Studying My Personal Rip-Offs

Though I’m not pleased with it, as an writer, I typically interact within the masochistic ritual of checking my Amazon rating and evaluations.

So again within the spring, shortly after my newest e-book got here out, I typed “The Puzzler” by A. J. Jacobs into the Amazon search bar and pressed “Enter.”

Up got here my e-book, after all. However to my shock, so did a number of different books. Six of them. These books had titles reminiscent of Abstract of The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs and Workbook for The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs. They ranged from $5 to $13.

As you may think about, I used to be a bit baffled. I do know firsthand the lengthy historical past of examine guides and e-book summaries. In highschool, I used Cliffs Notes to assist me decipher The Scarlet Letter, and its rival SparkNotes is a big enterprise.

However my e-book—a memoir and cultural historical past about puzzles, together with crosswords, jigsaws, and riddles—had come out simply a few weeks earlier than. And although I used to be pleased with it, it wasn’t but a traditional textual content being taught in faculties and dissected in doctoral theses.

Naturally, I ordered all the guides and workbooks to The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs—4 paperbacks and two Kindle ebooks. Just a few days later, I settled down in my Aeron Chair to learn the summaries of my very own e-book.

Dan Chaon: The story of my imposters

The very first thing I observed is that they’re remarkably slight. They’re all pamphlet-size books with a font large sufficient to rival that of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The longest runs 49 pages, and one abstract by any person named Prince Humphrey clocks in at a mere 9 pages. That’s some environment friendly summarizing!

The covers of the summaries range in theme. 4 of them have clip artwork of jigsaw puzzles, which appears high quality, if uninspired. However the abstract by Jerry Bishop includes a cowl picture of an evening sky with a capturing star, and one other has ocean waves. As a result of the universe and the ocean are puzzles, I suppose?

I randomly chosen William Noah’s abstract and commenced to learn. It opens: “This can be a e-book of enjoyable.” Effectively, that’s good. I do suppose my e-book is a e-book of enjoyable. I observed that loads of the sentences are like this—barely ungrammatical, as if they have been written by somebody who realized English late in life. One other of the summaries begins: “The George Plimpton of considering workouts takes readers on a crossword, maze, and past the journey.”

Wait. I acknowledged that. It’s a barely altered model of a sentence within the Kirkus evaluate of my e-book. The extra I learn, the extra I began to comprehend that the summaries’ passages are lifted from different sources. The textual content is a hodgepodge, a mélange of snippets from e-book evaluations, my e-book’s jacket, journal options, and passages copied immediately from my e-book.

To not point out, the cut-and-paste job is type of lazy. The segues are jarring, and lots of the summaries are repetitive, with an identical passages popping up on the identical web page, giving a number of of them an “All work and no play makes Jack a uninteresting boy” vibe.

Lots of the summaries are related. Not an identical, thoughts you, however they use loads of the identical evaluations and articles. Maybe the summarizers went to the identical summarizing college?

Learn: Amazon could have a counterfeit downside

To their credit score, the summarizers don’t at all times reprint passages verbatim. They are often helpful with a thesaurus. A summarizer named Jane kranz (the ok is lowercase, maybe a nod to bell hooks or e. e. cummings) wrote that my e-book is “a bucket of monkeys’ price of puzzle-solving enjoyable.” Hmm. Kirkus referred to as my e-book “a barrel of monkeys’ price of enjoyable for the puzzle addict within the family.”

Typically, I realized new issues about myself. In Jerry Bishop’s abstract, he writes, “Jacobs give up attending courses two months earlier than he graduated school and commenced finishing crossword puzzles.” I don’t keep in mind doing this. Later, I spotted that this element was taken from The New York Occasions evaluate of my e-book, the place the reviewer—Judith Newman—talked about skipping courses. Bishop had conflated me and the reviewer.

Maybe the worst half: A number of of the summarizers appear to have gotten bored of summarizing my e-book by the center. Or not even the center. Greer summarizes two chapters. I wrote 18, however there’s no point out of the final 16.

Although most are related, one of many books is radically totally different: Workbook for The Puzzler, credited to Platinum Works. What’s a “workbook”? Effectively, on this case, it’s a e-book with loads of clean pages for the reader to fill in, labeled “Notes,” “Private Notes,” and my favourite, “Different Issues.”

The workbook’s non-blank pages include textual content about puzzles—and refreshingly, the textual content isn’t taken immediately from my e-book or evaluations of it. Somewhat, the workbook is a group of tips about fixing puzzles. And so they’re strong ideas, too, reminiscent of “Don’t pressurize your self an excessive amount of,” which appears good for each puzzles and scuba diving.

It took me about an hour to learn by way of all of my summaries and workbooks. On the finish, I felt a mixture of feelings.

First, I used to be flattered that these people, whoever they’re, had bothered to tear off my e-book. ButI was additionally pissed. I used to be offended on behalf of any and all unsuspecting readers who had ordered a workbook, solely to obtain these nugatory phrase salads. And I used to be, after all, irritated that they could reduce into my e-book gross sales.

However the anger was tempered by my amusement at how absurd these works are, how jarring the segues, how artistic the grammar—like a Yoko Ono poem. Plus, it was type of a enjoyable recreation—sure, even a puzzle!—to determine the origin of the passages.

