18 October 2011

The Non Non-Book / Half Book, Half Biscuit

Dealing in used books you occasionally come across scam genealogical books. These were going before the internet and must be an early example of 'Print on Demand' (POD) technology. They were sold as genealogical books about your family and usually cost about £25. You got a general introduction, a section about the origin of surnames in general, a section about heraldry, a couple of blank charts to copy and complete once you had done your own research, a few recipes and (sometimes) a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of persons with the same surname culled from world telephone directories. People probably bought them as presents but for anyone who consulted them disappointment was guaranteed. Content was all totally generic with nothing about your family. If your name was, say, Liddell the book would be called The Book of Liddells. On the 'never give a sucker an even break' principle these are still marketed and have graduated to the web - they are pathetic objects of no real second hand value and have to be unceremoniously pulped by dealers along with those rather sad scam directories of 'important' people etc.,

I was reminded of these by an article in the most recent Private Eye on the activities of a German company called Betascript who produce books culled from articles on Wikipedia. To be fair this is now proudly declared on the cover and on Amazon 'High Quality Content by Wikipedia Articles.' Like all the best scams it's all legal. They have produced over 150,000 books, mostly edited by a cove called Lambert M. Surhone. They cover thousands of subjects, mostly minor e.g Rail Accidents in Winsford (£28 for a 96 page POD paperback.) It has the 2 page Wikipedia article on crashes in Winsford and pads out the rest of the article with full Wikipedia entries that are hyperlinked within the article - Battersea Park Rail Crash, a history of Cheshire etc., As the Eye says 'people in Winsford aren't to know that and might even be tempted to buy it.' One suspects these books are generated without human interference-- their scholarly work on Orford Ness in Suffolk, U.K. has a map of America on the cover and another work on the Soviet republic of Georgia has a picture of downtown Atlanta on the cover.

The book above on Scams in Intellectual Property is so close to the bone that it may signify that the publisher actually does not know what they are offering. Another major non non-book player 'Books LLC' also out of Germany and responsible for 200,000+ such books, has a book on this style of publishing and the Wikipedia article is less than friendly towards the enterprise. Such a programme could, in theory, generate an infinite number of books. You could even ask it to write a book just for you.

Often the books will wander into irrelevant or whimsical territory through the hyperlinks. In a book on the actor Ronald Colman it mentions that he went to a boarding chool in Littlehampton - so readers get two pretty thorough pieces on Littlehampton and on boarding schools. He had hoped to go to Cambridge but didn't make it-- this is a good excuse for an exhaustive history of the university. The journalist Gene Weingarten found they had generated a book on him which has sold 3 copies apart from the one he bought: these are not great sellers but with 300,000 PODs sitting on their computers even 2 sales per book is handy. There are 950,000 Lambert Surhone books for sale at ABE of which only 500 are actual printed books, presumably bought by unfortunate punters and returned swiftly to the market. This indicates poorish sales -- for example in the relatively sane world of new age publishing there are 3000 used copies of just one title The Celestine Prophecy for sale on ABE.

Some of the connections found in these books are almost Dadaist --in the magisterial Vreni Schneider: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Winter Olympic Games, Slalom Skiing, Giant Slalom Skiing, Half Man Half Biscuit basically a non non-book about the Swiss skier Vreni Schneider there is a longish piece on English indie rock band Half Man Half Biscuit. Schneider had been namechecked in a song by them called 'Uffington Wassail.' Some trivia hound has added this to Schneider’s Wikipedia page and the Biscuits end up in a slalom skiing book. It's a mad world my masters.


Jimmy said...

Genius! Are these computer-generated Exquisite Corpse-type texts of the sort that Breton and co. could only dream about? Is this true automatic writing, accessing the collective unconscious that is the WWW? And if the valuable books of the future are invariably NOT what you are collecting now, perhaps these will turn out to be great investments rather than the rubbish they superficially appear to be? Or perhaps not?

Brian Busby said...

Jimmy might just be right. Imagine owning a copy of Vreni Schneider signed by Woohookitty, Chochopk, Ilikeeatingwaffles or any of the hundreds of other Wikipedians who contributed.

Is it too much to expect Betascript to organise author events?

Bloc Sonix said...

Many thanks for pointing out this lousy practice, looking online I see some of these books are $60 and more. PODs are also always nasty looking and as you say worth nothing when you try to sell them.

The worst scams are the legal ones -- give me a good honest criminal any day!

Roger said...

Could someone put a libellous entry for themselves on Wikipedia, buy the book and sue the "publisher"?

Detester of the Lamborghini said...

Roger - If as I suspect the publishing of these books is almost purely robotic this might be a good wheeze. Trouble is it could be years before it did the entry --there are said to be over 10 million Wikipedia entries and these guys have only about done 5 per cent in about 4 years. The real defence is for all web users to know that these books are worthless in every way...

Roger said...

I agree there: I came across them in fact- without realising how big a scam it was- when I googled a very obscure writer and found an apparent book on him. I thought it so unlikely such a book might exist that I looked further and learned they were a con.

Gabrielle Roy said...

Don't forget Hephaestus Books another big publisher in this field. Here is their ghastly mission statement:

Hephaestus Books represents a new publishing paradigm, allowing disparate content sources to be curated into cohesive, relevant, and informative books. To date, this content has been curated from Wikipedia articles and images under Creative Commons licensing, although as Hephaestus Books continues to increase in scope and dimension, more licensed and public domain content is being added. We believe books such as this represent a new and exciting lexicon in the sharing of human knowledge.

Note that word 'curated' -- it's like 'archival', a guarantee that you are a good caring type. Hephaestus books are not quite such nonsense as Betascript (possible human intervention) but of course should never be bought by anyone, ever.