Digital focus: content farms

With the proliferation of formats that digitalisation has given publishing, many authors chalk up an impressive number of editions on Amazon. At this writing, a search for Agatha Christie on Amazon.co.uk gets 9,223 results, Enid Blyton 7,757, Barbara Cartland 3,728 and Manuel Ortiz Braschi 3,255.

Oh, you don't know Braschi? He is the prolific author of Vegetable Gardening 101; Fairies and Angel Tattoos; The 30 Day Low-Carb Diet: How to Lose 20 Pounds or More in the First 30 Days; Anyone! Anywhere! Paintball ROCKS!: The Secrets to Winning at Paintball!; Hen Night: Get Geared Up for a Wild Girl's [sic] Night Out! and Anger Management: How to Control Your Anger to Get the Most Out of Your Life! (he loves an exclamation mark, does Braschi) among many, many, many others. Unlike Christie, Blyton and Cartland, Braschi's high number of Amazon search results are not because of multiple editions of titles (there are, for example, 144 hits for Christie's And Then There Were None, which includes various in and out-of-print physical editions, plays, audio books, e-books and foreign-language versions).

No, almost all of Braschi's books are single editions of Kindle e-books, encompassing 24 different book genres, ranging from Business, Finance & Law to Music, Stage and Screen to Children's Books. In the past month, Braschi has published 48 Kindle books—in the past three months the figure is 338. How does he do it? Is he some kind of superhuman writer, a polymath able to churn out more than a book a day? No. It is because Braschi is actually a content farm.

Quality control
Content farms in the context of the internet are websites that employ huge numbers of freelance writers and video producers to churn out content in a way to maximise search engine hits, and thus generate advertising revenue. Successful examples include Associated Content, Answers.com and Demand Media, which runs eHow.com.

The problem with content farms is that in producing fast and disposable content—Demand Media puts up around 4,000 text and video pieces each day—the resulting output is of low quality and editorial standards could charitably be called hardly exacting, and more uncharitably called slipshod.

Search engines have recently tried to marginalise content farms. In February, Google announced a change of its search algorithms, saying it would give greater emphasis to "original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on". Emphasising quality over crap, to put it bluntly. The result has been that many of these content farm websites have seen a significant drop in traffic.

The e-books world has its own type of content farms, but with the same general principle as its website counterparts. These e-books are almost exclusively non-fiction—though some content farms do produce out-of-copyright fiction—with the greatest emphasis in business, self-help, health and lifestyle publishing. They are generally low-priced, around 70p on Amazon.co.uk, though a few do cost considerably more. The content therein is scant (of the 15 titles downloaded for this piece none were more than 20,000 words), mostly poorly written, some only tangential to the topic of the e-book. Take Braschi's Vegetable Gardening 101, which has the rather lengthy subtitle Save Money Growing Your Own Vegetables! This book actually gives you step by step instructions on everything you need to do to . . . garden in your own backyard! AAA+++. This e-book may give the reader many things—confusion as to why Braschi didn't use a spell check to fix the many typos or irritation at realising he or she has thrown money away—one thing that it does not give is step-by-step tips for gardening. Instead, it is 13 very short chapters of flim-flam and gardening generalities that even the least green-fingered reader would already know.

That is the level of the quality for most of the content farm Kindle books. Yet the site is awash with them. A half-day's research on Amazon revealed four content farms with more than 1,000 Kindle books, 10 others with over 500 titles and just under 50 with more than 100 e-books.  

Genre concerns
Yet does this matter? So what if Amazon is flooded with inferior product? It should not detract from traditional publishers whose quality should be apparent to readers—especially given Amazon's customer review system. Readers will eventually easily recognise content-farmed e-books, and avoid them.

Perhaps, but these titles do pose an immediate problem in some genres. Yes, content farm e-books rarely trouble the very top of the overall bestseller lists, but in certain categories these titles can be very successful. At the time of writing Braschi's Vegetable Gardening 101 is the 961st bestselling Kindle title overall, yet it is number one in the Gardening and Horticulture subcategory, beating the likes of Steven Frowine's Gardening Basics for Dummies (Wiley), James Wong's Grow Your Own Drugs (Collins) and Antony Woodward's The Garden in the Clouds (HarperPress).

There is also a certain amount of ducking and diving that content farms employ to help them evade the Amazon reviews system. Mike Essex, a digital marketing and web search analyst has covered the e-book content farm phenomenon. On his Impact Media blog he points out that: "If an e-book does get a bad review, or is exposed, the writer can simply remove the e-book for publication, and resubmit it under a new name. Reviews are also unique to the particular site. So a bad review on Barnes & Noble won't stop people buying the book from another platform."

There is something of the night about most of the e-book content farms. Content-farmed titles usually do not have ISBNs—Amazon encourages, but does not require, Kindle titles to have ISBNs—and thus none are on Nielsen BookData. Despite having close to 1,800 Kindle titles for sale, e-Book Media Ventures does not have a website or any other web presence outside of Amazon.

As for Manuel Ortiz Braschi, he seems to be a real person. Besides his Amazon business, he has been the producer of "The Warrior Within", a 1976 documentary on martial artists featuring Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Yet the contact details on a press release announcing a new Braschi e-book on Michael Jackson have borne no fruit: the domain name for his website has expired, the telephone number has been disconnected and emails to the address listed have bounced back. I do have a Facebook friend request pending, however, so fingers crossed.
 
