(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Many of these books appear to be self-published, which raises new challenges for sick or worried readers. Even as consumers are learning to be skeptical of information on social media, books still retain an aura of authority, a sense that whatever appears between the covers — or e-covers — must have been researched, considered, confirmed and edited. That unfounded faith provides an opportunity for quick, entrepreneurial authors who post titles for sale the moment major news stories break. Self-publishing platforms are easy and inexpensive to use, and books can be offered without passing through any independent review for accuracy or reliability. Despite dramatic scientific breakthroughs, the Internet has recreated the kind of caveat emptor culture for medical advice that existed in the 19th century.
Some of the current coronavirus books for sale immediately raise red flags, such as “Let’s Stay Away from Virus” ($1.99). Its Amazon page asks, Tarzan-like, “What is virus??? How can you stay away from them???” The title listed for Jacqueline Watson’s book contains two typos: “Coronavirus: The Birth of the Virus, It’s Expention Around the World and How to Avoid Being Infected.”
But even the savviest consumers confront a confusing range of dubious publications.
For instance, Dr. Sanjay Gupta currently has two virus-related e-books for sale on Amazon: “Coronavirus and Me” and “Coronavirus Is In/Near My Country.” Both titles are described as “part of a ‘Super-Simplified’ series in response to the ‘informational overload,’ that the web has inadvertently provided us.”
But this author is not the Sanjay Gupta, the Emmy-winning neurosurgeon whom readers have come to trust from his years of reporting on CNN and CBS. This Gupta is described, voluminously, as “an MD (with Family Medicine residency training), having 18 years of Medical Educational Consulting experience, with additional masters degrees (placing near the top of the class in them) in Epidemiology/Biostatistics (the ‘study of diseases, and epidemics…’), from Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio, USA) and Health Policy, from Yale University, along with one in General Psychology, as well as in Business Administration (Finance), from the University of Louisiana, and Hofstra Universities (in the USA), respectively.”
Gupta’s “Coronavirus and Me” (99 cents) is a 21-page e-book whose superficial chapters offer little more than last month’s stats on the disease and such garbled advice as this: “Obviously hands or anything that has the droplets may then serve as fomites (infection source) may serves to propagate the spread.”
When the subject has potentially life-threatening implications and people are fearful, the problems of authority and reliability are magnified exponentially on the World Wild Web. For instance, on Tuesday the “#1 Best Seller in Communicable Diseases” on Amazon was Tyler J. Morrison’s “Wuhan Coronavirus: A Concise & Rational Guide to the 2020 Outbreak” ($4.99). A note explains that “Tyler J. Morrison is the pen name of an Amazon #1 bestselling fiction author,” who is “very selective about the sources he gathers information from.” (If you survive the coronavirus, you’ll want to check out Morrison’s insta-biography on Pete Buttigieg.)
Among the strangest — but certainly not the most questionable — coronavirus books offered for sale are the diaries infected with a macabre sense of humor. There are several versions of “My Resilience Journal” subtitled, “I Ordered a Mask for Protection Against Coronavirus and Realised It Is Shipping from China.” Inside are about 100 pages to help you “express yourself.”
Fear of potentially widespread disruption from the virus has also attracted the attention of “preppers” — people in a state of constant preparation for various potential disasters. In 2015, Cat Ellis published “Prepper’s Natural Medicine: Life-Saving Herbs, Essential Oils and Natural Remedies for When There is No Doctor.” Last month, she released “The Wuhan Coronavirus Survival Manual,” which promises to explain “the current research in simple terms.”
The challenge, of course, is that the current research on the novel coronavirus is rapidly developing. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommends that people seeking credible information about covid-19 rely on websites maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Amazon is not the only source of questionable books related to the current epidemic. They can be found on other online bookseller sites, too. For instance, Barnes & Noble’s website offers an e-book by Moxie Reader called “How to Fight Coronavirus with 4 Herbs” ($17.99).
But Amazon’s extraordinary dominance of the e-book market means that its website is the place consumers are most likely to find these titles. Its policies exercise a disproportionate influence on the self-publishing industry.
Amazon’s guidelines for authors and publishers state: “We reserve the right to determine whether content provides a poor customer experience and remove that content from sale.”
Asked whether the company exercises any editorial control over these health-related books, an Amazon spokesperson said: “Amazon maintains content guidelines for the books it sells, and we continue to evaluate our catalog, listening to customer feedback. We have always required sellers, authors, and publishers to provide accurate information on product detail pages, and we remove those that violate our policies. In addition, at the top of relevant search results pages we are linking to CDC advice where customers can learn more about the virus and protective measures.”
If you really want to stay safe but feel you’ve got to buy something, try one of several coronavirus coloring books, “for relieving stress during the 2020 outbreak.”
But wash your hands often — and don’t share your crayons.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.