in the game someone has, the more uninformed their position will be.  This is because there is no cost of failure.  The more heavily you have to invest in something, the more likely that will be good because of the cost/benefit analysis.  Steam’s greenlight requires no skin in the game, hence, it is broken.

Not part of this equation is another economic problem, asymmetry of information, which we will look at towards the end.

To highlight this comparison, there’s a concept in video game development called “Fundamentally Broken.”

Fundamentally broken means the core mechanics of what your game is do not work.  In “Dark Years” objects and their uses make no sense and the game does not highlight or point out useful items and effects.  So you rub/grind against things until you find out that you can use them.  Since the concept of a point-and-click action game is the joy of figuring out how to solve puzzles, a game in which you find and solve puzzles by randomly glitching across the screen is fundamentally broken.

This doesn’t get into bad translations, bad assets, poor animations, nonsensical event sequences, etc.  The game is completely, utterly, and fundamentally broken.

The only joy you can get from it is admiring just how bad/broken it is and some of the comical “voice acting” in there.

The Steam Store has become notorious for the proliferation of terrible games, eventually reaching a boiling point where Steam had to add some kind of quality controls.  For example, reviewers have a score for how long they played the game.  You can get a refund if you haven’t played at least two hours.  There are plenty of channels on YouTube and Twitch that feature games, so you can see a walkthrough before you play it.

Still, numerous games get through that have all sorts of positive reviews, but most of the reviews look like they’re from people who haven’t actually played the game.

We see the same problem in the debates about fake news, but they don’t acknowledge a simple problem.  Online news is fundamentally broken, “the way you make money these days in media is getting clicks and likes, and the easiest way to do that is with fluffy, sensational pieces that may or may not be real.”   Anything not addressing the fact that news is fundamentally broken will continue to be helpless at solving the problem.

Ralph makes fun of this style of review:

Back to Steam, even these minimally viable controls are not available for Amazon Unlimited.  As such, it is:

Fundamentally broken

I first noticed it was fundamentally broken by reading several glowing five star reviews for what are phenomenally broken novels.  I don’t mean that I didn’t like the novels, i.e. I’m never going to be a fan of Sandra Hill novels, I mean novels that broke every convention for even basic grammar and writing.  Novels that are fundamentally broken.

When I began blogging and putting up critical reviews, I received emails and facebook messages saying that other people thought the same thing, there is a sludge of awful crap that is in the four to five star reviews.  Most of them thought they were the only ones who didn’t get it, similar to an Asch Conformity Experiment.  If everyone else was saying how great a novel was, maybe they were the ones who were wrong?

Investigating further, I found the same pattern of abuse that I found on Steam.  I clicked on the reviewers and found it was the same sort of suspicious behavior I had found there.  Reviewers who only leave positive reviews, but don’t seem to have even read the item they are reviewing.

Case in point?  This creature.

Let’s look at one of him/her’s reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars Available Kindle Unlimited, January 27, 2017
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Winemaker of the North (Saints of Wura Book 1) (Kindle Edition)
Available Kindle Unlimited other books/collections involved in include Monster Maelstrom: A Flash Fiction Halloween Anthology (Flash Flood Book 2) and Bite-Sized Stories: A Multi-Genre Flash Fiction Anthology (Flash Flood Book 1) and Dark Legends collection and plus of course the others following Winemaker and Half-Elf Chronicles

Questions:

  1. What has this told me about the book?  Nothing.
  2. What has this told me about why the person liked this book?  Nothing.
  3. What part of this information could be gleaned by simply looking at the page?  Everything.
  4. How many reviews does this person have up in a single day?  Dozens.
  5. How many of these reviews look like the same review copy-pasted with slight alterations?  All of them.

These pseudo-reviews are popping up all over the place.  I keep finding books that are fundamentally, egregiously broken that have stellar reviews all over them.  Most of these reviews tell me nothing about the actual book.

Here’s a very random sample of a fundamentally broken book, because this particular book contains nothing but these types of sentences:

“I don’t suffer idiots well, and when people threaten my people, I really don’t think about rebuilding bridges. There are people in space who are, while not completely, dependent on the supplies we send them, and would be in a pretty crappy position if we didn’t send them supplies every few months. We paid the new tax, kept our heads down and we’ve been talking to other countries ever since.”

Let’s break it down from a writing standpoint:

  • Sentence fragments
  • Poor phrasing
  • Unnecessary passive tense
  • Cliches
  • Violation of Show/Don’t tell
  • Comma use violations
  • Extraneous word use

In just three sentences, the English language gets butchered.  Mind you this is a random selection, I can keep grabbing sentences and the same thing happens.

Here in his home, he dropped the smile; wrinkles appeared and a tired expression came on. He had black hair, a slight tan, and green eyes: just another normal-looking dude in an expensive suit. He couldn’t even try to pronounce the suit’s maker and his home had been pulled from a magazine.

The only reason I’m not naming where this is from is because this author just appears to be bad at writing, I can find no evidence of any tampering with the system.  Also from talking to others who have read the book, they say that this sort of bad writing drops off after the beginning sections, but why would you ruin the first impression I have of your novel like this?

Video game insider knowledge, the reason why most endings are crap is because game developers know only about 17% of people finish a game.  This means that working on the ending is something only 17% of people will experience.  Meanwhile, 100% of people will see the beginning.

Lesson?  Your first chapters should be the strongest, that’s what everyone is going to read.

