I have been regularly advertising my book, Artificial Intelligence, since its release in 2018. It’s a nearly 17,000-word novella about a space station that I spent a year rewriting and redrafting and editing and running through beta readers and finally, finally publishing and releasing to stellar physical book sales numbers of a whole two units, one of which was my mom’s copy.
And I was, and am, so proud of it, even if I’m well aware that it’s not a flawless work. So, I’ve been advertising it on my website, my social media, and most recently, in a free ebook deal through Kindle Countdown.
Today, that advertising seemed to pay off when I received an email from Meryl Wright with The Books Machine. “I have recently come across your book Artificial Intelligence,” she said, “and due to both its quality and plot, it qualifies to be promoted in our community of readers.” She went into detail discussing how The Books Machine works and its reader base, closing by linking me to their “Deals and Promotions” page on their professional website.
Now, a few things struck me as very wrong about this email. Given that it is part of my job to write them, I quickly recognized the hallmarks of a stock letter.
The greeting addressed me by my full pen name rather than as “Ms. Webling” or “Cat.” This on its own isn’t weird, sometimes people just open their letters that way, but then I took a closer look at the formatting.
That very first sentence may have mentioned my book’s title, but it wasn’t italicized as it should have been in a professional email, and the rest of the letter mentions nothing about the specific plot points that led to the offer of promotion, nor did it make any mention about Meryl’s personal opinion about the story.
It also conveniently mentions that there were promotional slots available for the next three days, linking me directly to the webpage without providing me with an option to ask her directly for more information and details. This suggests a one-off email rather than an actual open line of communication between a publicist and an author.
Then there was the website. Oh boy, this website! The design felt very early-internet, with generic block color advertising and still images with no dynamics, and no page dynamics when you change pages or scroll.
I was linked directly to the page detailing their “advertising packages,” which, lucky me, I’d been given access to “discounted” prices for. The first package was $20, and included a spotlight on the website, in their newsletter, and on their Facebook page, promising promotion for five days agreed upon by the author.
The second package, at $29.90, included all of the previous promotion as well as an “exclusive post of your title in our Blog” which would link directly back to your sales page. There were no further details about whether you would write the blog post or if it would simply be another repost of the synopsis, nor were there any links directly to examples on the blog.
Their example pictures (pictures, not links) listed below…weren’t exactly compelling. The “features” looked more like an online book store than a piece designed to entice new readers, and the Facebook advertising post was just a picture of several different titles with no descriptions, and a generic “read more books!” tagline and link above. There was nothing that separated these posts from any other spam site I’ve ever seen.
Already suspicious about all of this and in no way planning to give my PayPal information to this site for the off chance of a spammy Facebook post, I decided to look into reviews for the service and see if perhaps it was just badly designed but legitimately effective.
One of the first threads that came up was a Goodreads discussion post from a user named Delvin that said that they had discovered the site and was asking others for their opinions on it. User T. H. responded saying that they considered $30 per month of advertising was quite steep and didn’t appear worth it. I had to double-check against the site, and yes, it’s a monthly charge. This wasn’t made clear at all on the “deals” page I was linked, and I wouldn’t have known it was a recurring charge, which was yet another red flag.
Below T.H.’s comment was a message from “Christian”. “Christian’s” message read just like another form letter, copy-and-pasted automatically when a bot picks up negative feedback about a company. He claimed to be an author who had used The Books Machine and seen success with it, getting “requests” (rather than sales?) for his book, and saying that he was interested in another new service from the site, calling it “a very professional well designed” product (with that exact punctuation).
Arie was the next commenter, who shared my views of this spam-post.
“Any site that would claim to be reputable for promoting books and yet…would employ tactics like this message is definitely one to stay away from.”
I decided to dig a little deeper on “Christian’s” page. He claims to be a 51-year-old author from the US, with a few comments and ratings that looked legitimate, if without any effort. They all seemed to be related to The Books Machine, which wasn’t surprising, just sad.
He also linked back to an author website that looked strikingly familiar and was, of course, the site for the book used in the official examples from The Books Machine’s advertising packages. Funny that I’ve never heard of this title even though I frequent multiple reading communities across several platforms. You would think that if the advertising actually worked, I would know the name at least.
I went back to look for more reviews and stumbled on a thread from the Kindle forums, kboards, where Malcolm Richards asked again if The Books Machine was worth it because (surprise, surprise) he’d received an email from them with an offer.
Here there were several more comments from people saying that the site was definitely a scam, phishing author and title names from recent Kindle promotions in order to scam the authors out of money for a worthless “promotion.” One user, “PhoenixS,” linked back to other kboards threads discussing the same website’s various previous misdeeds. One of these threads even had nearly the exact same email I received as the first comment!
Look, I won’t say that I didn’t get excited when I first saw a subject line in my professional email that was asking about my novel. It’s a dream for an author to get offers and promotion out of the blue and blow up suddenly overnight. It’s something that we wish would happen as we slog away over our keyboards and phones, working day and night to be our own managers and marketing teams, clawing for every sale and review we can get.
That’s what makes scams like this so dangerous. To someone without as much familiarity with internet phishing schemes, it would look like a dream come true and a small price to pay for all of your hard work to come to fruition. These sites prey on naïve, innocent people, and it’s sickening.
So please, while it might be funny to rip into sites like these, please remember that you should carefully vet “professional” emails and offers. Check for reviews, explore the site (once you run virus scans, of course), and maybe even try emailing back just to see what kinds of responses you get. There are legitimately good sites that contact you directly, but that shouldn’t make it easier for scummy people to do scummy things. You are an author whose work and time are valuable, and you deserve to be treated as such.
Thanks, The Books Machine, but no thanks. I’ll save my energy for sites that are worth my time.