Cut Amazon some Slack over the Slush

[EDIT (December 1, 2011): If you’ve followed a link here from Wayne Borean’s slanderous blog post about me at “madhatter.ca,” here are a few reasons Mr. Borean owes me an apology.

Wayne Borean insinuates that I work for Amazon or one of the content farmers on Amazon. Where’s the evidence? What proof does he have? Oh yeah, he says I must be guilty of something because I didn’t answer his questions. But I ask you what obligation I have to waste my time answering questions, let alone insulting ones, from passers-by on my personal blog? And why should I tolerate some self-important nobody questioning my character, again, on my own blog?

Sure, Wayne Borean styles himself as a wild and fearless guy and imagines that he’s the sort of person everyone must answer to. But that’s all he is: one of the many impotent blowhards who lobs accusations on the internet against all and sundry from a safe distance. That’s easy to do, which is why it’s such a growth industry.

All the same, I did answer his questions until he insinuated that I worked for Amazon. Just look at the thread below. It ended when he wrote the following: “At this point I have to ask a really impolite question. Do you work for Amazon?

Of course, Mr. Borean now pretends that this was a perfectly innocent question, claiming that “Asking a question isn’t slander.” If the question he asked wasn’t slanderous, why did he admit when he originally asked it that it was a “really impolite question”? Maybe it’s because everyone knows (including Mr. Borean) that when someone asks you whether you beat your wife during a discussion of domestic violence that you’re only saying what you’re saying because it’s in your interest.  There’s no ambiguity in this case or mine: it’s a personal attack.

Moreover, you’d be stupid to answer a question like that. We all know that no one can prove a negative. No one can prove he didn’t kill someone at sometime and bury the body in a secret grave somewhere, anymore than he can prove beyond a doubt that he doesn’t work for Amazon. All anyone can ever say is “no.” That’s why the burden of proof in court rests on the prosecution. Ask yourself: could you prove you don’t work for Amazon, the CIA or the Devil? Come to that, can Mr. Borean prove he doesn’t work for all three?

That’s also why decent people don’t ask those kinds of questions without some kind of evidence. On top of that, in my case all the presumptive evidence points in the opposite direction. First, I’ve publically criticized Amazon’s star ranking for fiction books on this blog. Would you criticize your boss on your blog? As for content farmers, I’ve written scathing reviews of some of these publishers on Amazon itself, warning people that it’s content farmed material.  I’ve also tried to raise awareness of content farming on other blogs. And as you’ll see, I offered Amazon my services in the post below to get rid of content farmers. So all in all, it’s pretty obvious where I stand and that Mr. Borean owes me an apology.

There’s one final bit of irony that I couldn’t resist mentioning. Mr. Borean portrays himself as a valiant crusader against content farming, especially on Amazon. Yet Mr. Borean himself has published a four volume set of e-books on Amazon entitled “Copyright Wars.” I looked at the samples. They all seem to consist of a short preface followed by a bunch of e-mails he has sent to various people. You read that right: his own e-mails. Talk about delusions of grandeur! The man who denounces others for selling e-junk on Amazon cuts and pastes his personal e-mails into an e-book file and sells them on Amazon under the grandiose title, “Copyright Wars.” No irony there—none at all.

You may now return to the original post.]

Amazon has been getting flack for a long time over the amount of useless junk from “content farmers” it allows on its site. Seth Godin is the latest to weigh in.  If he was in charge over at Amazon, he tells us, he’d promptly delete all the recycled Wikipedia articles and repackaged public domain books uploaded by unscrupulous profiteers. In fact, he’d make it possible to rate publishers, like Hephaestus Books, which specializes in what Godin calls “shovelware.”

I’d love to do that too; I bow to no one in my distaste for the blight that content farming has become. But unlike Seth, I recognize the enormous financial cost and logistical nightmare involved in trying to regulate content on a mass-retailer like Amazon.

Consider what should be obvious. We could all slog Hephaestus Books today, and Amazon could ban it tomorrow. But the day after that the same outfit changes its name to “Vulcan Press” and uploads exactly the same material under the new name. Not only was little gained, but Amazon’s system is jammed with material from this and every other banned spammer uploading their material as fast as it’s deleted.

