C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

See all my books at AllThatChazz.com.

How Amazon Killed My Book

I wrote about a book nerd who went through life feeling like a nail. Through an incredible ordeal, Ovid Fairweather becomes a hammer. Tonight, I feel like a nail and my head is pounding.

It took me two years to pen my latest apocalyptic epic. Endemic, partially informed by the unfolding global pandemic, is an action-packed psychological story that pits a flawed and highly sensitive protagonist against a collapsed system. I love this book, but now I’m the one with the sensory-processing sensitivity suffering at the hands of a system. Amazon killed my book. What follows is a cautionary tale.

The Timeline

Endemic launched on October 27, 2021. I soon received three reviews, all five-stars. I noticed a new five-star that appreciated the humor. The next time I checked, that review mysteriously disappeared. Thinking that strange, I reached out to the Amazon Review Moderation team to ask what was going on and could that lovely review get reinstated? Oddly enough, that same reviewer remembered another of my novels and reviewed that one, too. That review of the previous book is still up, no problems. Clearly, the reviewer was not the issue. But what was? My questions and frustrations outpaced the answers I was to receive.

On November 20, I finally heard something from the Amazon Review Team regarding my query. “We removed your review because we detected unusual review behavior on this product and are not accepting reviews of it at this time… Once we remove a review that does not comply with our guidelines, the reviewer may not submit any new reviews on the same product.” This is done to enhance customer trust in reviews. I understand that, but Amazon’s handling of this situation did serious damage to my trust.

In the same email, they invited me to review their community guidelines. I did, and I can assure everyone that didn’t help because I did nothing wrong. When did the review freeze actually begin? I have no idea. From the moment I accidentally stumbled on the problem to now is eighteen days, but it could be longer, taking a mortal chunk the critical first thirty days from launch day.

Innocence does not protect us.

I sent an appeal with three key questions.

1. How long does this review freeze last?
2. Is this a tech issue from an overly aggressive algorithm?
3. How can I appeal or resolve this?


I ended the email with the standard, “Thank you for your attention to this matter.”

The trouble was that there was no attention to this matter. After a two-year hiatus since publishing my last book, my new novel was quickly dying on the vine. I received no reply to the three key questions.

The Twist

The next day I did get a message from someone claiming to be from Amazon Spain. (I suppose my book are available there, but I write only in English so I sell few if any books there.) They wrote:

Hello from Amazon Selling Partner Support,

I understand you are facing issues with customer reviews.

Your account is currently in an inactive status and no further subscription fees will be charged to your account. If you take no further action on your account, it will remain inactive.

That was a little scary. The first thing I did was to make sure Endemic and the rest of my backlist was still available for sale. Yep! So what was this about?

A link was included to take me to a dashboard, but suspecting it might be a scam, I didn’t click it. Instead, I called Amazon immediately. The connection was so bad that the customer service agent sounded like she was underwater. The upshot was that the email was not from KDP, so I could safely ignore it. That line about knowing I was “facing issues with customer reviews” sure made me question what the heck was going on, though. Was the scammer at the root of the “unusual review behavior” setting me up? No idea. When I spoke to someone at Amazon who was helpful, they declined to speculate. (But that helpful phone call didn’t happen right away. Read on.)

Trying again

Hearing nothing from Amazon for a week, I sent a second query. On November 30, I finally heard back, but the answer I got was infuriating. It was strictly boilerplate stuff answering a question I did not ask. Instead, they asked me for specifics on what review had possibly violated Customer Review Guidelines. None that I’m aware of. That was the whole point!

Was this a reading comprehension problem? I have heard other authors are experiencing the phenomenon of disappearing reviews. Perhaps customer support is overwhelmed with queries. Nonetheless, that response was worse than useless. Writers write for many reasons. One is to be heard. I was not being heard.

Finally, a crack of light

Fed up, I tried the phone again and got a helpful agent. John informed me that when there are review freezes, the investigation isn’t supposed to last longer than five days. We were well past that and John was sympathetic to my plight. He asked for a case number, but I was not given a case number from the Amazon Review Moderation Team. He said he would send them an email and encouraged me to send an email again detailing our call. Hoping that would spur some action, I thanked him for his kindness and shot off another email. Hoping for the review freeze to thaw, I detailed it all again. Tired yet? I sure was. Still am.

Then I waited.

And waited. No new emails arrived. I was in limbo. I got depressed. My immune system crashed. I got sick and I’m still recovering.

