Monday, September 3, 2012

Lawrence Gooley: Authorship And The New Book ‘Paradigm’

If you write books or read them, prepare to be amazed (I certainly was), and if you shop online for books, the information below is important to you. Somewhat of a fraud has been perpetrated on the public in the world of books. While it doesn’t meet the legal definition of fraud, it violates what we might call “the spirit of the law” in providing information (in book form) for resale.

Yes, if you write a book, you can write anything you want, but the fact that you’ve written a book doesn’t mean anyone is reading it. Feedback in the form of sales, comments, and media coverage will eventually let you know if anyone is reading your work.

If you receive no feedback, there’s a good chance no one is reading what you wrote, and it’s important to remember―when someone purchases your book, they do so with an implied contract. If it’s nonfiction, it is expected that the author went to great lengths to research, compile information, and get the story straight, and is deeply apologetic (and mortified) at even the smallest error slipping by. Consumers purchasing your work probably won’t return if you don’t do your best to meet those expectations.

That entire model was cast aside by Bibliolabs, a company touting itself as “the world’s largest publisher.” Writer Stratton Lawrence reported in the Charleston City Paper that, “BiblioLabs has five million books, articles, and applications in their arsenal. According to Inc. magazine, that translated into $17.5 million in revenue for the 25-employee company in 2011.” In fact, his article began, “Move over, Random House. Step aside, Penguin. Get the hell out of the way, Knopf. The publishing world has a new king, Charleston-based BiblioLabs.”

How could this be? Those are some mighty big names to be kicking around, but the powers behind Bibliolabs aren’t new to the game. They founded BookSurge in 1999, a Print-On-Demand (POD) book publisher, purchased by Amazon in 2005 for $10 million and now operating as CreateSpace.

No doubt, Bibliolabs must be producing some good work. They’ve won awards and have been cited for innovation, growth, and an unusual business plan. But at least some of what they’ve done is, for want of a better word, crap. While it might not be crap within itself, it becomes crap when it’s presented to the public as a book. They have shirked the responsibilities that accompany the word “author.”

What Bibliolabs did was brilliant: they redefined the meaning of “book” by tossing aside the implied contract that has long cemented the literary world. Instead, they adopted “Let the buyer beware,” or to follow up on a recent piece I wrote, “We report, you decide.”

Hang around for the explanation because you’re not going to believe this.

Bear with me for a moment by reading these book titles.
1. Webster’s Guide to the 2012 London Summer Olympics
2. The Top Five Male Olympic Swimmers of All Time
3. Rise of the Superhero: A Beginner’s Guide to Marvel Comics
4. The Essential Guide to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy
5. A Reference Guide to Financial Markets: Bond, Stock, Derivatives, OTC, Foreign Exchange
6. A Reference Guide to Psychological Manipulation: Positive and Negative Reinforcement, Contexts, and Other Techniques
7. The Armchair Guide to the First World War, Vol. 3: Caucasus and Gallipoli Campaigns of the Middle Eastern Theatre
8. Webster’s Guide to the World, Thailand: History, Culture, Economy, Government, and More
9. The Essential Guide to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Films, Cast, Peter Jackson, Special Effects, and More
10. Webster’s Introduction to Criminology and Penology: Schools, Theories, Crimes, and More
11. A Reference Guide to Anti-Consumerism: Ideas, Theories, Social Movements, Popular Works, and More
12. A Reference Guide to Keynesian Economists.

To summarize: books on the Olympics, swimming, comic book heroes, movies, the financial markets, psychological manipulation, World War I, Thailand’s history, criminology, anti-consumerism, and Keynesian Economists.

The life’s work of one of the greatest minds of all time? Nope. That’s a few days work by Mack Javens. And believe it or not, he might be considered a slacker among a very prolific group that was doing the same type of work. It’s just possible that Beatriz Scaglia, Jenny Reese, Victoria Hockfield, Abe Hall, Elaine May, Dakota Stevens, and others might have wondered when Mack was going to get to work.

Under Bibliolabs’ arm called Webster’s Digital Services, there are more than 34,000 books credited to those authors. And yes, in physical form―a paper block with sheets of printed paper, surrounded by printed covers―these are books. But in Bibliolabs new definition of “book,” there is no expectation of accuracy, research, or … well, it’s better said that there should be no expectations at all.

What fills all of those books is stuff from Wikipedia and other free sources found through Internet searches. What a great idea! No vetting, no fact-checking … just bundle it all for sale and call it a book. And when I said, “We report, you decide,” that’s exactly the concept.

(Nothing against Wikipedia here. While it’s not an entirely reliable source of information, Wikipedia can be a tool that should send researchers on quests for facts and for the original sources.)

