The Face of an eBook Pirate

January 25th, 2012

The mask of a pirate

Within just the last 12 days, Amazon’s removed close to 100 plagiarized ebooks from their Kindle Store. They’re responding to an article in Fast Company magazine about “pirates” who were publishing other people’s stories as their own. Now the magazine’s published a fascinating follow-up article. And they’ve actually identified and interviewed one of the ebook pirates!

Our story begins with a humble security guard — a 64-year-old man who wrote a dirty story, and then published it on a sexy web site. He later discovered his story on the Kindle — or at least, available for sale in Amazon’s Kindle Store. But it had taken a strange path to get there — through the seamy online underworld where spammers trade secrets — and then eventually, to Kuwait! And according to the article’s semi-dramatic subhead, this remarkable journey “sheds light on black hat hacker forums — and the theft, taboo sex, and swindles festering in the recesses of Amazon.”

When contacted by the 64-year-old author, Amazon did a strange thing. Instead of giving him the money that the ebook had earned, Amazon simply provided him with the pirate’s contact information — their name, address, and e-mail. Amazon’s response “was, in essence, to tell the aggrieved party to work it out with the thief,” writes Fast Company, while Amazon still “kept its cut… It profits no matter what.” The writer ultimately turned to the magazine for assistance, giving the contact information to their reporter — who is also a journalism professor in New York.

And the reporter then tracked down the ebook pirate in Kuwait, who shared his own side of the story. When he’d re-published the erotic story, the pirate didn’t even know he was stealing another writer’s work. The story was purchased as part of a “starter kit” for aspiring book publishers, which included dozens of different stories that were bundled together in a small .zip file. He’d paid $100 for the file, plus $15 for some images to use as the covers of his ebooks (and another $35 to watch a video demonstrating exactly how to publish an ebook in Amazon’s Kindle Store). And that expenditure ate up almost 45% of the money he’d earned, since he’d sold just 187 copies of the ebook. He was apparently selling them at $2.99 apiece, since his net sales were $559.13 — but Amazon kept 40% of that amount, so even before deducting expenses, he’d brought in just $335.

That’s a lot of work to earn $185 — and the reporter notes that the pirate earned even less from some of other ebooks that he’d published. (“My first book was a diet guide,” the pirate says. “Total copies sold: one.”) In addition, he was creating the books in a strict Muslim country, where pornography is illegal. So Fast Company‘s reporter notes that the ebook pirate “could face dire consequences if Kuwaiti authorities found out about his sexy shenanigans.”

Maybe the moral of the story is simply that crime really doesn’t pay — or at least, not enough to make it worth the trouble. Another author in the story had published over 22 different books — using material which Amazon considered nearly identical to ebooks they were already selling in the Kindle Store. They’d removed all 22 of the duplicate titles, but altogether they’d only earned a total of $60 — about $2.72 for each book — after nearly three months in the Kindle Store. They’d created all 22 ebooks over “a long weekend” simply by formatting and publishing them, all at once.

Depending on how much time was spent, this pirate may actually have earned less than the minimum wage!

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