Beware Ebook Cowboys
Beware Ebook Cowboys UK
Hi, Frank Bukowski here. I write fiction and I self-publish my books on Amazon and Smashwords (The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Reality TV, Sex on the Brain, The Football Agent, Sticky Pages), and Smashwords also make them available to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other places.
As any self-pubbing author will tell you, if you’re not already a ‘name’, writing and publishing a great book doesn’t even get you in the game. Unlike traditional publishing, where the publisher markets your book for you, self-published books will never get seen by anyone, unless you devote a lot of time and energy to self-promotion. Blogging, posting on social media sites, and paying for advertising are just a few of the ways you can try.
There are also a shedload of ‘ebook promo’ companies out there who promise, for a small (and often not so small) fee, to market your book in the daily promotional emails they send to their customer database. Depending on the size of the company, that may get your book in front of anywhere from a few thousand customers, to over a hundred thousand.
I have experimented with a few of these companies, and while nothing has lit the blue touchpaper, most promotions (which can last from a day to a few days, on a rising scale of price), have led to a trickle of sales that more than paid for the listing.
However, there was one particular company I tried to use, who proved to be an absolute nightmare. Ebook Bargains UK. Remember the name. In my opinion (and I’ll back it up with facts below) they are one of the most unprofessional, incompetent cowboy operations I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. That is the only reason I am going to share this story with you, so that anyone else contemplating using them, does so with open eyes.
This is quite a long post, as there’s a lot to tell. So I’d put the kettle on, brew yourself a nice cup of coffee or tea, then settle down for a gripping read.
August 2014 – amateurish beginnings
It was on a balmy day in August 2014 that I first subscribed to Ebook Bargains. 7 August 2014, to be precise. A year ago today, in fact.
Ebook Bargains UK website advertised itself as a promotional service for authors wanting to get their books in front of potential buying customers. That’s me, I thought. I’ll have some of that.
As you can see from the following image, they offer a range of listing options, ranging from the basic £5 ‘One Day Listing’, through a £15 Seven Day Listing as a ‘Featured Title of the Week’, all the way to a £3 a day ‘Author Spotlight’ where the author could run their entire portfolio of books over a number of days, alongside an author image and bio. Niiiiice.
Further info on the website explains that the ‘One Day Listings’ appear in the top half of the newsletter, then the other categories appear lower down (‘Something for the Weekend’ appears mid-way, ‘Featured Title of the Week’ appears in the lower half, etc.) But you presume any recipient signing up to the emails will be happy to scroll down to see what books are being promoted, so that all sounded hunky dory.
So, on 13 August 2014 I contacted Ebook Bargains to say I was interested in paying for a 5 day ‘Author Spotlight’ promo in their promotional email newsletters, and on their site. What the hell, I thought, might as well go for broke and make a big splash.
However, it wasn’t apparent on the site how I should upload the various images and information they required for the ‘Author Spotlight’ (biographical info, my mugshot, book covers etc.) so I asked how.
The owner, Mick (at least I presumed he was the owner, since his email address was firstname.lastname@example.org, and they seem to be almost a one-man band, based on my experiences with them) replied the same day saying they were having teething problems with multiple submissions like the ‘Author Spotlight’ package and that I should email him all the data.
Hmm, so basically the site didn’t provide the functionality to apply for the packages they were advertising, without the customer proactively contacting them to ask, and then using the workaround.
It didn’t seem like a great start but hey, we were all start-ups once, so you give a guy the benefit of the doubt. Mick said he’d email me the £15 PayPal invoice for the package.
From amateurish to unprofessional
Later I emailed Mick one or two supplementary questions about biography word counts and image sizes (for which, once again insufficient guidance was given on the site). And asked how he’d like me to send this meta data over.
I emailed the above questions on 15 August 2014. This time, however, Mick didn’t reply, which apart from being rude, I thought was a bit unprofessional for a supposedly legitimate business selling a service to paying customers. Whatever.
I was keen to get some promotional activity going, so when five days passed with no reply, on 20 August 2014 I decided to make my own guestimate, so I emailed Mick all the information he’d requested (book files, image covers, blurbs, biography and mug shot, links to Amazon and Smashwords pages etc.) in the formats and sizes I GUESSED he wanted.
