Reuters: “Spam clogging Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing”

Reuters: “Spam clogging Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing”


Reuters article

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?

Again, no.

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:

Welcome to The WG2E…Intellectual Property Attorney Amanda Brice

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:

Infringement, plagiarism, and Amazon to the rescue

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.


19 Responses to “Reuters: “Spam clogging Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing””

  1. Common Sense Says:

    I buy lots of $.99 ebooks from Amazon and have yet to come across something that’s been plagiarized. On the other hand, I don’t blindly buy books either, I usually get something mentioned or reviewed on a book blog or from my Amazon recommendations. I always read the description and the comments too. I also have a finely tuned BS detector.

    As for choosing among multiple copies of the same thing, I’ve only done that with some classics and just pick what seems to be the most polished copy.

    It doesn’t seem to be much of a problem to me. I guess I assume that Amazon is like any other retailer and not responsible for the items they sell other than the return policy. Just like a physical store, if something isn’t what you though it was, or it’s defective, you return it for your money back.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Common!

      I agree with you on not having encountered infringement much (plagiarism would be very hard to detect, unless you already know the work). In the case of my work, i was lucky that a reader recognized and took the time to let me know.

      Brick and mortar stores (I’m a former manager) are completely responsible for what’s in their stores, though. When Wal-Mart (I think it was them…it was one of the big chains) apparently unknowingly stocked an item with a Neo-Nazi symbol on it, they removed it when alerted. It was their responsibility to carry that item or not, and it’s Amazon responsibility.

      I agree: this doesn’t seem like much of a problem to me, either.

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    We’ve seen this before with ebook versions of public domain titles in which essentially several sources offer ebook versions of a public domain title at varying prices (and ebook conversion quality). I’m fine with that — let the market decide which version (or versions) is successful. The content may be the same; the purchasing choice is based on other factors like price and quality of the ebook conversion. How is this any different (and also with PLR titles) than me going to the Honda dealership down the street for my Honda Civic, or the dealer 50 miles away? The product is absolutely identical. The price and “service” quality, and other intangibles (like I like the saleslady at one dealer) are the differentiators that govern the purchasing decision.

    I’m very leery of Amazon or BN or anyone else interfering with my ability to choose what I can buy, and who I can buy it from. I generally would prefer to let the “market” work these things out not some publisher, editor, government bureaucrat, or any other “personage” (like computer bots).

    Obliquely, this comes at the question that I think ultimately will control the long term direction of the book industry. That is: who controls the content that we get to buy. For a while now the decision about what we get to buy/read is made by editors at big 6 publishing houses (and all the other publishers as well). They refer to this as their “curatorship” function. I talk to editors from time to time, and increasingly, this is what they perceive their main function to be. Under this approach if you are an author who wants to get published, you first write a book; then you send it around to a bunch of literary agents (it’s a waste of time sending your book directly to a publisher — the chances of its even being read using this approach are vanishingly small) if an agent takes you on, he’ll shop you around to the publishers (editors mostly only read submissions from agents). If then an editor likes your book, it’ll go into an internal publisher process to decide which editor “likes” actually get taken on and published.

    Now in the ebook world: you write the book, use tools provided by Amazon to get it into ebook shape, you decide on a price, title, artwork (if any), and then have the KDP (after some minimal Amazon BOT vetting) place it in the kindle store and voila! you’re published! (I’m simplifying a bit here). No trudging around looking for an agent; no one (other than yourself) “decides” what gets published. You do have to figure out how to get your title noticed and bought by millions:). Publishers will tell you that they will do all that for you. Actually, if you get under their covers, the dirty little secret is that the big 6 publishers (for most but not all of their authors) do very little to publicize their active list. If you go the KDP route you’ll get to keep 30-70% of the purchase price (if you are new, you’ll be lucky to get 10% from a big 6 publisher).

    In the short to intermediate term established authors for the most part will stay with their existing publishers. But what about the next generation of content providers? Are they going to do things the old big 6 way (which in effect gives the big 6 monopoly control over content) or are they going to go the KDP (and their many clones) route? If many content creators long term opt for the KDP route, then the big 6 monopoly is broken, and we have a radically different landscape (different but not necessarily better — a subject for another day :D).

    Now if Amazon (in response to pressures brought to bear from things like the Reuters article) starts to exert more editorial control, then Amazon increasingly also becomes a “curator” little different than the big 6 (now perhaps they are the big 7 — adding Amazon to the group :D), the big 6 wins, and things stay more or less the same. That would be a shame.

    This issue is not new — it’s been around for years in the telecommunications industry. Common carriers like AT&T going back to at least the thirties have assiduously lobbied to ensure that as “carriers” they were in no way held liable for any of the content that they carried. With the internet, ISPs have also tried to fall into this bucket with mixed success; and with file sharing sites on the internet it gets even murkier as content owners jump into the fray. If you are a carrier, you have no obligation to police the content carried (or shared). If content is objectionable or illegal, recourse is only to be had against the creator. Amazon should in my opinion strive to be viewed as a carrier.