Did that not cross your mind, Seth?

The problem with banning publishers also holds for deleting the junk uploaded by individuals. Consider the following scenario.

Suppose Amazon hires someone like me to clean up its philosophy section. I’ve got the background to tell the wheat from the chaff, so I could clean out the electronic stacks to the satisfaction of any impartial observer. (And if you’re reading this Jeff Bezos, I’d love to give it a try.) I’m even assuming here that the philosophy section contains the same amount of junk (James Gill suggests it’s around 40%) as every other section. At about one hundred titles a day, I’d have cleaned up 10,000 titles in about four months. On the face of it, at least, a one man deletion crew like me could provide a low-cost solution to the spam.

But what stops these individuals from resubmitting their junk the day after I delete it? Nothing. So my one hundred titles a day becomes, say, twenty titles a day, because I’m playing whack-a-mole with the spammers.

It gets worse. Some of the people I delete begin to complain to Amazon (and to whomever else will listen) about “censorship” at Amazon. And you can be sure a lot of the folks who had previously complained about content farming on Amazon will be happy to blog about “Amazon’s ham-fisted censorship policies.”

Now Amazon has to institute some oversight, an appeals board to hear complaints from people I’ve deleted—if only for the sake of its image. That policy trickles down to my work; now I have to write up reports about titles I’ve deleted. And once I have to explain every decision I make in layman’s terms, most of my day will be consumed with paperwork. Instead of twenty titles a day, I’m down to deleting and explaining the deletion of five or ten titles a day—and likely the same one’s day after day.

Isn’t it obvious where this is headed? It’s a financial and logistical nightmare already, and we haven’t even touched on the problem of me as a gatekeeper. Is an expert in philosophy the one you want judging what goes up under philosophy? Maybe I’ll delete all those “personal philosophies” that don’t cut the mustard from an academic standpoint, which might nonetheless appeal to lovers of personal philosophies. Or maybe I’ll do it in a willy-nilly fashion, begging the question about my partiality.

Finally, that money would have to come from somewhere. Would it come from customers? Not likely. Would it come from writers who upload e-books? Say, in the form of smaller royalties? You can count on it, so be careful what you wish for.

15 thoughts on “Cut Amazon some Slack over the Slush

    1. Wayne,

      Sure, Amazon should cut Hepheastus Books. And if you’re being ripped off, complain to Amazon and get a lawyer.

      But this problem is almost apples and oranges. I’m talking about a general strategy to keep Amazon and the other retailers cleaned out over the long term. There is not an easy solution on account of the self-publishing model–the same one that helps many legitimate writers.

      So what’s your solution?

      1. Smashwords has a general strategy. It works fine for them.

        Are you trying to tell me that Amazon isn’t as competent as Smashwords? FYI, I sell through both.

        Wayne

      2. As of March 2011, Smashwords had uploaded 40,000 books. Amazon stocks somewhere north of 2 million. It’s also easier for Smashwords to police the spam because they’re not the major retailer, and so not the spammer’s primary target.

        Second, if you read the post you’d know that I didn’t claim Amazon couldn’t do it. They can. They can use software and hire people like me to sort out the junk. But it will cost money (that will be passed on to writers) and the results won’t be pretty.

      3. As of March 2011, Smashwords had uploaded 40,000 books. Amazon stocks somewhere north of 2 million. It’s also easier for Smashwords to police the spam because they’re not the major retailer, and so not the spammer’s primary target.

        And the reason that Amazon has over 2,000,000 books is that at least 1,500,000 of them are Wikiscrapes or Private Label Rights books. In other words they aren’t real.

        Amazon is making it harder for the reader to find stuff work reading. And if they keep on doing this, Apple’s IBook, Sony’s EBookstore, Smashwords, and the other companies which don’t allow this sort of shit will squash Amazon.

        Which would be good from one point of view. It a company isn’t willing to ensure the quality of its goods, it doesn’t deserve to survive.

