Our digital age has created opportunities for corrupt digital misdeeds. Some of these nefarious activities are criminal, while others are unethical or in poor taste.
If you’ve been the victim of counterfeiting, review bombing, or copyright hijacking, you know the damage these digital crimes can cause.
We previously talked about book piracy, where a stranger shares your book for free. In that episode, we argued that when you’re a beginning author trying to build a readership, obscurity is your biggest enemy, not piracy.
When that episode was released, a big counterfeiting scandal broke out, and many of our listeners confused piracy with counterfeiting. While piracy is unethical, it’s rarely harmful to beginning authors. Counterfeiting, on the other hand, is stealing. If someone counterfeits your book, they are stealing from you. It’s unethical and criminal.
Historically, counterfeiting has not been an issue for most authors because printing books is expensive. But with the changes in technology and the prominence of print-on-demand, counterfeiters can set up elaborate operations to counterfeit thousands of paper books very profitably.
What’s the difference between piracy, counterfeiting, and plagiarism?
When someone plagiarizes your work, they steal the credit for your work. The plagiarizer steals your words and publishes your work as if they had created the work themselves. Plagiarism is always bad.
Pirates share digital copies of your work for free without your permission. Piracy can help you, especially if you’re just getting started. If you’re not already famous, piracy can help you in the long run. But if you don’t like it, you can learn how and when to fight it by listening to our episode Is Piracy Really a Problem for Authors.
Counterfeiting is when someone prints a physical copy of your book. Counterfeiters print a physical counterfeit of your paper book, and they sell it as if it’s the original. People pay money for your book, but the money doesn’t go to you or your publisher.
Counterfeits hurt your reputation because the quality they produce is typically dramatically worse than the original. Sometimes the books are just scanned because these people aren’t going to the effort of hacking your publisher for your original files. They’ll copy your pages on a scanner, and the books they create are blurry and hard to read. That lower quality harms your reputation. Counterfeiting is always bad for authors.
Whereas pirates are giving away an exact copy of your ebook for free, counterfeiters are selling a poor-quality physical copy of your book and making the money you should have made.
How Amazon Fights Fraud
According to the New York Times: “In February, Amazon included counterfeiting in its financial disclosures as a risk factor for the first time, saying it might not be able to prevent its merchants “from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated or stolen goods” or “selling goods in an unlawful or unethical manner.”
You might assume Amazon would be all over the problem, and they do fight it with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and outsourced call centers that handle human interactions.
Amazon makes it sound like they’ve got you covered, but they make just as much money selling a counterfeited copy of your book as an original. Since Amazon has no financial incentive to fix the problem, they have their B team working on it. If they were losing money because of a hacker or financial fraud, they’d have a top-notch American-based team solving the problem.
The good news is, Amazon does have a reputational incentive to fix the problem since they don’t want to be known as a seller of counterfeit goods. But even if a customer receives a low-quality counterfeit book, Amazon doesn’t get the blame. The blame falls to the author or publisher for doing shoddy work, even though it’s not their work at all.
The publisher and author get the blame, so it’s up to them to fight counterfeiting. If a publisher has tens of thousands of books, they won’t be keeping an eye out for yours. So, it’s up to you, the author, to be watchful.
Attack #1 Counterfeiting
Liturgy of the Ordinary was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2018. It was a bestseller, and it was counterfeited.
The counterfeiter created their own digital copy of the author’s book. They uploaded it to a print-on-demand service and shipped it to Amazon. Amazon shipped it, but it was sold by a third-party counterfeiting retailer who shipped books to Amazon so that Amazon could ship to customers. Then they listed it on Amazon at a lower price than the original book, and they had Amazon do the fulfillment.
Since Amazon sends customers to the lowest priced item by default, when customers clicked “buy now” on Amazon, they thought they were buying the book from InterVarsity Press. In reality, they were buying it from the counterfeiter.
People don’t realize that many of the items they buy aren’t actually sold by Amazon. Amazon is simply doing the fulfillment. If Amazon would shut down a shady third-party seller, that shady organization would just set up another one because there is no reputation attached to it.
In the case of Liturgy of the Ordinary, the counterfeiter was a third-party seller to the tune of $240,000. That’s a lot of money that did not go to the publisher, who took the risk on the book, or the author, whose blood, sweat, and tears produced the book.
That scandal will affect her future advances and the course of her career. However, because this story made the news, the book has been a bestseller in some categories. Hopefully, the author has recouped some of those stolen sales.
The counterfeiters target books that are selling well, and sometimes they’re using Amazon’s own print-on-demand service (KDP) to print the book.