    I don’t have any idea what Amazon’s thoughts on all this are, or what its long term business objectives in its various media ventures might be, and that too will govern the eventual outcome.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      All good points. 🙂 Amazon has elected to become a traditional publisher with their imprints…I think them additionally having a non-editorially reviewed channel makes sense.

      However…if people perceive that Amazon is publishing a book offensive to them, or of poor quality, there is risk involved with that.

      I think they may need to differentiate them in the store, which they don’t do clearly now. Yes, indie publishers might see that as a stigma, but I wouldn’t mind something like

      “This title was independently published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Amazon is not responsible for its content.”

  3. Edward Boyhan Says:

    Oh, and one final thought: it is the potential loss of the “curatorship” function that is the real threat (the deadly stake aimed at its heart) to the big 6 represented by the ebook phenomenon — all the other issues that get discussed (agency pricing, etc) are to some extent sideshows.

  4. D. Knight Says:

    Sorry, Bufocalvin, but I very much disagree with your “first in wins” suggestion. Generally that would allow someone to profit with a poorly formatted copy and a high price. As my favorite books are often old books, it would also cut out a choice that I want to have. I’ll give you a few examples:

    One of the first books I purchased for my Kindle was a nicely formatted and illustrated _Alice in Wonderland_. There were free editions available, but that book has special meaning to me from my childhood and I was more than willing to pay 89 cents for the illustrations. But some people may not care about the illustrations.

    One of my favorite authors is R. Austin Freeman (think CSI: Edwardian London). He wrote at the beginning of the 20th century and some of his books were published after 1923. His works are duplicated, and some titles range from cheap to almost $10. Now I don’t mind spending $10 or so on a book that profits the author, but to me that is too much for a work that neither the author nor probably his descendents will gain anything from. Also, there often seems to be a perverse inverse relationship between the price and the quality of the formatting. So what if the “first in” is a poorly formatted $12.99 copy of an orphan book? The readership for this example is too low for a protest to have much meaning.

    One last example. I have “discovered” true gems that are public domain*. I never would have taken a chance on these if there weren’t free copies available (with the expected formatting issues). However, I can see someone who already knows and loves these wanting to pay for better formatting, original illustrations, etc.

    Let *me* slog through the titles and decide which edition I want (and what I want to pay for it). Calling it “spam” is ridiculous. You don’t choose spam, but you do choose to browse through whatever books are available. And, after all, it isn’t that hard to go through the titles.

    If Amazon had a “first in wins” policy, they would have to add a number of caveats that would, IMO, make it too impractical for execution.

    *Note: My biggest surprise was
    I only got that because I’m interested in history. Imagine my delight when I found that it was truly a very entertaining read. Now I’d love to have a copy with the original illustrations.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, D.!

      You don’t need to apologize for disagreeing…when it’s done respectfully, as yours is, I am grateful for it. 🙂

      Your point is well-made. I should have been more clear that the check isn’t just for the text, but would certainly include illustrations and additional material. Formatting could also be part of it. The issue is when two (or a thousand) editions of the same book are identical. I mostly read public domain books, and I have in my paperbook library multiple editions of Alice. However, they are different.

      “First in wins” would not impact public domain….I was intending it just for titles under copyright.

      Amazon already has a policy for public domain titles published through the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) which ensures that they have differences. This is fairly new, but they now require KDP publishers doing public domain titles to add content:

      Your point about price competition is a good one. If the title was one of those PLR (Private Label Rights) titles, the first person could charge a higher price than a later person might. I guess my leaning towards First in Wins is influenced by concerns about infringement. I’m not crazy about the solution to infringement being post-injury. I’d always err on the side of more books. 🙂

      I’ve downloaded How to Camp Out on your recommendation. 🙂 You may find this Amazon Kindle Community thread interesting:

      Public Domain Recommendations

      As a history fan, you might enjoy Talbot Mundy. His books are fiction, but bring some very interesting perspectives…you might start with

      Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace.

      One last thing: my first name is Bufo, my last name is Calvin. It’s just that when I entered it in one place, I couldn’t use a space. 😉 When you write again (and I hope you do), you can just call me Bufo.

      • D. Knight Says:

        Hi, Bufo!

        I’m Doris, usually called Dee Dee, or DeDe, or D.D., or Dee, or some-such–obviously I’m not particular about the spelling. 🙂

        I have subscribed to/read your blog since I first got my Kindle 8/27/10, but don’t often respond (well, it’s hard to respond on the Kindle).

        I can see that Amazon may have to out of necessity do something to keep the same title being endlessly propagated on their servers, but I would hope (and Amazon seems to agree) that they’d take a minimalist approach to that problem. Formatting differences could potentially be especially hard to distinguish, e.g, two with active TOCs and all the rest, but one with OCR errors and embedded hyphens from what was once split words, etc, and the other free from obvious errors. How do you distinguish that sort of thing automatically?

