What happens after Amazon dominates all? Its bookstore offers clues

What happens after Amazon dominates all? Its bookstore offers clues

Antimicrobial Therapy, which publishes “The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy,” bought 34 of its handbooks from Amazon and Amazon’s third-party sellers. At least 30 were counterfeits.

© Isabelle Baldwin for The New York Times

SPERRYVILLE, Va. — “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.

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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.

Mr. Kelly’s problems arise directly from Amazon’s domination of the book business. The company sells substantially more than half of the books in the United States, including new and used physical volumes as well as digital and audio formats. Amazon is also a platform for third-party sellers, a publisher, a printer, a self-publisher, a review hub, a textbook supplier and a distributor that now runs its own chain of brick-and-mortar stores.

But Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.

That has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said, often taking action only when a buyer complains. Many times, they added, there is nowhere to appeal and their only recourse is to integrate even more closely with Amazon.

***

The scope of counterfeiting across Amazon goes far beyond books. E-commerce has taken counterfeit goods from flea markets to the mainstream, and Amazon is by far the e-commerce heavyweight. But books offer a way to see the depths of the issue.

“Being a tech monopoly means you don’t have to care about quality,” said Bill Pollock, a San Francisco publisher who has dealt with fake versions of his firm’s computer books on Amazon.

An Amazon spokeswoman denied that counterfeiting of books was a problem, saying, “This report cites a handful of complaints, but even a handful is too many and we will keep working until it’s zero.” The company said it strictly prohibited counterfeit products and last year denied accounts to more than one million suspected “bad actors.”

“There is strong competition amongst booksellers, from major retailers to independent booksellers,” the spokeswoman added.

What happens after a tech giant dominates an industry is increasingly a question as lawmakers and regulators begin taking a harder look at technology companies, asking when dominance shades into a monopoly. This month, lawmakers in the House said they were scrutinizing the tech giants’ possible anticompetitive behavior. And the Federal Trade Commission is specifically examining Amazon.

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In Amazon’s bookstore, the unruly behavior has been widespread, aided by print-on-demand technology. Booksellers that seem to have no verifiable existence outside Amazon offer $10 books for $100 or even $1,000 on the site, raising suspicions of algorithms run wild or even money-laundering. The problem of fake reviews is so bad that the F.T.C. has already gotten involved.

Those who write a popular book open themselves up to being “summarized” on Amazon. At least eight books purport to summarize “Bad Blood,” John Carreyrou’s best-selling account of fraud in Silicon Valley. The popular novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” has at least seven summaries. “Discover a beautiful coming-of-age story without all of the unnecessary information included in the actual novel!” says one that has 19 five-star reviews, all of which read as if they were fake.

And then there are the counterfeits.

“It’s unacceptable and I’m furious,” the author Andrew Sean Greer tweeted after people complained last summer that fakes of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Less,” were being sold as the real thing. There was a counterfeit edition of Danielle Trussoni’s acclaimed memoir, “Falling Through the Earth,” on the site that misspelled her name on the cover. Lauren Groff tweeted that there was “an illegal paperback” of “Florida,” her National Book Award nominee, on Amazon.

Dead writers get hit, too. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” was pirated. So was a volume of classic stories by Jorge Luis Borges. For 18 months Amazon has sold a counterfeit of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” despite warnings in reader reviews that it is a “monstrosity,” dispensing with such standard features as proofreading and paragraph indenting.

Technical books, which tend to be more expensive than fiction, are frequent victims. No Starch Press has tried to squelch fake editions of its computer manuals for three years. Mr. Pollock, No Starch’s founder, said Amazon had the same laid-back approach to bad actors on its platform as Facebook and YouTube.

“Amazon is the Wild Wild West,” he said.

This is not really negligence on Amazon’s part. It is the company’s business model. Amazon, which does not break out revenue or profit from bookselling or publishing, assumes that everyone on its platform operates in good faith until proven otherwise. “It is your responsibility to ensure that your content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other rights,” it tells prospective publishers and sellers.

At Antimicrobial Therapy, the first warning that something was amiss with the Sanford Guide came with reviews on Amazon. “Several pages smudged and unable to read,” one buyer said in 2017, posting photos as proof. “Seems as the book was photocopied,” said a second. “Characters are smeared,” wrote a third.

The company, whose books were sold to Amazon by distributors, did test buys. It got some copies from Amazon and others from its third-party sellers, including UsedText4u, Robinhood Book Foundation and 24×7 Book. Of the 34 books that Mr. Kelly bought, at least 30 were counterfeit. None of the booksellers responded to requests for comment.

Mr. Kelly spent hours writing responses to customers who complained about their copies but didn’t realize they had counterfeits. He tried tracking down the source of the fakes and attempted to communicate with Amazon. Eventually he wrote to the retailer’s founder, Jeff Bezos, saying, “Amazon is knowingly and willfully fulfilling most orders for our title with counterfeits that may contain errors leading to injury or death of their patients.”

Mr. Kelly got a response two weeks later from “Raj,” a member of “the Amazon Seller Performance team.” Raj said that an unnamed third-party seller had been barred from selling the book but that the seller might now appeal directly to AMT, and that if the company wanted to retract the whole thing, here was what to do.

