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In 2008, I wrote about how Bertelsmann AG was planning to publish annual yearbooks derived from Wikipedia. Now, another German publishing company is exploiting the contents of Wikipedia for commercial ends, but this time, it’s flooding Amazon with titles aggregating related topics.

The company in question is VDM Verlag. Its book arms — Alphascript and Betascript publishing — use print-on-demand (POD) technologies and Wikipedia content. (Click on the links to see their catalogs on Amazon.) According to Slashdot, these publishers have added 57,000 titles to Amazon, more than 10,000 in the last month alone.

The price points for these books are amazing — many over $50 each — apparently to make them seem more scholarly and specialized. Reviews on Amazon appear to be uniformly low, as buyers note the basic level of content, the source, and the free and up-to-date online version.

Print-on-demand technologies used in this manner create a new thing — a “print” (quote marks intentional) catalog. That is, the books in the catalog appear to be printed when they’re only listed until they’re ordered, when they’re in fact printed. This allows catalogs on sites like Amazon to be filled with listings of “printed” books.

So, while the barriers of inventory, warehousing, press time, paper costs, and bindery could be relied upon to limit the supply of books, now there is no true limit. Books can be printed or “printed,” and both are listed.

Combined with the limitless amount of content online, the alchemy can make a strange brew.

This is not a condemnation of POD by any means. Print-on-demand technologies have been a helpful and necessary step in the evolution of print. But to abuse it is still abuse. And that’s what these publishers could be accused of doing.

While it’s an appalling bulk-publishing approach, it combines with the Bertelsmann example to invite the question — what is it about German publishing that makes things like this seem OK?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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Discussion

5 Thoughts on "Wikipedia + POD = A Flooded Amazon: The Endless Spigot at Alpha- and Betascript Publishing"

At first sight I disagree with your condemnation. The values added are selection and aggregation (plus editing and layout). Ironically, selection and aggregation are the primary values of scholarly journals as well, where the original articles are also free.

It would take days, at least, to work through Wikipedia to find all the decent articles on given topics like these. One wonders how they do it? Do they use semantic technologies? If it is done by humans then each book is expensive to produce, POD or not.

It is up to the market to say if the price is right. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that these are print products. Somebody is betting big on print.

The concept as a whole is elegant, and a testimony to the value of Wikipedia. Selection and aggregation are difficult, expensive and valuable. People who don’t want to pay are free to do the work themselves. This is not to say there are no copyright issues; that is not my field. But as an aggregator, and a fan of Wikipedia, I think this is an elegant product.

I’m not sure I’d condemn the practice either, I actually think it’s hilarious and demonstrates a phenomenal level of chutzpah. It’s really the idea of taking the “long tail” to an extreme–grab a massive amount of free material (their content now makes up 1/35th of all the book content on Amazon), repackage it and (like spam or banner ads) you hope you get a tiny percentage of sales that ends up in a profit. Let’s see, 57,000 books, if they sell one copy of 1% of their books, that’s $28,500. Nice work if you can get it.

I don’t think there are any legal issues, given the CC license that Wikipedia uses. Anyone can re-use the content and that includes re-sale, provided the terms of the license are followed.

But the question is whether this is really “selection and aggregation” as you note, or at least “selection and aggregation” to a level of quality that’s worth paying $50 for. They’ve got three editors each credited with around 17,000 to 18,000 books. How much time do you think they’re devoting to carefully curating these collections? How difficult, expensive, valuable and elegant is the work if three people can do 10,000 books a month?

My personal opinion is that it is far from elegant. Browsing Amazon subject headings in reverse chronological order used to be a reasonably good way to become apprised of new and forthcoming publications in one’s field. The amount of chaff has now gone up by an order of magnitude or more.

Of alphacript’s 600+ titles in mathematics, the best selling currently has an Amazon sales rank of #1,223,726. A grand total of 2 of these math titles have customer reviews, both of which are the lowest possible (1 star). In alphascript’s broader line of 39000+ titles, there are a handful that have received positive reviews, but all of those reviews were by reviewers ranked 200-thousandth or lower. No one who’s been around the block seems to think that they’re getting a good deal for their money.

David, which of alphascript’s titles have you bought or are you thinking of buying?

VDM Verlag actually emailed me about a year ago with asking if they could publish my masters thesis as a book. When I looked into more, I needed to provide my bank account information and was creeped out. There was also some information on a Chronicle discussion board about them: http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,45997.0.html

Here was the message I received:
I am writing on behalf of the German publishing house, VDM Verlag Dr.
Müller AG & Co. KG.
In the course of a research on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I came across a reference to your thesis on Marketing Electronic Resources.
We are a German-based publisher whose aim is to make academic research available to a wider audience.
VDM Verlag would be especially interested in publishing your dissertation in the form of a printed book.”

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