        Thanks for the recommendation. I did download it–it may take me a while to read it (my TBR list is long). Also, thanks for the link to Public Domain Recommendations; I’ll post a few more of my “discoveries” there later.

        BTW, _How to Camp Out_ isn’t a farce; it’s a serious “how to” addressed to late 19th century teenagers. I enjoyed the author’s sense of humor and his straightforward style. Did have to get used to the fact that when he referred to “the War” he meant the Civil War and not WWII. I enjoy what I call unconscious histories–that is books that are written in the era they tell you about. I have several 19th century cookbooks (with advice about blacking your stove, etc.) HTCO is very much that type of book. I was fascinated by his description of the clever tents they used during the Civil War.

      • bufocalvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Doris/Dee Dee/DeDe/D.D./Dee/Some-Such! 😉

        Even Word has a way to compare two documents…and it would find the sort of differences you suggest (like the hyphens).

        I read a lot of 19th Century works myself, and do enjoy getting the sense of the time period.

        I’ve also read all of the Doc Savage adventures, and they start in 1933. It took me a little bit to adjust to the fact that when Doc and his associates met in the war, it was World War I….which, of course, isn’t ever called that in the books. World War I is a “retronym”…we didn’t need it until there was a World War II. Before that, I often see it called The Great War or The War to End All Wars.

      • D. Knight Says:

        Here’s another for you:

      • bufocalvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Dee Dee!

        Got it. 🙂

  5. Edward Boyhan Says:

    Just to pile on here :-), I also don’t like the first in wins idea, nor am I very happy about their public domain rules either. 😀

    As to the issue of public unhappiness with Amazon should they publish “offensive” or poor quality stuff. I asked myself what’s so different about Amazon from big 6 publishers who publish lots of offensive stuff (at least to many different segments of the public)? We don’t see lots of calls to “Boycott Penguin” (well not until agency pricing came along):D. How do they insulate themselves? I suspect that it has a lot to do with the plethora of marks and imprints that each of the big six puts out there.

    It’s quite byzantine. Most probably aren’t aware that Penguin is owned by Pearson plc which also under Pearson Education owns Addison Wesley, Prentiss Hall, the educational imprints of Macmillan and Simon and Schuster, and under their FT group they own the Financial Times and 50% of The Economist.

    Or look at News Corp (Murdoch) which in addition to the London Times, Dow Jones (WSJ), and Fox (plenty of offense there for many :-)), also owns Harper Collins one of the big six. Also note that while Pearson owns the education imprints of Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, these latter two are also big 6 members in their own right.

    So what Amazon needs to do is create so many imprints and interlocking ownerships that no one will ever know that they’re behind any particular “offensive” content :D. I really think we ought to let the market decide these issues, and let the publishers deal with the fallout as best they may (big 6 seem to be doing ok on this front so far).

    I also disagree with you on your ex ante versus ex post relief. We went through all this back in the day with the Pentagon Papers — no prior restraint! 😉

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Traditional publishers do you have different imprints, but they generally don’t publish porn or classics with missing chapters. I also don’t think Amazon could hide their connections very well…that whole pesky internet thing. 😉

      Okay, okay….First in Wins is a bad idea. 🙂 I was just trying to come up with something to address the so-called “spam ” complaint.

      I do prefer preventing a crime to punishing one…provided that doesn’t overly restrict legal activity.

  6. Tom Semple Says:

    Bufo, I have another interesting Google search for you that seems to relate to this spam problem:
    ‘asin “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons”’
    I get ‘about 378’ results. Open a few of these in different browser tabs and as far as I can tell, they are all unique pages (some, it is true, for print editions), with different book categories and _cover art_ for each (I checked over a dozen). Quite possibly one for each Amazon category? Most don’t seem to have a sales ranking. I can’t imagine why.
    Now THAT is what I call SPAM, properly prepared!

    • Tom Semple Says:

      Obviously this is evidence of hacking more than any attempt to make money, given the interpretation of ‘spam’ as an ‘adulteration of food’. But it is annoying and I hope Amazon can get a handle on it soon.

  7. John Locke becomes the first KDP author in the Kindle Million Club « I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] you can get people to try e-book publishing with those PLR (Private Label Rights) books (see this earlier post)? […]

  8. Closing in on a million Kindle store titles « I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Lately, the numbers when up and down a bit…they appear to have removed a number of titles (which might have been related to concerns expressed about duplicated Private Label Rights titles). […]

  9. Round up #44: « I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] June 18, I wrote about the issue of PLR (Private Label Rights) books in the Kindle store. What happens there is that […]

  10. domain Says:


    […]Reuters: “Spam clogging Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing” « I Love My Kindle[…]…

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