Unlike most offenders, Harner was well-known in the self-publishing community as an author of male/male romance novels. She has publicly acknowledged her actions, saying that “personal and professional issues ... stretched me in ways that haven’t always been good for me.” The cases against her were settled for undisclosed amounts.
Some observers believed Harner resorted to plagiarism to keep her rankings up, Carew said. Before she was caught, Harner was considered unusually prolific, producing 75 novels in five years. Amazon rewards writers who come out with new books quickly by putting them higher in the rankings, which in turn means more sales. This policy also puts pressure on authors to write more to maintain visibility and to offset the dropping price of ebooks. “This may sound crazy, but I have 18 releases planned for this year,” Carew said. “In order to survive, I have to put out as many books as I can ... If you’re living on your writing like I am, the stress can get to you.”
When a reader buys a self-published book, Amazon keeps 30 percent of the royalties and gives the rest to the authors—meaning the company makes money whether the book is plagiarized or not. A traditional publisher is liable if it puts out a book that violates copyright. But Amazon is protected from the same fate by federal law as long as it removes the offending content.
Amazon regularly complies with this rule, and plagiarized books are removed from the site. However, it can take a while for the company to respond to complaints, which can be maddening for authors, since every day a fake book is up is a day they’re losing sales. The company spokesperson Justin O’Kelly said Amazon has a team dedicated to stopping plagiarism, but he wouldn’t go into details about their methods for fear of giving plagiarists ideas. “In the rare instance when plagiarized titles make it through, that same team makes sure they are taken down quickly, and repeat offenders are blocked,” he said.
It’s unclear what constitutes a “repeat offender.” Though Harner admitted she plagiarized several books, her work is still up for sale on Amazon. There’s also nothing stopping a plagiarist from reregistering on the site and doing it all over again under another name. Some writers, like McGraw, feel that Amazon doesn’t do enough to protect authors. When she asked the company to remove Harner’s backlist, they refused, saying they’re only required to remove plagiarized titles. “Whenever plagiarism happens, and [Amazon] can verify it, they should pull the whole list, you know—one strike, you’re out,” said McGraw. “But you know what? When they take 50 or 75 books down, they’re losing money.”
To be fair to Amazon, copyright infringement also occurs with other self-publishing retailers, including Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Kobo, and Smashwords. Google Play has been accused of “rampant” piracy, with spammers selling books by Malcolm Gladwell, Sidney Sheldon, and Ellery Queen for $2.11 each. Still, Amazon has the biggest chunk of the self-published ebook market, with some estimates putting it at 85 percent. Without Amazon, few authors could make a living self publishing.