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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.

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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."

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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.

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