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November 4th, 2011:

Hephaestus Books and Deceptive Titles

Here’s an emerging story, first pointed out to me by Bruce Baker: There’s a new POD business out there selling free content that isn’t quite what it appears to be. A firm called Hephaestus Books in Richardson, Texas is listing literally hundreds of thousands of POD titles (166,000, as of this morning) on the major online booksellers, including Amazon, B&N, and BooksAMillion. Some are familiar public domain material. Some of them are eye-crossing minutiae that maybe seventeen people in the world would find interesting. Some sound scholarly. (Here’s an example.) But many of the newest sound like compendia of popular modern novels that in no way are in the public domain, like Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium stories. And for $13.85, yet.

Sounds like. And here’s the catch: The POD books in question do not contain the novels listed in the title.

That would be difficult, considering that most of the books from Hephaestus are 40-80 pages long. They in fact contain discussion about the novels, much of it harvested from Wikipedia, all of it shoveled (presumably by scripts) into a file accessible by POD print machinery. Most of the big-name writers in SF are represented in the Hephaestus catalog, including Larry Niven, David Brin, and Charlie Stross, but lots of far more obscure names are there, too, like Robin Hobb. Check for yourself: Go to Amazon’s search page and type the name of any (reasonably) well-known writer, followed by “Hephaestus.” Prepare to be surprised–after all, there are 166,000 books to choose from. (Alas, don’t look for me. Already checked.)

So what precisely is this? Copyright infringement? Given the scorched-earth penalties called out by the DCMA, I doubt there’s any infringing material in these books. They’d be nuts to do that. Some online have suggested that this might be a legal issue called “tort of misappropriation” of a celebrity’s publicity rights (which, interestingly, are very well protected by Texas law) but I myself don’t think so. There are strong fair-use protections of discussion and criticism of events, things, and people, and a lot of redistributable content online. This seems to be what Hephaestus is selling. If they trip up, it’s likely to be on consumer-protection grounds, since the titles of many of these books are very deceptive. It’s a tough thing to prove, though, and the whole business seems to have been constructed with considerable skill.

One thing I still don’t understand is the cost of the ISBNs. Every book I’ve seen has an ISBN, and the ISBNs appear to be legitimate. ISBNs are not free, and in fact cost about a dollar each, even in blocks of 1,000. Given that the vast majority of these books are never likely to be ordered, even once, the burden falls on the rest to make back the investment in ISBNs given to all of them. ISBN’s for 166,000 books must have cost them about $150,000. That’s a hefty upfront cost for a revenue stream as dicey and unpredictable as this one.

How much they’re making per book is impossible to tell without knowing more about how they’re being distributed. Ingram and similar companies charge fees for mounting POD books on their systems, which would send the upfront cost for the press hurtling into the millions dollars–before they sell a single book. I’m still looking into this, but it’s a head-scratcher first-class. If you know anything more than I’ve summarized here, please pass it along.

Ah, well. This is only the latest emergence of a phenomenon that’s been with us for some time. I call such presses “shovelshops.” The big retailers could kill them in an hour by restricting the speed with which titles can be registered. Even presses like Wiley and Macmillan don’t publish more than a handful of books per day. The Hephaestus business model depends upon thousands upon thousands of books appearing very quickly. If no press can register more than ten or twenty books a day, it’ll take a long time to get the title count to the point where the number of clueless customers begins to pay off.

And then there’s always that sleepy dragon, the FTC, which may or may not be prodded enough to take notice. In the meantime, buy nothing from Hephaestus Press. You’ll be glad you didn’t.