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Are eBooks the new Content Farms?

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 8th March 2011

Whilst the Google farmer update has not meant the end of content farms, it has certainly hit them hard and put a lot of content writers out of work [see Mahalo fires 10% of staff].

Most people use content farms to make extra revenue, or to gain a new platform for their work. So just where will these writers flock next? My bet is it will be eBooks that become the next format to be manipulated, especially as they hide away from the prying eyes of Google.

Here’s the logic:

They have little to no copyright detectors
It’s true most eBook platforms review the content they receive, however it will be little more than a cursory check by automated software with thousands of eBooks published every day across multiple platforms. I tested this by publishing an eBook with content taken from my own blog on Amazon, this didn’t set off a single detector or warning. You have to tick a box to confirm you have permission to use the content, but tick boxes have never stopped scammers from lying before.

Therefore there’s nothing to stop people gathering content from the web, and creating an eBook. Someone could go to a blog, grab any content they want, label it as their own and make money from another person’s content.

This is the same concept some of the more deceitful writers/publishers on content farms use, and without good plagiarism detectors, it’s a flaw that is ripe for manipulation. The only way to stop this is for content creators to find the eBooks and file a case against the creators. But the only way to realistically do this is to buy every book that could possibly cover your subject area.

If eBook stores change only one thing, this is it.

You can turn around a book 24 hours
Once a ‘writer’ has scraped their content for the web they can then have their eBook live in less than 24 hours on the Kindle platform, and even less time on 3rd party sites like Smashwords who aggregate eBooks to multiple formats in one go. This puts a minimal time pressure on the creator, who can be earning money on their content relatively quickly. Worse still if they survive a financial quarter without being caught, it’s an easy pay day.

Kindle Spammer
This is how creators like Manuel Ortiz Braschi can have created 2,879 eBooks in just a couple of years. Many of his books have reviews listing formatting errors and he covers such as wide range of topics it’s impossible to believe he is really an expert in all these topics. Most reviewers also cite that they won’t buy an eBook again, therefore Manuel has destroyed the platform for honest creators.

Books can cover the same topic in multiple angles
The main reason content farms were able to succeed is because they had multiple writers covering the same topic in different ways. So if you searched for “how to clean a car” or “the best car cleaning methods” a writer would have covered the different search variants. With eBooks this is harder, as you have to create an eBook for each concept, but scammers could simply write one eBook, then rewrite the content to target to target another keyword variant.

To create the illusion of separate writers, all that is required is another login account and voila, scammers can cover the same topic in multiple ways. Here’s an example for Health Insurance with the same book by three separate authors and manipulated article titles.

They sit on strong domains so have an added boost
Another reason why independent writers used content farms is that they attracted strong Google PageRanks and therefore ranked well in the search engines for generic topics. Likewise in this scenario having an eBook on Amazon’s domain (PageRank 8), or Apple’s (PageRank 9) is a sure fire way to ensure your content gets found, and if you have a keyword rich book title it certainly will do so.

They have high royalty payouts
Even pricing an eBook at a dollar or 99p a scammer can make a 30% royalty on Amazon. This is more than the average AdWords click – the financial factor in content farm growth – and is the payout for scammers using the eBook platform to hold their content. It’s a cheap price point that lowers customer expectations and allows these spammy books to survive. Most of the bad reviews for Manuel Ortiz Braschi seem to let him off because the books are cheap. This is bad for anyone else that wants to sell their book at a good price, as they’re labelled with the same poor expectations.

Reviews don’t help
The typical argument against these being problems is that the public will review the book and if they spot anything wrong they will give it a bad review. However, it’s unrealistic to assume everyone that reads the book will know where the content came from originally. Therefore it’s possible I could give an eBook a good review, in the belief that the writer was the originator of the content.

If an eBook does get a bad review, or is exposed, the writer can simply remove the eBook for publication, and resubmit it under a new name. Reviews are also unique to the particular site. So a bad review on Barnes and Noble won’t stop people buying the book from another platform.

