The Problem with Free Kindle Books

Something upsetting happened yesterday. I was reading a Kindle book about fermentation that I had downloaded recently. This book was one of the many Kindle books offered for free for one day, whose price goes up to $0.99 (or some other very low amount) after a short time. As I was reading the book something about it was nagging at me, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. Then I got to the first recipe – Garlic Sauerkraut – and I knew. I knew that recipe and I knew I had read it already as well as everything before it, because I already own the information in a real, paper book called The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods, by Wardeh Harmon of the blog GNOWFGLINS. When I took Wardeh’s book off my shelf and compared it to this Kindle book, I found that entire chapters had been used with almost no changes to the writing.

It was quite a shock to me to discover that I had downloaded plagiarized material. I wrote a negative review, contacted Amazon, and also contacted Wardeh Harmon. (The title has since been removed from Amazon’s Kindle store.) And then, something strange happened. The “author” of the plagiarized book sent me a message and she was upset with me. She felt I was tarnishing her good name over something that was not her fault because she did not know the book was plagiarized. How is that possible?

The reason she did not know the book was plagiarized is that she did not write it herself. She informed me of her business model which is this: She chooses a topic she would like to publish an ebook about and then finds a freelance author on the website www.elance.com to ghostwrite it for her. Money exchanged – no questions asked. These books are then heavily promoted on her Facebook page, and unwittingly by others through their 1-day free promotion. (She has other $0.99 Kindle books on popular topics such as coconut oil and paleo recipes.) I suppose it never seemed strange to her that someone could write a book on fermenting without having spent months in the kitchen getting practical experience. Wherever that writer got his information was apparently not her problem.

This got me thinking about very cheap and free Kindle books in general. Being a blogger, I know how long it takes to write a single blog post, and the amount of work that goes into creating just one original recipe. (Hint: there are many failures on the road to success.) On a blog these posts and recipes are shared for free, but even so there is opportunity for profit through advertising and sponsored links. (Note: I don’t have any advertising or sponsored links on my blog at the time of this writing.)

But one blog post and one recipe is only a tiny amount of work compared to writing a whole book. What are the odds, I thought, that any author would put in the kind of long hours needed to write a 30 or 50 page ebook and then sell it for $0.99? I think those odds are small. In order to make a profit doing that you would need to sell a lot of them. And if you are writing for quantity instead of quality, then at the very least the content is probably poorly written and useless, but at the worst it will be plagiarized from other texts.

So, is this a real problem in the ebook world, or am I just cooking up a conspiracy? A quick google search revealed to me that plagiarism in self-published Kindle books is a very real, documented problem that Amazon is aware of and that many news publications have written extensively about. (I’m not going to link to those stories here, but you can easily find them yourself.) I have reached the conclusion that all of these books should be treated as suspect.

Where does this leave us? I know that sharing “Free for One Day” Kindle books has become very popular on Facebook, but I will not be participating. For me the experience of downloading material stolen from a hardworking author whom I respect was upsetting enough to put me off them forever. There are reputable bloggers out there publishing inexpensive ebooks and if you feel the source is trustworthy then go ahead and buy one. But I hope my experience will encourage you to be wary of the vast repository of cheap and free Kindle books currently available at Amazon.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m not exposing the author of this plagiarized text, and here’s why: I’m not a journalist. I don’t know what my legal obligations are when reporting on a story like this. I have clear proof that one Kindle title was heavily plagiarized from a published book, but I cannot say the same for the other titles this author has available. I don’t want to start an Internet war with this person. Most importantly, I don’t think my time would be well spent trying to expose her further. The best thing I think I can do is make others aware of this problem and warn everyone to be cautious when downloading these kinds of books.

4 Responses

  1. Somebody's Mom says:

    There are some legitimate 99c books out there. Here are some reasons you might find some decent cheap or even free Kindle books:

    1. Kindle allows an author to offer his or her book free at certain intervals. This helps the author promote a line of books and introduce them to readers who like to get a bargain. (As if 99c isn’t a bargain already…) I know many authors of cookbooks, fiction, or non-fiction who do this to get a wider readership.

    2. Some companies offer how-to books as part of a broader promotional action to publicize their product or website. Wardeh, for instance, does not make a living off her eBooks, but the eBooks do serve to bring readers and customers to her website.

    Stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own is shameful. I am also outraged on behalf of the elance writers who might be legitimately writing books for a small sum and handing over their labor to someone else who sells them as their own, making a far greater profit than the small amount the elancer was paid. It’s not hard to publish a Kindle book – takes less than an hour of work once it’s written.

