yesSara HarrisonNone
×

Get access to Protocol

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
People

The perils — and promise — of instant Amazon books in the time of coronavirus

Dozens of COVID-19 books expose the risks of a click-to-publish model, which can be a headache for readers and Amazon alike.

A Kindle with books about coronavirus

Dozens of COVID-19 books have popped up on Amazon through Kindle Direct Publishing since the virus broke out.

Photo: 615 Productions

When coronavirus first appeared in China, April Taylor got curious. She read news reports about the virus and combed scientific journals for information. "I wanted to know what was going on," she said. The more she read, the more concerned she got, and the more she felt compelled to share the information with others.

So she wrote a book and self-published "Wuhan Coronavirus: A Concise & Rational Guide to the 2020 Outbreak (COVID-19)" on Amazon in late January. Taylor's book is one of dozens of COVID-19 books that have popped up on Amazon since the virus broke out. They range from children's books to primers on infectious disease to elaborate conspiracy theories to diaries supposedly written by infected people to plagiarized news articles. The instant explosion of these books in just a few months shows how Amazon's self-publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing, has fundamentally changed the way books are produced and the risks involved in instant information generation.


Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.


In some ways, this is KDP working exactly as it's meant to. But COVID-19 also exposes the perils of a click-to-publish model, which can be a headache for readers and Amazon alike. Distinguishing what's good, what's fake and what's plagiarized takes time. Pressing publish does not.

It once took a year to get a book from first draft to publication. Now it takes a few hours. Authors just upload a document, and it's ready for sale. Print books take about a week. And because Amazon doesn't have to foot the bill for up-front costs like marketing or editing, KDP gives authors better royalties and it pays out faster. For lesser-known authors who won't get a big advance from publishing houses, that can be a big draw.

Brian O'Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade group, said that KDP, along with today's 24-hour news cycle, have pushed the publishing industry to produce work much faster. "There's a feeling that if you don't get out now, or very soon, that you're going to miss the window," he said.

Amazon lets people publish incredibly quickly, and with that comes clear risks for opportunism. And the stakes are especially high when it comes to something as serious as public health information. There's no editor, unless authors find one themselves, and there's no peer review process built-in, as there is in many academic journals.

The biggest risks when it's this easy to publish are that the book will give false information. Indeed, many of the coronavirus titles that popped up in the past few weeks were notably misleading or poor in quality. On Wednesday, Amazon appeared to quietly remove some of the more dubious titles.

Even some of the books that contained correct information were problematic, because they were lifted from news stories. Sometimes the content is plagiarized word for word. Other times plagiarists download the e-books, convert them into PDFs and then input those documents into spinning software that will rearrange some of the words to make the document look original. Sometimes the books end up as complete nonsense. But sometimes it can be hard to spot the difference.

Amazon's guidelines prohibit "infringing or illegal content," and the company told Protocol it had already removed several books that violated those rules. In a statement, a company spokesperson wrote, "Amazon maintains content guidelines for the books it sells, and we continue to evaluate our catalog, listening to customer feedback. We have always required sellers, authors and publishers to provide accurate information on product detail pages, and we remove those that violate our policies."

Taylor isn't a scientist, though she said she's ghostwritten on scientific topics for years. She is a professional writer and specializes mostly in horror and thriller novels. (She decided to publish her COVID-19 book under a pseudonym, Tyler J. Morrison, so she wouldn't confuse her fans.)

As coronavirus spreads, she said she wanted to give people a resource that would be helpful, and she thought a book would reach a bigger audience than a social media post. "I didn't put anything in the book that wasn't confirmed by at least two media sources because I didn't want to spread misinformation," she said. "I didn't want to make it extra panic-inducing or fear-mongering because I didn't think that was going to help anybody."

Related:

Taylor's COVID-19 book was only about 50 pages at first. But she's been updating it as news changes. It's now more than 300 pages.

After her spouse goes to bed, she stays up for hours in their Michigan home researching and writing about COVID-19. "At some point here I'm going to have to cut it off because it's pretty much consumed my life for two and a half months," she said. She said she's noticed books pop up on Amazon plagiarizing her COVID-19 book, which she asked Amazon to take down. She says the company complied, though she also believes Amazon can be somewhat selective about removing books, since they make money from every sale.

For all the books trying to cash-in on COVID-19, few will actually turn much of a profit. "There's a million self-published authors, and most of them don't make money," said Paul Abbassi, CEO of Bookstat, which tracks the publishing industry and e-book sales. KDP e-books can and do sell. Of the top 100 e-books on Amazon, 22 were self-published. But Abbassi points out that those books are the same length and quality as the other, traditionally published books. Those authors often hire editors and work hard to craft books that are original and fun to read. "The only differences are the price and the name recognition of the author," he said.

So far, Taylor's e-book has sold nearly 4,000 copies at $4.99 a pop. But some copies were rented through Kindle Unlimited, which allows readers to pay a monthly fee and download as many participating titles as they want. That means Taylor gets less in royalties. She said that given the amount of work she's done on it, she's probably losing money. But sales tanked when Amazon banned any advertisements about COVID-19 in an attempt to stop price gouging on products like face masks and hand sanitizers. "That is a negative of going through Amazon," Taylor said. "We're all kind of at the mercy of Amazon."

Her book remained on Amazon's site on Wednesday, but others published by pseudonymous authors on the topic of coronavirus had been removed.

People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

Keep Reading Show less
Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Latest Stories