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publishing business

Authors Behaving Badly

The writing world has been buzzing in the past few days about yet another plagiarism case. This one opened up a whole seamy underbelly of publishing and what people are doing to get ahead.

Alert readers notified authors that they’d spotted bits of their books in a “new” book they were reading, and it turned out that the book in question was a mosaic of pieces from other books (and an article or two) pasted together, with the character names and a few words changed and a little bit of transition to more or less smooth over the gaps between the stolen bits. The “author” in question claimed to be shocked at these allegations and blamed it on a ghostwriter she’d hired to write the book.

But then that opened a can of worms in revealing that this “author” wasn’t actually writing her books. She was more of a publisher, a content mill, hiring people to churn out books for her to publish. One of her ghostwriters has said that the “author” was actually the one who handed over a manuscript and asked the writer to smooth it out for her, essentially doing a heavy edit, and what was handed over turned out to have been a bunch of chunks taken from other books.

A lot of this comes down to attempts to game the Amazon algorithm, especially for Kindle Unlimited, where authors are paid by the number of pages read. To stay near the top so that your books are more visible, you have to keep a steady flow of new content going, and to do that, some authors are resorting to tricks of various degrees of shadiness. There’s ghostwriting—cheaply hiring freelancers to churn out books for you to publish. There’s book stuffing, in which a “book” is actually a collection of previously released other books, with one new book at the end, so the author gets credit for thousands of pages read when the reader skips to the last book (Amazon tried to crack down on this by changing the rules about what counts as a “book”). There are schemes for click farms, in which people are hired just to click through books so the authors get credit for pages read and so that the books move up in the rankings, so they’re more visible and are more likely to be read. Some of the scammers post fake reviews for competitors’ books, then allege to Amazon that the competitor paid for the reviews, so those books get taken down.

The result is that Amazon is now so full of shady stuff that it’s hard for real books to get noticed. I know my sales have slumped a lot, and that’s one reason I’m trying to find a publisher. I’m afraid the whole independent publishing thing is going to collapse under its own weight. Kindle Unlimited has really just encouraged some of the more toxic behavior. These schemes wouldn’t be so lucrative without that, if each book had to be purchased and had to stand on its own merits. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t care because they’re not losing money. They make the same whether it’s a stuffed plagiarized book or a well-written original book, and the scammer may be even more likely to buy ads from them.

All this to say that legitimate authors need readers’ support more than ever. It’s harder for our books to be discovered amid all the noise, so reviews and word of mouth are essential.