BOB GARFIELD: Buying a cheap knockoff is not just a problem with watches and handbags. Increasingly, knockoff books are being made. If you go onto Amazon’s website, for example, to purchase Stieg Larsson’s bestselling “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” you might stumble upon “I Am the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a completely unrelated book, self-published on Amazon through its Create Space imprint. Fortune’s Senior Editor Stephen Gandel looked into the knockoffs on Amazon and found a number of the books that he says were clearly meant to confuse people by trading off of more popular titles.
STEPHEN GANDEL: There was “Steve Jobs,” by “Isaac Worthington,” which sounds a lot like the book that’s very popular now, “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. There was also “Thirty-Five Shades of Grey,” by J.D. Lyte, which sounds a lot like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” also by a two-initialed author, E. L. James. There’s a very well-selling book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist called “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Amazon, until recently, was selling a book called “Fast and Slow Thinking.” There’s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and if you buy this book you probably won’t get the book you’re expecting because it’s not the very popular book.
BOB GARFIELD: But that’s an actual title.
STEPHEN GANDEL: It’s a book by someone else, by the exact same title.
BOB GARFIELD: So if you get suckered into buying “Thirty-Five Shades of Grey” by J.D. Lyte who, in all probability doesn’t exist, what do you get?
STEPHEN GANDEL: You get a book that’s more like a pamphlet. It’s not nearly as long as the real book. And most of these books that are knockoff books are printed in a very weird format. They’re usually very large type. Like “Steve Jobs,” by Isaac Worthington, not the right book, it had about 40 words per page. There were huge words on each page. That’s about two words per line. And it looked like the material was rewritten from the Wikipedia page. It followed the kind of outline of what’s on the Wikipedia page. And the reviewer for that book said, do not buy this book. This is a pamphlet. It looks like something that would be handed to you on a street corner.
BOB GARFIELD: You spoke to the author of “I am the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” not the late Stieg Larsson, but a woman named Karen Peebles who [LAUGHS] claims to have written 10,000 books and published them through Amazon’s Create Space.
STEPHEN GANDEL: She said she was a stay-at-home mom who home schools her children, and this was a good way for her to get nice royalty checks with not having to leave the house. But I said to her, you know, there’s this other very popular book that is called “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and she said that when she wrote her book she hadn’t heard of it. But she wrote her book in 2008, well after the book was already internationally famous and, and she chose not to publish it through Amazon until mid-2010, well-timed for the popularity of the book in the US. It seems less than coincidental.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s talk about the system that allows this scam to take place. The titles were published through this Amazon Create Space software. How is it that Amazon cannot filter out obvious, non-serious publishing content?
STEPHEN GANDEL: The comeback Amazon would have is say, but we’re not really the publisher, we’re just distributing these self-published books. They don’t have a real publishing relationship in the way the book industry thinks about ‘em. Amazon doesn’t acquire the rights to the books, they don’t edit them. But to the average consumer, there’s no way to know. When you go on the website, Create Space, Amazon’s division, is listed as the publisher. But it should say the person’s name there for the publisher, if it’s really self-published book. But it doesn’t. It has this Create Space label that makes you think, oh, I’m getting a real book, when what you’re getting is - not.
BOB GARFIELD: Has anyone committed a crime?
STEPHEN GANDEL: Titles of books are not copyrighted, so there’s a gray line here. And there is a book titled, “The Dragon With the Girl Tattoo.” You’re able to sell that. I mean, clearly, that’s a parody and a new kind of work. When you’re just trying to trick the consumer into buying your book ‘cause they think it’s that other book, then that’s illegal.
BOB GARFIELD: You know what, Steve, you should write a book about this very thing, and I know exactly what you should call it.
STEPHEN GANDEL: Lay it on me,
BOB GARFIELD: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
STEPHEN GANDEL: I’m on it.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Stephen, thank you so much.
STEPHEN GANDEL: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: Stephen Gandel is a senior editor at Fortune Magazine.