It’s hard enough to make it as an Indie author, but when Amazon stacks the deck against you by censoring where your book can be advertised, your task as publicist becomes nearly impossible.
Most of you have seen the fantastic cover done for Hell’s Marshal by cover artist Michelle Johnson of Blue Sky Design. I love the cover, as it perfectly portrays the mood, genre, and subject of the book, and is truly original in a day of stock photo covers and generic artwork. I see it as a great attention-grabber.
So, knowing I needed some publicity, and believing this cover could get it, I started an Amazon ad campaign for Hell’s Marshal the day it came out. I budgeted a whopping $150 spread out over a month at a price of fifty cents per click (you only pay if someone clicks on an ad). These ads appear on Amazon’s shopping web pages, and on Kindle eReaders at the home page and along the bottom of the window while readers shop.
Just to be sure it would work, I checked Amazon’s “Creative Acceptance Policy” and felt the cover wasn’t even close to breaking their rules, so I submitted. The campaign went in for review. A day later, Amazon sent me the following message. Look at that middle paragraph, starting with “Unfortunately”:
I wondered if I had, perhaps, misread their standards, so I checked. The section pertaining to keeping ads off Kindle eReaders is section 3 (Restricted Ad Content and Books.) Here’s what it said:
Neither did I see anything in paragraph 2.2 (Unacceptable Ad Content) that ran contrary to my cover:
2.2 Unacceptable ad content
- Images of human or animal abuse, mistreatment, or distress
- Images or titles glorifying or promoting the use of illicit drugs, drug paraphernalia or products to beat drug tests
- Images or titles that are obscene, defamatory, libelous, illegal, invasive of another’s privacy, or contain hate speech
- Images or titles that may be interpreted as threatening, abusive, harassing, or that advocates or discriminates against a protected group, whether based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age or any other category
- Foul, vulgar, or obscene language, including censored words that indicate foul, vulgar, or obscene language
- Provocative imagery such as blatantly sexual prurient poses or poses that may be suggestive of sexual behavior, including partial nudity, excessive cleavage, or models in lingerie, underwear, or swimwear
- Violent or disturbing images or titles. This includes excessive blood, injuries, mutilations, guts, corpses, and weapons being used in a violent or threatening manner
So I sent the marketing folks the following email:
My ad campaign was rejected for running on Kindle e-readers because the cover art, “displays realistic or stylized human skulls and bones.” I looked at your creative acceptance policy under Restricted Ad Content and Books (where it mentions being restricted in such a manner), and don’t see where skulls with glowing red eyes would be restricted. Could someone please clarify for me?
I got an automatic email saying they’d get back to me by the 20th of April. On the 19th (they’re nothing if not prompt), I got this:
Yes, they ACTUALLY admitted that their rules don’t currently ban my cover, and stated openly they’re changing the rules after-the-fact to make my ad unsuitable for eReader placement. Stunned by such a blatant admission, I fired off this email:
OK, wait. So you’re inventing a new rule specifically to ban my cover from e-reader ads? That is misrepresentation of what I signed up for. There was NOTHING in the rules about this–as your email above CLEARLY states–so the ad campaign I signed up for should be allowing this. You don’t get to change the rules after the fact. Please put me in touch directly with a manager on this matter.
Amazon’s reply was quick and final:
They actually repeat that they’re changing the rules for this, then try to dress it up as continuous updates–yeah, when you see something you don’t like, you change the rules. Same thing. Either way, though, let’s break down this rule:
“This includes excessive blood,” — None.
“injuries,” — Nope.
“mutilations, guts,” — Nope, and nope.
“weapons being used in a violent or threatening manner” — Most definitely not.
That leaves, “corpses.” Here’s the definition of corpse from Webster’s Online Dictionary: “a dead body, usually of a human being.” It’s a stretch to call a skull a corpse, since there is no body, but even if we accept that definition, the ad staffer and manager both said the cover used “realistic skulls and bones,” which is obviously not the case. It’s METALLIC and has glowing, red eyes. Clearly it’s a fantasy object, and even more importantly, it’s only a DEPICTION, as it’s part of a badge our main character wears.
So it’s NOT a corpse, and NOT realistic. Seriously–it’s not going to scare anyone, but just to see if I was the only one being picked on, I turned on my own Kindle App on my tablet, and look what came up in the ads at the bottom of my screen:
Oh look, a skull with glowing, red eyes, and this one’s a LOT scarier than a badge with a metallic skull. And in the same row of ads, there was a man being punched in the face (injuries), a gun being pointed at the reader (weapons being used in a threatening manner), and covers violating other rules on that Creative Acceptance page (para 2.2), including animal cruelty and sexually provocative poses.
So this begs the question, “what makes my ad so much worse than all of these?”
The bottom line is that it’s not. It was just randomly reviewed by someone who subjectively found it to be “too scary” (their words exactly) for general audiences, while these other covers were looked at by someone else with a stronger stomach, different values, or simply a different take on Amazon’s rules. In fact, I’d bet that no one after the first reviewer even looked at my cover, since they said it had “skulls and bones,” when in fact it had only a skull. In all likelihood, they just blindly supported their reviewer’s initial call.
And therein lies the problem with any kind of censorship, be it of the book itself or an ad promoting it–no two people have the same filters through which to see things. Thus, it’s never long before rules are being enforced unevenly and unfairly. And let’s face it, in the world of independent or self-publishing, censoring publicity is tantamount to censoring the book itself. It’s a blade that must be wielded with the greatest of care.
But look, I get Amazon’s intent. We don’t want children being frightened (or otherwise harmed) by an image that pops up on a Kindle they’re using to read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. And that’s a good thing. But someone somewhere has to use some common sense, and you cannot simply allow creation of rules mid-stream to accommodate one person’s subjective interpretation of those rules. If that demon isn’t too scary, why is the badge on the cover of Hell’s Marshal? I guess I just drew the short straw and got someone with a weak stomach or staunch religious values who took offense at the notion of a law enforcement officer from the abyss. Whatever the reason, I lose out on potential advertising benefits.
Oh, and I won’t be changing the cover. First off, I already paid for this and I’m not going to pay for another just because Amazon can’t enforce its rules fairly and consistently. Second–and more importantly–I believe in that cover and the artist who did it. It’s right for the book, even if it made some weak-in-the-middle reviewer dribble a spot of pee in their underpants. (Seriously, I know five-year-olds who wouldn’t find that cover scary!) And when I believe in something, I stick with it.
So there you go, Indie Authors–understand your vendor. Amazon’s advertising staff makes up the rules as they go, and you have no say whatsoever. Even checking their rules beforehand won’t help–they’re not afraid of changing those rules to suit their rulings. You could invest hundreds in a great cover, just to find out it can’t be advertised because someone else found it too scary, sexy, violent, or otherwise offensive.
And without publicity, good luck selling books. And as a dear friend reminded me recently, isn’t that our goal? Selling books?