Low quality, spammy Kindle books are not a problem

There’s been an increasing amount of commentary about self published authors using Amazon’s Kindle ebook platform with varying levels of success, some raking in millions of sales by bucking rules and selling their novels for 99¢, while the so-called “legacy” publishers are left floundering as their business models disintegrate. Here’s a nice recent example by Alison Flood which reminds me of the early days of blogging in places.

It also reminds me of the start of Apple’s iPhone App Store where a rash of new software developers noticed the 99¢ sweet spot, reducing consumer risk and dramatically multiplying their customer base. (I know I’ve spent more on 99¢-$1.99 apps than I would have done on $5-10 ones).

Spammy, keyword ridden content on a Kindle

Of course, when you have a massive influx of content creators, for want of a better term, and a dramatic reduction in the power of the traditional gatekeepers you’re going to get a lot of rubbish. Today John Naughton revealed the shocking news that the Kindle store is not just full of crap, it’s also full of spam. After all, all a prospective author has to do is copy some keyword-laden text from the web into a Word and convert it into a Kindle document. Upload a few hundred of these, price them low and wait for the accidental purchases to mount up. It’s not dissimilar to how spam blogs work or, to a lesser extent, the lowest common denominator apps on the App Store.

So, what is to be done! Surely this is a bad thing! We should bring back the agents and publishers and proper booksellers who would never let this sort of thing happen!

Books are a funny thing. I worked for Waterstone’s for years and noticed a massive disconnect between the reputation of the book trade and the actual reality of it. Certainly, there are good publishers who publish good books, and there are good editors who nurture good authors to success. But there’s also a hell of a lot of crap out there.

My least favourite publisher was Michael O’Mara who I see are still pumping out bilge. They were the publishers of Andrew Morton’s legendary Diana book, which might count for something, but their stock in trade is the bookselling equivalent of SEO. Pick a publishing trend and they’ll pump out a cash-in with no care except for the profits it will bring in. I didn’t hate them as publishers – their books were frequently no worse than the bottomfeeding titles on the Penguin or HarperCollins lists – more I hated the book trade for snobbishly pretending this stuff didn’t exist while quietly creaming off the profits.

In short, if you think books are sacred, go work in a bookshop for a few years. You’ll soon get over that. But most journalists who write about the book trade don’t appear to have been a Waterstone’s till monkey so they maintain this romantic notion that high street bookselling is somehow different from the rest of the retail sector and that publishers are all gentlemen and ladies defending literature from the barbarians. Anything that challenges that is a challenge to civilised society. It’s be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressing.

Unlike the state of the publishing industry, no-one would deny the ebook market is full of rubbish. When you make it possible for anyone to publish the inevitable result is anyone can publish and, as we see in blogging and YouTube, not everyone has the ability or inclination to hit a mass audience. Some, like Amanda Hocking, have what it takes but most won’t. As the saying goes, 95% of everything is rubbish. The trick, some would say the fun part, is finding that 5%.

The bigger problem is how to police those who are only interested in exploiting this new creative arena for financial gain. Online this is defined as spam, be it sending 10,000,000 emails hoping for 10 replies or running a content farm to sneak poor content into Google’s search results. There are now millions of ebooks, a significant number of which are copyright infringing, keyword chasing garbage. How do we deal with that?

The first thing to do is not mistake it for a problem. If a branch of Waterstone’s was accepting all books by any author that would be a huge issue as they only have so much space. Amazon’s Kindle store is infinite. There is no inherent value in being stocked by Amazon simply because there’s no scarcity of resources, but because we’re used to book suppliers putting value on that scarcity the urge to apply it to the Kindle is strong. It’s not strictly relevant.

