The Sins of Amazon

There is an interesting article in the 23 June 2019 issue of The New York Times written by David Streitfeld, titled “What Happens After Amazon’s Dominance is Complete? Its Bookstore Offers Clues”.  It is too long to quote in its entirety, but I’ve excerpted it below:

“’The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy’ is a medical handbook that recommends the right amount of the right drug for treating ailments from bacterial pneumonia to infected wounds. Lives depend on it.

The guide’s publisher, Antimicrobial Therapy, has, for the past two years, been confronted a flood of counterfeits — many of which were poorly printed and hard to read — in Amazon’s vast bookstore.

“This threatens a bunch of patients — and our whole business,” said Scott Kelly, the publisher’s vice president.

Mr. Kelly’s problems arise directly from Amazon’s domination of the book business  But Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.

That has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said, often taking action only when a buyer complains. Many times, they added, there is nowhere to appeal and their only recourse is to integrate even more closely with Amazon.

The scope of counterfeiting across Amazon goes far beyond books. E-commerce has taken counterfeit goods from flea markets to the mainstream, and Amazon is by far the e-commerce heavyweight. But books offer a way to see the depths of the issue.

“Being a tech monopoly means you don’t have to care about quality,” said Bill Pollock, a San Francisco publisher who has dealt with fake versions of his firm’s computer books on Amazon.

An Amazon spokeswoman denied that counterfeiting of books was a problem, saying, “This report cites a handful of complaints, but even a handful is too many and we will keep working until it’s zero.” The company said it strictly prohibited counterfeit products and last year denied accounts to more than one million suspected “bad actors.”

What happens after a tech giant dominates an industry is increasingly a question as lawmakers and regulators begin asking when dominance shades into a monopoly. This month, lawmakers in the House said they were scrutinizing the tech giants’ possible anticompetitive behavior. And the Federal Trade Commission is specifically examining Amazon.

Those who write a popular book open themselves up to being “summarized” on Amazon. At least eight books purport to summarize Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s best-selling account of fraud in Silicon Valley. The popular novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” has at least seven summaries. “Discover a beautiful coming-of-age story without all of the unnecessary information included in the actual novel!” says one that has 19 five-star reviews, all of which read as if they were fake.

“I’m furiou,” the author, Andrew Seen Greer, tweeted after people complained last summer that fakes of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Less,” were being sold as the real thing. There was a counterfeit edition of Danielle Trussoni’s acclaimed memoir, “Falling Through the Earth,” on the site that misspelled her name on the cover. Lauren Groff said that there was an ‘illegal paperback’ of Florida, her National Book Award nominee, on Amazon.

Dead writers get hit, too. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” was pirated. So was a volume of classic stories by Jorge Luis Borges. For 18 months Amazon has sold a counterfeit of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” despite warnings in reader reviews that it is a “monstrosity,” dispensing with such standard features as proofreading and paragraph indenting.

This is not really negligence on Amazon’s part. It is the company’s business model.  “It is your responsibility to ensure that your content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other rights,” it tells prospective publishers and sellers.

At Antimicrobial Therapy, the first warning that something was amiss with the Sanford Guide came with reviews on Amazon. “Several pages smudged and unable to read,” one buyer said in 2017.  “Seems as the book was photocopied,” said a second. “Characters are smeared,” wrote a third.

The company, whose books were sold to Amazon by distributors, did test buys. It got some copies from Amazon and others from its third-party sellers, including UsedText4u, Robinhood Book Foundation and 24×7 Book. Of the 34 books that Mr. Kelly bought, at least 30 were counterfeit. None of the booksellers responded to requests for comment.

Mr. Kelly wrote to the retailer’s founder, Jeff Bezos, saying, “Amazon is knowingly and willfully fulfilling most orders for our title with counterfeits that may contain errors leading to injury or death of their patients.”

Mr. Kelly got a response two weeks later from “Raj,” a member of “the Amazon Seller Performance team.” Raj said that an unnamed third-party seller had been barred from selling the book but that the seller might now appeal directly to AMT, and that if the company wanted to retract the whole thing, here was what to do.  “They were very reluctant to actually engage with us about the problem,” Mr. Kelly said of Amazon.

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.”  Yet the company has such a grip on books that counterfeits do not seem to harm it. They might even increase its business.

