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Ripping Off Good Reads in China

Times Staff Writer

The five-volume “Executive Ability” book series is a classic in Chinese business and management circles. Collectively, it has sold more than 2 million copies in the last two years. Top universities and public libraries in China keep multiple copies on hand.

It’s also a big fake.

The series purports to be a translation of English-language works, but no such titles exist. The principal author -- a Paul Thomas, said to be an eminent Harvard University business professor -- is not real. Also made up is the rave review on the back cover, attributed to the Wall Street Journal: “The most practical and advanced management thought of our time.”

There are many more where these came from. China’s booming economy has spawned a new class of private entrepreneurs, managers and students craving how-to books on management, particularly Western ones. But in a land where bootleg goods are widespread, fake books are no exception.

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Although bogus books in China are not confined to business topics, they are particularly prevalent in that field, largely because most management volumes are translated and are in high demand. Management books are so popular that they take up huge sections in bookstores, often in the very front.

Previously, fake books simply were pirated copies of real versions, sold on the streets for a small fraction of bookstore prices. But these days, experts say, scores of business texts in Chinese bookstores make phony claims of origin or authorship. The contents of some are lifted right out of journals and magazines. Others overstate the number of volumes sold or gin up glowing reviews.

“There are [bogus] recommendations from Bill Gates, New York Times or even Einstein, which is really ridiculous,” said Jiang Ruxiang, general manager of Beijing Zion Consulting Co., which has been trying to expose the problem ever since Jiang found out that his own articles were copied into someone else’s book.

He and his staff of six recently inspected about 1,000 different management books. A third were deceiving readers, Jiang said.

“The most harmful influence of these books is that a large number of China’s best entrepreneurs are learning wrong and misleading management principles,” he said.

Yet many readers have no idea just how common fake books are, highlighting China’s bumpy transition to a market economy as well as people’s inexperience with advertising.

“Most people still believe books tell the truth,” said Oliver Liu, legal counsel for Chinadotcom Corp., a software and mobile communications company based in Hong Kong. Although the government has begun to crack down on the fraud, Liu and other experts don’t think things will improve much until there are laws that target phony books impose stiffer penalties for violators.

At the heart of the problem, though, is the central government’s system of censorship and control of the book industry.

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Before a volume can be printed, it must obtain an official book registration number. Numbers are allocated by the government to publishing house editors, who in turn sell them to people wanting to have their books printed. All publishing houses are state owned.

On average, Jiang said, a book number in Beijing is sold for about 20,000 yuan, or more than $2,400. But in the last couple of years, analysts say, some have been fetching considerably more, perhaps as much as $12,000. Editors pocket some of the hefty gains. But the ones who profit the most are individuals or groups who put these fake books together and collect a big share of the sales.

At about $4 a copy, “Executive Ability” figures to have grossed about $8 million. The publisher of the first volume, which was coauthored by a fictitious white-haired Duke University professor named David Byrne, said it was duped just like everybody else.

“We lack the experience to distinguish these new fake books,” said Chen Xiaojun, vice president of China Chang An Publishing House.

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Chen said Chang An took on the book after people claiming to be from a Phoenix Publishing Group in Hong Kong showed what appeared to be a copyright license to an English version of “Executive Ability.” Chen said Chang An agreed to pay Phoenix Publishing an 8% licensing fee. (Business directories and other publishing sources show no company called Phoenix Publishing Group in Hong Kong.)

Chang An sold about 160,000 copies of “Executive Ability” before the publisher learned that it was a sham. Chang An stopped printing it and pulled copies from bookstores. But other publishers soon put out Volumes 2 through 5, Chen said.

“Many publishing houses are having lots of troubles these days competing for readers and trying to survive in the market,” Chen said. “So, many of them tend to publish books that can be easily compiled and sold.”

Wang Zhe, who works for an investment banking firm in Shanghai, said he received a copy of “Executive Ability” for his birthday in November.

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“It’s a nice book,” said Wang, who finished Volume 2 of the series in two weeks. He was hard-pressed to explain details of the 256-page book but said the overall point was that successful managers pay attention to details.

“Such a person doesn’t exist?” he asked when told of the fabricated author. “I had no idea.” A little incredulous, Wang added: “This was the No. 1 book one month.... A lot of people want to borrow it from me.”

It’s understandable why budding executives and entrepreneurs in China would be hungry for Western self-help books. China’s market economy is relatively new, so there’s a widespread perception that foreign books are superior.

“The Western books are more updated and will provide innovative ideas,” said Shi Qi, 22, a business administration major at prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai. Told about fake books, Shi also was stunned.

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“I would never believe it,” he said, as he paused from browsing racks of management books at Shanghai Book City, one of the city’s largest. “No one has told me that in bookstores we have fakes.”

But right before his eyes were a number of suspicious volumes. One book, with a common title of “Survival of the Fittest,” had no information about who wrote the book.

There also were numerous books with the word “Excuse” in their title, undoubtedly mimicking the success of “No Excuse,” published by a Machinery Industry Press. That book, with a made-up author and scrabbled contents, sold about 2 million copies last year, according to government reports.

Beijing may be trying to close a loophole that allows foreign-copyright books to be published easily, and it is pushing publishers to better monitor the situation.

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That would not be soon enough for Yu Shiwei, a renowned scholar and management consultant in Shanghai who has done postdoctoral work at Harvard and Oxford universities.

Yu is real, as are his credentials. But he is battling the ghost of Paul Thomas, the bogus author of “Executive Ability.” The fictitious Thomas, after his name became famous, recommended another management book called “Ying Zai Zhi Xing,” or “Execution Wins.” The author of this book is said to be Yu Shiwei.

But, in fact, Yu never wrote that book, which became so popular that at the end of one of Yu’s lectures, a student produced 10 copies of the fake book and asked for his signature.

“For sure, we were really furious about that,” said Li Xiufang, an assistant to Yu. “But we also felt helpless and powerless about the situation.... Dr. Yu said these readers were innocent. So he went ahead and signed the books, without pointing out that they were fakes.”

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Cao Jun of The Times’ Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.


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