“They were very reluctant to actually engage with us about the problem,” Mr. Kelly said of Amazon.

The Authors Guild said it was also seeing “a massive rise” in counterfeit books. “Authors tell us, ‘I know I had more sales, but I don’t see them in my royalties.’” said Mary Rasenberger, the guild’s executive director. “Amazon owns the reseller platform, and we think that’s where these books are being sold.”

In February, Amazon included counterfeiting in its financial disclosures as a risk factor for the first time, saying it might not be able to prevent its merchants “from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated or stolen goods” or “selling goods in an unlawful or unethical manner.”

Yet the company has such a grip on books that counterfeits do not seem to harm it. They might even increase its business.

“A book takes a year or more to write,” said Andrew Hunt of the Pragmatic Bookshelf, a North Carolina publisher of computer books that had at least one of its titles stolen. “But to steal the book and upload it to Amazon takes only a minute. As the expression goes, there’s a low cost of entry.”

And when someone buys a counterfeit, Mr. Hunt added, the real author may get cheated but Amazon still makes a sale. “You could ask, What’s their incentive to do something?” he said.

A dream turns into something else

Amazon fulfilled Jamie Lendino’s dream of becoming an author.

A computer buff who delights in the digital past, Mr. Lendino, 45, wrote a book called “Breakout,” about the Atari machines of the 1980s that ushered in a new era of gaming. He self-published it two years ago through Amazon, which charged him nothing upfront but took a commission on the 1,223 paperback copies bought by devoted Atari fans.

Then Amazon fulfilled someone’s dream of becoming Jamie Lendino.

A fellow purportedly named Steve S. Thomas took Mr. Lendino’s book a year ago and remade it as his own. Mr. Thomas got rid of the title “Breakout” and converted the subtitle — “How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation” — into the title. He put on a new cover and substituted his name for Mr. Lendino’s, although he kept all of Mr. Lendino’s biographical details about being the editor of ExtremeTech.com and writing for PC Magazine and Popular Science.

It was the latest entry in Mr. Thomas’s substantial body of work. He also put his name on scholarly and expensive books like “Preharvest and Postharvest Food Safety” and “Real-World Electronic Voting: Design, Analysis and Deployment,” none of which he had actually written.

Mr. Thomas’s plagiarism of Mr. Lendino brought his caper to a close. Kevin Savetz, another Atari buff, spotted “How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation.” He ordered it, although, as he noted, “the title seemed a little familiar.”

When Mr. Savetz got the book, he realized it was more than familiar and tweeted at Mr. Lendino, who was surprised someone was stealing from him.

“If you’re going to counterfeit a book, you’d pick something by Dan Brown or Neil Gaiman,” Mr. Lendino said. “You don’t pick a tech guy writing about a 40-year-old computer.”

Things got weirder. Allison Tartalia, Mr. Lendino’s wife, was browsing on Amazon as all this was happening when she saw that a 152-page biography of her husband had recently been published.

“I was like, ‘Honey? Someone apparently knows something about you that I don’t,’ ” Ms. Tartalia said.

She ordered a copy of the biography, which had been put together by two entrepreneurs using a rudimentary artificial intelligence program scraping material from the internet. So far, they seem to have produced 3,000 of them, including titles such as “Dick Hardt, Identity Guy at Amazon Web Services.” They sell for $15, though sales seem to be rare and satisfied customers even rarer.

After Mr. Lendino complained to Amazon about the counterfeit, the retailer wiped Mr. Thomas’s oeuvre from its store. Only the faintest traces of him remain. He could not be reached for comment because he probably does not exist. Amazon declined to comment.

Ms. Tartalia never received her biography of her husband. The book is listed as “currently unavailable.”

Mr. Lendino holds no grudges against Amazon. “It was truly amazing that I could publish a book without walking into a lot of bookstores and asking them to carry it, or printing a lot of inventory and having to run online web sales myself,” he said.

Last year, he used Amazon’s self-publishing platform to issue “Adventure,” about the Atari 2600.

‘Amazon has done it again’

Some counterfeit books, like Mr. Thomas’s, are wholly made on Amazon. Sometimes they come from elsewhere.

One example is “The Art of Assembly Language,” an older computer manual published by No Starch Press. It ended up counterfeited and on Amazon after a sequence of maneuvers that began last November.

That month, a counterfeiter sent 11 digital files — including “The Art of Assembly Language” — to IngramSpark, a print-on-demand publisher in Tennessee. Once the scammer was finished with the minimal paperwork, IngramSpark had 11 new books.

The titles became part of the distribution network of IngramSpark’s parent company, Ingram Content Group, which supplies thousands of retailers with physical books of all types. IngramSpark printed and sold 56 copies of “The Art of the Assembly Language” over the next three months. Amazon ordered many of them.

In January, a keen-eyed customer tipped off No Starch that the book did not look right. The counterfeits, listed for $48, were larger than the real thing, which put the cover noticeably out of alignment. Amazon featured the fakes in its product photo.

“Amazon has done it again,” Mr. Pollock tweeted.

