In a sense, there’s something nice about the fact that there are at least two genres of sketchy attempts to trick people into buying books. Who would have thought! In 2012!
Book buying is still big business these days. Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of people who indicated that they’re currently reading a book or novel has increased over the past fifty years. In 1952, fewer than 20% of Americans said they were reading a book. In 2005, that number had spiked to over 45%. And readers equals buyers.
At the same time, it’s never been easier to publish a book. Not necessarily with a big publishing house, of course, and not even necessarily for any substantial profit. But anyone with a minimal level of technical savvy can produce a book and leverage one of several online outlets to offer it for sale.
That is the point at which the hustles begin.
There are two that have gained attention this week. The first, as noted by Fortune, involves knock-off tomes for sale at Amazon.
There are a number of books on Amazon with similar titles to much more popular ones. Fifty Shades of Grey, the steamy romance novel that has created buzz around the world, is the No. 1 selling book on Amazon. Also available on Amazon: Thirty-Five Shades of Grey. Both books are written by authors with two first initials – E. L. James and J. D. Lyte – and both are the first in a trilogy about a young girl who falls for an older, successful man with a taste for domineering sex. The publisher of the bestseller Fifty says the book is “a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.” The author and publisher of Thirty-Five, which came out in early April, apparently believe that description fits their book as well, word-for-word. Also selling on Amazon is I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Twilight New Moon. Neither is the book you are likely looking for.
No, probably not. This is the equivalent of McDowell’s restaurant in “Coming To America.” “They have fifty shades of gray; we have thirty-five.”
The other hustle is even weirder, outlined in a (probably-not-too-safe-for-work) post at Gawker. In this one, books are cobbled together from a variety of sources on Wikipedia.
Of the millions of print books available on Amazon right now, there are hundreds of thousands… cobbled together from two dozen or so Wikipedia articles and other public domain sources at almost no cost and printed in single copies by Amazon’s sophisticated print-on-demand system, the byproducts of increasingly efficient publishing technologies and the glut of free, public-domain content available online.
The company behind many of these books, BibloLabs, employs people to throw these books together, offering $5 for a produced book, a task that one “author” indicated could take as long as an hour-and-a-half. And you know what I always say: If it takes more than ninety minutes to create a book, it’s taking too long.
As far as I can remember, these are pretty unique scams (if I may be so judgmental) in the history of content creation. The best analogy I can think of was that period during which record companies flooded Napster (and Limewire, etc.) searches with fake hits for popular songs. Their goal was make the process of finding free MP3s a hit-or-miss proposition, forcing you to drive down to Tower Records. The motive is the same: Confuse the searcher into clicking. And so is the end result: the person making the fake copy gets money.
The analogy breaks down there. This is more like people flooding the iTunes Store with songs called, “Firecrackers,” by Kelly Parry, or “Billy Gene,” by M. Jackson.
Which is a key point: the best solution to the record companies’ problem was to partner with Apple in a regulated marketplace. They weren’t making as much money, but they also saw some profit from the digital music economy.
The iTunes Store wouldn’t allow “Billy Gene.” So why does Amazon allow “Thirty-Five Shades”?
There are two ways to operate an online store. The iTunes model, which extends to the iOS App Store, is to act as a gateway, approving every individual piece of content. For music, it’s a little easier; they work primarily with large publishers. The Amazon model is more like Android Marketplace, allowing a much broader selection of content from producers of all stripes — with a tacit “buyer beware” appended to each product offered for sale.
The Fortune and Gawker articles are simply two of the many reasons such a warning should be heeded. Who knows. Maybe there are some readers who prefer their Wikipedia browsing in softcover. Or for whom those extra fifteen shades of gray were superfluous. As the 1980s athletes on the walls of my elementary school would have reminded me, the important thing is that they’re reading.
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