Not that long ago it was difficult to get yourself published.  You either lucked out and got an agent and/or a legitimate publisher interested in your manuscript, or you paid a vanity publisher.  Because it’s easy to spot a vanity publisher, those of us in the public could make an informed choice about whether to read or purchase.  Certainly there were exceptions.  Like the actress in the soda shop major writers sometimes got their start by self-publishing and then slogging their books wherever they could. 

Sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are changing this familiar landscape.  It is now possible to publish an e-book at low-cost.  Such books can be offered for free or sold to Kindle and Nook users.  Some run ninety-nine cents.  I spotted one for fifty bucks. 

Many of these books are obviously what they are, which is fine with me.  I use the Nook, so I’m most familiar with B&N.  If you check out B&N’s ebook shop you’ll find a “PubIt” section devoted to such books.  Some of them are simply e-versions of books in the public domain, such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  Others are original works, such as Social Media Strategies for Small Businesses by Phil Bowyer.  The wannabe published writer in me is thrilled with this. 

But I’ve also noticed a downside, and I haven’t seen anybody else picking up on it yet.  There are a lot of self-published books on the site that are being flagrantly deceptively presented.  For example: on the same PubIt site you’ll find a book, or actually several books although the substance looks identical, called Wanted Dead or Alive:Killer Job, and Killer Job: On Hell’s CornerUnbroken: Killer Job, Tick Tock: Killer Job, and Full Stars: Killer Job, No Stars.  There are others.  Now, this past weekend when I saw these things, each was attributed to an author associated with the respective titles: Wanted Dead or Alive was supposedly written by Tom Clancy.  Unbroken was allegedly by Laura Hillenbrand, Tick Tock by James Patterson (not that he even wrote the genuine Tick, Tock, but I digress).  And so on.   In fact, if you scroll through a few of the reviews you’ll see that a couple of commentors posted angrily that they’d been fooled into buying what they thought was a bestseller and which, well, wasn’t. 

I commented, too, although I didn’t purchase one of these books.  I indicated that presenting the books as written by these well-known authors, and using titles deceptively similar to current bestsellers, was probably violative of trade or intellectual property laws at the very least.  Shortly thereafter, the authors’ names were changed, although the titles look pretty much the same.  The person who’s written this manuscript, by the way, appears to have had some sort of awful experience selling magazine subscriptions and wants to tell his or her story.  Good for him or her, but don’t draft your way to sales on the backs of established writers.

This for me is the conundrum of e-publishing.  Taking the industry out of the picture effectively throws open the gates to everybody, which is laudable, but the middleman at least exercised some oversight.  Barnes & Noble doesn’t seem to be doing that, and I’m not suggesting that they’re obligated to, either.  This, however, leaves copyright enforcement to the individual authors, and while I’m sure Tom Clancy carries a big stick, not everybody does.  What about the first time novelist whose book hasn’t sold all that well?  Maybe he or she’s on the verge of being dropped by the publisher, so the publisher sure isn’t devoting a lot of resources to trolling the internet for fakes. 

I’m not an IP lawyer by any stretch of the imagination, so maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill or maybe the industry is ramping up its efforts and I just don’t know about it.  If you know something, I’d love to hear about it.