As I write this, it’s December 9. Last night, someone rated Endemic with three stars, no review. Ordinarily, I’d grumble something to myself about being appreciated after I’m dead. However, that was how I found out the freeze had finally thawed. I began to alert my street team and a fresh, happy review is up! Hurray! Well, not quite hurray. I’m grateful for reviews, but the first month is critical to gaining momentum and getting happy attention from Amazon’s algorithms. Readers love a new book, and my work was frozen in amber for too long. Reheating is difficult and requires a bigger investment in advertising and publicity. (Yes, I guess this post is my stab at the free publicity part. Venting my spleen might also be therapeutic. Am I bitter? Sure, why wouldn’t I be?)

Lessons learned

  1. The Amazon Review Moderation Team is a walled garden. I could phone KDP Customer Support, but not the ARMT. They should probably fix that, but I’m betting it would make for an angry call center with high turnover. There’s a need for the work the review team does and it must be difficult. Crushing hopeful authors should not be one of the bullet points on their whiteboard in the break room.
  2. As noted above, you can do nothing wrong and everything right and still get screwed over. That’s life. But what was the “unusual review behavior”? No idea. Will I ever know? No. Is there anything I could do to avoid this happening again? No. I have published well over 30 books with Amazon, mostly under my name, some with pen names. This is the first trouble with Amazon I’ve had, but am I gun shy now? You bet.
  3. Note that I was never warned that a review freeze had been enacted. I only found out because I inquired. They assigned no case number to the issue. They also didn’t tell me the results of their investigation or that the review freeze had been lifted. Feedback is not their strong suit. (I can’t say for sure what their strong suit is.) As a result, I can’t tell you how to immunize yourself from the same treatment.
  4. I suspect an overly aggressive algorithm, not a human being, is to blame for freeze and review removal. Humans are to blame for not assigning case numbers, failing to alert authors about investigations, and failing to complete investigations in a timely manner. Nor was there any report of the outcome of said investigation. I guess we could point fingers at the programmer who came up with the algo, too. After that initial stumble, the shit rolled downhill pretty fast, huh?
  5. For any cynical readers here, suppose for a moment that, after 30+ books, I did do something to contravene terms of service. I don’t know what that would be, so I couldn’t even course correct were I guilty of something.
  6. As this debacle unfolded, the head of my writers’ mastermind group told me there was probably not much I could do. He was right. Another guru’s answer was, “Don’t worry about it, just keep marketing,” I did waste money on Facebook and Amazon advertising in the dim hope of salvaging the launch. Hard to get any traction on a book with only three reviews, though.
  7. The obvious lesson is to go wide and sell beyond Amazon. That’s not the insurance one would hope, as I explain below. Will I take Endemic wide as soon as it’s out of KDP Select? That’s not the easy answer many might think. It will depend on how high I can get this dead cat to bounce.
  8. Last year a big publisher approached me about going hybrid. I’m reconsidering that offer now. Is that trading one uncaring master for another? Possibly, but it would be nice to be able to talk to a human when they mess up. At least smaller organizations have identifiable humans to speak to.
  9. Due to depression, anxiety, and isolation, the pandemic got me in nasty ways without actually infecting me. That’s why it took two years to write Endemic. Putting my excuses aside for a moment, it might be better to write more and publish more often. That way, this one torpedoed novel might not have been so devastating.
  10. So keep writing, I guess. Sometimes this work feels like an expensive hobby. Sometimes I think about quitting, but what else could I do? This is my last of four careers and I’m unsuited for much else. Fortunately, I had NaNoWriMo to fall back on. November would have been much tougher without it. A little friendly competition among friends kept me writing through this nonsense.

A word about Amazon Derangement Syndrome

I’ve sold books on Amazon since 2010. For the past several years, it’s been my only source of income. I have migrated a bunch of my backlist to other platforms, but frankly, that’s pennies compared to the amount I’ve sold on Amazon. I’ve found it to be the superior sales platform in most ways for me and my genres for over a decade. Amazon gets bookselling right, except when they don’t.

Did I feel trepidation about publishing this post? Sure, but not because I fear Amazon cares what I think. They’ve demonstrated they don’t. The root of my hesitation comes from other writers whose reflex is to defend Amazon no matter what.

Some writers will not entertain criticisms of The Mighty Zon. Their reasoning is that they’re grateful to a platform which provides them income. Where would we be without them? I agree with that to an extent. However, we can point out problems when they exist. Not doing so with Amazon is like saying, “We depend on cops to protect us, so don’t you dare complain when they stomp you for no reason.”

