Op-Ed: Online book-selling scams steal a living from writers
American authors are hurting. Surveys done by the Authors Guild show that the median income of authors from writing has declined 42% in the last 10 years. Well over half of full-time, published authors now earn below the individual poverty level from their writing.
While there are many reasons for this, one factor is the surge in book-selling scams: counterfeiting, author “doppelganging,” title cloning, ebook piracy, cut-and-paste plagiarism and other rip-offs — many of which take place on digital platforms like Amazon, Ebay and Google. The variety and cleverness of these cons is breathtaking.
Basic counterfeiting can be straightforward: The physical book is reproduced in its entirety, printed and sold to unsuspecting customers. In the case of pirated ebooks, the electronic file is simply stripped of digital copy protection and uploaded to a piracy website.
For example, Laura Pedersen, author of 18 books, was the victim of whole-book plagiarism. Her memoir about growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., titled “Buffalo Gal,” was stolen and put up for sale on Amazon — but with a new cover, title and author. Once Pedersen discovered the bogus book, Amazon took it down.
But there are other schemes that are sneakier and harder to patrol. Author doppelganging, for example, occurs when someone starts publishing books just like yours, using your name, in order to game Amazon’s search algorithms. I write a series of thrillers with a partner named Lincoln Child, and our nom de plume is “Preston & Child.” Half a dozen years ago, an entity named “Preston Child” started publishing thrillers amazingly like ours, with strikingly similar covers and titles.
For years, Amazon’s algorithms mingled the books of “Preston Child” along with our books, as if they were by the same author. Our publisher investigated and was unable to confirm the existence of Preston Child. (It’s next to impossible to prove someone doesn’t exist.) It took Amazon several years before it adjusted its algorithms to distinguish “Preston Child” from “Preston & Child.”
Title cloning, like author doppelganging, is legal, since you typically cannot copyright a title. Duplicate book titles are an old problem, now exacerbated by Amazon’s search algorithms. Seven months after my nonfiction book “The Lost City of the Monkey God,” about an expedition that discovered a lost city in the Honduran jungle, was published in 2017, a novel appeared, titled “Lost City of the Monkey God,” published using Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. It was also about an “expedition to discover a lost city in the Honduran jungle.” The last time I searched for my bestselling book on Amazon, the other one popped up in the number 3 position — above some editions of my book.
The cheats get weirder. Nora Roberts, the author of romance novels, discovered that books were being sold on Amazon containing extensive passages lifted from her books. She found a person in Brazil who appeared to be running a plagiarism factory, in which she took Roberts’ books and those of other romance authors, cut, pasted, rearranged and rewrote them to make new books to be sold on Amazon.
To be fair, Amazon has made genuine efforts to combat this problem with algorithms and staff that search out crooked sellers. It has launched a service called Transparency that would allow every book sold to be tracked if it’s adopted by publishers. But stamping out all these scams has proved very difficult. Amazon’s reseller marketplace is like the Wild West: vast, hard to police, with many anonymous players.
The fundamental problem is with the law itself. Many of these swindles are illegal because they involve copyright infringement. But the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act exempts internet platforms from liability for copyright infringement occurring on their sites provided the platforms respond to “takedown notices” when told that a particular book on a particular webpage is stolen. In other words, the law places the burden on the author or publisher to police the web.
Amazon is actually doing more than most internet platforms to remove copyright violators, but it’s still not enough. It should come up with a more effective system to thwart title and author cloning scams that abuse its algorithms to deceive customers. To encourage online marketplaces to improve their practices, the law needs to change the liability structure so that more of the burden of monitoring copyright theft falls on these platforms — not on struggling authors who can barely make a living as it is.
Douglas Preston is a writer and president of the Authors Guild.
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