I requested that my Author spotlight package run for 5 days from 22 – 26 August 2014, and if those dates weren’t available, I asked Mick to let me know and we could arrange an alternative date. I also notified him that I’d paid the invoice.
When Mick didn’t reply to that email either, I assumed everything was set up to go ahead, and he was just a busy guy.
From unprofessional to incompetent
22 August 2014 came and went, without any sign of my book listing appearing in the daily EBook Bargains promo email.
Mystified, I looked around the website for a phone number to call on, but there wasn’t one. Nor was there any postal address. So I checked out the Ebook Bargains UK emails, and there wasn’t even a registered address on the bottom, which I believe is a legal requirement.
Returning to the website, I clicked the link that said ‘Terms & Conditions’. It went to a blank page that said, “for full details on our terms and conditions please contact us”. Really? Was that legal? And for the record, there was no ‘Contact us’ page. Hmmm.
With no alternative, I once again emailed Mick to ask if there had been some kind of technical hitch which meant my book hadn’t been listed. I’d also found a separate email admin address for the company on the PayPal invoice, so I cc’d that in, at email@example.com.
Mick didn’t reply, again. But someone called Jay did from the admin address, which was based in the USA. He said he only dealt with payments but he’d make sure my message got through to Mick. I thanked him and said I’d appreciate it.
August 23rd came and went, so did the 24th, 25th and 26th, with no reply from Mick, and no sign of my book listings.
From incompetent to shambolic
On August 26th 2014 I emailed Jay to ask what was going on. Staying polite, I said I was being as patient as I could but finding the complete lack of communication and failure to provide the service I’d paid for, incredibly frustrating.
Jay replied to say he’d just been in contact with Mick, and apparently the main cables had been down in the village where Mick lives. And if I wanted a refund, Jay would do it for me directly.
This all felt a bit fishy. The phone lines would have needed to be down for 11 days from 15 August when Mick stopped replying. It sounded like a lame excuse to cover up for him.
However, once again I gave them the benefit of the doubt and thanked Jay for letting me know. I told him I’d rather wait until Mick’s internet was back up and running again, and go ahead with the listing, rather than have a refund. That was my original objective after all, to showcase my books in their promotional emails.
Jay said he would badger Mick to reply to me, and agreed that it made their company look poor to treat customers in such a cavalier way.
I waited three more days, and still got no reply.
On 29 August 2014 I emailed Mick asking him, politely, why my book listing (which I had paid for) had still not happened, and when he thought he might be able to fit it in. I even suggested a new date of 5 September, or if not, suggested HE name a date when they could fit it in. I copied Jay in.
No surprises, Mick didn’t reply. It felt like I’d have had more luck getting through to Elvis.
A day or so later Jay replied from the USA asking if Mick had got back to me. I told him not, and suggested this was a pretty shoddy way to be treating people, and that their company were in danger of looking like a cowboy organisation, if that’s the way they treated paying customers.
Jay took umbrage at the ‘cowboys’ word, and said I had better have a refund, which he pushed through straightaway. I got the feeling they just wanted me to go away. Why? God only knows? Was my money worse than anyone else’s?
From shambolic to downright rude
On receiving the refund, I thought, hang on. Am I just going to let them treat me like some kind of leper, effectively banning me from using their services with no justification whatsoever? Like hell.
So, on 30 August 2014 I emailed Jay again to tell him (always politely) that I really wanted to use their promotional service and was prepared to give it a second go, perhaps with just a simple one-day listing, or ‘short run special’ which should be fairly easy to set up.
Before I paid online, however, I asked Jay to ask Mick if there was some problem with the way I was submitting the book metadata, or the books themselves, as I didn’t want to go through the same frustrating experience again.
I told him that if I didn’t get any answer informing me I should submit things differently, I’d just go ahead and apply for the shorter listing on their website, and upload all the data from there as instructed by their site.
