Reuters: “Spam clogging Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing”
is getting quite a bit of play…that happens after the Huffington Post picks you up.
It addresses an interesting question, even if the headline is inaccurate and the issue isn’t new.
The core question: should Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing be a service or a publisher?
That may not be what you have seen portrayed as the point. The buzz will mostly be doom and gloom, and checking off buzz concepts: “E-books are stupid and a rip-off”; “Amazon: bad”; ”There’s a sucker born every minute, and ten guys to take advantage of him.”
That last phrase, by the way, is attributed to P.T. Barnum, and you usually only see the first half of it. My understanding is that the quotation is actually by a competitor of Barnum’s and was derogatory about him. The second part is the important one, though, even if the whole quotation may not be accurate.
Every opportunity for progress is a perceived opportunity to rip somebody off in new ways. Uncertainty makes it easier to deceive people…and when somebody is actually making money from something, many people think it is just luck and timing and can be easily replicated.
Independent e-book publishing has made some people a lot of money: Amanda Hocking is an author who we have discussed before who has apparently done very well with royalties…and has gotten into the mainstream media
So (and this did happen before Hocking as well), an exploiter takes that idea (“You can make money in e-publishing!”) and sells it to people. They buy the idea…and it really doesn’t matter if the idea works or not.
Here’s the set-up: you write a fairly mainstream appearing book. I’ve seen it done with a cookbook and a “living green” ecology type thing. You could sell it in the Kindle store yourself, but who knows if people will buy it? Instead, you license it to other people to publish…lots of other people, ideally. “For $25, you get the right to publish this e-book…and you keep all the profits! You’re an author…with none of the pesky writing to do.”
If ten people buy the rights, you’ve made $250…not bad. That’s especially true if you just cobbled together the book from free sources, like government publications or books that have fallen into the public domain over time.
Does it matter if your licensees can sell copies?
That’s why these deals aren’t a share of the royalties…there may not be any. Nobody wants all that accounting, and fifty percent of zero is zero.
What you are selling is potential, and that’s always a popular product.
Is any of this illegal?
Not if you don’t promise people they’ll sell the books. You use qualifiers like, “You could make…” “Up to ten thousand dollars…” You can put some of the pressure on the licensee, believe it or not: “All it takes is a desire to make money.”
You could even offer people their money back if they don’t make back their investment.
Why in the world would you do that?
It’s because most people don’t bother to ask for their money back. They don’t want to admit they were stupid to go for the deal…which they probably realized in the first place. Putting that guarantee in there will probably mean more people will sign up for it…but not that the same number of people who give you their money will ask for it back.
From the point of view of the licensor, it’s the licenses you sell…not the copies that sell.
The licensee pays the money, publishes the book…and if they don’t make money, “Oh, well.”
The upshot of this is that there might be one hundred of the exact same title in the Kindle store. The licensor probably included simple instructions on how to do that.
What happens when a customer notices that there are one hundred of the same title?
The risk is that it makes them doubt all the books in the Kindle store, or large segments of them. It makes them doubt the numbers Amazon puts out of the books in the Kindle store.
Amazon can, and does, take steps to catch this. The Reuters article even quotes an Amazon representative saying that.
Does it work all the time?
Titles get through.
Is this a massive, the sky is falling problem for self-publishing and Amazon?
In my opinion, not at all.
I honestly doubt that many people notice it at all. It’s not something that’s going to happen with novels, generally, although I could certainly see somebody licensing a generic romance/mystery/science fiction novel and so on for others to publish.
It’s not this huge threat to Amazon or to readers. If you buy the book and you like it, it doesn’t hurt you. If you don’t like it, Amazon gives you seven days to “return” any Kindle store book for a refund.
I am very hesitant for Amazon to start becoming much more restrictive about the KDP.
There are strong forces who would love to see that happen. The Big Six US publishers probably had a “high five party” in their respective offices when they noticed this Reuters piece.
