ANNOUNCEMENT: We’ve just closed another round of funding. But there’s a twist… we’re letting you be part of it. Click here to learn more.
ANNOUNCEMENT: We’ve just closed a round of funding and we’re letting you be part of it. Click here to learn more.

Part 2: Confessions from the Scammy, Underground World of Kindle eBooks

I gamed Amazon, plagiarized another author, and became a #1 ranked, bestselling romance novelist author in one week. I disgust myself.

July 20, 2015
Dear reader,

After this post was published it has come to our attention that the book we used, “Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin” has been under copyright since 2008 and not, in fact, in the public domain. The offending website where we found the full text pirated the book illegally and, as everyone knows, two wrongs don’t make a right so we are also at fault.

We’d like to apologize to the book’s author, Ms. Cleary, and her publisher for our error in judgment. Her book is available on Amazon if you’re looking for a romantic jaunt. We really did enjoy her work and wholeheartedly recommend it to interested readers.

Additionally, commenting on this post has been disabled because the unfortunate copyright infringement detracted from our original intention. This isn’t meant to be a solution to the problem, just a knee-jerk reaction to a situation we created. We’re sorry to all that have been offended by the lapse in judgment.

Onwards,
The Hustle

Updated July 22, 2015

This month’s theme for The Hustle is people who game the system. This is the second part of the weekly series. Click here and enter your email to follow along.


I’m not a great writer. I’m also out of touch with my emotional side. Yet somehow I’m a #1 best-selling Kindle author who, in 5 days, sold over 1,800 copies of a romance novel that took me only 1 week to create.

So how did I do it?

Maybe crafting love stories is the hidden gift I’ve taken 28 years to discover.

Or maybe it’s because I ripped off a free book that I found online, made up a middle-aged author from Ohio, and then played Amazon like a fuckin’ vintage banjo to become the #1 ranked book in not one, but two separate categories.

Yeah, it’s probably the second reason.

Welcome to the good life, now throw your hands up in the sky

The Backstory

Last week, we published an article on the sleazy, underground world of publishing Kindle books. In the article, an anonymous 26 year-old successful “author”, who makes over $150k/year slinging self-help Kindle ebooks, told us exactly how he does it. He’s what we like to call a Kindle Gold Rusher.

To summarize, our insider self-publishes a few books a month, many of which rank #1 in their categories and sell thousands of copies. But there’s a catch: not only does our insider know very little about the topics he’s writing on… he isn’t even doing the writing. Instead, he outsources to a ghostwriter in the Philippines for $150 a pop.

We, along with most of our readers, had strong emotions about the article. The overwhelming feeling was that of disgust. But — and this is a BIG “but” — we’d be lying if we said there wasn’t a small part of us that wanted in on a successful scheme like this.

commentary via Reddit

Mythbusters + Jackass = Me

Rather than pass immediate judgment, I set out to answer the question everyone was thinking: Is becoming a best-selling author really that easy?

So, because this was too good to pass up, I decided to see if I could go from having no idea to creating a #1 ranking Kindle book in one week, using (most of) the instructions outlined in the previous post.

And not just any type of book, but a full blown Fabio-on-the-cover romance novel.

My goal was simple: follow the method outlined in our last post and publish a best-selling book on Amazon — meaning it’s the #1 most popular book in its category — in only 7 days. The only rule was any profits had to be donated to charity because, as you’ll see, we were pretty much ripping people off.

Alright, enough backstory. Hold onto your butts. Time to get in it.

Writing the Book, Without Actually Writing

Why a romance novel, you ask? Three reasons. First, romance is one of the most popular Kindle categories, so I knew the market size was big. Second, our insider told us it’s an easy category to game. Third, and most important, I thought it was funny.

I never planned on doing much actual writing. Our insider didn’t, so neither would I. My goal was 20,000 words (insider’s suggestion) and my brain doesn’t work anywhere near that level. Plus, most Kindle Gold Rushers use ghostwriters, which take longer than a week to find. I’m definitely not above cutting corners. Startup nerds call it an MVP; I say it’s practicality.

My first attempt was artfully combining a public domain romance novel from 1909 with a modern-day erotica. That came to an end fast when the story started jumping from feeding the family livestock to getting handjobs under high school bleachers. The plot didn’t make any sense. I wanted a cohesive storyline so if strangers downloaded the book they’d at least be entertained enough to give a 5-star review.

Note: If you’re interested, I was working with “A Girl of the Limberlost” and “Army Brat.” Apparently Literotica, a free erotica site that boasts over 4.5 million monthly visitors, has been the target of rampant plagiarism on Amazon.

Plan B was more straightforward: find a romance novel in the public domain, make sure it reads well enough, change the character names, and repackage it. In other words, shameless plagiarism for the sake of science with little to no remorse. Thankfully, the internet exists. It took only 10 minutes of searching to find my golden goose: “Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin” by Anna Cleary.

According to our insider, the most popular romance novels involve billionaires, military men, or jungle fever. This book hit one of those, plus taking someone’s virginity.