But outside from that, none of the reviews warn that the first chapters are rough.  This lead to me immediately dropping the novel because I thought the reviewers either had never read a book or would just let anything pass.  In short, overly glowing reviews that do not honestly critique a book do not help the author.  I do provide an honest critique of the book, and the problems that manifest at the beginning continue throughout the book.

So what’s the problem?

Okay, so I have to keep wading through dozens of pure crap novels, big deal right?  But there’s a problem.

First, Kindle Unlimited pays per page read.  So an author gets a bunch of overhyped reviews, and an unsuspecting rube like me comes into the picture.  I get the book.  I start reading it.  Then I start skipping through ahead, trying to figure out why the awful book has such high ratings.  Fifty to a hundred pages later, I give up.  The book gets returned.

The author has now received payment for fifty to one hundred pages read.  This money comes from a global fund.  Each page I read from one bad author gets subtracted from the total pool of money Amazon has to give to authors that are part of its program.  That means for every awful page I read, there is a legitimately good author that is being denied revenue.

This is what really iterates me.  Even on Steam, at least the sale of one bad game doesn’t affect the livelihood of a good game developer.  But on AKU, it does.

Second, as an avid reader, I don’t want to go through fifty novels to find one decent one. The reviews are supposed to separate the good from the bad but the reviews mean all of nothing.  It’s no better than a crap shoot.

The result is that I want to remove my subscription to Amazon Unlimited since it doesn’t do me any good.  I usually just wait until a book comes out in audiobook format, since hiring a professional narrator costs money.  This means that the author has to have at least enough confidence in their novel to believe that people not part of an unlimited buying program will want their work.

I think this is why Amazon hammer-banned numerous authors.  They realized the system was being gamed but couldn’t figure out the who/why of the gaming.  Like many hammerbans, this destroyed lots of innocent people and didn’t accomplish anything useful.

Solutions

There are a couple of ways to fix the Amazon Kindle Unlimited nightmare.  They involve the twin pillars of adding skin to the game and removing information asymmetry.  To cover information asymmetry quickly:

Reviews are supposed to be one form of reducing information asymmetry, but because of the proliferation of “non-reviews”, that has dwindled to nothing.  So, how to fix this?

1.)  Pay an upfront cost.  Put 100 dollars in to put a book on Amazon Kindle Unlimited.  If your book does well, it will earn the money back quickly.  If not, then the profits will go to the global pot of authors.  It’s the ease of publishing games using Unity that lead to the shovelware on Steam front, so putting some upfront costs will help stem the tide.

I suspect many will not like this solution, because most can’t even be bothered to hire an editor.  (Seriously, get an editor).  But if you’re serious about writing, then you should have enough faith that your book can earn back a measly upfront cost.  This is skin in the game.

2.)  Start weighing the reviews.  I want to know how many pages of a book a reviewer read.  I want to know how long it took them to read it.  If you have 90 pages read in three minutes, I don’t believe you.

I want to know how helpful people find this reviewer.  I want to know what this reviewer leaves on average.  A high review from a critical reviewer should be weighted higher than a low review from a reviewer who only has five stars on everything.  Conversely, someone who only leaves negative reviews should be weighted lower for leaving a negative review.

Someone who leaves reviews people find helpful should impact a book’s global rating higher than book reviews no one finds useful.  There should be two categories of an author’s ratings: One for only helpful reviews and one for quick (stars only) and unhelpful reviews.

Many readers I know will give a book a one-star as a placeholder for books that they didn’t like and don’t want to pick up again.  This is biased against the author.

By weighting the ratings, this removes the information asymmetry by filtering out high quality information from low quality information.

3.)  Employ a page barrier.  Someone should not earn a cent off of Amazon Kindle unless a certain percentage of the book has been read.  I don’t want money that can go to real authors to be spent on these hack scammers.

4.)  Build a page for Narrators and improve the author page.  Hiring someone to do a narration adds skin to the game, but there is an information asymmetry problem here.  Some narrators are very good, some are very bad, but Amazon has no listing for narrators.

By building a page for a narrator as well as an author, this can show how much this author is worth.  Allow ratings of the narrator outside of the novel, i.e. the narrator gets rated for his/her performance and not for the novel.  Certain narrators are of higher quality and hence cost more, so the presence of a noted or respected narrator indicates a higher amount of skin in the game.  I.e. I’m likely to get a book narrated by MacLeod Andrews because he delivers a great performance each time.

The author page doesn’t list much relevant information.  Why no sales stats?  Why no overall ratings?  Why no highlighted reviewer quotes?

From Jeff Hays on the problem of using AudioBooks as a measuring stick:

Those scams are interesting. Whenever a “Rights holder” publishes a book, ACX gives them 25 audible codes. As you may know, each audible code can purchase one book on Audible, regardless of length. Since the codes ACX gives are not tied to the title the codes were meant to promote, scammers hire a pro narrator to read like 10 minutes of nonsense, pay the narrator (only the really green guys who are happy to make anything) $25 or so, hell maybe even $50, then they turn around and sell the codes on ebay. They don’t care if they never sell a single “audio book” because the money is in the codes.
…this is a phenomenon that I haven’t seen irrefutable evidence of myself, but us narrators used to talk about it in inner circles all the time. ACX has been cleaning house lately, but I don’t know if the problem persists or not. I do all my fishing elsewhere anymore. You can find Audible codes on ebay, and if you search through ACX you might be able to find some of these odd, tiny, usually non-fiction titles that you couldn’t imagine anyone would ever write, let alone buy. Or they’ll have the author name posted as some famous dead author.
I confirmed the Audible Codes portion of it. And it does explain why I see one minute narrations pop up on Audible.

Any other suggestions?  Let me know in the comments.

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