I additionally felt disgrace, as a result of I knew I used to be a part of the issue. Individuals like me have led to this cottage business. I’m a sucker for Abstract Tradition. Typically I’ll watch authors’ TED Talks as an alternative of shopping for their e-book. Or I’ll take heed to this app referred to as Blink that condenses books to some minutes of audio. Or I’ll learn a Wikipedia abstract of an writer’s concepts. It’s not good. I do know I’m lacking nuances and likewise undermining the very business I work in, however over the previous 10 years, I’ve purchased into the cult of effectivity. I believe it’s as a result of there’s simply a lot data on the market, and I really feel social-media stress to maintain up. Perhaps the ridiculousness of those summaries will lastly embarrass me into studying full books once more. Perhaps.

One other response? Worry. These summaries are amateurish and incomplete. However in a few years, will synthetic intelligence be capable to whip up helpful and well-written summaries of nonfiction books? Will anybody purchase the precise e-book?

Lastly, I used to be curious. That’s the theme of my e-book, curiosity. Who’s placing out these books? Is it a workforce of individuals? One particular person? An AI robotic?

I launched into an investigation. The QR codes on the again of the books didn’t work, a direct useless finish. The Amazon pages and the Google outcomes of the authors didn’t yield a lot both.

I found that Jane kranz—who does trouble to capitalize her final identify on many titles—is probably probably the most prolific of the summarizers, having revealed summaries of not less than a dozen different books, together with a biography of the professional golfer Phil Mickelson and the memoir of the scarf-wearing Trump-administration official Deborah Birx. Kranz’s abstract work has not been well-received, largely getting terse, one-star evaluations reminiscent of “unhappy excuse for a e-book.”

Franklin Foer: Now do Amazon

Are these books even authorized? I emailed my pal, a copyright lawyer. He wrote again that these summaries appear to go properly past “honest use,” referring to the authorized doctrine that enables folks to cite quick excerpts of copyrighted materials with out permission.

Just a few months later, I used to be nonetheless stewing about these rip-offs. However I felt higher after I got here up with an answer: I’d publish my very own Abstract of The Puzzler to get perception into the way it’s carried out. Plus, why shouldn’t I get a reduce of those abstract earnings?

The summaries are probably launched by way of a print-on-demand service. These are self-publishing platforms that allow you to put out your work, both digitally or in paperback. The enterprise mannequin is to print books solely when they’re ordered, as an alternative of printing a number of thousand copies up entrance, which is what conventional commerce publishing does.

This permits the service to provide the writer an even bigger proportion of the royalties—as a lot as 70 p.c. It additionally lets nearly anybody with a bank card publish a e-book, which is why it’s so arduous to trace the authors down.

The preferred service is Amazon’s personal Kindle Direct Publishing. I signed on and spent a day crafting a abstract of my very own e-book. I summarized my e-book’s foreword, together with my opening story of being featured as a solution to a clue within the New York Occasions crossword puzzle, a nerd’s dream. I summarized the second chapter, the one on the historical past of the crossword puzzle.

After which … I bought bored. I empathized with kranz and Humphrey.

So to fill out some pages, I reduce and pasted a LinkedIn article I wrote about what puzzles can train us about life.

After importing the textual content, I bought to play writer, which was oddly empowering. I selected the font (Libre Baskerville) and the quilt design (I uploaded a picture of the well-known nine-dots puzzle, figuring it will distinguish mine from the jigsaw covers. Although tempted, I didn’t reap the benefits of Kindle’s free clip artwork, damaged down by class. For example, the “Character trait” part presents a photograph of a pudgy child double-fisting hamburgers, which I suppose is for gluttony.)

I entered my credit-card data and pressed “Submit.” Two days later, I obtained an electronic mail from Kindle Direct. The information was not good.

Whereas reviewing the next e-book(s), it seems to be a abstract, examine information, or evaluation of one other e-book: Your e-book(s) does/(do) not adjust to our Kindle Content material High quality pointers because it/(they) can confuse clients into considering they’re buying the unique supply materials.

What? Then how did the opposite summaries make it by way of? Had been they revealed through one other service?

I looked for my rival summaries … and so they have been all gone. Erased from Amazon. Plainly Jeff Bezos does make an effort tocrack down on the abstract style. In 2019, an Amazon spokesperson advised The Wall Avenue Journal that e-book summaries have to be “sufficiently differentiated to keep away from buyer confusion,” and added, “If we discover {that a} title doesn’t meet these necessities, we take away it promptly.” Nevertheless, the crackdown will not be a complete success. I searched and located a bunch of different summaries nonetheless on the market, apparently having slipped by way of Amazon’s dragnet.

So it seems I’ll by no means get wealthy from promoting my very own Abstract of The Puzzler. But it surely’s unlikely anybody else will, both, in order that’s some reduction.


Don’t purchase a “abstract” e-book off of Amazon, as a result of they’re nonsensical phrase salads created by bots or lazy cut-and-pasters with a shaky grasp of the English language.

Nevertheless, as AI will get higher at summarizing books, nonfiction authors may be in hassle.

Within the meantime, purchase my e-book!

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