The odd tale of Alphascript Publishing and Betascript Publishing

27 February 2010

This is one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen on the internet. A company variously calling itself Alphascript Publishing and Betascript Publishing is taking articles from Wikipedia and publishing them as books. It would appear that the act of doing that is legal, but from the outside, many of the books give the appearance of having been put together by some automated system, because the titles (and presumably contents) seem to be comprised of a Wikipedia page forming the starting point for the book and then a load of other Wikipedia pages which are linked-to from that page. It’s all very strange.

As an example of what I mean, the book shown here is rather oddly called (deep breath) Vreni Schneider: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Winter Olympic Games, Slalom Skiing, Giant Slalom Skiing, Half Man Half Biscuit. Now, Vreni Schneider is a Swiss skier, and if you visit the Wikipedia page about her you’ll see several other related Wikipedia pages linked-to from there in the main body. These links form the other elements in the book’s title, and presumably content.

So presumably the subjects have some connection. Well… yes. But not always one which forms a particularly logical grouping. Schneider is namechecked in a song by English indie rock band Half Man Half Biscuit called Uffington Wassail, a fact which somebody has deemed worthy of adding to Schneider’s Wikipedia page. So now Half Man Half Biscuit, a cult musical act from Birkenhead, get featured in a book which appears to be mainly about skiing. I’m guessing that their Wikipedia page is also reproduced in the book as one of its chapters.

This processing of WIkipedia articles into books is a massive operation. One thing the books have in common is the rather odd label “High Quality Content by WIKIPEDIA articles”. If you Google that phrase you find thousands upon thousands of these books, many of them with their own websites. These are mainly WordPress blogs which look like they’ve been assembled by some automated program.

I wondered if perhaps it was all a clever ruse, and these books didn’t exist, but their websites made money. However, to my surprise, Amazon turned out to be selling them, listing huge numbers of the things (and that presumably means they have them in the warehouse). They’re not cheap either. The Vreni Schneider book at Amazon UK was priced as high as £50 in May 2011.

What’s going on here? What are these collections of Wikipedia articles which in many cases (like the one above) are not particularly coherent groupings (as far as humans are concerned)? I’m far from the first person to stumble on this operation. There’s even a Wikipedia page about it, which might be ironic if they make that into a book. Alphascript Publishing has a website, and on it they quote from an interview with The Guardian about themselves, although I can’t find that on The Guardian website.

It’s an extraordinary thing. Most bloggers and forum posters writing about this company seem to be up in arms about the fact that it’s republishing articles from Wikipedia for profit. But I think the real story is how they can physically print and make a profit from such obscure titles, even with the content coming for free. How many copies of a book do you have to sell at those prices to make a profit? Presumably not nearly as many as I thought. I wonder if they sell many through their thousands of websites? Or if the key to the whole enterprise is somehow getting stocked by Amazon?

I would love to hear Amazon’s justification for selling this stuff. The forums and comments (update: including those below!) suggest they’ve got a lot of irritated customers.

UPDATE August 2010: The books are apparently being “retired” by Amazon – see comment from Wolfy below.

UPDATE December 2010: An article on Wikipedia covers VDM Publishing, which it says is the publishing group whose imprints include Alphascript and Betascript, as well as Fastbook Publishing and Doyen Verlag. The article says that “these books have been inadvertently purchased by German libraries at the request of their patrons” but as the comments below show, it’s not just an occurrence in Germany.

UPDATE January 2011: Nearly six months after Amazon suggested to a correspondent (below) that the books were being “retired”, there seems to be little evidence of this happening. Other blog posts on the subject can be found here and here.

UPDATE May 2011: I notice that VDM now has its own online store, which includes the “Wikipedia titles”. To be fair to them, it states quite clearly that their content is sourced from Wikipedia (see the page for the Vreni Schneider book above). Equivalent pages on sites like Amazon do not give the same information, however.

UPDATE October 2011: A website called Betascript Publishing Lawsuit — VDM Publishing Lawsuit says that of June 2011, it has unearthed 38 imprints entirely devoted to the reproduction of Wikipedia content. The website discusses a potential class action lawsuit, but does not give any more details except to “contact us” without any contact details.

Please note the views expressed below, which include some from people who appear to be the unwitting subjects of these books, are those of the commenters, and not necessarily this blog’s author.

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