Dear Barnes & Noble: Crap is Cluttering Up Your Author Searches

Received an alarmed e-mail today from a reader, who was concerned that when you type the word “Scalzi” into the search function at Barnesandnoble.com, the first several listings are for shabby-looking books that appear to be illegal compilations of my work (here’s one of them).

In fact they’re not, but what they are isn’t substantially better: Some geniuses have hit upon a scheme of cutting and pasting Wikipedia articles into what appears to be publish-on-demand books and then charging people ridiculous sums for the collation. The link above is to 32 pages of Wikipedia articles on my books, and the charge for this service is $12.72. That’s a pretty obnoxious amount to charge for something someone can read for free online, or could print out themselves for pennies. I won’t speculate whether grepping content from Wikipedia and then trying to sell it to people represents a violation of Wikipedia’s Creative Content license, but I will note that on its FAQ page, the publisher here claims that they charge for everything but the content, which is the sort of delightful hair-splitting that would probably get destroyed by any competent lawyer.

I don’t particularly care if these folks sell Wikipedia articles about me as books — it’s a stupid business and you’d have to be stupid to buy the books, but apparently there are enough stupid people out there to make it work — but what I am annoyed at, as an author, is that when people go to the Web site of a major retailer and search on my name, the first several references they get — the “Top Matches” — are to crappy insta-books I didn’t write. Call me crazy, I think the “Top Matches” for my name should be my own work, not the work of Wikipedia-snurching bottom-feeders. Likewise, it would be substantially less than awesome if someone desiring to purchase my work clicked on the book bearing the name of four of my works, paid for it, and then got a tiny, slim volume of Wikipedia articles. Because that reader may end up pissed off. And that’s not good for me.

Dear Barnes & Noble: You know, when I type in “Scalzi” at Amazon, the first nineteen references are books I wrote. At Powell’s it’s the first twelve. At IndieBound it’s at least the first fiften. So, do you think it’s possible that the Web site of the nation’s largest brick and mortar bookseller might actually put one of my books in the top five references when you type in my last name? Or at the very least, some author named Scalzi? It’s not too much to ask. Thankfully, searching “John Scalzi” turns up my work, but I think the “Scalzi” thing is sufficiently problematic to give you a head’s up about it. If you could fix that, it would be lovely.

For everyone else, well, if you see a really crappy looking book with my name on it (or the name of any other writer, for that matter) in the Barnes & Noble search function, see if the publisher is “Books LLC,” and if it is, run away from it. I didn’t write it, and you can get what’s in it for free online. And besides, all the books by me from real publishers don’t look like crap. They look awesome.

54 thoughts on “Dear Barnes & Noble: Crap is Cluttering Up Your Author Searches

  1. John Scavi strike a righteous blow against that Scazi fellow.

    Ah I knew their Pubit! scam service was bad news when I saw the announcement. I now receive notices about these so called books.

    Don’t worry my nook, I will not let you be corrupted.

  2. Apparently you’re not the only author they do this to. (A company called “LLC Books” looks to be selling the same thing.)

    Deceptive advertising is stupid enough. But deceptive advertising underneath a veneer of copyright infringement of the books of a SFWA president and Hugo-winning author… who just happens to run a highly traffic blog? That’s some highly-concentrated, 99.999% pure FAIL right there.

    String these thieving bastards up by their toes!

  3. Wow. That is SUPER lame. I posted a review to the one you linked indicating it’s merely a collection of wikipedia articles to warn people off. Hopefully B&N does something about their search ranking algorithm, because listing these pseudo-books first does a clear and grave disservice to you and any other author that Books LLC attempts to leach off of.

  4. Printing out Wikipedia articles and selling them is perfectly legal and encouraged. There are still lots of people out in the world who have no internets or printers of their own.

    Printing out Wikipedia articles and selling them without labelling them as Wikipedia articles violates the CC-BY-SA license they are released under, which requires attribution.

  5. You used to be able to find older books in the public domain on Amazon, but now entries for those books are swamped by entries for print-on-demand copies. I have bought POD copies of genuinely rare books in the past, but sometimes I want an actual used book.

  6. Another reason to run from booksLLC. From the booksllc.net page:

    After buying one of our paperbacks you are also entitled to a free trial subscription to our book club. You can use it to get other editions or related books for free. Simply enter the bar code number from the back of the book you bought for your free membership below. After the first free month, if you don’t cancel, Paypal will bill you $14.99 a month.

    And the whois.com listing points to a privacy protected PO Box in the Netherlends.

    As much as I love Scalzi’s books, I gotta say, if you’re gonna bill my credit card each month I expect to see a little more skin.

