Some of you will already know about my Amazon publishing nightmare, because I've made mention of it on my Facebook (or I've spoken to you behind the scenes and have sought advice). But for anyone who doesn't know…
Mid-January 2024, Amazon's automated systems decided that I'm a fraudulent and misleading person, and closed my account. It was a heartbreaking moment, because I honestly believed that the 2024 version of my book would get published without it being available for purchase through one of the largest online bookstores. To my relief, that is not the case—I managed to convince Amazon to give me my KDP account back—but we were running close to the wire.
There are positives in all of this mess, even though it is a mess. And there are lessons that I'm learning too.
Stick around, and I'll fill you in on the details.
The 2017 Publishing Venture
In 2017, I released a book titled "Hidden Traps: A Writer's Guide to Protecting Your Online Platform." It was the amalgamation of roughly four years of internet knowledge on building an online platform, filled with hints on how to stay safe online and protect your reputation as a writer.
When I first released that book, I chose to publish and distribute via IngramSpark. This included to Amazon. (And this is a key component to what happened.) So, I didn't have a CreateSpace account and Amazon KDP didn't exist back then. All payments and royalties were being managed by IngramSpark, even the royalties that came from Amazon.
I did this because I was trying to avoid the US$100 threshold that Amazon was putting on royalty payments for those living in New Zealand. I didn't know how much money that book would make, and my reach was incredibly small. But the information contained in the book was important (and continues to be important).
However, I learned very quickly that going through IngramSpark to publish to Amazon was a mistake. Majority of my sales were through Amazon, and I was missing out on many of the promotional opportunities because of choices I had made.
A decision was made that if I ever self-published again that I would go directly to Amazon and use IngramSpark to go wide. (I have other ways of getting around the thresholds before royalties are paid out now, but, for this tale, those details are irrelevant.)
Discontinuation of the Digital Version of the 2017 Book
In June 2023, I received an email from IngramSpark stating that they were discontinuing digital products for my country (New Zealand). As a consequence, IngramSpark pulled the ebook version of the 2017 book from their catalogs and from distribution. The book was terminated in July 2023.
So, I had a choice to make: quickly get the digital version of the 2017 book uploaded to Draft2Digital for distribution, or stop procrastinating and finally rewrite the 2017 book for a whole new version. I chose the latter.
In preparation for the new book, I requested that IngramSpark also pull the print version of the 2017 book, and that was actioned in November 2023.
As we approached the end of 2023, I had a new version of my book about building online platforms ready for publication. New layout. New structure. New content. It was a new book. And with the new book, I decided to see in the new year with a bang.
The new book, scheduled for release on February 18, 2024, is entitled "Hidden Traps of the Internet: Building and Protecting Your Online Platform." (Note the similarities in the title to the 2017 book. This is important for this tale.)
I uploaded the print and ebook files to the distribution networks, including to Amazon, with the intent using Amazon's systems for Amazon and going wide via IngramSpark and Draft2Digital.
An Unintended Lesson
Whenever I do things, I tend to set myself a learning goal to help make the tedium fun for me. I'm a Learner at heart, always wanting to learn something new.
The learning goal I had set myself with the latest publishing venture was to learn how to publish on Amazon and make the most of their systems, including the advertising side of things. It was recommended to me that I should be publishing directly to vendors as much as possible, but until I knew exactly where certain sales were going to come from, I didn't know which platforms to focus my efforts on. I knew with certainty that a large portion of my audience would use Amazon, so I chose to target the Amazon site first in this learning venture.
Well… I'm definitely learning from this mess.
Files were uploaded on December 31, 2023. I tried to order a proof copy right away, but made the mistake of trying to order that from the Amazon Australian store. I was warned not to do it by a writing buddy. I should have listened. So… I couldn't get the proof that I had wanted to order, and I was stuck in a holding pattern until the Amazon systems approved the book.
The print version was approved for the site roughly three (3) days later. It took a bit of finagling, but I got a proof ordered from the US store (which I now have in my hands—it took roughly 3 weeks to arrive).
It turns out that the Australian store is not equipped to print off proof copies or author copies prior to the release date. You have to wait until the book is actually published and available for sale before you can get copies from the Australian store. Frustrating, but that's the deal.
The Curse of the 2017 Book
So, the print version of the 2024 book had been approved, and here I was, waiting for approval of the ebook version… and waiting… and waiting.
On January 10, 2024, I logged into my Amazon KDP account… and my ebook had been blocked. WTF? I didn't know why. There was no email, no explanation. Nothing. The email arrived after I placed a phone call to Amazon and spoke to a person.
During our review, we found that the following book(s) causes a misleading customer experience because it impairs customers' ability to make good buying decisions.
