The Haggler will now don his professorial tweeds because he starts this episode in teacher mode. All of the action below revolves around the Google Play store.
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In Forbes recently, Erik Kain called Google Play “an ugly, poorly organized store filled with myriad knockoffs, dubious ‘games’ and other apps.” That sounds a bit harsh to the Haggler, a Google Play regular who has had mostly positive experiences.
That said, the site has problems.
Q. Book piracy has taken a new form. Someone scanned my entire e-book, “Graphic Design Solutions,” created a new cover and is selling it on Google Play. It is the same e-book, verbatim, and inside are the same images, same layout and the same interviews. The only difference is the name of the author. A person named Jazmin Bonilla gets the credit.
My royalties have plummeted, which affects my ability to donate to scholarships for my university students. Both my publisher and I have notified Google, but no action has been taken. Maybe the company will listen to you.
ROBIN LANDA, NEW YORK
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[The Haggler’s] first thought was that if e-book piracy were a serious issue on Google Play, there would be other examples. There are many. A quick search led the Haggler to a site called The Digital Reader. There, the writer Nate Hoffelder detailed “rampant” e-book piracy, as he put it in a May post, in Google Play. He found that one shop was selling more than 100 pirated versions of best sellers by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Sidney Sheldon and Ellery Queen.
They cost $2.11 each. But even these oddly priced bargains were kind of a rip-off. Mr. Hoffelder downloaded a few and found they “were clearly inferior copies with missing formatting, generic or outdated covers, and other problems,” he wrote.
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Mr. Hoffelder said that Google was aware of the problem but responded slowly to complaints from authors and publishers and sometimes did not respond at all. As bad, when the company acted, he stated, it would often remove pirated e-books but allow e-book pirates to remain on the site.
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So the Haggler contacted Google. He included a link to both the authentic “Graphic Design Solutions” in Google Play as well as the fake. A guy named Matt McLernon immediately got in touch. Like many members of Google’s public relations staff, Mr. McLernon was exceptionally pleasant — and hamstrung. Google is forever worried that the details of its inner workings will be used to game its algorithms and filters and secret sauces by an assortment of miscreants. So its P.R. team is filled with really bright, really friendly people who dearly wish they could be more helpful.
That said, we have enough light to see what happened. About 18 months ago, Google Play started selling self-published e-books. Any author could post and sell his or her work on the site. But in February — and why this started then is a mystery that Mr. McLernon did not explain — a wave of piracy was spotted by book publishers.
“It was mostly e-books in the science fiction genre,” said Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer at HarperCollins. “So we had a number of calls with Google.”
It emerged that the pirated books were being uploaded by people using Google Play through its self-publishing channel. People were opening accounts, ostensibly to publish their own work, and then selling digital copies of popular, and not so popular, e-books that they had not written.
“I don’t know if it is my immense power,” Ms. Restivo-Alessi said, “or if they were having similar conversations with other publishers at the time, but they listened to me, and they shut down the point of entry for these pirates.”
Mr. McLernon confirmed this. In May, Google stopped enrolling any new self-publishing authors. At the same time, a team of employees went through all of the complaints filed by publishers. Pirate accounts were deleted. (The company eventually plans to restart the program.)