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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.


  1. Jack says:

    Had to look up Hephaestus – he was the Greek god of technology, and hence, I assume, the connection with POD.

    Perhaps more usefully for the scam, however is (from Wikipedia) the following:

    Hephaestus fathered several children with mortals and immortals alike. One of those children was the robber Periphetes, who killed travelers with a club.

    In any event, I hope someone brings it to the attention of the Texas Attorney General.



    1. Wayne Borean says:

      Sorry Jeff, but ISBNs are free. At least they are if you don’t live in the United States. As a Canadian Publisher I know what my ISBNs cost me. Nothing.

      I’m writing a follow up to my first article on this problem, my impression is that there has been a bit of a firestorm started. It should be interesting to see how it plays out.


      1. Ahh. Didn’t know that–and it could explain a great deal.

        Sheesh. I paid $9 each for a block of 100 back in 2000.

  2. […] le Roux has comments from South Africa. Jeff Duntermann wrote on November 4th, as did Lawrence […]

  3. I saw my name on one of their books with a load of other recognisable names on the subject and used the look inside feature to see what it was about. It was just an old Wikipedia entry!

    I wouldn’t mind so much except that Wikipedia never manages to get their information right.

    What a rip off.

  4. Andy Lester says:

    Jeff, it’s more than just Hephaestus. Also look up Books, LLC (and General Books, LLC) and BiblioBazaar.

    The titles are basically spam as well. For instance, say you search an online book catalog for “Harry Potter” and the first title comes back as “Harry Potter Harry Potter Books, Harry Potter Characters, Harry Potter Films, Harry Potter Games, Harry Potter Music, Harry Potter Universe, Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Lord Voldemort, Severus Snape, Hermione Granger, Muggle”. Yes, that’s the title registered for ISBN 9781156490815.

  5. I am writing about Hephaestus Books’ publication of ISBN 9781242796814. Our trade name (Hammer-Schlagen®) appears directly in the title, and we have been unable to obtain a copy of this book to investigate any potential unlawful publication of our federally registered “Hammerschlagen Rules” copyright or violations of trademark law (namely false designation of source and origin).

    If anyone has any information regarding how to contact Hephaestus Books, it would be very much appreciated. Please forward your response to or call 1-844-WHACK-IT.

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