  7. My favorite is the ancestry.com autogen book, “The Name [search] in History, from Ancestry.com.” Of course, I was searching for the Flashman books, so it returned “The Name Flashman in History.”

  8. @alkali, #7: If you’re sporting Kindle, and you want public domain books, Project Gutenberg publishes the “Magic Catalogue,” which is a compilation of all their Kindle formatted files. You load it up on the Kindle, browse and search, then select your title for download.

  9. Either they fixed things fast, or I’m not searching the same way you were. I did a “NOOKBook” search on “Scalzi” and it returns 10 items, most of them yours and the one that’s not is on the bottom.

  10. While on the topic of Barnes & Noble, is there any status update for the arrival of The God Engines to their ebook store?

  11. I actually bought a copy of “Little Fuzzy” from these guys after Scalzi announced “Fuzzy Nation”.

    (Amazon didn’t have any original versions in stock, but the plain-cover version was in stock, so I ponied up)

    I received my copy, cracked the cover and found that the entire book had been OCR’d. In doing so, all punctuation in the book was lost. Plus, I obviously wasn’t kicking any cash back to the Piper estate. So I threw it in the garbage and backordered a new copy. Still pisses me off that these guys ripped me off like that.

  12. Yeah Barnes and Noble is really a bummer for both ebooks and pbooks. I originally bought my nook because I saw it as the easiest way to read the healthcare bill. I had read 500 pages or so and couldn’t look at my computer screen for another second. I drove to a Barnes and Noble and bought a nook and finished the beast off.

    Then something funny happened. . . I stopped reading pbooks and went on a crazy reading tear. Holy hell if I am not reading 1000-2000 pages a month (up from 400-500 I would say) since March. I love the ereader and prefer to read things on it. The problem: the bad selection of my favorite authors and the wonky search at BN.com. I might have even committed a felony or something by buying “The God Engines” from Amazon and “converting” it to read on my nook. (Don’t worry – no sharing).

    Oh well – it is an emerging thing and I will do a good job of buying Scalzi ebooks whenever they are out.

    On a somewhat unrelated note: how about making ebooks as expensive or maybe just slightly less expensive than the hardcover when they come out and then dropping the price when the paperback comes out? This way you can capture the most revenue from your best followers and we can consume your stuff the way we want to?

  13. At least the “Nookbooks’ section pulls up the right ePub titles. After the Coup is the first title there.

  14. For what it’s worth -

    This came up on the Wikipedia discussion email lists last week, consensus is that the books in question are legal (in that the ones that were examined properly credit Wikipedia as the source, as required under the CC-BY-SA license) but some of the advertising is clearly deceptive in not clearly labeling where the information came from.

    Unethical? Clearly. Illegal? Appeared not, though if someone buys one of these and it doesn’t have appropriate source info and credit you should report it to the Wikimedia Foundation…

  15. John,

    You should sic your publisher on them. This looks like copy right infringement and or trademark infringement. The Book LLC people are using the titles of your books and your last name in-order to sell content they didn’t create.

  16. Caladan:

    Titles aren’t copyrightable, and as far as I know they’re not using any text of mine. Nor have I registered any of the titles as trademarks (and would seem unlikely to get them for the phrases “Old Man’s War” or “Ghost Brigades,” as both of them are not unique phrases). So I doubt I’d have much cause for legal action. I’m not interested in legal action anyway; I just want those things not the be the first thing that show up when someone searches my name. That’s a technological, not legal, fix.

  17. John,

    I hate when you feel too shy to tell us how you really feel. Sometime you should really just let it all out. We’re here for you. You might feel better if you get it off your chest. I always do.

  18. It’s a fraction of a millimeter away from spam. One of my favorite passages in “Daemon” was when all the spammers got killed.

  19. Writer Beware talked about this before and basically comes down that the publisher is aiming the book at the authors of the articles in question.

  20. @Dan re ebooks on the Nook…. The Nook can read anything in ePub, so Webscriptions, etc content works nicely. At least it does in the Nook software on my Android phone which has become my default ebook reader on that phone. If you have other books in other formats Calibre can convert to ePub (unless the title’s DRMed I think).

  21. rickg@29: The hardware nook can read free ePubs too. I’ve purchased books from Webscriptions to read on it as well as collected a few from the Baen Free Library, which is on the same site. I’ve also purchased issues of Asimov’s and Analog magazines from Fictionwise (which I just discovered is a unit of B&N) and they all read fine on the nook.

    And as you point out, Calibre (which is free) can convert most non-DRMed formats including PDF. (I’m not impressed with the nook’s PDF rendering. I’ve had better luck letting Calibre convert it to ePub.)

