Spam has hit the Kindle, clogging Amazon.com Inc.'s top-selling e-reader with material that is far from being book-worthy and threatening to undermine the company’s entry into publishing.
Thousands of digital books, called e-books, are being published through Amazon’s self-publishing system each month. Many are not written in the traditional sense.
Instead, they are built using something known as Private Label Rights, or PLR content, which is information that can be bought very cheaply online then reformatted into a digital book.
These e-books are listed for sale — often at 99 cents — alongside more traditional books on Amazon’s website, forcing readers to plow through many more titles to find what they want. Aspiring spammers can even buy a DVD box set called Autopilot Kindle Cash that claims to teach people how to publish 10 to 20 new Kindle books a day without writing a word.
This new phenomenon represents the dark side of an online revolution that’s turning the traditional publishing industry on its head by giving authors new ways to access readers directly.
In 2010, almost 2.8 million nontraditional books, including e-books, were published in the United States, while just more than 316,000 traditional books came out. That compares with 1.33 million nontraditional books and 302,000 conventional books in 2009, said Albert Greco, a publishing industry expert at Fordham University’s business school.
In 2002, fewer than 33,000 nontraditional books were published, whereas more than 215,000 traditional books came out in the United States, Greco noted.
“This is a staggering increase. It’s mind-boggling,” Greco said. “On the positive side, this is helping an awful lot of people who wrote books and could not get them published in the traditional way through agents.”
But Greco listed downsides. One problem is that authors must compete for readers with a lot more books — many of which “probably never should have seen the light of day,” he said.
Some of these books appear to be outright copies of other work. Earlier this year, Shayne Parkinson, a New Zealander who writes historical novels, discovered her debut “Sentence of Marriage” was on sale on Amazon under another author’s name.
For Amazon, the wave of e-book spam hitting the Kindle could undermine its push into self-publishing and tarnish the Kindle brand, which is set to account for some 10% of the company’s 2012 revenue, according to Barclays Capital estimates.
“It’s getting to be a more widespread problem,” said Susan Daffron, president of Logical Expressions Inc., a book and software publishing company. “Once a few spammers find a new outlet like this, hoards of them follow.”
Amazon pays authors 35% to 70% of revenue for e-books, depending on the price. That gives spammers a financial incentive to focus on this new outlet.
“Amazon will definitely have to do more quality control, unless they want the integrity of their products to drop,” Daffron added.
Amazon is curating submissions to its new Kindle Singles business, which offers short stories, long-form journalism and opinion pieces, “after seeing how quickly the self-published side degenerated,” noted James McQuivey, an e-reader analyst at Forrester Research.
“Undifferentiated or barely differentiated versions of the same book don’t improve the customer experience,” Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman said. “We have processes to detect and remove undifferentiated versions of books with the goal of eliminating such content from our store.” She did not respond further.
Kindle spam has been growing fast in the last six months because several online courses and e-books have been released that teach people how to create a Kindle book a day, said Paul Wolfe, an Internet marketing specialist.
One tactic involves copying an e-book that has started selling well and republishing it with new titles and covers to appeal to a slightly different demographic, Wolfe explained.
Spam has yet to flood the online bookstore of the Nook, a rival e-reader sold by Barnes & Noble Inc.
The company may be managing e-book submissions more aggressively than Amazon, but it might just be that the Kindle’s huge audience is more attractive to spammers, Forrester’s McQuivey said. Barnes & Noble did not respond to requests for comment.