    “Be cautious” is good advice. Some of these free or low-cost books are legit. Some are not.

    • Sarah says:

      I agree, there are legitimate free books. My problem is mainly with the posting of free books on Facebook. Lots of people post so many of these books every day without doing any research. Since they’re free for just one day, there’s sort of a mad dash to snap them up before you have to pay for them. I haven’t seen that anyone is really taking the time to look at these books or the authors before sharing them. And how could you, really? If a book is free for just 24 hours that doesn’t give you much time to read it before recommending it. I have been guilty of this as well.

      If you’re looking at one of these books and thinking you might like to download it, here’s one thing you can do: Check the reviews. If it has only 5-star reviews that are very short (1 or 2 sentences) and the reviewers have no other reviews on Amazon, then those reviews are likely fake and composed by the author to improve the book’s rating. This is also a somewhat common problem on Amazon that I have seen. In fact, there was one product that I wrote a negative review of and the seller took the product down, renamed it, and was selling it again the next day with a new name to circumvent my negative review.

      • PattyLA says:

        I have looked into getting my book published on kindle. The benefit to offering it for so cheap is that it gets higher in the rankings on Amazon. The more people who buy it the higher up it is when someone looks for a book on that topic later on when it is for sale for more money. If I could sell 1000 books for $.99 or 10 for $10 I’m going to be making more $ on the 1000 books and people can’t buy my book if they don’t know about it. I’m still working on the #’s as to what makes sense but really getting your name out there as an expert on a particular topic also makes you money down the road when you have more books for sale.
        I am sorry to hear about the plagiarized books and while I hadn’t considered it I am not shocked. Information from others websites is stolen all the time and it can be a full time job tracking down my material and getting people to take it down and stop getting credit for it.

        • Sarah says:

          I probably should have clarified my position on cheap/free Kindle books in this post. There are legitimate ones, and good reasons for offering books for free as you both point out. However, I still stand by my position that there are many bad Kindle books and one should seek out books from a reputable source. Books from known bloggers? Great! Books from unknown sources who have detailed author pages? Probably fine. Books from unknown sources with author pages that have no info whatsoever? Probably not a good idea. The funny thing about this is that these books are being promoted by Real Food bloggers – people who urge their readers to question everything and put a lot of consideration into where their food comes from, buying from local farms, etc. Yet, here they are recommending books by authors that have no known publishing history, either real or online. How can a person who has never written anything about anything suddenly be considered a good source for information about coconut oil just because they’ve published a free Kindle book?

          Just to give you all an idea of what I’m referring to, this morning I visited a couple Facebook pages of bloggers I follow to see what free books they’re promoting. On the second page I found a blogger promoting free books from someone calling him(her?)self “Jonathan Doue M.D.” Now, take a minute to reflect on that name. . . John Doe??? That’s pretty insulting. John Doe, you can see, has published 25 Kindle books on a wide range of topics, all including dozens of recipes, just since January of this year: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=sr_pg_1?rh=n%3A133140011%2Cp_27%3AJonathan+Doue+M.D.&sort=relevancerank&ie=UTF8&qid=1369760870 His author page has no information, no links to a blog or website, so I googled “Jonathan Doue M.D.” to see what I could find. The only hits are to his many Kindle books and this Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JonathanDoueMD?ref=br_tf) where he bills himself as a “best selling author” which I suppose is probably true since people are passing around links to his free Kindle books. This photo (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=432880503466238&set=a.432880500132905.1073741826.432851656802456&type=1&theater) on his Facebook page also claims he has been featured on various major news outlets. Just for kicks, I did a search of his name at the websites for CNN, Dr. Phil, and The Chicago Tribune. All searches yielded no results. Obviously, I don’t have any proof at this point of malfeasance, but I’m willing to bet real money that his books are plagiarized.

          Now, I want to be clear that this “Jonathan Doue M.D.” is not the author I’m referring to in the article above. That was someone else using exactly the same business model: make up a pen name, “write” a bunch of Kindle books using content stolen online and from published books, promote said books heavily on Facebook, sit back and make money. If I wanted to spend a couple hours researching I could probably find a handful more, and the way I would find them is by visiting the Facebook pages of bloggers to see what free books they’re promoting.

          What can be done about this? I can tell you that Amazon never responded in any way to my complaint that they were selling a plagiarized book. I can also tell you that there are forums where authors discuss at length the difficulties they have trying to get plagiarized copies of their books removed from Amazon. My belief is that anyone who downloads or promotes one of these books is complicit in the theft. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to do our homework and make sure the books we’re downloading are legitimate.

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