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.