Don’t toss the TOS

TOS – or terms of Service – are easy to ignore as a reader, browser, or installer of software. We’ve all scrolled past the fine print and clicked “I read” without ever checking. However, that annoying fine print goes from “yeah, yeah whatever” as a private individual to truly critical when you’re in a commercial enterprise, also known as a business. And if you’re trying to make a buck (or pound, rupee, or euro)  – you’re in a commercial enterprise. That fine print IS your legal contract with your commercial partner. Read, know it, and think about both the spirit and the letter of the law.

It doesn’t matter what “everybody knows”. It doesn’t matter what “the hot new marketing fad” is. It doesn’t matter if it’s “fair.” What matters is what’s in your contract.

For those of you contemplating trad pub, GET AN IP LAWYER. Contracts are not written in layman’s terms, and they don’t mean what you think they mean. In fact, a really, really smart idea is to go through the proposed contract, and write down what you think it means. Then take that and the contract to the IP lawyer. You’ll be amazed at how often your contract means exactly the opposite of what you think it means… and just how many ways there are for the publishing house to not pay you what you thought you were getting. For example, “basket accounting” and “deep discount” – go learn those phrases, and realize that they’re only two of the many pitfalls in the publishing contracts. Also, in the age of ebooks meaning in print forever, under what circumstances can your ights revert? And what rights are you signing away – north american print, english worldwide print, all languages and translations worldwide? ebook, for the same markets? audio? video game? movie rights? television adaptation? Stage play? Are you allowing the publisher to rewrite the product and release without your final okay? Can they bring in a different writer and rewrite your work? Do they have right of first refusal on that world, or on anything else that will prevent you from publishing again until they get around to getting back with you? How many times are they allowed to demand a rewrite? Do they own your name, and you’ll never be able to publish unless it’s with them or under a pen name?

For those of you publishing indie? READ THE TOS. The IP Lawyer who runs The Passive Voice has made noises about publishing a layman’s guide to the Amazon TOS, and I really, really hope he will. In the meantime, there’s the help fiiles. They’re a good start. By the way, if the help file says on thing, but some guy on an internet forum somewhere says something else… Trust The Amazon Documents, Not Random Internet Guy! I don’t care if Random Internet Guy sells millions, you’re both going to get stung sooner or later.

Two examples of this that have hit in the past few weeks:

1. Keyword stuffing. You may remember when I mentioned this concept before, you may not. Amazon TOS states that you may not stuff extra categories into your title or subtitle. People have been doing it anyway, because it grants them extra visibility in search returns, and lets them spread across more categories than the main two and the available keyword slots allowed.

Thus, searching for military science fiction was returning half a page of bare-chested men and titles like Taken By The Time Lord: A Science Fiction Romance, or Kidnapped by the Alien God Kings: A Science Fiction MFM BBW Shifter Romance. (This was unfortunately, happening in Romance, too, with plenty of things that are not romance. Erotica is a separate genre with separate conventions, tropes, and styles. It’s not romance.)  While, I’ll grant, this got them a lot more visibility across a lot more categories, it also pissed off a lot of readers.

My first heads-up that Amazon had started to respond was, predictably enough, when an author started complaining that Amazon had unpublished their book with a short note that category names were not allowed in titles or subtitles. They came up with three trad-pubbed titles that had “romance” in the name, but somehow failed to provide their own title for other author to guess at why they got so hit.

So let’s look at the non-pulled example: a book titled “California Romance” by Colleen Reece, which does indeed have the category Romance in the title. It also is placed firmly in  Christian > Fiction > Romance.

It is not in science fiction, westerns, steampunk, specialty diets, or yoga routines. It is also clearly a coherent title, unlike, oh, “ROMANCE: One a a time (Shifter Romance, Alpha Male Romance, BBW Romance, Paranormal Romance)” … yes, that is an actual title on ‘Zon, with a headless male torso and.. well, about as much clothing as a banana hammock. And it sure doesn’t belong in urban fantasy, space opera, arthurian fantasy, or sword and sorcery.

Don’t do that. If you did that, don’t whine when your book gets pulled. “Everybody else was doing it!” does not excuse breaking the terms of the contract. In fact, nothing does. Because it’s a contract, not a list of wishful thinking that Amazon kinda hopes maybe you’ll pay attention to. You are not a special snowflake, and they’re not going to make an exception just for you.

The wonderful upside of this: I’ve noticed that the lists are really cleaned up this week, and much better at serving up what the reader wants when browsing.

2. Reviews being pulled due to associations.

This one has been cropping up over the last couple weeks, and I’m betting it’s going to change with some refinement. However, many of you are going to get hit with the friendly fire until we adjust, or ‘Zon does.

First off, don’t buy reviews. Just don’t. I don’t care that they’re for sale on fiverr, I don’t care that ‘everybody else is doing it’ (they’re actually not), this is really simple. Don’t Buy Reviews.

Second, don’t do backscratching reviews. If you find yourself saying to another author “I’ll give you a five-star if you give me one”, immediately add, “Never mind, that’s a good sign I need to turn off my internet router for a week and reconnect with reality. Goodbye.” And then turn off your internet router, and find something to fill all your facebook hours and twitter addiction. Like writing! And petting dogs, and talking to real people, face to face, politely! And taking your meds! And seeing the burning daystar! Go dancing! Volunteer at the hospital, or a shelter, or build a house with habitat for humanity!