  22. Dave H – good to know. The color Nook is intriguing to me – I’ll swing by a B&N store to check it out once it’s available. And I hear you can get some killer Scalzi books on it for only $12.72! (runs…)

  23. Unrelated to B&N, but in the category of “stupid search tricks”. It was a few months back, during the World Cup. I went online to see the scores. I typed in “world cup” into the browser search window – which happened to be bing (I’m a rebel). Guess what the first hit was. No, no, guess.

    It was a link to the home page for the Rugby World Cup.

    I would bet money that not a single person alive would type World Cup into a search engine during the (Football) World Cup and be hoping for information about the Rugby World Cup. Even the most die-hard Rugby fans in the world looking for information on their sport would probably stick “Rugby” in there somewhere. I basked in the brilliant stupidity of a search engine that returned a result that literally no one on Earth would want.

    I then went to google, typed in the same thing, and got information about the current games and their scores and all upcoming games. Because google isn’t actually run by complete idiots.

    Now, I’m not saying that B&N search is run by complete idiots. I am saying that if it was, it would probably behave exactly as it behaves now.

  24. That sucks, John.

    But, based on my experiences with B&N web, I’m not surprised. I have a Nook and I love the device, but I am constantly annoyed by the B&N website. The page is laggy, the search is less than useful, and as a Nook owner living outside of the US, I can’t buy an ebook without using a proxy, which means that I don’t buy a lot of B&N books (got a gift certificate with my Nook, and used that, but haven’t bought anything else from them). And since the books I have on my Nook are largely not from the B&N site, it means that I can’t use the coverflow function to search for all the books on my Nook. (I softrooted my Nook, which takes care of the coverflow problem, but, really, I shouldn’t have to do that.)

    Anyway, yeah, I love my Nook and I dislike the B&N site. This scam does not surprise me.

  25. When I went to look at it, “Scalzi” got me exactly what John suggests. However, when I did “John Scalzi,” it came back with John’s books.

  26. B&N is not perfect but if you like digital media and online ordering but still want an actual bookstore that you can go to, B&N is it and they do have a lot of other positives as well.
    At any rate, I have sent the following to customer service. Squeaky wheel and all…

    I am a Nook owner and buy my books (both digital and hard-copy) though B&N rather than Amazon because, although I do like digital books and online orders, I also strongly desire a brick and mortar presence in my book retailer. In other words, I’m a loyal customer, but the following needs to be fixed and fixed pronto.
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/11/03/dear-barnes-noble-crap-is-cluttering-up-your-author-searches/

  27. This is what happens when underachievers with too much time on their hands read books like “SEO For Complete Scumbags”. Bunch of Mark Zuckerburg wannabees.

  28. I’m a little confused why so many folks are talking about Nooks and ebooks and Pubit here… This isn’t an ebook at all. It’s a paperback, probably a print-on demand (like about 99% of small publishers out there use) through Lightning Source or some other POD printer. Lightning Source is likely because they have a direct-to-B&N.com system. Biggest problem is that one incoming L-S book looks a lot like all the others – and there are a LOT of legitimate small publishers using this as their primary distribution system. I would HOPE they’d probably remove the books if a serious complaint is made though – maybe via your publisher, John?

    The downside of freedom of speech plus easy access to mass media…

  29. I work for Barnes and Noble as a retail goblin. These books are not just cluttering up the public, website search — they’re also crapping up the *internal* search engine! It’s getting rather annoying.

  30. You would think some consumer protection laws would apply at least on the deceptive/misleading to consumers part. Market confusion isn’t just for IP issues.

  31. So, those books are not Scalzi books?

    So, we have to cancel the 20k pieces order, go through the banking hassle to recover our on-hold payment, demolish the Golden Scalzi Library recently built on the site of the (old) Church of the Donkey, present our excuses to the priests and convince them to move back, flatten out the (new) Church of the Donkey, rebuild the Ancient Palace of Office, recover the laic government from their Bogrotavian (everybody spit!) exile, seal our magical border back again, and simply give up on our desire for Western intellectuality?

    Damn. As we say, just your usual gâgă day in Bogrotavia.

  32. Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has a column on this “Wikipedia” book scam here

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/03/AR2010090304964.html, by the way

    It starts: “I have in my hands the worst book ever published. It is worse than “Mein Kampf,” which has some value as a cautionary tale. It is worse than those “Chicken Soup” books, which are thick enough to make good kindling. This scrawny volume couldn’t heat a doghouse.