The other thing to be wary of is thinking this is all Amazon’s problem to sort. Yes, they can, and no doubt will, work on their algorithms to eliminate the spam and promote the books people actually worth buying – to do otherwise would be commercial suicide. But the gateways to the Kindle store are as varied as the titles stocked. I been watching a couple of writers, Andrews Hickey and Rilstone, who’ve been selling their work through Amazon and Lulu, both as ebooks and print-on-demand. While they no doubt generate sales through the main Amazon and Lulu stores a significant number will come from their own websites. It’s also notable that whole Hickey is hitting mainstream subjects like The Beach Boys and therefore competing with the big boys, Rilstone is carving a much smaller niche, and presumably has no illusions of getting rich off it. We should also consider social filtering, or word of mouth, a powerful source of traffic. I very rarely search the iPhone app store – I get my recommendations from my network on Twitter.

The Kindle store is just a fairly-open, proprietary platform which is pretty neutral in what it allows in. There are good arguments to be made against this laissez-faire model of opening the floodgates and letting the market bubble the good stuff up, but saying the old filters are the right ones makes the mistaken assumption that they still apply. Doing so leads to Naughton saying stuff like:

What seems to be happening is that Amazon’s platform is being overwhelmed by spammers who “scrape” content from websites or, in some cases, actually lift entire texts, and republish them as ebooks.

Overwhelmed? Like Google’s index is overwhelmed? Or the Books In Print database is overwhelmed? It’s a problem, for sure, caused by greedy individuals unconcerned with the greater good, but that’s always been the case. What we do is we build solutions to those problems that embrace the opportunities, not shut them down. Access to countless new authors in countless new categories is a massive opportunity for readers, agents, publishers and retailers.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this and a snappy conclusion is eluding me, but I think I’ve made my point, or two.

3 thoughts on “Low quality, spammy Kindle books are not a problem

  1. Andrew Hickey

    Nice piece – when I saw the pingback from a post starting “Low quality, spammy Kindle books” I thought “Oh oh, what are people saying about me?” so I’m glad it was nothing bad, but on the whole I agree with much of this.

    I know it’s a side point though, but I doubt I’m getting any richer than Andrew R is – I don’t think the niche for Beach Boys books is much bigger than that for Doctor Who books, and my book on comics, quantum physics and liberalism probably sells about as well as his book on theology ;)

    But yeah, I think about half my sales come from my website, with the other half coming from a sort of feedback loop (I get a few sales from my website, my books rise slightly in the charts, so I get a couple from Amazon itself before it drops off).

    And yes, Sturgeon’s Law applies to self-publishing at least as much as it does anywhere else, but I’ve bought self-pubbed books by Rilstone, or Simon Bucher-Jones, or my uncle Stephen Hickey, or Lawrence Burton, that I consider genuinely great books. I think Lulu tends to have a slightly higher quality level than Amazon (I publish on both) because people see it as more ‘real’.

    But none of my stuff would have got published through conventional publishers – and if I *had* found a publisher for, say, my book on the Beatles, they would hardly have been delighted when I followed it up with Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – and yet a small number of people *really* like my stuff. I’m ecstatic to finally live in a world where it’s become economically feasible to publish stuff that has no hope of ever being a bestseller, because I’d rather write a book that a few hundred people buy and *REALLY* enjoy than one that a few hundred thousand buy to read on their holiday and forget once they’ve finished it.

    Sorry for blathering a bit there. Basically, I agree with what you said.

  2. Robin Valk

    Interesting to read your comments, having read the article in the Observer. Good points too. Surely the law of over-supply in an unregulated market will kick in? Even at 99 cents, people eventually tire of buying shoddy crap, and the demand for spambooks will decline, leaving the market leaders relatively unscathed. And, surely, too, the conditions that have allowed this marklet to develop will only last as long as Kindle retains its appeal?

  3. Pete Ashton

    Robin,

    The point is you can’t have “over-supply” an infinitely large store and there’s no economic disincentive to producing spam-books. It doesn’t matter if a teeny proportion of people are buying them – the economics still make it worthwhile.

    Re the Kindle’s appeal fading, like Twitter I’m using it as a placeholder for a wider phenomena which, sadly, has been co-opted by a brand rather than being an open thing. When the Kindle fades something else will take its place with similar effects.

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