Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 4/18/2012 | 14 comments

David Wagner
It is amazing to me how much we talk about books on this site even though we’re supposed to be a society that doesn’t read anymore. E-readers and tablets have changed the way we read, and shockingly, they’ve increased it.

Another thing we’ve talked about around here a lot is piracy, knockoffs, and retail goods. Now, the success of e-books has brought these two markets together in a way that should scare CIOs, even those who don’t sell books.

In the last year or two, a new market for self-published “spam books” has emerged on the Amazon Kindle store and other competitors. Books that use similar titles to more famous books but sell for less are being put in e-book stores and are highly attractive to less than careful bargain hunters.

One of the more entertaining examples of this is Fortune Magazine unearthing a stay-at-home mom who has published 10,000 books in the last four years while homeschooling her daughter. She is either the most impressive and prolific author of her age or something is fishy. If I told you that one of her most popular titles is I am the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would it clue you in?

Fortune also pointed to titles in the Amazon store like 35 Shades of Grey (mimicking the current best seller 50 Shades of Grey) and Twilight New Moon.

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss this as a trend taking advantage of the gullible and nothing we should be concerned about, but this is really a matter of Internet “shelf-space.” As Reuters reported, in 2010, 2.8 million e-books were published, compared to 316,000 paper books. In 2009, 1.33 million e-books were published, compared to 302,000 paper books.

Undoubtedly, the skyrocketing number of e-books is continuing, and it is not all legitimate, self-published material. Reuters points out that there is software available that will help you “publish 10 to 20 new Kindle books a day without writing a word.” With so many spam books crowding into the space, legitimate books are having a harder time fighting for the eyes of the consumer.

Amazon claimed in 2011 to be addressing the issue, but they clearly haven’t achieved it yet. It is a rather time-consuming process to check a book to see if it is legitimate. One can easily throw a few legitimate pages at the beginning of a bogus book or plagiarize a real book that is too obscure for inspectors to realize. Computers like IBM’s Watson that can read real text and compare it quickly are still expensive. There’s no simple answer.

And the problem is that it isn’t just books. Self-created content is becoming more popular in the entire online retail space. Whether it's customized clothing at sites like Threadless and Zazzle, crowd-sourced movie ideas, or any piece of content that can be delivered digitally, it can be the victim of spam. Imagine your Netflix video queue if they opened it to self-made movies.

And yet, it is only a matter of time before Netflix or someone else does. And there will be a Kindle store equivalent in nearly every digital space. How CIOs handle the spam problem will go a long way into determining the success or failure of that online space. Crack down too hard and you won’t have enough content. Come down too soft, and your best product won’t sell and customers will get frustrated.

The problem isn’t easy to solve, but for retail to evolve, it is important that we do.

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David Wagner   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/19/2012 2:28:56 PM
Re: I'm not surprised
@henrisha- They have strict policies. they simply can't enforce them efficiently. Even as they remove books and accounts new ones come up just as fast. And the spammers are learning how to avid Amazon's detection.
David Wagner   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/19/2012 2:27:27 PM
Re: I'm not surprised
@Gigi- In this case i mean conent created by an individual (or small grou)rather than a company. The reason why spam books are a problem for Amazon is that they allow self-publishing. One quick way for Amazon to fix the problem would be to only sell books by companies at major publishing houses that they deal with regularly. But that's not good business for them, because the economy is changing. Etsy, Amazon, Zazzle, Kickstarter, and a million other sites rely on small productions to provide large amounts of their income.

this is only going to grow.

So, the key for this growing sector of the economy is that you can tell the difference between a real product intended to be sold for quality and a spam product out to grab a few quick bucks.
Gigi   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/19/2012 3:35:46 AM
Re: I'm not surprised
“And the problem is that it isn’t just books. Self-created content is becoming more popular in the entire online retail space” David, what do you mean by self – created content? Is it something like the software/tool will stitch the story by adding contents from other books?
Henrisha   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/19/2012 2:16:14 AM
Re: I'm not surprised
Good point, Taimoor. It's one thing to get spam for stuff that you just picked up off the net. But it's a whole different story if you're paying for it. I was under the impression that Amazon had guidelines in place before merchants can sell digital content. Even their Kindle store had strict policies, so I don't know what went wrong here.

But you're right about Amazon having to pick up the slack because they have a reputation to protect.
Hammad Masood   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/19/2012 12:56:49 AM
Re: I'm not surprised
User feedback and publisher ratings might help lowering the spamming rate. There should be a seperate department in stores like Amazon to handle such spam cases because this is something which may bring disrepute to the company itself !
David Wagner   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/19/2012 12:52:46 AM
Re: I'm not surprised
@Taimoor- Curt's right about the copyright laws. What also makes this more complicated is trademark law which can sometimes come into play with characters and stories that have been licensed. That can be stricter, but it applies less broadly than copyright can.

another issue is that fan fiction is usually encouraged or at least tolerated by most publishers and others because it usually only serves to extend the brand. Usually fan fiction doesn't take away from the original. It took years to figure this out of course, but now most companies are happy to see a robust fan community.

Of course, the problem is that the line between fan fiction and rip off fiction is small. Publishers might change their mind in a hurry if they think spam is ruining everything.
CurtisFranklin   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/18/2012 9:17:50 PM
Re: I'm not surprised
@Taimoor, it helps to remember that, in the U.S., at least, you can copyright specific expression -- not ideas. Courts often look at just how much of a work has been directly copied from another to decide whether an infringement has occured. It's very tricky, and laws that govern things like satire make it even more difficult.
Taimoor Zubair   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/18/2012 6:17:50 PM
Re: I'm not surprised
@David: On legal grounds, aren't both of these treated the same way? I don't see how Fan Fiction might not be considered a copyright violation..
David Wagner   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/18/2012 5:52:45 PM
Re: I'm not surprised
@Taimoor- that does bring up an interesting thing though. There is such a thing as "fan fiction" where people write stories using characters and situations from their favorite books. I think fan fiction probably looks an awful lot like spam fiction on the surface. It only makes the job of determining the difference between a book and a spam book even harder.
Taimoor Zubair   Spam Books Show the Next Hurdle for Retail CIOs   4/18/2012 5:50:06 PM
Re: I'm not surprised
If you like Harry Potter, you may find it interesting to see how creative the Chinese are. They are over 11 different fake versions of Harry Potter written and published in China. See the details here. Some of the titles are just downright hilarious.


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