If you see an attractive book cover on Amazon and decide to buy, and it happens to be a Webster product, here’s what you’re missing if you don’t bother reading “Book Description” on that page:

“Please note that the content of this book primarily consists of articles available from Wikipedia or other free sources online. … Project Webster represents a new publishing paradigm, allowing disparate content sources to be curated into cohesive, relevant, and informative books. To date, this content has been curated from Wikipedia articles and images under Creative Commons licensing, although as Project Webster continues to increase in scope and dimension, more licensed and public domain content is being added. We believe books such as this represent a new and exciting lexicon in the sharing of human knowledge.”

Let’s hope there were no injuries from heavy pats to their own backs for undertaking such a noble calling. “Disparate content? … cohesive, relevant, and informative? … new and exciting lexicon in the sharing of human knowledge?” They paint a nice picture, but the reality is much different. And Bibliolabs loves the word “curate” in all its forms. People are hired to “curate” information: gather it online, organize it, modify the cover template (thousands look the same), call yourself an author, and then sell it as a book.

Well, it’s something, but it’s pretty presumptuous to call it a book. Bibliolabs smartly took it one step further. They redefined “author” as well. Amazon lists the curators as “authors.” They might be compilers or gatherers, but I fail to see where the term “author” applies.

Just for fun, try this out. Click here.

Scroll down the page while watching the book covers go by. Then go back and do it again, this time noting the authors’ names and publication dates as they roll by. Do it again and skim the titles.

For even more fun, click on a title, and then click on the author’s name, maybe one of those prolific ones I mentioned earlier. Check out how many titles they’re responsible for. In some cases, there are legitimate books under a name, written by some poor unfortunate … but you’ll also find an incredibly huge and varied assortment of “books,” hundreds, thousands maybe, credited to one of Webster’s “authors.”

If you’ve got LOTS of time on your hands, start on the original page and keep clicking to the next. It might take a while to see all 30,000+ entries. Other websites besides Amazon offer the same titles.

How can more and widely disseminated information be a bad thing? For one, it’s terribly misleading … but the attitude is, let the buyer beware. Here’s a fine example that involves North Country history.

Wow … The History of the Battle of Plattsburgh. Terrific! And it looks great, too! For $17, I’ll have Amazon’s #2 choice after searching their site for the battle. The next choice? Keith Herkalo’s heavily researched, excellent book―an infinitely better selection, but you wouldn’t know it by looking.

In the mix, you’ll also see a few legitimate, well-researched books about the Battle of Plattsburgh (and a bunch of other Bibliolabs offerings … you can tell by the repetitious cover format).

There’s a good chance a customer, unaware of the great discrepancy in value and content, will buy the collection that includes Wikipedia stuff, opinions, errors compounded, and maybe some solid original sources as well. “We report, you decide,” so dig in and determine for yourself what is true.

Much of what Bibliolabs’ Webster Project produced might better be deemed a book farm: the daily accumulation of a bunch of “stuff” from a herd of sources, piled together, and destined to be spread by consumers, “helping to grow” our knowledge of the world.

In other words, a pile of crap, hoping to catch buyers unaware and pick their pockets. I mean, c’mon … Famous Stephen’s, Including Stephen King, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Donaldson and More by Victoria Hockfield?!! (The apostrophe in the title is their error.)  That’s just one of thousands of ridiculous titles. But I’ll admit there’s value: reading through pages of their book titles is guaranteed to make you laugh. And remember, it’s all done in the name of “curation,” and creating a “new paradigm.” What they’ve done, instead, is diminish the meaning of “author” and “book.”

You might ask, “Why would anyone pay for information that is free on the internet? First of all, people already do that in many ways every day when they buy books and newspapers (and don’t forget Bibliolabs’ $17.5 million in revenue). Secondly, and this may come as a surprise, not everyone is tied to the internet day in and day out. Many are, but comparatively few among them are searching the bounds of digitized information. Which is one reason why “author” implies a dedicated effort has been expended to gather information, parse it, and compose a narrative.

Bibliolabs’ Webster Project was “suspended” in 2011, but suspension likely means they found it more lucrative to focus on apps and other outlets, while still using the same “authoring” system. I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the future.

Meanwhile, still sitting there, available on several sites, including the biggest, Amazon, are their 34,000 “books” (a whole crap-load, you might say). I wonder if they have one on composting?

Photo: A regional Bibliofile offering on Amazon.

Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 40 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 16 books and more than 100 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, has been a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. They have published 65 titles and are now offering web design.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publisher’s Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.


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One Response

  1. Pete Biesemeyer says:

    Thanks for the warning. I had no idea this was going on but am not surprised. Let’s hope that Gresham’s
    Law doesn’t apply to book publishing!

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