Pounded in the butt by my own dark SEO: the weird, true story of #Cockygate

Back in May, indy romance author Faleena Hopkins embarked on a second career as a trademark troll, threatening to sue peers who use the word "cocky" in the titles of their romance novels, forcing people to take down books they'd written.

(A note: Ms Hopkins has written to me to say that in her view, there is no such thing as a trademark troll and therefore she isn't one; I believe she is wrong on both counts)

Now, Sarah Jeong (previously) has taken a deep, investigative dive into the true origins of #cockygate, and has discovered a seamy, sleazy underbelly of black SEO hacker/romance writers who have mastered the art of gaming and manipulating payouts from Amazon's Kindle Unlimited, Amazon's ad platform, and its recommendation service.

Jeong reveals the existence of a conspiracy of romance writers ("They’re not good writers, but they’re great marketers") whose private Bookclicker forum is used to coordinate mass literary movements (like everyone writing in unison about hypermasculinized lumberjacks), trade tips on how to cheat the Amazon payout system, and offers to ghost write material to spec for each other.

Jeong claims that #cockygate's origins are in a dispute over one of these planned literary fads: the Bookclickers executed a mass publishing of books with "cocky" titles, and Hopkins, who had already published books with "cocky" titles went off the rails and started trademark trolling against her erstwhile allies.

What's more interesting than this backstory is how Amazon's opaque, high-handed treatment of the writers on its platform created a system that requires sleaze and conspiracy just to rise above the crowd. When Amazon stops recommending books that are more than 30 days old, writers need to write a new "book" every 30 days. When Amazon pays writers by the "book," books suddenly become 8 pages long. When Amazon switches to paying by the page, books become 8,000 pages long. Writers try tactics that may or may not work, but which they superstitiously follow, chasing the super incomes that the writers at the top of Amazon's food chain (some of whom are very sleazy indeed) can command: six figures a month at the top range.

Believe it or not, #Cockygate began with this practice of inorganic trendsetting. At one point, the group decided that the next trend should be “cocky.” But Faleena Hopkins — who was a client of Valderrama at the time — took exception.

“Faleena went crazy,” says Dakota Willink. “She said, ‘No, I already did that. That’s part of my series.’ And they said ‘No, what are you talking about? This is what we do.’ And she got all bent out of shape about the whole thing. It was a big fight and she disassociated herself with this group of authors.”

The topic apparently became quite sensitive for Hopkins, seemingly triggering her zealous enforcement of her trademark registrations. In an hour-and-forty-minute-long video that has been since deleted from YouTube but acquired by The Verge, Faleena Hopkins rails against the bullies of #Cockygate and the copycats who are trying to usurp her brand. She mentions in the video “this group of romance authors” that she left “when it started getting shady — which obviously, some of them are.”

When reached via email, Hopkins told The Verge that “[t]here was copying of what we were doing in order to be attached to us in keyword searches on Amazon.”

To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm [Sarah Jeong/The Verge]

(via Four Short Links)