Resale value

Another reason for traditional publishers to be wary of e-book content farms is that the area seems set to grow because of the ease in which content is available. Unlike websites, which directly employ legions of freelance writers, most e-book content farmers get their books from Private Label Rights (PLR) or Master Resale Rights (MRR) providers. PLR titles are sold on a licence that stipulates that whoever buys it can modify the content somehow—adding a short introduction, for example—and then sell it on as if it were his or her own work. MRR is similar, but the buyer also purchases the right to sell the resale licence on.

This accounts for the glut of Kindle titles that are remarkably similar. Search for Get Rid of Warts, Moles and Skin Tags the Natural Way and there are 15 Kindle books from 15 different authors, including one from our good friend Braschi. All are the same content, except for minor tweaks and changes.

From a business point of view, one can see the attraction. PLR licences are generally dirt cheap, averaging around $5 (most of the PLR sellers are in the US), MRR slightly higher. And there are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of titles to choose from. PLR and MRR seller bestchoiceforebooks.com is selling the PLR to the e-book Playing Online Texas HoldEm for $1.50. Given the minimal tweaks one has to make and Amazon's 30% cut of each title, if you were to charge 70p per copy, you would only have to sell three e-books to get into the black.

"It's amazingly easy, almost foolproof," says an e-book content farm publisher who wished not to be identified. "It's a good business; I've made money on every single [Kindle book] I've done. You just have to keep churning them out. I don't think I'm providing bad quality e-books, either. It's a good price and [the buyer] can download a sample before getting the full book. And I'm not stealing copyright, it's perfectly legal."
This is largely an Amazon issue at present, both because it is the biggest e-book seller and it has an aggressive self-publishing programme. It is quite simply much easier for a content-farmed title to appear on Amazon than on, say, Waterstones.com. Though in the US, Barnes & Noble has taken some similar criticism. Last autumn, science fiction writer Joe Scalzi complained to B&N about self-published Nook e-books and print-on-demand titles about him on the site—one 32 pages long, gleaned from Wikipedia that was selling for $14.14. His complaint was not necessarily that people were cobbling together books about him, but that B&N's "top matches" when you searched his name were these books and not his own.

Will these e-tailers, then, try to change their search policy to favour, à la Google, more high-quality content? A spokesman for Amazon.com says the company does not comment on its search algorithms, but that it had "a full commitment to copyright protection and ensur[ing] that each and every seller was following its terms of service agreements."  

To be fair to Amazon, it would be a minefield if it waded into the "quality" of its e-books. Where does one stop when making the distinctions between what constitutes a good e-book and a bad one? Therefore the onus falls to publishers to ensure they are able to deliver e-books priced at the right level to ensure readers are not drawn to the cheap knock-offs. But for customers at the moment, it is caveat emptor.

Some other prolific Kindle "authors"

e-book Media Ventures
Kindle titles: 1,784

Listed as the editor for nearly 1,800 books in 17 categories—a little over half of which are in Business & Finance—with a yen for odd capitalisations of its titles, such as Easy Steps to Great CARD MAGIC TRICKS. Its current top sellers include Anxiety and Depression 101, 650 Bread Machine Maker RECIPES and Hilarious Jokes! 950 Jokes for Adults Only. If downloading the last, you will discover that it actually only contains 182 jokes (though many are duplicated), the text is unformatted and is hardly racy, with “rib ticklers” like: “Why did the orange stop? Because it ran out of juice.” Its edition of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmuend [sic] Freud surprisingly has a four-star customer review average; closer examination, however, shows the reviews are for the Penguin, Words­worth and Oxford World Classics editions.   

Information Buddy
Kindle titles: 1,407

This prolific content farm did not give much information and was certainly no buddy to reviewer “Sue” who purchased its Distance Running Training Program for a relatively hefty £3.54. Her one-star review read: “What a disappointment. Finished reading in 15mins. No useful information. Basically just outlining the definition of different types of running. No training programmes. Don’t waste your money as I did.”

eBusiness Master
Kindle titles: 1,012

The anger of unsuspecting users encountering the poor quality of eBusiness Master’s output is apparent in its Amazon customer reviews, three-quarters of which are for one star. For Five Common Skin Problems—Answered!, reviewer Matthew Davies writes: “This isn’t a book, its a leaflet telling you to wear sun cream. What a disappointing first purchase on my new Kindle.”  Ms K Davison’s assessment of How To Prosper During Bad Times—Discover Different Ways To Make Money During Recession & Stagflation! AAA+++ is: “The entire book is a compilation of articles written by other people and are available online, some are not even about the title of the book.”

Amos Herbert
Kindle titles: 639

Now here’s a content farming author who is going for the higher end of the spectrum. His lowest priced Kindle books are in the £2.08 range, including Best eBook on How to Play Golf, Best eBook on How to Cook and How to Manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He has priced his version of 21 Ways to Raise Cash Fast at £6.96, despite there being 39 other versions of the same title (including Manuel Ortiz Braschi’s 70p version). The resale rights for 21 Ways . . . can be bought for as little as $1.59 from various PLR sites.