Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
In May, NPR profiled Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Grey, a historical fiction novel about a girl exiled to Lithuania during Stalin’s regime—no sex involved. However, Sepetys’ work has been gaining some unexpected attention from people who think she’s the author of a very different “gray” book. During the profile, Sepetys recounted one story of a man who mistakenly attended one of her author events:
He may have come for a spanking, but he left with a book about a piece of history that was hidden for more than half a century and he now knows that the Baltics are different than the Balkans. For me, the mix-up is a victory.
While Sepetys’s mix-up was unintentional, however, it seems there are some unscrupulous characters prowling around the publishing world lately. And platforms like CreateSpace are giving them just the opening they need.
A more recent NPR feature looked at this developing problem in the publishing world: knockoffs. Not fake Louis Vuittons or Oakleys, though; instead, counterfeits more along the lines of E.L. James and Steig Larssen. (And not just ebooks—physical copies as well!) NPR’s “On the Media” program interviewed Fortune magazine’s Stephen Gandel in July of this year to discuss the phenomenon.
Examples held up in the segment include titles I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Thirty-Five Shades of Grey. But name similarity is where these books and Sepetys’ work comes to a stop. In Gandel’s words, when you order one of these knockoffs:
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, about two words per line. And it looked like the material was rewritten from the Wikipedia page.
The segment ends with questions of Amazon and CreateSpace’s ethical behavior in relation to questions of plagiarism. However, cruising the ‘net for other responses to this issue, the word that I’ve seen cropping up is one that has rapidly become normal parlance in the Internet age: “curate.” As one commenter (“Rudy”) on a Melville House response put it:
Look, there’s a lot of dreck on the e-book shelves at amazon. They don’t curate. Neither does the Internet. Much temperamental outrage ensues. But golly gee, even traditional publishers produce plagiarized books, fewer and farther between perhaps, but they have less excuse because they DO curate.
And though my gut reaction is to write a scathing indictment of Amazon and CreateSpace, I have to admit that curation (that sneaky, sneaky beast) is actually the issue at stake here. Although we may say that we want Amazon to cut out all the “dreck” (perfect word choice, Rudy), we really don’t. Because despite all of the crap we might have to wade through before we find our diamonds in the rough, the thing we really value Amazon for is its unlimited offerings. We don’t go to Amazon because of its excellent collections of well-curated material; we don’t go to Amazon for the sitemasters’ opinions or recommendations; we go to Amazon because we know that we can find what we’re looking for.
It’s the same reason we go to Walmart: not because it’s classy or civic-minded to shop there, but because we can get potting soil, a bicycle, and a beach hat all in one stop. Because it has everything. We don’t have to go from store to store (or site to site) trying to find who has the item or book that we’re looking for. Amazon and Walmart are the ultimate one-stop-shops.
And although I have my own set of prejudices against Amazon, I have to say that the lack of curation is one of the reasons I keep coming back. My friend’s self-published ebook may not be available through Barnes & Noble or my local booksellers, but I can find it on Amazon. Likewise for out-of-print old favorites, or a new niche specialty title that might appeal to my more obscure hobbies.
In fact, while I started this post as an invective, I’ve ended it more as a caution. To put it in moral-of-the-story terms: you get what you wish for. If we want a place that has everything, it has to have…everything. In some ways, this highlights the benefits of curated content, and could give a slight competitive edge to sellers who do select their offerings. What do you think? Is Amazon’s unfiltered offering all it’s cracked up to be? And what are the implications on both sides for self-publishing?