POD Giveth, and POD Taketh Away (Piracy)
About four years back I uncovered a massive textbook piracy operation running unchecked in Createspace. Enterprising scammers were stealing dozens of digital textbooks, then pirating them in Createspace as POD books and using Amazon’s platform to distribute them to Walmart, B&N and other bookstores
Createspace is gone now (it’s been subsumed into KDP), but a recent report suggests that the problem continues in a slightly different form.
The NYTimes caught wind of this ongoing problem, and published a story yesterday.
“The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy” is a medical handbook that recommends the right amount of the right drug for treating ailments from bacterial pneumonia to infected wounds. Lives depend on it.
It is not the sort of book a doctor should puzzle over, wondering, “Is that a ‘1’ or a ‘7’ in the recommended dosage?” But that is exactly the possibility that has haunted the guide’s publisher, Antimicrobial Therapy, for the past two years as it confronted a flood of counterfeits — many of which were poorly printed and hard to read — in Amazon’s vast bookstore.
“This threatens a bunch of patients — and our whole business,” said Scott Kelly, the publisher’s vice president.
There’s a fair amount of detail to this story that cannot be discerned at first glance because the writer was biased and went for clickbait. But it’s still worth reading.
I call the piece clickbait because the writer, David Streitfeld, choose to bash Amazon in the title, but later in the piece admitted Amazon’s competitor, IngramSpark, has a similar problem.
In at least one example, a counterfeiter used IngramSpark to pirate 11 books, including The Art of Assembly Language, and then used IngramSpark to distribute the pirated books to Amazon and other retailers. IngramSpark printed and sold 56 copies of “The Art of the Assembly Language” over the next three months before a keen-eyed customer tipped off the publisher, No Starch Press.
Streitfeld still managed to frame that incident in a way that bashed Amazon, but what was interesting to me about this particular example is that when that incident made headlines in February, Amazon followed up a few days later with the statement that "The copy in question was supplied and printed by an authorized distributor of the book". (They would not say they got the book via IngramSpark, however, which is really weird.)
Here’s why I am hanging on this point: This is not an Amazon-only issue. IngramSpark has the same problem, and so do most of its smaller competitors because the root cause is how the digital printing industry is structured. The piracy is happening because the systems are set up to operate automatically; a file gets uploaded at one end, and books are shipped at the other.
The piracy problem is a condemnation against letting large automated systems run unsupervised, and in order to fix it the POD companies are going to have to do what Google did with Play Books: insert real actual people into the loop, and give them control over the automation.
I don’t know if you recall from four years ago, but Google had a problem in Play Books where pirates were uploading dozens and dozens of ebooks, basically operating without restraint. The only way Google found to solve this issue was to shut down its publisher portal and create a process to approve new users after vetting them.
I don’t know that the same approach will work with the POD piracy issue, but Amazon and IngramSpark are going to have to start putting real people in control of their automation, or this problem is never going away.