Reviews are not points on a video game you need to rack up to get to the next level. They are put there by the customers, for the customers, to help other customers decide if this book is right for them. Yes, it’s inconvenient that your magnum opus only has 3 reviews, so the promo lists won’t take it. Go write something else, and give it time. Most especially, don’t create two sockpuppet accounts and give it 5-stars.

Because of the review gaming, the ‘Zon has implemented a new algorithm; if it can find associations between the author and reviewer that are prohibited in the TOS, it pulls the review. Unfortunately, said associations include being friends with the author on facebook. How does it know? Well, one of the options for logging into goodreads is via facebook, and Amazon owns goodreads. Let’s do a real short leap of logic, there.

This is biting a lot of authors in the buttocks, because we’ve all been encouraged and encouraging others to reach out to their fans. Social media involves being social, and that connectedness is part of what drives fan involvement and word of mouth about new releases and old series. I suspect there may be enough pushback on this that Amazon may refine the algorithm, but I don’t expect it to go away. After all, it’s right there in the contract.

In the meantime, if you log into goodreads, do it on your amazon account or goodreads account, not with your facebook profile / account. Accept that you’re probably going to lose some perfectly legit, hard-earned reviews by fans, and….

Write the next book.

9 thoughts on “Don’t toss the TOS

  1. As I’ve mentioned on PG’s blog, in some cases it seems that following an author’s blog, or perhaps linking to it on your blogroll, triggers the review chopper to swing into action. I suspect that will get adjusted at some point (i.e. refined algorithm will say “hmm, has link and comments but paid for [thing.] Ignore for now.”). Maybe. I hope.

    1. It’s one of those idiotproof->build a better idiot conundrums, unfortunately 😉 As soon as the algorithms are understood, they will be exploited and Amazon changes them again, lather-rinse-repeat. I do understand why Amazon *can’t* make the exclusion rules clear. I don’t like it, but I do understand.

      However, it underscores a point of Internet personal hygiene that applies everywhere — Do Not Put Personal Data Online. Unless it is LEGALLY required, do not give your actual birthdate. (They can require you to say you are of age to look at the Naughty Pictures, but not what day this became permissible). Do not give Facebook your address, home city, phone number, birthdate, college, etc. Do not log in to other sites using Facebook, unless you’ve lied to Facebook a LOT. Keep multiple emails that don’t link to each other and use different ones for different sites.

      Each little piece of information may look innocuous, but the more little pieces a person of Bad Intent gathers, the more identity theft or worse lurks in your future. It is truly scary how much information is out there about people, and there are companies that SELL that information. Which is why I allow wrong information about me to persist on such sites (evil grin). I have worked for related companies in the past, and know more than I want to about this stuff.

      And even if the original site promises to keep the information you give confidential, they can be hacked. Hackers can’t steal what you don’t give.

      1. The way things are going, having a FB account is going to become a professional liability for certain fields. (At the same time that the Big 6 are pushing authors to have a high FB visibility and lots of Twitter followers. Go figure.) Yet another reason I have 0 social media presence.

  2. I review other author’s books all the time, but only if I like the story. If I don’t like it, I don’t review it. Mainly because I don’t want to get any harassment back. The one time I did write a bad review for a book, all I said was ‘If you loved the series, don’t read this book, it will ruin it for you’, and THAT review magically disappeared. So yeah, no more 1 or even 2 star reviews from me.

    I do wish the one star reviews I got from people who didn’t even read my books would disappear 😛

    That being said, if you provide anyone with a free copy of your book to review, make sure they understand that they need to mention up front that they were given a free copy to review.

    As for keywords, I do miss the old Amazon tagging system where anyone could tag keywords on a book. Yeah, it got abused, but it was still easier then to find books like the ones your fav authors wrote because of it. I found a lot of new authors I would never have found using it.

  3. As someone who has never received any Amazon reviews for any of my books, I am totally unaffected!

    OTOH, I have noticed that most of my Amazon reviews of other people’s books disappear without a trace. So I guess I’m just too friendly, even though I don’t have any Facebook account at all.

  4. I’m guilty of swapping books with certain other authors with the intent of reviewing — in the early days of the IAG. But there was absolutely no guarantee with the other author of a fire-wall five star review resulting from the exchange. And I will note that the big-name NYT Bestselling Elite are guilty of favorably reviewing and blurbing each others books ALL THE DAMN TIME! So — at the time, we were of the mind that of the Big-Name-Arthurs could do it, then why the heck couldn’t we? (Arthur for Author — that’s an in-family joke with my daughter: “Hey, Mom — now you are a Real Arthur!”) I had some hurt feelings from another author that I did a swap with, because her book was not five-star worthy and I phrased the review accordingly.
    What was more of a matter of serious concern to us was how Amazon pulled reviews right and left which were duplicates or rephrased duplicates of reviews from fairly-well respected review websites. I was doing reviews for one of thise sites (which specialized in indy-published and very good books which were screened before consideration for review by a techie who had very high standards for grammar and punctuation) and carefully revised all my reviews for them to post a variant on Amazon … some of the reviews were just copy and paste — but some were pulled on no more reason that the reviewer posting on Amazon also posted for another review website.
    This was … damaging to us, because in the early days, it was a chore to collect reviews for an indy book, and getting an honest and well-considtered one from a reputable review site and then having Amazon dump it entire … was a slap.

  5. As a reader, the use of keyword trickery and fluffed reviews does does make an impression, and does mark an author as one to watch… out for and avoid in the future.

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