The Face of an eBook Pirate

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!

The Kindle Store vs the eBook Pirates

Long John Silver vs. the Amazon logo

It’s an investigation that’s worthy of a crime novel — but it’s a crime against ebooks! (Or at least, the authors who write them.) Acting on a tip, the business magazine Fast Company researched Amazon’s Kindle Store, and discovered four authors who were hiding a secret. They’d plagiarized every single one of their ebooks from somebody else!

Like any good crime story, it begins on the seedy side of town. At midnight in Amazon’s erotica section, the magazines’ reporter discovered “a hotbed of masked merchants profiting from copyright infringement.” I’m always suspicious when a publication decides to do a “business” story about the business of pornography, mostly because I assume they’re just trying to get attention! But the site’s editor obviously had some fun riffing on that theme when they wrote the article’s headlines. “Even with anti-piracy legislation looming, Amazon doesn’t appear too eager to stop the forbidden author-on-author action…”

I think it’s worth investigating, and their reporter found a perfect way to illustrate the issue — with the story of an ebook author named Sharazade. She’s never plagiarized anything herself, but when she studied the Kindle Store, Sharazade “was dismayed that a number of books, a few with nonsensical titles, were beating hers, even though they were hamstrung by twisted grammar and perverse punctuation.” I’ve also seen some badly-formatted books in the Kindle Store, so it’s not hard to imagine what the offending titles looked like. “Some sported covers comprised of low-resolution images with no lettering,” reports Fast Company. “One author managed to misspell her own name…”

One of these knock-off ebooks, by Maria Cruz, had become the #1 best-selling erotica book one day in the Kindle Store for Amazon.UK. So Sharazade downloaded a free sample to her Kindle, and made a discovery that was even more shocking than the vampire story that the author had written. That author “had copy and pasted the text from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Curious, Sharazade keyed in phrases from other Cruz ebooks and discovered that every book she checked was stolen.” (Emphasis mine.)

But that was only the beginning. Sharazade’s discovery prompted an investigation from Fast Company, which revealed that Cruz “isn’t the only self-published plagiarist. Amazon is rife with fake authors selling erotica ripped word-for-word from stories posted on Literotica, a popular and free erotic fiction site…” In fact, Maria Cruz “had 19 ebooks and two paperbacks, all of which were created by other authors and republished without their consent.” Another author had published 31 ebooks in the Kindle store — every single word of them plagiarized. A third author had plagiarized 11 ebooks, and a fourth author had plagiarized eight more. And “she had even thought to plagiarize some five-star reviews….”

Of course, it’s not just the Kindle store. (Fast Company also discovered the same author had also published five completely-plagiarized ebooks in Apple’s iBookStore.) And the real victim here isn’t Amazon — or even their readers — but the hard-working authors who discover that their creations have been stolen. A 52-year-old math teacher complained to the magazine that “What makes this kind of theft so insidious is how easy it is to get away with and avoid getting caught.” A Canadian novelist named S.K.S. Perry even discovered that, without his knowledge, someone was already selling his novel as a Kindle ebook. “All I can assume,” he wrote on his blog, “is that someone convinced Amazon that they were S.K.S. Perry, and submitted my book for sale.”

It won’t be the first time. I remember when a friend of mine — also a technology reporter — convinced Amazon that he was the author of a book. The author he was claiming to be was Socrates, and he even ended up filling out an autobiography which was displayed on This was back in the late 1990’s, so my memory of the details may be fuzzy. But I remember “Socrates” claiming that he’d had a lifelong friendship with another popular writer — Louis L’Amour. (The 20th-century author behind hundreds of cowboy western novels…)

“Self-publishing has become the latest vehicle for spammers and content farms,” writes Fast Company, “with the sheer volume of self-published books making it difficult, if not impossible, for e-stores like Amazon to vet works before they go on sale.” They note that six years ago, there were just 51,000 self-published titles, but last year, there were 133,036, “and that number is destined to climb.” That’s a good thing, and I’m always excited to see the walls crumbling between “professional” authors and the rest of us ordinary people who have a story to tell. Unfortunately, plagiarism looks like one of the unintended consequences. Some of those ordinary people just aren’t very honest.

“Writing a book is hard…” notes Fast Company. “It’s a whole lot easier to copy and paste someone else’s work, slap your name on top, and wait for the money to roll in.” But it gives me a special feeling to watch the real self-published authors taking so much pride in their work, and sharing protests from the heart about how it feels to find their words stolen. “I have no problem competing against legitimate writers and publishers,” Sharazade told Fast Company. “That’s all part of the deal.

“But I am irritated by competing with cheaters.”