Hidden Traps of the Internet: Building and Protecting Your Online Platform by Mohr, Judy L (AUTHOR) (ID: 56896804)
Items that can cause a misleading customer experience include:
• Similarity of the contributor name to another author
• Similarity of the title to a previously published book
• Similarity of the cover to a previously published book
• Similarity of the publisher listed in the book details to another publisher
• Similarity of the description to a previously published known work
As a result, we will not be making the book(s) available for sale on Amazon.
When I uploaded the new book to the Amazon KDP system, I didn't think anything of the 2017 book. As far as I was aware, IngramSpark had pulled the book from distribution (both the print and the ebook), and that was that. Boy, was I wrong.
When I did some digging, I discovered that the ebook version of my 2017 book was still available for sale on the Amazon site. It didn't matter that IngramSpark had pulled it from distribution. Amazon was still selling it. (It turns out that it was available on other sites too, but I didn't know that at the time.)
And THAT was the problem.
The automated checks (and I'm sure that this nightmare is because of a bot somewhere) had rightly found similarities between my 2024 book and my 2017 book.
It is the same author name.
It is the same publishing imprint.
The title is similar.
Description of the work is similar.
And if you did a comparison of the text inside, you will find many passages that are identical between the two versions.
All the similarities were deliberate, because the 2024 book was a new version (re-envisioned variant) of the 2017 book. I'm not hiding that fact. But it was these deliberate similarities that were 100% of the problem.
I'm not sure if a different title would have avoided this situation. The content and description were still too much the same.
So, I put in the appeal request in hopes that a human would see that the truth behind the situation: that the 2024 book is a new version of the 2017 book that Amazon was still selling, even though it should have been pulled months ago.
The following day, my Amazon KDP account was closed. The reason (and I quote):
We are terminating your account effective immediately because we found that you have published titles with misleading content that have the potential to mislead or defraud our customers.
You can see the violations reflected in the following title(s):
Hidden Traps of the Internet: Building and Protecting Your Online Platform- external_id:56896804
I have to believe that this account closure was the result of an automated system somewhere and not in response to my appeal request. The timing of it was too short to give the "content team" time to review my case.
I put in another appeal request, attaching copyright certificates and proof from IngramSpark that the 2017 book has been pulled from distribution. I put in a helpdesk request with IngramSpark, seeing if they can have the 2017 book properly removed from the Amazon site. It took them a few days, but that 2017 book was gone!
But I was still Limbo Land waiting while Amazon reviewed my request for publication and distribution of the 2024 book.
The Positive: The System is Working!
Despite the mess that I found myself in, I need to stress that the automated system that Amazon has in place is working exactly how it should. The system rightly picked up a book that looked like another book that Amazon had for sale on the site. And the automated system did exactly what it should have done: It blocked the book.
The only thing that I wish was added to the automated systems was a delay between the book being blocked and the account being closed to allow for a review process.
When I put in the appeal request for the blocked book, I knew exactly what was going on. It was the 2017 book that was causing all the problems. Shortly after sending in the appeal, I got an email that said it would take them five (5) business days to review the case.
Okay, I could wait five business days. I wasn't expecting for the account to be closed within 24 hours.
There was no way that the "content team" had a chance to review my case before the account closure happened. It would have been nice if the automated systems provided that time. Perhaps a delay triggered by a review request. If an appeal is received (and the emails are all labels with case numbers), then add a delay of five (5) to ten (10) business days. That's how long it said that the review would take, so why can't they add that delay into the system? Give the "content team" time for the review to take place.
To my relief, I was given my KDP account back on January 24, 2024, fourteen days after nightmare started. And I feel that the fact I got IngramSpark involved in getting that 2017 book properly removed from the Amazon site helped.
When I initially wrote this blog post, I was preparing for the worst-case scenario, where my books would not be listed on Amazon. Thankfully, I don't need to action any of those plans that were made. BUT I can certainly share with everyone the lessons I've learned over the fourteen-day panic-fest.
My Main Learnings from This
Going forward, I'm going to be super-cautious when it comes to my dealings with Amazon, preparing for anything that could take that account away again. (And any future updated versions for my online platform book might not be added to the Amazon site, assuming I ever write another version, because I'm not going through this mess again.)
But here's how you can avoid the same mistakes I've made.
1) Keep records of everything. This includes your communications regarding your publications.
In my appeals to Amazon, I included a PDF transcript of the email communication that I had with IngramSpark regarding the removal of the print version of my book. I also included (in a separate PDF document) a screen capture of my IngramSpark dashboard showing that both the print and the digital versions of the 2017 book had been pulled from distribution.
2) Obtain copyright certificates for your content.
I will grant you that under international laws, your work is copyrighted the moment it is in a tangible format. For a writer, this means that the moment you write your story on paper or type your story into the computer, your work is protected. BUT Amazon won't honor that without proof. And the only proof that really works with them is an official certificate.