        Wayne

      4. And if they keep on doing this, Apple’s IBook, Sony’s EBookstore, Smashwords, and the other companies which don’t allow this sort of shit will squash Amazon.

        Then what are you worried about?

  1. Let me get this straight. You start off defending Amazon’s incompetence in handling spam publishers. When I point out that other companies appear to be able to control the flood of crap, you claim it isn’t easy, and we should allow Amazon some slack.

    When I point out that spam publishers are a problem to legitimate publishers, you try to switch the blame to me.

    At this point I have to ask a really impolite question. Do you work for Amazon?

    Because your consistence defense of the indefensible makes it look like you have a horse in the race.

    Wayne

    1. Maybe slander is acceptable in your circle, but it’s not in mine. I don’t tolerate people questioning my character in person, so I’m not about to open my blog to it.

      That’s your last comment here. Go insult someone else.

    1. Let me point out, Wayne, that I live in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. That places both of us under Canadian law. You cannot get around defamation by only “insinuating” that I’ve done something wrong. It’s still defamation. And when court disclosure shows that I have never received any remuneration (or the promise of it) from Amazon, you will lose and I will win.

      So do yourself a favor and shut up.

      By the way, I find it funny that a person who questions others’ motivations posts comments under pseudonyms (e.g., “Conrad Mazian”).

  2. He’s right about the “Wikiscrapes”, though few starry-eyed self publishers will believe me when I say it. Those “skyrocketing e-book sales” aren’t exactly what they seem.

    So for me, the saddest part is seeing writers make career decisions based on what amounts to at least partly bullshit. I’ve had this discussion on Gaughran’s blog, for example. But I’m done trying to point things out–it’s a waste of time.

    1. Hi James,

      I’m not naïve about the amount of junk on Amazon. I took a fit a few months ago when I came across some recycled public domain books (for sale) and some garbage on philosophy dressed up as “introductions.” I wrote reviews warning other customers, I questioned the legitimacy of some of the glowing reviews and I also reported some of the books to Amazon. One book was removed for a month or two; then I noticed it was restored in (so far as I could tell) exactly the same form. That’s about the time I sickened of what seemed to me like a completely futile exercise.

      I also point out to others, whenever I can, that the two biggest threats to indie self-publishers are content farming and copyright infringement. Like you, I’m mostly ignored or pooh-poohed on this. But we’re also right, so it’s worth keeping up the fight.

      Now, Godin’s “let’s rate publishers” idea set me off because it’s completely useless when [1] it is so easily circumvented and [2] Amazon has no incentive whatsoever to act on it because enforcement will cost money. It’s better for Amazon to let the market decide what has value—old fashioned buyer beware applies.

      As I see it, the only practical solutions are these:

      1. The sale of public domain books will resolve itself as buyer awareness increases. People just have to get wise to the fact that the books are available for free. I say this because there are too many permutations to regulate it.

      2. “Wikiscrapes” will be resolved when Amazon starts charging all sellers to upload books, while removing books at the behest of reviewers and their own internal procedures. Eventually, it will become unprofitable to published recycled crap. All the same, indies will pay the price because Amazon will not pass on the cost of policing to customers.

      3. Copyright infringement. If the law was changed so that it was easier to hold retailers liable for lost profits on copyrighted material, copyright infringement would end overnight. But the law is unlikely to change, so you’re left with vigilance.

      Anyway, I wrote up a new post on this today.

      1. I’ve come to the conclusion that writing reviews is the best thing that we can do, since Amazon isn’t willing to get involved. I’ve been busy doing that.

        FYI, I’m sorry if I upset you, but as I said, SmashWords has been able to handle this problem. Apple has been able to handle this problem. Amazon has made a choice not to, leaving it to us, the readers, to fix it.

        And that sucks.

        Wayne

      2. FYI, go into the first page of your WordPress setup. You’ll see a setting called ‘Nested Comments’, which will currently say ‘3’, I suggest you change it to ’10’. For most posts it won’t matter. For anything that drives discussion, it does.

        Wayne

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