It only took a couple hours to copy and paste the 60,000 words into a 160 page Microsoft Word document. Reading the damn thing took the longest time but, I wasn’t complaining… it was actually pretty good. Seriously, don’t diss it ‘til you try it.

To hit one more popular romance theme, I changed all the characters’ names and made the male protagonist black for a little jungle fever action. As soon as Connor O’Brien became Carter Voss we were in business. I was ready to move on to the title and cover image.

It took 9 years to write Atlas Shrugged. I wrote my best seller in 3 hours. Get on my level, Ayn Rand.

Creating the Cover and Description

They say not to judge a book by its cover but, in the case of writing and selling shitty Kindle books, the cover is all that matters. People tend to buy Kindle books based on the eye-catchiness of the cover, and the book’s description. The actual insides are an afterthought, so I really had to nail the facade. That meant a mix between script and bold sans-serif font, a shirtless six-pack, photo filters for color correction, and a suggestive look that’ll make you wanna bend over and recite the fifty states.

Our boy on the inside gets his covers made on Fivver for $5, but I know how to use Photoshop, so I made my own. It took me about an hour to create and cost $20 for iStock photos. The image size is surprisingly large and I was on the hunt for a specific look.

Note: Here’s a decent guide that tells you what elements to look for in a cheesy romance novel cover. My first thought was to combine all of them but, as you can imagine, it looked ridiculous. I wanted believable.

What do you think? Did I nail it?

Publishing on Amazon

Uploading the book was a breeze following simple instructions. Then it was just a few hours to wait for approval.

Speaking of approval, I totally got caught plagiarizing. Shortly after my submission, Amazon sent me the following email explaining that they found some content in my book that was freely available on the web.

…No shit.

full-screen-22

Busted… but not really

I was busted, and this whole thing was over. Surely I can’t publish something they know is plagiarized, right?

Wrong.

Amazon gave me 5 days to either resubmit, to confirm that the book is in the public domain, or to remove the book from submission. I resubmitted as soon as I got the email and 10 hours later “Captivating Claire: A First-Time Billionaire Romance” was up and running in the Kindle store (we’ve since unpublished).

Now it was time to create Amber Ward’s author page. This is through a separate Amazon service called Author Pages where people can claim their own work. It’s tied to an email address so you can’t claim other people’s shit.

My pen name came from the suggestion to use a sexy female stripper name like Kendra, Nikki, or Crystal. Amber Ward was made it up on the spot because I thought it looked believable.

Writing Amber’s bio was my favorite part:

A 2015 AMSR® finalist, Amber Ward is a proud indie author who grew up traveling, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and briefly worked in the business world. With three older brothers, Amber escaped to romance novels at an early age and has been hooked ever since. She’s always been fascinated with clocks, refuses to eat anything green, and loves a glass of chardonnay at sunset. Amber lives in Ohio with her husband, two daughters, and their spirited Yorkie, Boots.

Amber Ward, ladies and gentlemen

I wanted readers to identify with her passion for romance. For inspiration, I took the real bio pages of five authors, took a sentence from each, and changed the wording to match Amber’s fake persona. The picture came from googling “middle aged woman” and picking the top result.

The AMSR® award is fake. The Yorkie is fake. Literally every single thing on the author page was pulled out of thin air. Really makes you question some of the shit you see out there.

And of course, no best-seller is complete without a few testimonials. Please note that JH Book Reviews is just my initials, and Pacific Weekly and BookWrm are made up names that sound real. Simple.

Promotion

So the goal of this experiment was to be #1 in our category, mostly to see if gaming Amazon was possible, but also because I’ve always wanted to put “best-seller” on my LinkedIn. I didn’t care if people liked the book (like many Kindle Gold Rushers), I just wanted them to hit the buy button. Because of that, the most important tactic, according to our insider, is to seed the book with tons of fake reviews.

Amazon makes fake reviews super easy. Publishers are given a promotion period of up to five days where the book is free to download. Many authors use this time to solicit reviews from their friends, family, and fake reviewers so they can get the love without the cost. It’s a big ask for people so, to lube up the process, I made a spreadsheet of 60 reviews, which our insider told us was common practice. Most of the reviews were yanked from other books. They all say the same things and reading through them convinced me that they were fake to begin with. Somehow using fake reviews to create more fake reviews doesn’t seem that bad.

I sent the book to 50 friends. After downloading, they copied/pasted with a review I provided. This worked super well and, after a couple days, we had 45 reviews with an average rating of 4.8 (to look authentic, I asked a few buds to give 3 stars). It was strange asking my buds to review a romance novel by the great Amber Ward, but they’ll understand now. This part only took two days.

At one point, I accidentally had two different friends use the same review. Thankfully, neither were flagged.

For people who don’t have 50 friends to ask, there are dozens of services you can use. Our insider had a team of reviewers he found on Craigslist. I ended up paying $2.50 for 5 reviews on Fivver. Google999, the user on Fiverr we used, was able to provide up to 60 reviews within a few hours.

