Calgary author booted off Amazon, Internet bot the culprit

When Calgary author Adam Dreece chose to list his books exclusively with the world’s largest bookstore, he thought it would be a big boost to his sales.

Instead, he was taken down by an unexpected foe: an Internet bot.

Dreece, a bestselling author of books for young adults, said that in December he put his steampunk book series The Yellow Hoods up on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a program requiring books enrolled be exclusive to Amazon.

Paying about $1,000 for online promos, Dreece said his books were steadily gaining traction. But after a sudden 25,000 page-read bump one day, Dreece said something didn’t feel right.

“I thought, this is fishy,” Dreece said. “I emailed Amazon and they came back to me and said everything was normal.”

But a few days later, Dreece received an email from the book retailer saying his account was being terminated and all his books were being removed from the online store due to downloads “originating from systematically generated accounts.”

Dreece’s entire Yellow Hoods series, book reviews, followers — everything was gone overnight.

Sean Gallagher, information technology editor with Ars Technica, said while Internet bots are nothing new, they can create a lot of problems for individuals such as Dreece trying to earn a living online.

“Amazon does a lot to try to screen fake accounts out, but they still happen,” Gallagher said. “If you’re selling through a marketplace that has a rating system like Amazon, bots could conceivably artificially drive your ratings (and your sales) down, or they could otherwise drive away business.”

There are a number of threads online with authors relaying stories of Amazon terminating their accounts for the same reason. Dreece said he had no idea why he was targeted or where these systematically generated accounts were coming from.

When asked about their methods for detecting fraud, Amazon said they try to be vigilant to protect authors.

“We regularly monitor for abuse across our programs. When we detect abuse (either direct or through third parties), we may terminate the account involved,” the company said in a statement. “If authors have questions or disagree with our findings, they contact us via the link provided at the end of the email they receive.”

Dreece said he was shocked when he received a call from Amazon a few weeks later saying they had made a mistake, and offered to reinstate his account.

But Dreece said the damage had already been done.

“I consider myself lucky. They restored my accounts, but they crushed my traffic from $20 per day to 18 cents,” he said.

While Gallagher said many bots are benign, there are some — such as the Mirai botnet scandal that infected digital cameras and subsequently took down Amazon, Twitter and Netflix last fall — that can cause real harm.

“There are bots used for all sorts of malicious activities, often spread through malware-infected PCs,” Gallagher said. “On Amazon, activity like this can be used to either artificially inflate the rating of an e-book or some other product to get it more notice, or to drive a title’s ratings down to knock it far down the listings, or get it withdrawn completely.”

Still confounded by the sudden, ill-fated attack, Dreece has decided not to put his books back on Amazon and will market himself elsewhere.

“Every book, everything I’ve built up over years, is gone,” Dreece said. “I think this is really the beginning of an era where scammers and bots are weapons now.”


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