    Plus, it’s a rip-off. I bought it on Amazon for $19.99, which is what you’d pay for “Moby-Dick” and “The Great Gatsby” combined. The title is not catchy: “Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing Winners: Ron Suskind, Gene Weingarten, Peter Rinearson, Rick Bragg, Nan C. Robertson, Howell Raines.””

  33. Yet more signs that B&N is on its way out. When I start seeing some of my favorite go-to stores in NYC being replaced by Bed, Bath & Beyonds, I knew the writing was on the wall. Unfortunately, I’m part of the problem as more and more now I find myself ordering books online through Amazon. I’ve stopped using B&N’s online store years ago.

  34. I’m a regular Amazon book shopper. I live in the country, very far from a decent bookstore. I, too, have been frustrated by these wiki-fake books. They’re making it nearly impossible to do a search for the book I want. These online booksellers, either need to have an option to filter out these annoying entries, or do away with them all together. What a scam. And B. and N., Amazon and others are taking part of this disgusting behavior. I hope some lawsuit will take them down.

  35. Luke @17

    Piper committed suicide and left his estate a complete mess. Most of his books ended up in the public domain, which means anyone can reprint them without paying his heirs. The uncorrected OCR thing is weird since the publisher could just grab the text of Gutenberg.

    I put a public domain collection on Amazon just as an experiment to see how much effort it’s taking people, and how much they’re earning. My conclusion is that it barely rises to the level of beer money. But the interesting thing is that on publication, the book (a collection of PD novels that became Hitchcock films) showed up on the third page of results for “Alfred Hitchcock” in the Kindle store. It only took three sales to reach the first page.

  36. wow – double whammy today: Nick Mamatas on the “Cook’s Source Infringement Scandal” (http://nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com/1553538.html) and now this!

    A suggestion, John:

    Perhaps you should “author” some insta books yourself, prominently stating that they are by the “Original Author”; content would naturally be copied from the other instabooks and I would def up the cover price. After all, it’s an original!

    As a side note, I’m seeing this kind of thing increasingly all over – even in the mobile APP stores.

  37. Barnes and Noble is a Brick and Mortar book selling company. The investment they put into their website and the quality and culture of their IT department is probably alot different than Amazons. Amazon’s life line is their website, so though they are a retailer they are also a technology company. This means they will have a different culture in their IT department.

    Barnes and Noble’s software for running their website is far inferior to Amazons.

  38. Amazon stuffed up a lot of their searches some time ago because they polluted their search indices with full text from “related products” and other cruft that was much less relevant to me than the name of the product and/or its brand (including book title and author name).

    I don’t know if they’re trying to make me find other things to buy, but frankly when I was already a good customer BECAUSE I could find what I was looking for, this just pisses me off. Now I buy there much less often as it takes so much more work to find things. Having ONE-CLICK to buy is pointless if I have to type five times as much to actually get to purchasable product.

  39. JS: Nor have I registered any of the titles as trademarks (and would seem unlikely to get them for the phrases “Old Man’s War” or “Ghost Brigades,” as both of them are not unique phrases). So I doubt I’d have much cause for legal action.

    1) You don’t need to register a trademark to enforce it. (Registering a trademark makes it easier to enforce in certain respects, but is not an absolute prerequsite to enforcing it.)

    2) A common word or phrase can be a trademark if it is unique within the product category (e.g., “Dove” soap). (Using a made-up or “distinctive” word — e.g., “Kodak” — as a trademark can avoid those kinds of disputes, but is not required.)

    3) Selling a book that has a title of another well-known book certainly could be trademark infringement, and unfair competition under state law, if there is a risk of customer confusion and resulting damage. (A historical memoir called “The Ghost Brigades: My Years in Vietnam” would probably be OK.)

    All those things having been said, it is almost certainly the case that it would be impractical and uneconomic for an individual author to bring a suit asserting such claims. It might be something for SFWA or the Authors Guild to address informally with Amazon/B&N/etc.

  40. I am proud to say that I have been permanently banned from the review sections on the B&N website because I posted reviews headlined “VANITY PRESS” on a bunch of the Pyoobut* stuff. And, dang it, I really like my Nook otherwise…

    *Like I really want my stuff marketed by people who think Pubit is really going to be pronounced Puhbit when they’re engaged in highly controversial activities.

  41. I’m a regular Amazon book shopper. I live in the country, very far from a decent bookstore. I, too, have been frustrated by these wiki-fake books. They’re making it nearly impossible to do a search for the book I want. These online booksellers, either need to have an option to filter out these annoying entries, or do away with them all together. What a scam. And B. and N., Amazon and others are taking part of this disgusting behavior. I hope some lawsuit will take them down.

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