When the Robots Rise, Scams are Inevitable


I’ve written before about how the “robots” of publishing are impacting both writers and readers. If writers aren’t fruitlessly chasing algorithms, readers are being scammed by authors who plagiarize in order to meet “quotas” that will appease the Amazon bots. Then there are the reviewers who have their privileges taken away because a bot deems them fake or a shill.

It’s a mess. Sites like Amazon have put the robots in charge and created a toxic environment for readers, writers and publishers. What gets me is that people act surprised about this. There is much outrage and hand-wringing. “How could they do this? Why can’t readers find my books? All the scammers make it impossible to find legitimate authors, or to get my own work noticed!” And on and on it goes.

Why are you surprised?

In any industry, scams are inevitable when the human touch is removed from the situation. Here’s why: A robot has no capacity for individual judgement or thought. It acts as it is programmed. If that programming says, “Anyone who sells X books per month gets included in our better promotions,” for example, then that’s what happens. If the bot is told, “Pay authors based on the number of pages read in an ebook,” it does that. The bot has no way to know exactly how that person is achieving the goal. It only knows that the goal is achieved, and doles out rewards accordingly.

It may be that the author is a fast writer, or that they are a marketing genius. They may also be plagiarizing other’s content, as has happened a few times in the romance genre. The person getting paid tons of money for page reads may have really engrossing books, or they may be engaging in “stuffing.” (Stuffing is putting junk at the end of the book in order to make it appear longer and get readers to push on to the last page. So a 200 page novel becomes a 200 page novel plus 500 pages of “stuff” with some sort of carrot promised at the end so the reader will go all the way to the end, increasing the pages read.)

The bot can’t know what’s really happening so it acts as programmed, promoting the junk along with the good stuff. So what happens if it’s all a scam?

First, the scammer succeeds. They get pushed up the rankings and other, legitimate, authors get pushed down. They make a boatload of money. Eventually, the scam is discovered. The “authors” don’t usually care too much. They’ve either made their money and skip out, or they create new identities and accounts and keep going.

The bot, on the other hand, gets reprogrammed with a tighter set of controls to prevent the scam from succeeding again. Unfortunately, that tighter programming results in even more legitimate work being shoved down in the rankings because it happens to share some characteristic with a scam.

If, for example, the bot is now told, “Don’t promote anyone who publishes more than one book per month,” (on the thought that such writers are scamming the system) that punishes authors who are legitimately fast writers. (And there are a few.) And so it goes until legitimate authors are so hamstrung that they can’t gain any traction at all in the marketplace.

If they try to talk to Amazon about any of it, Amazon clams up and falls on their “proprietary algorithm” sword. They won’t talk to authors or reviewers about why they’ve been banned, or why readers never see their books promoted in the “also read section.” It’s all bot, all the time, and if the baby goes out with the bathwater, too bad.

Again. Why is anyone surprised by this?

Bots are not intelligent. As such, anyone who can figure out how the bot operates can outsmart the bot. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have the time to do just this. When there’s big money on the line (and there have been stories of scammers making $100,000 per month on Amazon), it’s not at all shocking the lengths people will go to to outsmart the bot.

What’s sad is that rather than say, “Okay, the bot thing isn’t working, let’s bring some human sense back into the equation,” Amazon and other sites double down on the bot strategy. “Well, if we can just tweak the bot, we can outwit the scammers,” is the thought.

No, you can’t. And why? Say it again: The bot is not intelligent and humans are. A dedicated human can always find ways to twist the bot’s programming in his favor. And they will.

When you create a numerical, game-able system of promotion and ranking, and you make that system the end all, be all of success, scams are as inevitable as pimples on a teenager. So I’m surprised that anyone is surprised when yet another story of plagiarism, stuffing, or review farming comes out. As an author, I hate what the system has done to discoverability and reader’s trust. But I can’t say I’m shocked when my colleagues gnash their teeth over how hard it is to break past the system. I’m sympathetic, but not surprised. The word jaded comes to mind.

See, along with writing novels I’m also a freelance writer. I do a lot of my work in the computer industry. When it comes to bots, I’ve literally written the book on some of them. And I knew the instant Amazon turned over it’s sales and reviewing engines to the bots that trouble was on the horizon.

Perhaps that’s why I can’t bring myself to obsess or even care about it anymore. The system is broken and until Amazon sees that and brings in some humans to moderate the bots, we’re all screwed. And we will get more screwed with every tweak of the bot. You can forget adding humans back into the mix. It costs money because humans expect things like wages and that cuts into profit. So forget the humans. Their input is expensive. Robots work for free. Bots are here to stay.

Meanwhile, the scammers who have the time and the knowledge to outwit the bot will get richer. It’s inevitable. The system is set up to encourage scams and punish legitimate authors and reviewers, as well as readers who just want legitimate books. It’s sad and a shame, but when you put all your trust in robots, you get what you ask for.

All we writers can do is write good books and hope for the best. It’s always been true that you should write because you love it, but that’s even truer today. Most legitimate authors, particularly those with smaller presses or who self-publish, don’t stand a chance against a bot-driven system. Write because you love it, and don’t waste your life pining over a system you can’t beat. (At least not without resorting to cheating.) Maybe someday Amazon and its ilk will realize the mistake of entrusting reading and publishing to bots, but I’m not holding my breath.

(Photo by Rock’n Roll Monkey)

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