On 1 September 2014 I paid for a ‘Short run special’, to list my ebook “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” from 2 September to 6 September. I got an automatic email back from Ebook Bargains the same day saying my order had been received and would be processed as soon as possible. It even had an order number. Things were looking up. Or so I thought.
2 September came, the Ebook Bargains promo email came, but “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” wasn’t in it. Anywhere. Again. Sigh.
I emailed Mick. Again. Politely asking why, and what was wrong, and when might my 5 day listing go live?
Mick ignored me. Again. Absolutely incredible.
Throughout this whole sorry saga, Ebook Bargains were sending out their book promo emails every day. And every few days Mick was posting a mammoth post on his blog, then tweeting it, about some aspect of the self-publishing industry. Yet he couldn’t even find the time, courtesy or professionalism to respond to a single customer communication.
Frankly I was amazed, and by now getting a bit irritated. I’d done nothing wrong and didn’t see why I had to put up with this crap as a paying customer. Was he running an ebook promo business or not?
4 September 2014 I emailed Mick and cc’d Jay with a short message, “Could someone reply to my email please?”
No reply, again.
I waited a whole week. Just silence.
On 13 September I gave up and tweeted the Ebook Bargains UK Twitter page, asking WTF was going on, why had they taken my money and not delivered a service, and why did they never respond to my communications?
Whaddayaknow, it got an almost instantaneous response. How freaking sad is that, and so symptomatic of our times, that the only time a company takes any real interest in customers is when their bottom line is threatened by bad PR.
Mick’s tweeted reply said there had definitely been a ‘communication problem’, which was the understatement of the millennium. He suggested I email him at a new address, which was firstname.lastname@example.org
Once again I kept it polite. In my email I pointed out the problems I’d had and said all I wanted was a simple book listing.
To my amazement, he didn’t even reply to the bloody email.
Another week went by and I was forced to tweet again on their twitter page, to get some kind of reply.
Once again, only by going public about their totally crap service on social media seemed to get any kind of response. Mick emailed me fairly promptly, with a second profuse apology, ‘explaining’ that they weren’t a huge player and when glitches happened they didn’t have the resources to sort things easily, but they were trying to get back on track. Yeah right.
From downright rude to farcical
Somehow this ‘lack of resources’ didn’t quite square with the fact that he was managing to blog and tweet almost daily with long and detailed publishing articles like this one:
In fact everyone else’s books seemed to appear without a problem in their daily promo email, which seemed to go out every day without any technical hitches. So any technical hitches, whatever they were, only seemed to apply to me. Make of that what you will.
Mick said he would categorically make sure the 5 day listing that I’d paid for would definitely start from any Monday commencing 29 September 2014. And he promised me a credit listing for each of the following three months, as compensation for all the hassle I’d suffered.
Great, I said.
Like a fool I asked one additional question. Would it be possible for my 5 day book listing to begin on Tuesday 30th instead of Monday 29th? I kind of wanted my book to appear at least part of a weekend, if possible. But I qualified my question by saying, if it absolutely had to be a Monday, then Monday 29 September was fine.
I guess I’m beginning to sound like a stuck record here. But guess what? He didn’t bother replying to my question about Mondays or Tuesdays. And when Monday 29th came and went, along with the Ebook Bargains UK promo email, my book listing was nowhere in sight. Nor on the 30th, and so on.
From farcical to comical
By the end of September I was pretty incredulous at this ludicrous excuse for a company, so I cut my losses and didn’t have anything to do with them for a couple of months. I continued to see their daily book promo emails come around every day, promoting author’s books.
Then, two months later, with the Christmas season approaching I thought it would be a good time to try and sell a few extra books, so I thought I’d try again from scratch with Ebook Bargains.
0n 28 November I paid them £15 for a ‘Book of the Week’ 7 day promotion, scheduled to begin on 1 December 2014.
Once again I got the automated confirmation email, saying they’d got my order and taken my money. But when the promo email arrived on 1 December, of the 7 books listed, guess what? Right, I couldn’t see mine anywhere, again. No shit Sherlock.
By chance I saw a message in red near top of the email which said, “This newsletter may be clipped short by your email service. To ensure you are seeing all the daily bargains, click on the web version link above the banner.”