Whether you are traditionally or independently published, you need to beware. Potentially tens of thousands of counterfeiters on Amazon are doing their scandalous work right now.
What to do about it:
Check to see if you own your own “Buy” button.
There are a lot of legitimate third-party sellers. If Goodwill of Seattle is offering a copy of your book, it’s probably because someone donated it, and Goodwill is reselling it online. That’s a legitimate third-party seller.
Creating an aftermarket for books is valuable for publishers and authors because it makes those books more valuable. People value books more when they know they can resell them.
On the other hand, if a third party is selling a new copy of your book and they look sketchy, you should be suspicious.
Go to your Amazon book page to make sure it says, “Ships and Sold by Amazon” on the default buy button.
If you see one that says, “Ships from Amazon. Sold by HKNY books, be suspicious.” Buy a copy from anyone who looks suspicious and compare the quality to your original.
If it turns out it’s a legit brand-new copy of your book, you can resell that book at your next speaking event. And you’ll probably make money since you bought it below retail price.
How to Avoid Being Counterfeited in the First Place
You can completely avoid counterfeiting in several ways, but they are all bad avoidance methods.
Write an Unpopular Book
If no one is buying your book or paying attention to it, the counterfeiters won’t pay attention either. But we don’t advise writing a bad book.
Lower the Price of Your Paper Book
You’ll be less of a target if the price of your book is low in the first place because counterfeiters aren’t interested in low-profit margins. But again, we don’t recommend that.
It’s better to police your page. If you find fraudulent copies, report them to Amazon through one of their “Report Abuse” buttons. You can flag fraudulent sellers, but when you do, those alerts go to their B team in another country, and Amazon may not do a thing about it.
Attack #2 Review Bombing
There are two ways nefarious Amazon users attack with review bombing.
A competitor will hire trolls to buy your book, and then all those trolls will leave bad “verified” reviews. There are Facebook groups full of trolls who will buy a copy of your book and leave verified reviews. Sometimes they leave lots of negative reviews.
In the more advanced version of this attack, trolls leave only five-star reviews. Then they report your product as having fraudulent reviews because there are so many five-star reviews. If Amazon thinks you’ve been buying good reviews, they will crackdown. They’ll take away your ranking, and they may hide you from search, and your sales will disappear.
This tends to be a bigger problem in other product categories, but it can happen to authors too.
What to do about it:
Click “Report Abuse” under the reviews you suspect are fraudulent. You especially want to report the fraudulent five-star reviews so you can keep your reviews clean. When you ask your fans to leave reviews, don’t ask them to leave a five-star review. Some authors actually review-bomb themselves by doing so.
If you’re trying to remove a specific review, you can ask your fans to click “Report Abuse.” This call for help can also lead to more positive reviews as your fans come to your aid.
If the trolls are hitting you with a few obviously fake one-star reviews, it can actually boost your sales.
You want your reviews to look real. If readers can tell a review is fake, it will hurt you less than reviews they believe are real.
Attack # 3 Copyright or Trademark Hijacking
If you have a store or publisher name for which you have not filed a trademark, someone can use that name, file a trademark for it, and claim that you are the one violating the trademark.
When you report the problem, Amazon will give the control and revenue from your product pages to the person who has filed the trademark, which in this case is the trademark hijacker. Suddenly, they own your buy button, and you have to appeal to get it back.
Your copyright can also be hijacked in a similar way.
People rarely take these cases to court because hiring an attorney is so expensive. So all of the judicial processing happens within Amazon by outsourced teams who speak English as a second language. You can appeal, but it’s very hard to fight. You’ll probably need a lawyer who specializes in dealing with the Amazon-governed court system.
What to do about it:
File a Trademark
If you are an indie publisher with a company name, consider filing a trademark on the name of your publishing company, particularly if you’re using it predominantly through Amazon.
They can’t take away your right to your own name. You automatically have the right to your own name. But a publishing company name may be at risk if it’s not trademarked. A trademark costs more than registering a copyright, but it will offer a measure of protection. We recommend using LegalZoom.
It’s important to note that book titles cannot be trademarked at all.
Register Your Copyright
Register your copyright with the US Copyright Office or your national equivalent. Technically speaking, you don’t have to register. If you write a poem on a napkin, it’s copyrighted to you.
Copyright registered in your own country will be recognized by other countries as well. It costs less than $100, and it will create a governmental record that you own the copyright to your work.
I’ve heard of authors who have uploaded their books to Amazon and received a notification saying, “You don’t own the copyright to this work.” If you don’t prove you own the copyright in 48 hours, they’ll freeze sales of all your books. That document from the government will help settle your dispute faster.