Buyer Beware: Are You Buying Counterfeit Books?

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2020-09-09

When Toronto declared a lockdown and I knew I’d be working at home indefinitely, I realized I had a problem — I would still be doing editing work, but the reference manuals I use to accomplish that work, such as Chicago 17th ed. and APA  7th ed. (APA 7), were no longer accessible to me. We kept copies at the TEC office, so I hadn’t really needed to get my own home copies yet. However, it seemed like the time had come.


Quick & Easy Shopping? To Amazon!


My need for a copy of APA 7 was more pressing, and I knew I needed it rather quickly, so off to Amazon I went. I clicked on the first listing that came up, which had lots of reviews and a good star rating. Everything presented as if it were the American Psychological Association selling it through Amazon, so I decided to buy, and even splurged a little on a hardcover copy.


Something Suspicious


The book arrived, and a few days later, I needed to check something while editing the references for a journal article. I quickly looked up what I needed to and sent the article to Beth for her review. Later, she sent me an email — she had noted the change I’d made, and according to APA 7, I had done the opposite of what I was supposed to have done (removed italics when I should have added them). Well, that’s weird, I thought. I’m pretty sure my copy said that I made the correct change. That, coupled with one or two other oddities I’d noticed about my book made me decide to press Beth a little more and ask exactly what her copy said on the same page as mine with regards to the rule. It turned out, our copies said different things. It looked like I had gotten a counterfeit copy of the APA 7 manual — something I didn’t even know was possible.


Learning (the Hard Way) About Counterfeit Books


I contacted the American Psychological Association and asked if they might be able to confirm I’d gotten a counterfeit, and they responded within 30 minutes, to my surprise. Based on the irregularities I had noted, they said it was likely I had gotten a counterfeit copy — the woman I spoke to said it actually might be the first hardcover counterfeit they’d ever seen. They asked me to take some photos for their files/investigation, and asked me if I could provide the purchase information from when I had bought the book on Amazon, both of which I gladly did. My copy had the reflective legitimacy sticker and everything, so it seemed to be a fairly good counterfeit on the outside, at least.


Amazon refunded me immediately once I told them I had confirmed with the Association that I had received a counterfeit, but when I went to look back at the page I had purchased from, the seller had already changed their name.


When I looked into the matter a little further out of curiosity, it turned out that the proliferation of counterfeit books on Amazon is a real problem — but for publishers and authors, not really for Amazon itself. The reason for that is that Amazon still makes money off these sales, whether you’re buying the real deal or not, and according to a 2019 Vox article, Amazon tends to take a “reactive, not proactive stance.”


One of the publishers cited in the article found that in a test-buy of their own book, 30 out of 34 copies were fakes, and Amazon was of little help when the publisher reached out for assistance. Ultimately, the problem (and Amazon’s lack of response) caused the publisher to feel like they had to partner with Amazon as a wholesaler (which they did), just so that they could ensure that sales of their book through Amazon were for legitimate copies — kind of important when the book in question is a well-known and much-referred-to book for doctors about treating infections and the dosages at which to administer medications.


Potential Real-World Impact of Counterfeit Books


In my case, luckily all that was at stake was a misapplied rule. But what if Beth hadn’t emailed me asking about the weird change I’d made to the document? What if I was a freelance editor working on my own? How long would it have taken before I realized I had in fact added mistakes and errors into the documents I was working on? What might that have meant for my career as an editor?

Similarly, students have to be careful that their studies and burgeoning careers are not marred by counterfeit knowledge. Counterfeit textbook rings are becoming more and more common — this 2017 Gutenberg Technology article cites a 2011 instance that saw over half a million dollars’ worth of counterfeit textbooks seized in Montreal. And similar cases have been found all over the world, with counterfeit textbooks being sold at prices that seem too good to be true for broke students. Unfortunately, the prices seem too good to be true because they are.


In my case, I didn’t think anything was amiss in part because the price seemed reasonable for a hardcover copy of the manual — about $45.00. The seller labelled themselves in such a way as to present as if they were the American Psychological Association. I don’t buy books from Amazon often — in this case, I knew I would need the book quickly, so I figured Amazon was the way to go. However, I don’t think I’ll be using them again for book sales, and you can bet that when I reordered the book, it was through the American Psychological Association’s own website.


Be On the Lookout


So, be careful out there, whether you’re a student trying to get the best price on your textbooks, an editor buying the most recent reference manual, or a consumer looking for your next favourite read. I learned that counterfeit books are everywhere on Amazon, mostly because of how easy it is to create these fakes and sell them on a website that doesn’t seem to check out each and every seller for legitimacy. Try to buy your books direct from the publisher when you can, or from well-known booksellers such as Chapters/Indigo. Good luck out there, intrepid readers!



Looking for more great posts about the publishing scene? Check out TEC’s blog section dedicated to just that!