In late 2016, No Starch had found a counterfeit of one of its books, “The Linux Command Line,” on Amazon. A few months later, it happened again with “Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming” and, the publisher said, at least three others.

Phil Ollila, chief content officer of Ingram Content Group, acknowledged that he had not told No Starch, the copyright owner, that its rights were violated. “That seems like the polite thing to do, doesn’t it?” he said.

That was just one of No Starch’s problems on Amazon.

No Starch publishes “Python Crash Course,” a how-to guide to the Python programming language. Anyone searching those three words recently on Amazon would have seen several self-published books, often “sponsored” — that is, advertised — so they would be perched at the top of the search page.

One book, also called “Python Crash Course,” is an entirely dubious effort. On its front cover is a distorted logo appropriated from the respected publisher McGraw Hill but subtly changed to “RcGraw Hill.”

The book features a biography of Alexis Jordan, its purported author, on the back cover that was stolen from the popular suspense writer Dean Koontz. (“His novels are broadly described as suspense thrillers,” etc.) Inside, there is a completely different biography plagiarized from Jürgen Scheible, a German media artist.

Mr. Scheible said he was dismayed to learn that his life had been stolen. “This has shaken my trust in Amazon and its future,” he wrote in an email. “Where are they going if they are so negligent that a thing like this book and other such books can happen for real?”

Amazon sells “Python Crash Course” for $7. The No Starch book goes for $28.

“Their book is a joke, but it will sucker some people into thinking they’re buying a cheaper version of my book,” Mr. Pollock said.

Bait-and-switch schemes are common in the Amazon bookstore. If someone wants to title a book of self-published poetry “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and someone did — Amazon will sell it next to Harper Lee’s classic novel. Some customers wrote in Amazon reviews that they felt tricked by the author of the verse “Mockingbird,” whose many other titles include “War and Peace” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

In February, Amazon introduced a plan called Project Zero. No longer would brands have to report counterfeits and wait for the retailer to investigate. Project Zero, Amazon said, would give brands “an unprecedented ability to directly control and remove listings.”

Mr. Pollock said Project Zero was a further insult. “Why should we be responsible for policing Amazon for fakes?” he said. “That’s their job.”

But No Starch still needs to keep its books ahead of the imitators and knockoffs. So in November, it began advertising on Amazon.

“It’s about $3,000 a month and rising,” Mr. Pollock said. “I need to keep my books on the first page of results.”

Rewarding Amazon’s dominance

The Sanford antimicrobial guide has its roots in the work of Jay Sanford, the chief of infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in the 1960s and later the president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. There is now a digital version, but many doctors prefer the familiar printed format.

Antimicrobial Therapy is run today by Jeb Sanford, Jay’s son; his wife, Dianne; and Mr. Kelly, who is Dianne’s son and Jeb’s stepson. It is a small operation, only 13 employees working out of a large barnlike building in Sperryville, Va., on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The company declined to disclose its annual revenue, but the Sanford Guide is its principal product. Sales of the book have drifted lower the past few years, with a downward spike in 2018.

In retrospect, this was probably a clue to the growing abundance of fakes. “My estimate is that approximately 15 to 25 percent of our sales were taken away by counterfeiting,” Mr. Kelly said. “We’re talking thousands of books.”

After the guide is printed, all copies go to Sperryville. They are then shipped to wholesalers, retailers and individual buyers. The wholesalers sell the book to Amazon. Third-party sellers on Amazon acquire their stock in several ways. One seller of a counterfeit copy told Mr. Kelly that she had bought the book from Amazon in one of its periodic sell-offs of damaged and returned books.

Sellers on Amazon can pool their goods with the same exact goods offered by Amazon itself, a practice known as commingling. This has advantages for sellers — less processing is needed, so it’s cheaper — but it also explains how Amazon can unknowingly ship counterfeits despite getting stock directly from the printer.

Some of the counterfeits appear to have been copied by scanning. That process can easily introduce numerical errors, especially with a typeface as small as the handbook’s. “There are versions of our text out in the world over which we had no control,” Mr. Kelly said.

The company filed complaints with Amazon about counterfeiting last fall. The bookseller ultimately removed many of the resellers, some of whom then went to Antimicrobial Therapy and complained that they were innocent. Amazon declined to comment on the publisher.

The communications impasse between Amazon and Antimicrobial Therapy was complicated by the fact that they did not have a direct relationship. So in December, AMT opened a vendor site on Amazon, with the bookseller getting a commission of about 20 percent on each copy sold. Under this arrangement, Amazon tells Antimicrobial Therapy where the customer lives, and the publisher ships the book from Sperryville.

As AMT was getting ready this spring to release the 2019 guide, it proposed an even deeper integration with Amazon.

“To eliminate the possibility of Amazon facilitating the sale of counterfeit books, we would like to offer Amazon the opportunity to serve as a wholesaler of our titles, cutting out the middle man,” Mr. Kelly wrote to the company.

It was, in essence, rewarding Amazon by surrendering to its dominance.

“We’d rather not be on Amazon,” Mr. Kelly said. “But we felt like we didn’t have a choice.”

Follow David Streitfeld on Twitter: @DavidStreitfeld.


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