Don’t bite the hand that feeds us, some say. But Amazon didn’t feed me this time out. With discourtesy and caprice, they sabotaged me. As of tonight, the all-time income from Endemic’s ebook, paperback, and hardcover is $104.34. I spent more on that getting author copies.

Hint: If your reflex is to dismiss my little troubles, go away. If your inclination is to blame the victim, assume I did something shady, or leave a nasty comment, go away. I’ve already been sufficiently abused through this ordeal. How badly? As I write this, Endemic is #490,296 in the Kindle Store, #4,303 in Dystopian Fiction, #5,461 in Dystopian Science Fiction, and #8,220 in Science Fiction Adventure.

Endemic deserves much better.

There’s risk in writing for a living, of course. I’ve worked in trad and independent publishing and I accept the dangers of my calling. However, do you? Like I said, this isn’t merely whining. This is a cautionary tale. If you are about to embark on a writing career, this is your warning from someone who has been at it for quite a while. Don’t bank too hard on one book. There are so many variables you can’t control. There are venomous snakes in the grass and booby-traps. Best-laid plans and all that.

Is there hope? In the long tail of retail, yes. Endemic will be available forever. It’s a solid book I’m proud of, bound to entertain. However, barring a stellar turnaround, I’ll probably always go to sleep each night thinking my hard work got shortchanged. I have an eidetic memory for unfortunate events and this sting will feel hot for a long time.

Some think the writing life isn’t work. True, sometimes the words come easy. I’ve often found this work is wonderful even when it’s not so easy. And sometimes, like any great love, it can break your heart.

Filed under: publishing, , , , , , , ,

5 Responses

  1. It was a damn fine book and it deserves to be read.

  2. eden baylee says:

    Thanks for sharing your story about Amazon, Rob, painful as it must’ve been to do so.

    The important thing is you’ve written a book you’re proud of, and I hope your readership will only grow. Sometimes, all we can do as writers is … write. To fight the bureaucracy will suck all your energy. You have a worthy case, but you’re up against an uncaring, seemingly anonymous entity.

    Take care of your health, first and foremost my friend, then feel free to battle again.

    Here if you want to chat, xox
    e

  3. Annie says:

    As a reviewer, I’ve had this happen several times. I write honest and sometimes even harsh reviews – I guess that’s why they made me a Vine reviewer. (I live in Italy, so all the lovely ‘freebie’ perks don’t apply, unfortunately.) I recently wrote a glowing 5 star review for a product which was rejected by Amazon Italy “after careful and in depth (blah blah blah) it has been determined that your review contravenes the guidelines.” (something to that effect.) They invited me to check the guidelines. I was so pissed. It was a long and well written review. I tried again, but no success. There is NO-ONE you can contact. When I contacted the seller in Spain, they were sympathetic to the problem. “Don’t even get us started on Amazon’s review rejections.” This is a small business making excellent products. Amazon wields crazy power and uses it indiscriminately as far as I can see. They have the power to make or break you, devastate or inspire you. It’s a monster. I’ve considered creating a blog for rejected reviewers and unfairly treated sellers who have no other recourse. You can’t argue with a bot. Unfortunately the world of blogs and anything remotely computer related is beyond my abilities. Hopefully something will be resolved.
    All the best for your book(s) Robert. You’ve inspired me to go check out Endemic.

  4. acflory says:

    I’ve only just started reading Endemic, but I’m really enjoying it. As for Amazon… At the beginning of this year, I did a three month promotion during which I put one book up for free every 2 weeks. The idea was to get some more reviews. Vokhtah and Miira had 19 each, and I really wanted to bump that up to 20. Miira ended up with 24, and all the others moved up the review ladder as well, but Vokhtah? It went /down/ to 18. All these months later, I still have no idea why.
    Unlike you, I’m on a pension so the peanuts I make from sales isn’t an issue, but being read /is/. Unfortunately, going wide was a flop too, partly because two major distributors took exception to my name. Apparently all authors have to have a first name and a last name so ‘acflory’ was unacceptable. -grinds teeth-
    Anyway, I know where you’re coming from, and as soon as I finish reading Endemic I’ll leave a review. It will get the traction it deserves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join my inner circle at AllThatChazz.com

See my books, blogs, links and podcasts.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9,260 other followers

Brain Spasms a la Twitter

%d bloggers like this: