Scam alert or how to make a lot of money really quickly

Felicity Meakins writes…

Just recently I was on Amazon, when I came across two potentially interesting books:

At first I berated myself for having never noticed these books before, let alone the authors. Surely these were important volumes that I should have referenced! However a little further investigation revealed a scam that grew bigger (and actually more impressive) as I dug deeper.

I first became suspicious when I recognised some of the wording of the abstract of the first book. Sure enough, the entire abstract was a word-for-word copy of the Wikipedia entry on mixed languages. A loud excited outburst from me drew Myf Turpin into the fray. We had a look at the Alphascript publishing website only to find that ALL of their books were edited by Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome and John McBrewster, with topics ranging from Japanese mythology and Franco-Belgium comics to cloud seeding and swine flu! And when I say “ALL of their books”, I mean all 1006 books. Who were these prolific authors?!

When we googled their names, we found a number of scam alerts, so we are certainly not the first to notice them. Unfortunately the University of Queensland library was drawn in for five books’ worth on topics including abalone and Mayan civilisations. Indeed, as Alphascript publishing proudly announce on their webpage, most of the major book distributors, including Amazon, list their books.

One can’t help being secretly impressed with the size of the scam. Most of the books are sold for AU$40.00. UQ Library would have spent around AU$200 on their books, and there is a good chance too that many other university libraries did the same before realising it was all a scam. In a single year, Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome and John McBrewster probably had enough in the bank to buy an small island and disappear.

Aside from being impressed (or gobsmacked), it is probably worth checking your university library and alerting them to the scam, and letting other prospective buyers know if you come across their books on book seller pages.

12 Comments

  1. Lauren says:

    It would appear that The University of Melbourne has also added to the island-buying powers of the Alphascript editors. Books in the catalogue include:

    Wind farm : environmental effects of wind power, wind turbine, airborne wind turbine, wind power in Australia, wind power in China, wind power in the European Union, wind power in India / Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, John McBrewster, editors

    Blasphemy law in Pakistan : apostasy in Islam, blasphemy, freedom of religion in Pakistan, Sharia, Pakistan [sic.] / Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, John McBrewster (ed.)

    Climate of Australia: climate of Australia. Bushfire, effects of global warming on Australia, climate change in Australia, drought in Australia, wet season, tropical cyclone, list of wettest tropical / Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, John McBre

    and

    Bicycle : bicycle law, bicycle lighting, bicycle lock, bicycle locker, list of bicycle parts, bicycle safety, bicycle tools, Trampe bicycle lift, balance bicycle, cruiser bicycle, bicycle trailer, boda-boda, cycle rickshaw, bicycle fairing / Frederic

    Quite how this last one got past the library purchasing team is beyond me.

  2. Peter Austin says:

    Four years ago we had “the Professor Parker affair” (see http://www.paradisec.org.au/blog/2008/07/copy-right/) where a single author had produced over 85,000 books using web data scraping methods. This lot have a ways to go yet, eh?

    What a pity the libraries got duped.

  3. Edward Garrett says:

    My first question is: is this illegal? If it’s not illegal to copy and publish material reprinted from Wikipedia (for example if that material is licensed under a specific Creative Commons license allowing it), then what’s the big deal?

    It sounds like legitimate publishers are doing a lot more to dupe libraries than these guys are. See, for example, the posts related to the Elsevier boycott discussed here:

    http://kaivonfintel.org/2012/02/03/more-on-elsevier-boycott/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+semanticsetc+%28Semantics+etc.%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

  4. Jane Simpson says:

    ANU has also falled victim to one, as has the University of Sydney – that it wasn’t more is probably because librarians don’t generally buy books there except for standing orders – a few dribbles of money come to the academic programs who have to agonise about choosing between this expensive theoretical discussion, that super-expensive grammar and those ultra-expensive dictionaries. That’s why it hurts to learn that money goes on paying for and cataloguing Wikipedia entries.

    But going through U Sydney’s search I came across:

    “The Bookseller, ISSN 0006-7539, 09/2010, Issue 5447, p. 42
    …, Agnes F Vandome and John McBrewster (who have “edited” some 40,800 books, according to Nielsen BookData), it is nothing more than an expensive reproduction…”

  5. Aidan Wilson says:

    True, Edward, it isn’t illegal as such, but it’s pretty low in the scheme of things: taking freely available content from online, packaging it into a book with multiple editors so it looks like a proper volume, and selling it to people who believe that anything in a book has more prestige than anything online. And, as Jane points out, the big deal is that university libraries are always cutting the number of journals they subscribe to because of high costs, and publishers like Elsevier probably have a lot to do with that, but it’d be very disappointing if a library spent good money on wikipedia articles instead of renewing their subscription to a reputable journal.

    I perused their website, this Alphascript group, and found that they’re quite unashamed of their practices. They even published on their website an interview with the Guardian, which had questioned them on their practices. To summarise:

    * They think the quality of Wikipedia articles is so good that books containing them are worthwhile (dubious for many reasons, quality control being the major).
    * They continue that the ‘reverse’ process has been normalised for years; taking books and scanning them to publish online, so why not take online content and put it into a book?
    * They make it clear in the metadata that the books contain wikipedia articles and other online content, but they point out that other publishing houses don’t have to say ‘Warning: Book contains nonsense”
    * Buying an Alphascript books means you’re more up-to-date than if you were to buy a conventional book on the same subject, since the internet moves quickly (Of course, it’s necessarily only going to be as up-to-date as the wikipedia entries, and as soon as that’s updated, the book has immediately lost it’s shelf-life.)
    This is probably the unfortunate consequence of having a publishing paradigm such as copyleft. It just means people have to be vigilant and check things out before they buy them, and as Felicity rightly points out, to warn institutions not to buy into them.

    One more thing, just to highlight how successful they can be at deceit, this website allows users to review books that they own or whatever. Books by Frederic P. Miller (20,900 distinct works listed on this website) have an average rating of 4.18/5. Looking at the most highly rated, you can see why; they’re books with titles like:

    Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (Film): J. K. Rowling, Alfonso Cuarón, Harry Potter (Film Series), Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, … Harris, Hodgkin´s Lymphoma, Steve Kloves

    Just why Wikipedia articles on Hodgkin’s Lymphoma are in the same volume as Harry Potter, I don’t know. But I’m certain people think they’re rating a J.K. Rowling book.

  6. Aidan Wilson says:

    The University of Melbourne library has bought seven titles, two of those they bought two copies of, and an eighth title is on order.
    I wonder if there are any university libraries that haven’t bought these books.

  7. Felicity says:

    Interesting that so many libraries have bought copies of these books. It might indicate that a lot of acquisitions librarians are going ahead and buying books without consulting the relevant schools or academics, who are surely not recommending their purchase. As Jane said, funds are tight, legitimate books are expensive. A shame all round.

  8. David Nash says:

    A Trove search on the first ‘editor’ returns 92 titles spread over quite a range of university libraries of Australia as well as some large public libraries. First in the list (in the default sort by ‘Relevance’) is Internet censorship in Australia

  9. Edward Garrett says:

    This could also be a call for other publishers to step up their game. Perhaps there is a market for Wikipedia entries packaged as ordinary print books, and whoever gets the business model right will win. After all, it ought to be simple to detect similaries across books, thereby determining that this book has the same content as that one (but is cheaper). Alphascript may have a head start, but others will no doubt join the race later.

    This reminds me: I was contemplating buying a Wikipedia reader for my iphone yesterday. It costs $2.99. Of course, I can go to wikipedia.org, and that’s free, but sometimes you are willing to pay for the packaging.

    I’m really not sure that libraries are being duped.

    Here’s a blog post I found about the imprint, though from some time ago:

    http://www.chrisrand.com/blog/index.php/2010/02/27/odd-tale-alphascript-publishing-betascript-publishing/

  10. Edward Garrett says:

    The blog post referenced in my previous message includes the following analysis:

    They make money not by selling the books to actual readers, but by selling the single copy of each title that some distributors will automatically order when the book is “released” as print on demand. The distributors (such as Amazon) do this to cut down on the time it takes to print a book on demand, and then ship it, which can be up to 30 days. The point isn’t to sell the books to anyone, but to be a parasite off the distrubution model that a company like Amazon has put in place to help its *actual* customers who buy books.

    Interesting if true.

  11. Aidan Wilson says:

    I just received an email from Melbourne Uni’s library (I had emailed them earlier to let them know about these books) and while there’s nothing they can do about the books they’ve already bought, they’re now aware of the practice and won’t buy from these editors or this publisher in future.

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