Solutions are needed
It’s these problems that mean eBooks as a platform could soon become flooded with bad writers, stolen content and scammers out to make easy money. There’s a lot that can be done to stem the problem such as:

  • Integrating a plagiarism detector that compares book content to scans of the web
  • If content is syndicated from a blog, ask blog holders to upload a verification file to prove they have the rights to the content
  • Compare eBook content to that written in other hosted eBooks to look for similarities
  • Add a link on every eBook listing page where people can report the book for stolen content
  • Ask writers to verify their address before a book is added, this stops duplicate accounts and ‘publishers’ selling the same content
  • Investigate any content creators with more than fifty eBooks to check the quality of their content
  • Create an independent website where people can store reviews in one place will be a better way of spotting bad apples
  • If you spot someone who is trying to game the system then spread then search for their book online and post a bad review on every site they’re listed
  • Allow search engines to crawl eBook content so they can rank stolen content lower, using their existing checks

The potential
eBooks are one of the greatest digital movements in recent years, and for writers there has never been a better format for exposing your work to a wide audience. I’m passionate that a new writer can become a success if they create quality content and price it well {see Who Wants to be a Kindle Millionaire] but the issues above are real concerns that threaten the future of the platform. If we want to ensure new writers can be found online, then it’s up to the platform holders to put these measures in place, and it’s up to use to bug them until they get things right

This article is by Mike Essex who you can follow on Twitter @Impact_Mike.

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...

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19 Comments

  • Mark Coker 8th March 2011

    Good post, thanks. At Smashwords, we have zero tolerance for content farm garbage. We have multiple systems in place (automated and human) to detect it, and if we discover it we delete the offender’s account without warning. Per our Terms of Service, they forfeit any accrued earnings. Since we pay quarterly, it makes it even more difficult for them to earn income before we catch them.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 9th March 2011

    As an interesting follow-up I received an email today offering a viral eBook Automatic Submitter. It included 149,000 articles that could be rehashed to make a 20 page eBook in 5 minutes.

    In case there was any doubt people are using eBooks to spam the web, this was further validation.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 9th March 2011

    Hi Mark, thanks for your feedback. I’m glad to hear that Smashwords has just a zero tolerance policy against these sort of tactics, and I hope that other publishers follow suit. A cancellation of earnings before the payment quarter is up seems ideal, so long as the measures are effective throughout. If you’ve like to share more information on this area with us in the future, then just let me know.

    Reply to this comment

  • John Mark Ockerbloom 9th March 2011

    I’ve been seeing “content farm” free ebooks submitted to The Online Books Page via the suggestion form for the last few months. The volume at this point is small enough at this point that I can easily reject them, though a few submitters have been persistent enough for me to start auto-rejecting without reply.

    Some of them do appear to be recycling content, but others aren’t, and wouldn’t be detected by simple plagiarism-detection software. When you look at the “original” ebooks, though, they’re very clearly the product of someone who was either writing as fast as they could about a topic that they had no particular expertise in, or writing for the sole purpose of promoting particular products or services. The bar for inclusion in my index isn’t particularly high for most conventionally published books, but ebooks like these don’t make the cut.

    It is possible for a commercial site to write an ebook that’s good enough to get in, but it requires quite a bit more work and demonstrated usefulness. For instance, a shoe-selling website put out a free ebook that actually had a number of useful things to say about finding and taking care of shoes, and that went into a fair bit of detail on topics that weren’t otherwise well-covered in my index. It was substantial enough that a few public libraries picked up the print version. I did list that one recently, even as I turned away a bunch of other submissions that were clearly little more than SEO fodder or marketing brochures.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 10th March 2011

    Thanks John, it’s very useful to gain an insight from someone whose job is to filter books every day, and I can only imagine what a long winded process that must be to ensure efficiency. Your view that truly unique content has a strong narrative and is cohesive when read in one go is a very valid point and I wonder to what extent it would take for the major eBook distributors to at least skim the content they put out in order to assess its quality.