The purchaser is not being defrauded in this case. The book is the book…there are just a hundred different people from which to buy it, and again, Amazon completely protects us on our Kindle book purchases with that return policy. Last I checked, neither Barnes & Noble nor Sony allowed e-book returns at any time.
I have suggested that Amazon could to a “first in wins” policy. They already review books which are submitted. It’s not hard for them to run a title check against books already in the store. If the title is already in the store, that brings up a check of the title.
At that point, the two titles are compared. If the content of the books are the same, first in wins: the new submission is rejected with an explanation. The explanation is in case the first version is an infringement of the second version. The second person has the opportunity to assert rights.
Doing this two stage check would mitigate against rejecting two different books with the same title that are different (that happens a lot). You can’t copyright a title, although you could trademark some things in publishing: a single title isn’t usually one of them, as I understand it. See this informative article by intellectual property attorney Amanda Brice in The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing:
So, this brings back to what I think is the heart here.
These multiple editions of the exact same book by multiple licensees is legal. Amazon wouldn’t have too much trouble detecting them and stopping them (although it’s not going to happen immediately every time).
Should Amazon stop them?
That means that Amazon is deciding what to carry and not carry through their KDP.
They have the right to do that, certainly. Any store does…I’ve always been surprised when people have said it is censorship or a violation of free speech for Amazon not to carry something.
Free speech is a governmental responsibility…not one in the private sector.
If a cookbook store chooses not to carry Stephen King novels, that is neither censorship nor a violation of free speech rights.
Kindle Direct Publishing is one of two things: it’s either a service, like the US Postal Service, that largely ignores the content (with some exceptions); or it is a publisher that makes editorial decisions based on content.
Both have their risks.
In the first case, Amazon risks publishing materials that readers see as substandard or offensive and they stop shopping with Amazon.
In the latter case, Amazon rejects a book because it may offend somebody…and an important work doesn’t get to a wide public. It’s also a lot more work for Amazon.
Proactive content filtering or post-publication reaction?
Wikipedia and YouTube are other places that have this issue. Bad things show up on Wikipedia…but quickly disappear, usually. Infringing works get posted to YouTube, and are removed on request.
I can’t imagine YouTube having a team of intellectual property lawyers reviewing every single upload before it is allowed.
Amazon doesn’t have hard and fast guidelines. I recently reviewed a book that’s going to offend a lot of people (Go the Eff to Sleep…by the way, I’m sure some people were offended that I moderated the title).
They could have software that prevents the “F word” from appearing in books…they have “boterators” (I just made that up…it’s a combination of “robot” and “moderator”) that do that in the forums.
There are many books that deal with all kinds of sexual activity in the Kindle store…and, of course, many books filled with violence.
There are books with a variety of political viewpoints.
I’m not saying that Amazon should just publish anything through the KDP…I’m fine with them limiting duplications as above. As a former bookstore manager, we certainly made decisions based on content.
However, that’s not really the way Amazon presents itself. If you are going to have “every book ever written”, you are going to have some lousy and offensive books. If it was literally true, you’d be publishing books that were illegal…and you’d run into a lot of problems. We might see Amazon officers in jail.
The Reuters article conflates these PLR (Private Label Rights) books with plagiarism and infringement. That’s a whole different kettle of words. Books which infringe on the copyrights of others are illegal. Amazon quickly removed a book (or the publisher did when challenged) that infringed on my rights:
One last point: the article (and others) have mentioned that Barnes & Noble isn’t in the same situation with this. If their PubIt! service is as open as the KDP, they will. They just aren’t as big a target…it’s a bit like why you see so many more viruses for PCs than for Macs. If they aren’t as open…my gut reaction is to wish they were.
What do you think? Is having these PLR books in the Kindle store a huge problem? Is there any connection to that with limiting ideas in the Kindle store? Should Amazon just let anything legal go through the KDP, or should they (on the other end of the scale) editorially review every submission? Feel free to let me know by commenting on this article.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.