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.