If you live in a country that doesn't have a formal copyright process and doesn't issue copyright certificates (like I do), then find another solution. I currently have my works registered for copyright using Copyright Index. From what I could tell, Amazon accepted those certificates, because they didn't ask me for further proof of copyright.
3) Publish direct to Amazon. Leave Amazon to Amazon.
If you are publishing books with the intent to have them listed on the Amazon site, definitely go direct to Amazon. If I had done that back in 2017, I might have been able to avoid this situation altogether.
There are additional tools available to publishers (and writers with an Amazon KDP account are publishers) that include the ability to pull your own books from their site. I'm not saying that you won't encounter other issues with the automated bots, but at least my particular scenario could have been avoided.
4) Think about titles and description similarities. This is particularly the case if you are writing nonfiction.
Will that older book come back and bite you in the ass like mine did?
To be honest, I think I still would have encountered issues. If the bot had run a content check too, they would have found whole passages that were identical between the two books. But that was the nature of the book that I was writing.
If I ever right another verions of this book, it will get using the same main title as the 2024 book at least, and be called a 2nd Edition.
5) Unless there is a specific marketing strategy for going Amazon exclusively, go wide.
If I had been Amazon exclusive for my 2024 book, I could have been facing a situation where I would have had to shift publication dates. As it was, I was cutting it close to be up for pre-orders on many sites. (IngramSpark will only load print books for pre-orders if the book is listed as "available" 30 days before the publication date at a minimum. My 2024 book was formally listed as "available" 41 days before publication.)
6) Give yourself plenty of time prior to publication for "hiccups".
I was cutting it close with the upload dates, getting it loaded on the IngramSpark with 11 days to spare before the pre-order was no longer an option for me. If anything had gone wrong on that system, it could have meant that pre-order wasn't going to happen. So, next time I publish, I'll be adding another month in the upload timeline.
If everything goes off without a hitch, then it just means that you have more time on your hands to build "buzz" about the book, giving your ARC readers heaps of time to get their reviews up.
But the publishing industry is a hurry-up-and-wait industry. Once the book was loaded into IngramSpark, it still took a week before the book started showing up on certain sites. And I'm still waiting for it to show up on other sites, but I'm guessing that it will mysteriously appear after it's been published and released. And it took nearly a week before my 2024 book was listed on the Goodreads site. And that initial listing had a few messes of its own that needed to be sorted before I told my ARC team about it. Like I needed to get the Author correctly attributed to me.
All of this takes time. So, build that time into your production schedule.
7) Keep track of your book listings on certain sites, no matter how they got there.
It's this last one that was probably my biggest failing. I foolishly believed that if the book had been pulled from IngramSpark from distribution that it would have been pulled from the available status on all retailer sites. I WAS WRONG! And it was this particular oversight that caused my issue.
The moment I realized the issue, I reached out to IngramSpark and asked if there was anything that they could do. They put out a formal request/broadcast to all retailers to have the digital version of the book removed from listings. It took a few days, but Amazon removed the problematic book. And it was removed from other sites too. BUT the 2017 book is still floating around for purchase.
At the time of writing this blog post, the digital version of the 2017 book was still available on Kobo. IngramSpark has assured me that it will eventually disappear from Kobo too, but they can't give me a timeline. While the Kobo listing of the 2017 book is not impacting on the listing of the 2024 book on the Kobo site in any way, it is impacting on my ability to get the 2017 book removed from Bookbub (an independent review site similar to Goodreads). As long as that Kobo listing of the 2017 book is there, Bookbub won't take the book down. But you know what, that's one fight that I've decided is not worth my energy. If Bookbub wants to keep the 2017 book on their site, so be it. It's not impacting on the sale of the 2024 book in any way, and that's what's important here.
I'm sure there are other lessons too, but for now, I'm able to move on.
All Things are GO!
While it was a journey with Amazon, and there are still a few things that I need to do to ensure that Amazon links versions properly (and lists the books on my Amazon Author page), I'm pleased that my book will be made public to the world on February 18, 2024.
In addition to the Amazon listings, the ebook version is available on Apple Books, Kobo, Nook, Smashwords, and a variety of other retailers. It's even being made available in the digital libraries. The print version is available from Barnes & Noble, Booktopia (Australia), ThriftBooks, Hive Books, Waterstones, and a long list of other locations.
And when I see the pre-order buttons change over to "Buy Now", it will be party time!
Take control over your online presence.
Building an online platform is an overwhelming and daunting task, with many pitfalls and horror stories surrounding the internet. It’s not surprising that many writers shy away from online activities, putting that online presence into the do-it-later category. But to survive in today’s publishing industry, a writer needs to be online.
This book focuses on how to build an online platform in a safe manner. Judy L Mohr (writer, editor, and writing coach) talks you through the various components of an online platform, showing you the tricks to staying safe online, carving out your own little corner of the internet while building that author platform.
Available in print and ebook.More info →