“A book takes a year or more to write,” said Andrew Hunt of the Pragmatic Bookshelf, a North Carolina publisher of computer books that had at least one of its titles stolen. “But to steal the book and upload it to Amazon takes only a minute.  And when someone buys a counterfeit, the real author may get cheated but Amazon still makes a sale. You could ask, What’s their incentive to do something?”

Bait-and-switch schemes are common in the Amazon bookstore. If someone wants to title a book of self-published poetry “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and someone did — Amazon will sell it next to Harper Lee’s classic novel. Some customers wrote in Amazon reviews that they felt tricked by the author of the verse “Mockingbird,” whose many other titles include “War and Peace” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

In February, Amazon introduced a plan called Project Zero. No longer would brands have to report counterfeits and wait for the retailer to investigate. Project Zero, Amazon said, would give brands “an unprecedented ability to directly control and remove listings.”

Mr Pollock said Project Zero was a further insult. “Why should we be responsible for policing Amazon for fakes? That’s their job.”

The communications impasse between Amazon and Antimicrobial Therapy was complicated by the fact that they did not have a direct relationship. So in December, AMT opened vendor site on Amazon, with the bookseller getting a commission of about 20 percent on each copy sold. Under this arrangement, Amazon tells Antimicrobial Therapy where the customer lives, and the publisher ships the book from Sperryville.

As AMT was getting ready this spring to release the 2019 guide, it proposed an even deeper integration with Amazon.  “To eliminate the possibility of Amazon facilitating the sale of counterfeit books, we would like to offer Amazon the opportunity to serve as a wholesaler of our titles, cutting out the middle man,” Mr. Kelly wrote to the company. It was, in essence, rewarding Amazon by surrendering to its dominance. “We’d rather not be on Amazon,” Mr. Kelly said. “But we felt like we didn’t have a choice.”

* * *

My view is that Amazon does not want to engage with this problem at the scale that is required.  It would be too costly for them.  But, in my opinion, this is a short-sighted view.  The solution that may be coming is a requirement that any book seller, at any level, must warrant that the books it sells are free of any copyright defects.

Don’t Be Precious

The IBPA Independent magazine ran an article in the December 2017 issue which I missed at the time, but has recently re-surfaced.  It caught my attention because the full title is “Don’t Be Precious (with Your Ideas)”.

It was written by Scott Berkun, who, according to the Independent, is a bestselling author and popular speaker on creativity, philosophy, culture, business, and many other subjects. He is the author of six books, including The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants.

Scott Berkun

“Three magic words for people who create things are: Don’t be precious. Being precious means you’re behaving as if the idea you’re working on is the most important thing in the history of the universe. It means you’ve lost perspective and can’t see the work objectively anymore. When you treat a work in progress too preciously, you trade your talents for fears. You become conservative, suppressing the courage required to make the tough choices that will resolve the work’s problems and let you finish. If you fear that your next decision will ruin the work, you are being precious.

“When I see a young writer struggling to finish a book, I say “don’t be precious.” If you truly love your craft, there are an infinity of projects in your future. There will be other chapters. Whatever you’re making, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfection is an illusion.

“Obsessing about every little choice is a surefire way to prevent great work from happening. Try a bold choice. Put the beginning at the end, or the top at the bottom. Blow your work up into jagged pieces and put them back together. You might just find this opens doors you didn’t even know were there. If you’re too precious, you miss the hundreds of big choices that might reveal the path to completion, or convince you the project is a puzzle that needs to be abandoned for a time. But if you spin your wheels faster and faster on smaller and smaller details, you’ll never move anywhere. You’ll never call anything finished, denying yourself the essential experience of looking back from a distance and learning from what you’ve already made.

“Some Buddhist monks make mandalas, intricate paintings made from colored grains of sand. When completed, the mandalas are destroyed. It’s a recognition that while your work might mean everything to you in the moment, in the grand scheme of your career, your life, and the universe itself, it’s just another thing that will someday fade away.

“Of course, it is important to strive for greatness. You should care deeply about people and ideas that matter to you. To make good things requires intense effort and practice. There’s a long history of masters, from Michelangelo to Twyla Tharp, who obsessed about the smallest details of their works and demanded the best from everyone who worked with them. In some ways, they were very precious indeed. But they didn’t let those ambitions stop them from finishing their works.

“It’s rarely discussed, but all good makers leave a legacy of abandoned drafts, unfinished works, mediocre projects, and failed ideas—work that enabled them to learn what they needed to finish the projects they are famous for. If your high standards, or self-loathing, is preventing your progress, don’t be precious about it. It takes hundreds of experiences with the cycle of starting, working, and finishing creative works before you have the talent to make finished things that match the grandeur of the ideas in your mind.”

