The ease with which you can license content and repackage it to sell as an ebook has created a growing problem for Amazon and other resellers – spam ebooks. Distributors are worried, too
by: Mike Essex
With Google clamping down on content farms, the attention of those looking to get rich quickly from churning out content is now turning to major ebook retailers – and to selling stolen and replicated content.
A key starting point of the problem is Private Label Rights content (PLR), which allows anyone to buy prewritten content in bulk that they can then make into ebooks or website content. PLR seller Ronnie Nijmeh of PLR.me describes it as "royalty-free content, which means, when you pay for a licence, you get the rights to use the content without royalty in nearly any way you please". We might be familiar with that in photographs – the stock photo – but when it comes to words, the idea of reusing them is less well-known. But the explosion in the number of ebook readers has made such reuse suddenly attractive to some.
Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, an ebook distributor, sees PLR as "one of the worst threats to ebooks today". It's an easy system to get involved in as well, and "idiots fall prey to the PLR schemes and pay their $24.95 a month or whatever to access vast databases of generic content, and they have the ability to mix and match this content and republish it as an ebook in their own name."
This isn't an issue only observed by Smashwords, with AJ McDonald of Lulu, a print and digital book distributor, experiencing similar problems. "A growing concern in the ebook space is the publishing of public domain content. Sites such as Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia make it very possible for potential authors to grab works and [legally] republish them as their own," says McDonald. In the commercial market of ebooks this raises customer concerns over just what is good content, and which books are nothing more than amalgamated online information.
Vanessa Reece of Geekette Marketing, an author developing her own set of PLR, agrees that it is easy to find and to buy. "There are tonnes of places to find free, paid and limited edition PLR online. You only have to type 'PLR' and the subject you need into Google."
One prolific author of the type of content highlighted by Coker publishes "a mix of both PLR content and stolen content".
In some cases, the person simply smudged out the author name from the book cover image and didn't even bother to enter his own. Other research has highlighted Manuel Ortiz Braschi, the creator of 2,879 PLR ebooks and republished public domain content. Doing so is legal; the question is whether it's useful, given that it exists for free online already.
Although PLR.me goes through multiple editors and checks when writing its own content (including fact checking and grammar checks) the problems seem to occur after the PLR has been sold. Numerous people can buy the same packs, and in terms of after-sales monitoring, Nijmeh states: "We do spot checks, but it's hard to monitor since some of our members use content in a variety of ways.". This can lead to duplicate versions of the same content. Reece seems to reflect the same view: "In basic PLR you can generally change all aspects of the copy and apply your pen name to it. You can also go ahead and sell that to people".
McDonald offers a similar view of the problems faced by such an open platform: "While Lulu's mission is to empower anyone to publish anywhere, anytime; there have been instances of plagiarism and copyright violation."
This type of violation was experienced firsthand by SKS Perry who found his book had been taken by another 'author' and was available on Amazon. "I was doing a vanity search of my name on Google when I noticed a page for Amazon.co.uk listing Darkside by SKS Perry. When I linked to the page I saw that it was, in fact, my novel for sale."
Perry isn't the only person facing this issue and They Stole My Book.com lists other authors who have had their work reproduced illegally, often in the case of free books being repackaged at a price. For Perry he reported the book via Amazon, filed a DMCA takedown notice, left phone messages with Amazon and sent additional paperwork before the book was taken down.
Before the book was removed Perry carried out an experiment to see if Amazon would allow another version of the book to be listed by him. He was able to upload exactly the same content and create a duplicate version of the book on the site. What really surprised Perry is that his book was "under review" before it was made live for 48 hours, but was still allowed through the process, despite being identical to another existing book on the Amazon database.
When the book was removed Perry received neither confirmation nor any compensation for sales that occurred from the fake version of his book. He was never given any indication that the author of the fake version had been punished in any way, other than the book being removed. No information was detailed on actions that would stop the fake author repeating the process in the future.
While Amazon, Lulu and Smashwords all offer options to report bad content, the onus is on writers to find their stolen content in the first place. Coker suggests running Google searches for strings of content from an author's book as a means of seeing if it has been reproduced elsewhere. All three providers emphasise that they have automated and manual checks in place to spot bad content, but as shown by Perry these are not always effective.