Above it, hardly standing out in a grey font on a grey background, was the link to the ‘Web version’, whatever that meant. I mean, I was reading an email for chrissakes, on the WEB.
When I clicked on the “web version” link, I went to an extended web page, and after scrolling down, there finally was my book, three up from the bottom.
But you would only ever see it if 1. You noticed the red warning message on the original promo email, and 2. You acted on it, went to the top of the email and were able to find the tiny grey ‘Web version’ link on the grey background. 3. Could be bothered to click on the web version link then scroll all the way down the extended web-page, if by that point you hadn’t already lost the will to live.
I figured the chances of a customer doing that were about 1 in 1000. As a way of promoting your book it was, to coin a phrase, TOTALLY USELESS. Unfit for purpose. A waste of money. A rip off.
When I googled why the emails might have been ‘clipped’ by Gmail in the first place, I found some information that pointed to the SIZE of the email, which suggested Gmails may be clipped if over 100k.
And when I checked out the size of all the book cover images in the Ebook Bargains promo email, sure enough they totalled around 150k.
However, I then checked out a similar email by a rival book promoter SweetFreeBooks who I had used before with no problems, and I discovered that their images were TEN TIMES as large as those used in the Ebook Bargains emails, but the SweetFreeBooks emails were never clipped in Gmail, so every book appeared listed in the email.
Call me crazy, but I decided to email Ebook Bargains to point this out to them. While doing so I noticed that the sender address had now changed from ‘Mick at ebook bargains uk’, to ‘Mark at ebook bargains UK’. And the email address of the sender now described him as Mark W international (I think the W stands for Williams), and the email address was email@example.com
I wondered if the change of the sender’s name might offer a ray of hope in terms of improved customer service.
So on 3 December 2014 I emailed Mark W International to point out that my book was going to be invisible to 999 out of 1000 customers, for the remaining days of my ‘Book of the Week’ listing.
I asked if there was some issue with the way the book cover images were being coded in the emails. I even attached html files showing the Ebook Bargains email as a web page, and the SweetFreeBooks one as a web page, for comparison. It demonstrated how the Ebook emails were being clipped even though they were 100-150kb, but the SweetFreeBooks ones weren’t being clipped, even though they were several Megabytes.
I concluded by asking if it WASN’T possible for them to recode their images so that ALL books appeared in their promo email, then could they swap the remaining days of my ‘Book of the Week 7 day promo’, to single listings of ‘Today’s Bargains’, which always appeared at the top of the email.
I didn’t get a reply.
From comical to outrageous
What I want to know is, how do Ebook Bargains UK imagine for a moment that it is acceptable to advertise their services as a book promoter, take a customer’s money, promise to promote their books, then for the books not to appear in the promo email, and for them only to become visible if a recipient goes through a laborious process of finding and clicking on a tiny link, which 99.9% of people are never going to do?
This outrageous ‘scam’ is compounded by the fact that when Ebook Bargains advertise their services on their site, NOWHERE does it alert customers to this potential issue. You just assume if you pay for a listing, your book will appear in their promo email, in a way PEOPLE CAN SEE IT.
Does the customer have any redress? Well, to reiterate, if you try to view the Ebook Bargains Terms & Conditions on their website, laughably you get a page with one line on it saying, “for full details on our terms and conditions please contact us”. (See image above.)
I find this pretty unbelievable. I mean, is it even legal? So apparently, the only way you can get to see their Terms & Conditions, is to contact them. But you can’t contact them, because they don’t have any contact details, or a ‘Contact us’ page.
And if you try replying to the email address of the sender, they never reply. So you can NEVER in fact find out if they actually HAVE any Terms & Conditions, let alone read them.
In fact I would say the chances of them having a set of Terms & Conditions are about the same as my books ever being seen in one of their promo emails – pretty close to zero.
Furthermore, I noticed that, if by a one in a million chance some email subscriber had actually found their way to the hidden page where my book was listed, the only link to buy it was to Amazon.