    The current system they employ of letting the market decide only seems to result in early adopters getting stung with poor eBooks, and in authors simply redistributing their books once they get a bad review. Glad to see you’re taking such positive steps to combat this.

    Reply to this comment

  • NOYB 21st March 2011

    I think you’ve got slightly the wrong end of the stick on this, Manuel Ortiz Braschi and his ilk aren’t scraping content off the web, they’re purchasing Private Label Rights for content that a real publisher wouldn’t touch.

    If you take the health insurance example you’ve given you’ll find you can buy the PLR for this all of $3.39 at an outfiit called Resale Enterprises (master-resale-rights.com) – you can then change the cover and sell it under your own name.

    I don’ t think that it’s the case, as you say, that it’s the same author creating multiple accounts to sell the same book, just that multiple people have bought the PLRs – they’re not exclusive rights.

    But yes, it’s just another kind of spam.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 31st March 2011

    Thanks NOYB, in essence that’s even more worrying that the trends I found. If people can buy public rights content easily, it means anyone can publish duplicate content.

    If anyone wants to see the next step in this investigation you can find my follow-up (with an Amazon experiment) at http://www.publishingtrends.com/2011/03/the-kindle-swindle/

    I still welcome any comments on the article, and will be viewing the comments on Publishing Trends as well, so please keep sharing the things you spot so we can help make eBook services better.

    Reply to this comment

  • mark 4th April 2011

    I think you have the numbers backwards. Don’t authors pay Amazon a 30% commission, and keep 70%? So the scammers are making 70 cents per sale.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 5th April 2011

    Hi Mark. Amazon pay a 30% commission if you price your book at the low end of the spectrum (e.g. £0.99) and a 70% commission if more than £2.99. A good way to force people to charge more for their books, but for spammers even a small amount in large quantities can add up.

    Reply to this comment

  • Dave Lucas 16th April 2011

    There are a number of self-proclaimed “guru” bloggers offering to help newbies (by selling them ebooks, many of which I have found, are copies of copies) – I’ve blogged about this and linked back to your in-depth article here. Thank-you!

    http://dave-lucas.blogspot.com/2011/04/bloggers-better-blogging-ebooks-may-be.html

    Reply to this comment

  • Gary McCoy 26th April 2011

    What methods are used by traditional publishers to validate authors and content? Does requiring a valid ISBN help? I’d be interested to hear any ideas.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike 26th April 2011

      Amazon don’t require an ISBN but do give you the option to add one. Apple do need an IBSN, however there’s nothing to dtop you creating a new ISBN that has the same book name as another book.

      Reply to this comment

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    • Dave Lucas 19th December 2011

      Seeing is believing! I DO NOT UNDERSTAND – Amazon made me take my own ebook off because someone complained content was stolen, when in fact it was not.

      Reply to this comment

  • plr article packs 24th December 2011

    I know I can get 1000′s of PLR articles from ebay and some discussion board members, but again the standard of those I’ve seen shouldn’t be good and plenty of I might be ashamed of to put on any site I own. A essential requirement is excellent English, an informative article, and an affordable price with hopefully 20+ articles like well being, boats, golf, vehicles, travel, etc..

    Reply to this comment

  • Magnavox MDR515H 11th January 2012

    Wow. I didn’t know that formatting errors could influence the consumers not to buy e-books again. I thought the e-books could provide more information that I usually get online but I usually tried free e-books so I couldn’t feel frustration if I wasn’t satisfied with the information. I guess there should be formatting guidelines for e-books so that authors like Manuel Ortiz Brasch will have been warned too. Thanks for the insights.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mendy Schreder 9th February 2012

    I wish to start a revenue sharing article listing and hoped to get some help with some title solutions for the article directory.

    Reply to this comment

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