A Trip Through the Surreal World of an Academic Book Mill

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March 23 2014 8:30 PM

I Sold My Undergraduate Thesis to a Print Content Farm

A trip through the shadowy, surreal world of an academic book mill.

The joy of seeing your work in print.
The joy of seeing your work in print.

Courtesy of Joseph Stromberg

If you’re an academic (or were once an aspiring academic), you may have once received an email just like the one I got at 6:10 on a sunny morning last August.

“As stated by the Washington University in St. Louis’s electronic repository, you authored the work entitled ‘Lands of the Lakota Policy Culture and Land Use on the Pine Ridge Reservation’ in the framework of your postgraduate degree,” Karen Holmes, an acquisition editor at LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, told me. She added that she worked for a “top international publishing group” and was interested in publishing my work as a book.

The email was slightly better quality than spam—she’d gotten my school’s name and undergraduate thesis title right, with the exception of a missing colon—so I hesitated ever so briefly before deleting it. On a whim, I Googled her company’s name. The first page of results contained links like “Lambert Academic Publishing: A Must to Avoid,” “Why You Shouldn’t Publish With Lap Lambert, German Publishing House,” and “Lambert Academic Publishing (or How Not to Publish Your Thesis).” The bloggers and academics who’d written these posts had gotten emails virtually identical to mine and wrote about how the company obtained the rights to tens of thousands of theses, dissertations, and other unpublished works for essentially nothing; sold copies of them as books to unsuspecting online buyers (who assumed they were purchasing proofed, edited work); and kept essentially 100 percent of the proceeds. LAP Lambert, I learned, is the print equivalent of a content farm: a clearinghouse for texts that generate tiny amounts of revenue simply by turning up in search and appearing to be legitimate, published works.

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So, naturally, I replied to Holmes, telling her I was interested in hearing more.

I was struck with a zany idea: to sell away the rights to my thesis in exchange for the sheer pleasure of documenting and sharing the experience. For a brief time, in college, I’d thought about going into academics, but I’m now a working journalist, so my thesis isn’t doing a whole lot for me. It could be put to better use, I reasoned, as a way of exploring the blend of high and low tech that fueled this strange industry.

Holmes replied with enthusiasm, telling me that if I was interested, I should send her a PDF of my thesis and she’d let me know if they wanted to publish it.

I did so, and for four days, I waited with bated breath. Then: jubilation. “We assessed your work with great pleasure and confirm our interest in publishing it,” Holmes told me, attaching the terms and conditions of the sale, along with formatting guidelines. The contract told me—as I’d already learned from the blog posts—that I’d transfer the exclusive right to print my thesis to AV Akademikerverlag GmbH & Co. KG, the German company that owned LAP Lambert. (I could still let people download the thesis digitally, if I wasn’t making a profit.) They’d pay for all publishing costs, and I’d get 12 percent of the book’s royalties, but only if they cleared 50 euros per month for a calendar year—otherwise, I’d just get credit to use in buying other LAP Lambert books. I was responsible for making sure the text didn’t contain plagiarism and that I had the right to sell it in the first place. They would set the retail price and could suggest corrections to any grammar or spelling errors they came across. I clicked on the link she’d sent, digitally signed the agreement, and was told to start uploading my thesis.

* * *

At this point, I did a bit more research into LAP Lambert and found that it’s really just the tip of the book-mill iceberg. Both it and AV Akademikerverlag GmbH & Co. KG are part of an enormous German publishing group called VDM that publishes 78 imprints and 27 subsidiary houses in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Russian, and plans to soon open up shop in Turkey and China. It has satellite offices in Latvia and Uruguay, but the majority of its English- and French-speaking staff are based in the tax haven of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar. Founded in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2002 by a man named Dr. Wolfgang Philipp Müller, the company is notorious for using on-demand printing technology to package all sorts of strange content in book form and selling it online. The company declines to release financial data but claims to publish 50,000 books every month, making it, by its own accounting, one of the largest book publishers in the world.

How can it possibly churn out this many titles? Although a huge number are academic texts, hundreds of thousands result from an even stranger process: They’re built entirely from text copied from Wikipedia articles. On VDM’s own online bookstore, Morebooks.de, the listings for books like Tidal Power, Period (number), and Swimming Pool Sanitation (published by VDM’s Alphascript and Betascript imprints) directly acknowledge this fact. Thousands are listed for sale on Amazon, all with the same cover design (albeit with different stock photos swapped in) and the same three names (Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, and John McBrewster) listed as the “authors.” Some go for as much as $100. Though the practice is technically legal—most Wikipedia content is published under licenses that allow it to be reproduced—critics say that it’s unethical and deceitful for the company to profit from content freely available on the Web.

Apart from publishing my book with LAP Lambert, I spoke on the phone with VDM’s CEO, Thorsten Ohm, to ask him about this and other criticisms, and he defended the practice. “We think there are people that are not interested to read on the Internet,” he said. “They want to sit at the beach, or somewhere, and have the complete article on a topic.” At the same time, he admitted that he was skeptical about the idea when he first joined VDM in 2011, and he said that the company had discontinued it, although a quick search through their online bookstore shows dozens of new Wikipedia-derived titles that have gone on sale since the start of 2014. At one point, describing his earlier doubts, he even asked the key question posed by VDM’s harshest critics: “Why should I buy a book when I can go to the Internet and get all this for free?”

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