Whereas when I submitted the book to Ebook Bargains I had supplied the links to both the Amazon and Smashwords pages where my book was for sale (a requirement when you submit books to Ebook Bargains, to be listed).
For some reason Ebook Bargains had only displayed the Amazon link to my book. Yet on all the other authors’ books promoted in their email, they displayed both Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble links, etc. WTF?
I followed up my unanswered 3 December email by emailing Mark again on 5 December 2014 suggesting what I thought the problem was with the images, and how he might fix it.
Didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply. Yet again.
Not even an echo came back.
Truly, you have to experience this cowboy outfit to believe it.
Given the way I appeared to have been singled out for such contemptuous treatment (though god knows why), I began to wonder if my books were even being included in the Ebook Bargains newsletter email to other countries (a key part of the service the company advertises).
Since it took several attempts to even get my book to (almost) appear in their UK newsletter, I had no way of knowing if it was included in the sister promo emails in their other regions (as promised): Australia, Canada, Germany, India, UK, USA.
Judging from the fact that I never got a single click through and sale ANYWHERE, despite supposedly being in all six newsletters in all six countries, for a whole WEEK, I would guess that my book was never listed in them after all.
From outrageous to sad
Fast forward 9 months. To give them one final opportunity to redeem themselves, or prove beyond all reasonable doubt their utter incompetence, I submitted my most recent book, “The Football Agent”, to appear as a basic one-day listing in their simplest category, ‘Today’s Bargains’, for £5.
The book was due to be listed in their promo email of 6 August 2015. i.e. yesterday. I received the confirmation email on 2 August telling me they’d received my order and were processing it, and they’d took my money. Again.
But like all the other ‘confirmation of booking’ emails I’d received over the last year, it proved to be a red herring. When the promo email arrived, as you’ve no doubt by now guessed, there was no mention of “The Football Agent” in it, anywhere.
Here’s a link to the full extended web page of the promo email, which you can only get to by clicking on the ‘web version’ link at the top of the email. Ebook Bargains promo email 6 August 2015
As you can see, “The Football Agent” is conspicuously absent.
I emailed them and tweeted them about it yesterday, and surprise surprise, there was no reply. You cannot be serious, I thought.
So, I finally decided to do this blog post about Ebook Cowboys, as I now call them.
As you can imagine, I’ve had this post written in draft form for several months now. But it’s kind of poetic, in a way, that today’s date is exactly one year to the day I first enrolled on their website, in the naive delusion that they would actually provide the service they took money off customers for.
I mean, a year’s long enough isn’t it? I’m not being unreasonable here, am I? thought I’d give them a good run at it, to get things right. I didn’t want to trash them in public without giving them every chance to redeem themselves and prove me wrong.
But a year later, after countless failed attempts to get my book listed – I mean, actually visible, in the promo email that landed in people’s inboxes – or get any kind of explanation or even communication from the ‘company’, I figure it’s finally time to let the world know (and specifically anyone contemplating using Ebook Bargains) what kind of cowboy outfit they really are.
Frankly I wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole.
Below is an image of the tagline that ends all of Mark W International’s blog posts:
So, Ebook Bargains think they’re “far more than just an ebook promo newsletter”, do they?
Well, in a sense I suppose they’re certainly the only ebook promo co I’ve come across where they take your money and don’t promote your book in their newsletter. So I guess that’s SOME kind of niche, if that’s the word I’m looking for. Or maybe ‘scam’ is a more accurate description.
I should finally say that during the 12 months this fiasco has played out, I have used several other book promo companies like selfpublishersshowcase, sweetfreebooks, awesomegang, listmybook… and not one of them did I have a problem with, in placing an order, uploading my info, and the book promos appearing on the dates they were promised. Any questions I had were always answered promptly and politely, they couldn’t do enough to help.
Compare this to the completely dysfunctional way Ebook Bargains have behaved, and the frankly disgusting way they’ve treated me as a paying customer.
Judging from the fact that their promo emails still go out every day listing other authors’ books, I assume that other people may have had a better experience.
So I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s the kind of company you’d like to entrust your money and marketing to, and your livelihood as an author.
I for one will have nothing more to do with them ever again.