While Reece and Nijmeh create original content, they both admit that many PLR sellers have terrible mass-produced text. "I think some people get very lazy with PLR and don't want to change any elements of it so what happens is you get terrible duplicates." explains Reece, pointing out that even with a good team of writers, "it's important to note that what the buyer does with the PLR is up to them".
So does customer protection instead lie with ebook content providers? One line of defence Coker highlights is a three-point system, with Smashwords relying on its filters and the community to spot problems, and that Smashwords itself acts as judge and jury, taking all claims of copyright violation seriously. For Lulu the only automated check is to look at whether an ISBN has been used before, something that can quickly be bypassed with a fake ISBN, with other checks occurring manually when a 'report this content' button is clicked on any book.
Both McDonald and Coker stress that any questionable content will result in a ban for the author. Unless they can prove ownership, the authors will lose any accrued revenue from the current quarter. This gives them three months to find stolen content, which compared to a shorter payment system for Amazon allows for a much higher chance of catching bad content before any money is lost.
None of this completely stops the issue of poor-quality PLR content, which could simply be of low quality or have no formatting for ebooks. In this case another line of defence is implemented by Lulu and Smashwords, at the request of the platforms to which they distribute, including Apple and Barnes & Noble. McDonald puts it best: "As Lulu continues to grow our global network of third-party retailers; we must adhere to their guidelines to ensure the utmost quality for our authors' content and their customers."
This level of regulation is driven by Apple which insists on a six-week turnaround for all books and apps. Smashwords and Lulu have to ensure the content they provide to Apple is of high quality, or they risk losing these distribution agreements. When Coker first signed a distribution deal with Barnes & Noble he introduced a 'premium catalogue' to only provide them with the best books. Over time this evolved in to a 60-page style guide which all books submitted to these high end sites via Smashwords must abide by. An automatic tool then checks books against these guidelines, and a manual check is made on every book before it is sent. Lulu also uses ePub validation guidelines to ensure formatting for high-end sites is correct before they will accept a book.
All of these checks are great for Apple, but are not enforced by Amazon whose 48-hour turnarounds has seen them accused of duplicate books and poor-quality content. Coker is not convinced Amazon is as effective as it could be: "We have deleted the accounts of dozens of PLR scammers, and often I'll see those same scammers turn around and upload their content directly to Amazon. The Kindle Store is awash in it." He continues: "They aggregate a larger customer audience, and they let a lot of stolen stuff through."
Amazon did not respond to repeated requests for comment over a number of weeks.
One such tool is designed to manipulate the system by repackaging public domain content scraped from the web in to quick ebooks. Owners of the software can generate hundreds of books and it promises "totally hands-free income".
None of this is good for consumers, and as Coker puts it, "The risk of PLR is that you see 50 copies of the same book on the same shelf written by equally lazy-ass idiots who got suckered in to the scam. Then customers, trusting they're buying a real book, purchase these books of questionable value. "
Digital books are still at the early part of their life cycle and many customers are embracing the ebook format for the first time. Impulse purchases that result in low-quality content are not likely to lead to future sales for legitimate authors. Likewise any books which are purchased legitimately but found to be stolen by another author will be removed from a customer's device through no fault of their own.
Although both McDonald and Coker are quick to highlight that they have only seen a small percentage of authors affected they agree that more can be done. For Coker and Smashwords it is about control and punishment: "I think we make the PLR folks jump through more hoops, our vetting is tighter and more effective, and we simply make it more difficult for them to earn a dime off the scams." McDonald and Lulu are focused on the legal aspect of PLR and stolen content: "We must stay on top of all laws or make a blanket decision to not distribute public domain content outside of the US."
Even with these systems in place, Coker feels that "ebooks will continue to attract the dregs of the cybercrime underworld". While PLR can contain well-researched content, it is also being manuipulated on a grand scale both by people who write poor-quality content, or buyers who repackage the same content in multiple ways. Ultimately while the main providers of ebooks are taking action and giving customers and authors the power to take back control there are clear loopholes that need to be closed.