I thought this is an excellent piece of advice, not only for artists of all sorts, but for also for practitioners of life in general.

Writers’ Groups

Have you ever thought of joining a writers’ group?  The Florida Writers Association, of which I am a member, has a number of them, and Veronica Helen Hart leads three different groups.  In the abbreviated article, below, from The Florida Writer, she describes how the groups work.  She has written ten novels and a play.  Regarding her experience with writers’ groups, she says: “One of the most successful efforts has been participating in critique groups and leading a writers workshop for the past several years. I have learned more in these sessions than I ever did in college classes.”

Veronica Helen Hart

“The first group is the Daytona Area Writers, which grew quickly, and split off a
second group, the  Daytona Area Fiction Writers, which maintains a schedule of two
writers a week, every week, submitting a maximum of 20 double-spaced pages in advance online. This is an invitation-only group, focused on fiction with a goal of
publishing. We meet at a local Barnes & Noble store. Another group, the Ormond Writers League, is a well-established group. Individuals read five to seven
pages aloud, and members critique on the spot. I found this technique most helpful to me as a writer but difficult to do as a listener. I prefer to read, so I asked if people
wouldn’t mind bringing one printed copy for me. Now, everyone brings copies to share.

Members must respect the leader’s ability to moderate the group. There are often
occasions when the moderator is called upon to resolve personality issues before they become major problems.

In both DAW and DAFW, the meetings open with news of writing progress from each member and announcements of upcoming competitions or conferences. There is always support and encouragement for writers who submit work for competitions or to
agents.  At DAW, we frequently do writing exercises or have a mini-workshop before critiquing. At the DAFW, we start with critiques.  The guidelines for critiquing are probably the same  as for most writing groups, however, and we don’t let members stray. Critiques may not be personal and must address the writing only. This is about critique, not criticism; about critiquers, not critics; about the effect the work evokes in a variety of readers; about writers helping writers to encourage areas of strength and improve areas of perceived weaknesses.  Our critique groups allow writers to save face before offering themselves on the sacrificial altars of agents, editors, and publishers.
To be critiqued, you must be an active participant in the group, which includes submitting your writing for critique.  Start by praising strengths.  Avoid the use of the word you. Instead of saying, “You used passive voice…” you can say, “I found the
passive voice used several times …” Or, instead of, “You can’t let a person jump off that building,” you can say, “I don’t understand how a person could survive jumping off
that building.” Offer positive feedback. Highlight and emphasize what worked well in the manuscript.  When speaking, still avoid you. Try saying, “I felt completely drawn into this scene,” instead of, “You wrote a great scene.”  When the writing is not so great, offer constructive suggestions. “It might help pick up the pace of this story if the scene where she’s grocery shopping was either dropped or cut short,” instead of, “The grocery store scene is boring.” Members are discouraged from rewriting the story for the author. It is okay to suggest an alternative path for the protagonist only if the
author has asked for help.  Critiques are not meant to be copyedits.
Typos and misspellings may be marked on the manuscript rather than being used as a discussion point, although an assessment of the manuscript mechanics may be part of the evaluation.  Honesty is the best policy. Consider the most basic questions: Has the author anything to say? Has the author said it in the best possible way?  In the end, kindness counts. This does not mean a charm offensive or gushing over a mediocre
manuscript. This does no one any good. But some writers never recover from being chewed up and spit out by a cannibalistic critique group.

In our twice-a-month group where we have a large attendance, everyone may submit up to ten pages for critique. We ask for four to six volunteers to critique each manuscript the schedule is then posted on a dedicated Yahoo site.
In our weekly group, two people may submit up to 20 pages and everyone critiques. This is also posted on a Yahoo site.
One of the most important rules is that the person whose manuscript is being critiqued
remain quiet during the critiques and can then reply once everyone is finished. Generally, the responses are to thank everyone for their help. There should be no need for anyone to defend their manuscript or take exception to a critique.
If something does not apply, the author is always free to politely thank the person and ignore the comments.
The best thing about these groups are how supportive each person is to everyone else in the group.”

If there were a writers’ group near me, I think I might join if I could bring along bits of a novel I’m working on.

Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?

An article with this title by Claudia Hammond was posted on the BBC Future website two days ago.  Not surprisingly, it caught my attention.

