September 13, 2017

Amazon is suing authors it accuses of manipulating the Kindle Unlimited platform for fun and profit


According to reports by Matt Day at the Seattle Times, and Sarah Buhr at TechCrunch, Amazon is filing five complaints with the American Arbitration Association against a number of authors, publishers, and users of the Kindle Direct publishing platform, alleging that they have violated the company’s terms of use. Amazon claims that these individuals solicited and provided services that would artificially increase the sales numbers, and thus the rankings, of self-published content, as well as generate fake reader reviews.

In a statement given to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson claimed, While the vast majority of authors and publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing are genuinely working in good faith to publish and promote their books, a small minority engage in fraud to gain an unfair competitive advantage.”

Buhr reports that Amazon will be pursuing damages “in an amount to be proved during arbitration.” The American Arbitration Association is an independent non-profit that provides support to parties undergoing arbitration, an alternative form of dispute resolution that takes place not before a judge in open court, but behind closed doors under mutually agreed terms. As Nate Hoffelder notes in a post at the Digital Reader, the results are no less binding than a court decision (although they are less enforceable, meaning that court proceedings may be required to actually implement the terms of an arbitration award), and, because the process is far simpler than that of a civil suit, Amazon may be able to secure a resolution in comparatively short order.

The irony of a monopolistic, bullying juggernaut like Amazon complaining about “unfair competitive advantage” is delicious. But, given Amazon’s dominant position in the self-publishing marketplace, they do (or should) have a responsibility to ensure that the platform they’re providing to authors and publishers isn’t being ruined by scammers and frauds.

That said, it’s reasonable to assume that Amazon isn’t actually interested in maintaining a fair and balanced marketplace for its own sake. They’re probably just seeking to avoid inflated royalty payouts, which would be understandable.

As always, the problem here is that Amazon is being allowed to selectively (and privately) set and enforce market regulations, and that these decisions are not necessarily made in the best interest of publishers, writers, authors, or anyone else doing business in that market. Whatever you think of the utility of their services, it’s fucked up that consumer protections are being codified by Amazon’s terms of use, and not by democratically agreed upon standards of fairness and equal access.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.