Monday, June 27, 2011

Books as Spam

Book publishing is being overrun by spam.

The definitive news story on this topic this month is the Reuters story, “Spam clogging Amazon's Kindle self-publishing,” written by Alistair Barr. Though this story focuses on the flaws in Amazon’s ebook platform, the spam book phenomenon is by no means limited to ebooks or to Amazon. Ars Technica looked at some of the broader implications of the Reuters story, with screen pictures so you don’t have to imagine what Amazon is turning into.

Alas, this is a problem that has been creeping up on us for ages. “Never judge a book by its cover” is a folk saying addressing this topic that goes back long before I was born. The phenomenon of books as deceptive advertising hit its stride in the 1960s. I remember reading a thick paperback book published, I think, in 1963, when it sold for the then hefty price of 75¢. It was supposedly a book about healthy living, and it sported some real information about food and weight-bearing exercise, but taken as a whole, it was an advertisement for the putative author’s line of “health food” chocolate bars.

In the 1960s, this kind of book was slightly disreputable, but readers and book publishers put up with it because there weren’t so many people who had the writing skill to write a book at all. Flash forward to the recession of 2001-2002, and it became mandatory for a book author to have a “platform” — an ongoing business that could profit from the publicity surrounding the book, because the author certainly wasn’t going to make any money from the book itself. Book advances from major publishers had declined by then from the $3,000 that was common in the 1960s, theoretically enough for the author to live on while writing the book, to $500, not nearly enough to cover the author’s travel expenses while promoting the book. Most books don’t sell enough to earn royalty payments, and most authors know this, so if an author is going to spend her own money to promote a book, she has to have a business plan to profit from the publicity. Publishers insist on this now because they know from experience that authors who don’t have a platform tend not to do much to promote their books, and there is little that publishers can do without the authors. But the result of all this is that most books from well-known publishers are written with the promotional opportunity in mind. They are very carefully disguised advertisements. These books put the valuable content first to reward the reader, but the upsell is never far away.

In this context, it shouldn’t be shocking if most of the 99¢ ebooks — indeed, many of the $97 ebooks too — follow this same model, but are not so carefully done. Just as email spammers think nothing of sending 100 email messages to 10 million recipients each just to see which marketing message works, ebook spammers will create a disposable author identity and create 10 to 20 ebooks credited to that pen name in an afternoon just to see if any sales result. Amazon has been hit hardest with spam books, according to the Reuters story,

clogging the online bookstore of the top-selling eReader with material that is far from being book worthy and threatening to undermine Inc’s publishing foray.

But the whole book business is suffering from the same effect. Book prices haven’t gone up in the last 11 years (with some exceptions, such as textbooks) mainly because readers are resisting higher prices. And why is that? Readers don’t like the feeling of paying $29.95 for a book only to discover that it contains only a single chapter of valuable information, a pattern that unfortunately describes most of the “platform” books published in recent years. This inability to raise prices is arguably the main reason why Borders and about half of independent bookstores have failed in the last decade.

Low-quality books are not just spam. Some are outright fakes. The Ars Technica story describes ebooks of content stolen from legitimate sources, purchased from content mills for as little as $7, even copied and pasted hundreds of times to pad the page count. Some books are falsely attributed to famous authors to try to draw more attention. Of course, these too are sloppier versions of tricks that major publishers have employed for decades. How many people have picked up a book with a famous name at the top of the front cover, failing to notice the words “with a foreword by” preceding the name? Or a 300-page book that turned out to consist mostly of appendixes?

Printed books will not hold up much better than ebooks, simply because any ebook can be printed and bound with minimal effort. If the idea of books as spam is so disconcerting, it is because we are used to the book industry providing a base level of quality for books. That is breaking down in multiple ways and we have to do our own checking. In the long run, we will need a social network to vouch for the legitimacy of any purchased content, including books.