These reviews were all fake

Another trick to boost downloads is to put the book in categories that aren’t competitive, so it’s easy to rise to the top. The book was ranked #6 in African-American Romance, a very competitive category, within two days of starting. By the third day though, it looked like it was too crowded to hit #1 with only a few days of planning.

So, with our insider’s assistance, I sent Amazon an email and asked them to switch the book to more favorable categories: African-American Historical Romance and Ancient World Romance. Once the switch was made, it didn’t take long to jump to #1 in both.

Outranking Toni Morrison and Uncle Tom’s Cabin… my 8th grade english teacher would be proud

The Results

After a day of “writing” and 3 days of marketing, my goal was reached. When I saw the #1 next to my book, I felt like a proud father of a beautiful — but sleazy — baby girl.

The book was downloaded 1,815 times during the promotional period and had 9 sales. 50 of the downloads came from our friends. The rest were organic.

Success!

I was the #1 selling author in the free section in Ancient World Historical Romance and African American Historical Fiction. Did I give a shit that these categories had essentially nothing to do with the book’s content? Not at all. I made the grade and hit it big time in only a week. I’m ready to start speaking at conferences.

Screenshot captured July 17, 2015

Gaming Amazon is Plausible

It should be noted that my rise to stardom happened in the free section of the Kindle store. We wanted to run this experiment in a limited amount of time and, up to this point, most of the book’s existence has been during free promotional periods (I actually got Amazon to give us 2 more free days after we switched categories. Just email them.). We’ll have to wait to see what happens in the long run. Follow us on Facebook to get periodic updates on the sales.

But here’s the point — there’s a whopping $9.96 with my name on it. You know, the first buck you make in the literary world really makes scamming innocent people totally worth it. Chedda heavy.

I did this test because I wanted to see how easy it was to game Amazon, similar to the author of last week’s article. Although I personally saw our insider’s Amazon account and know he had earned north of $13k in June and was on track to top that in July, I still had doubts whether it was possible to replicate. And I wasn’t alone – 50% of the comments on that post doubted whether it was legit.

Even though I only sold around 9 copies of the novel, I was able to claim the honor of authoring a bestseller by gaming Amazon’s process, which is common practice amongst Kindle Gold Rushers. Think of all the authors using a similar method and calling themselves “bestsellers” and “experts”. Although this was a small test with a low number of sales, this experiment proved that this method can be a successful way to claim credibility.

So here’s my personal conclusion: Even though I didn’t make much money, if I kept at this full time for another 5 months or so, I believe this strategy could bring in a comfy salary (as long as Amazon doesn’t change the rules).

Now, whether I’d feel comfortable doing that is another story.

Gut Reaction

Gaming Amazon is a tough issue. On one hand, readers are sometimes duped into buying books that come from less-than-reputable sources who have little expertise. Although my book has yet to make thousands of dollars like our insider, I did make a fake book and author look very real, and realistically could have made a lot of money if I had more time. And even worse, anecdotal research showed that many of the Kindle Gold Rushers prey on vulnerable readers in the self-help section.

On the other hand, does it really matter? The information age brushed away our internal filters and skepticism to the point where we take most things at face value. Shouldn’t we be used to this by now?

Essentially, we pay authors to do research on a topic and write about their findings and there’s always the chance they’re wrong or wacko. Whose responsibility is it to enforce fact-finding and overall legitimacy? If someone wants to buy and believe these books, let them! Plus, don’t you remember seeing cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store check out? How’s this different?

 

The biggest issue here isn’t that scammers are raking in cash from low-quality content, it’s that Amazon is allowing this to happen. Google had the same problem with content farms gaming search, but they fixed it. It’s shocking that I was not only caught plagiarizing and was still allowed to post my book, but that I could realistically profit big time from stealing other people’s work and deceiving my buyers. Hell, some people use Wikipedia articles as a book (RIP Gigaom) and profit big time. If Amazon wants to live up to its core value of putting the customer first, this needs to change.

Call me a skeptic now, but until Amazon fixes the process and standards, I won’t be buying any self-published books (other than for entertainment purposes, of course). My life’s too short to waste reading content from busch-league “experts” so New York Times and Reddit, you have my attention. That said, stay tuned for Amber Ward’s highly anticipated next novel. Critics are already raving.

Note #1: Amazon recently changed how it pays authors for books enrolled in its Kindle Unlimited. This may be the answer to my concerns, but it’s too early to say.

Note #2: Some commenters from our last article didn’t believe the results from Kindle gold rushing were legit. If you fall into that camp, do a quick Google search and I’m sure you’ll find others with similar stories as well as more than a few courses on the topic.


A note from The Hustle: Every morning at 9am Pacific, we send an email with the top news stories in business and tech. It's kind of like if your friend read the internet all day then told you the important stuff in a fun, easy to understand way. Join the club and impress your coworkers with how smart you are.


John HavelJohn Havel // The Hustle