Claudia Hammond’s page in Wikipedia says that she is a British author, occasional TV presenter, and frequent radio presenter with the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4.  Born in 1971, she was educated at Sussex University (applied psychology) and Surrey University (MSc health psychology) and has written three non-fiction books on psychological subjects.

Claudia Hammond

The article is quoted in full, below:

Every day more than 1.8 million books are sold in the US and another half a million books are sold in the UK. Despite all the other easy distractions available to us today, there’s no doubt that many people still love reading. Books can teach us plenty about the world, of course, as well as improving our vocabularies and writing skills. But can fiction also make us better people?

The claims for fiction are great. It’s been credited with everything from an increase in volunteering and charitable giving to the tendency to vote – and even with the gradual decrease in violence over the centuries.

Characters hook us into stories. Aristotle said that when we watch a tragedy two emotions predominate: pity (for the character) and fear (for yourself). Without necessarily even noticing, we imagine what it’s like to be them and compare their reactions to situations with how we responded in the past, or imagine we might in the future.

This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.

Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. If we read the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated.  If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping.

To follow a plot, we need to know who knows what, how they feel about it and what each character believes others might be thinking. This requires the skill known as “theory of mind”.

With all this practise in empathising with other people through reading, you would think it would be possible to demonstrate that those who read fiction have better social skills than those who read mostly non-fiction or don’t read at all.

The difficulty with conducting this kind of research is that many of us have a tendency to exaggerate the number of books we’ve read. To get around this, Oatley and colleagues gave students a list of fiction and non-fiction writers and asked them to indicate which writers they had heard of. They warned them that a few fake names had been thrown in to check they weren’t lying. The number of writers people have heard of turns out to be a good proxy for how much they actually read.

Next, Oatley’s team gave people the “Mind in the Eyes” test, where you are given a series of photographs of pairs of eyes. From the eyes and surrounding skin alone, your task is to divine which emotion a person is feeling. You are given a short list of options like shy, guilty, daydreaming or worried. The expressions are subtle and at first glance might appear neutral, so it’s harder than it sounds. But those deemed to have read more fiction than non-fiction scored higher on this test – as well as on a scale measuring interpersonal sensitivity.

At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling.

People who read novels appear to be better than average at reading other people’s emotions, but does that necessarily make them better people? To test this, researchers at used a method many a psychology student has tried at some point, where you “accidentally” drop a bunch of pens on the floor and then see who offers to help you gather them up. Before the pen-drop took place participants were given a mood questionnaire interspersed with questions measuring empathy. Then they read a short story and answered a series of questions about to the extent they had felt transported while reading the story. Did they have a vivid mental picture of the characters? Did they want to learn more about the characters after they’d finished the story?

The experimenters then said they needed to fetch something from another room and, oops, dropped six pens on the way out. It worked: the people who felt the most  transported by the story and expressed the most empathy for the characters were more likely to help retrieve the pens.

You might be wondering whether the people who cared the most about the characters in the story were the kinder people in the first place – as in, the type of people who would offer to help others. But the authors of the study took into account people’s scores for empathy and found that, regardless, those who were most transported by the story behaved more altruistically.

Of course, experiments are one thing. Before we extrapolate to wider society we need to be careful about the direction of causality. There is always the possibility that in real life, people who are more empathic in the first place are more interested in other people’s interior lives and that this interest draws them towards reading fiction. It’s not an easy topic to research: the ideal study would involving measuring people’s empathy levels, randomly allocating them either to read numerous novels or none at all for many years, and then measuring their empathy levels again to see whether reading novels had made any difference.

Instead, short-term studies have been done. For example, Dutch researchers arranged for students to read either newspaper articles about riots in Greece and liberation day in the Netherlands or the first chapter from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. In this story, a man is waiting in his car at traffic lights when he suddenly goes blind. His passengers bring him home and a passer-by promises to drive his car home for him, but instead he steals it.  When students read the story, not only did their empathy levels rise immediately afterwards, but provided they had felt emotionally transported by the story, a week later they scored even higher on empathy than they did right after reading.

Of course, you could argue that fiction isn’t alone in this. We can empathise with people we see in news stories too, and hopefully we often do. But fiction has at least three advantages. We have access to the character’s interior world in a way we normally do not with journalism, and we are more likely to willingly suspend disbelief without questioning the veracity of what people are saying. Finally, novels allow us to do something that is hard to do in our own lives, which is to view a character’s life over many years.

So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led to the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.