In the past 90 days, some 84 people have self-published Ebola e-books on Amazon, almost half of them in the past month alone. Many of them are popular, crawling their way up the bestsellers’ list to sit atop categories, such as health and medicine. Many of them are well-reviewed by their readers, who vow to buy Hazmat suits or start vitamins based on what they’ve read. And many of the books — almost all of them, in fact — contain information that’s either wildly misleading or flat-out wrong.
Welcome to the unscrupulous, conspiracy-filled Wild West of Ebola self-publishing, where an epidemic is less a grave social problem — and more an opportunity to cash in on people’s fears.
“Warning: Ebola could kill 4.1 billion people over the next 24 months!” exclaims the blurb for “Ebola Survival Guide 2015,” currently one of Amazon’s top books on infectious disease. “What you read may in fact save your life or the lives of your friends and families […] This book may save your life!”
Most people know Amazon as the “Everything Store,” a seller of other companies’ books, tools and household products. But Amazon also maintains a flourishing side enterprise in self-publishing, where anyone and everyone can write an e-book, drop it in a PDF, and upload it to the Kindle Store.
Like clockwork, the entrepreneurial masses churn out new “guides” every time a tragedy or epidemic strikes. (Try searching “ISIS” or “Boston bombing” in the Amazon Kindle store.) But the phenomenon never been quite so pronounced as it is now, perhaps because Ebola’s the first epidemic of the social media age, or perhaps because enough rumor and misinformation are out there that people are willing to turn to anything for aid. Including, apparently, books about infectious disease written by authors who openly admit that they aren’t doctors and aren’t technically qualified to give medical advice.
One book, currently one of Amazon’s best-selling books across the entire medical category — e-books and print — suggests that Ebola will almost definitely become an American epidemic and that only people who stockpile supplies will survive.
Another top seller among books on viral disease recommends readers buy Hazmat suits and rubber gloves. It opens with a Bible quote about the end of the world.
“The Ebola Pandemic,” by one Alex Anderson, claims that vitamins can help prevent the spread of the disease.
And the “Ebola Survival Guide 2015” — perhaps one of the more outlandish of the bunch — not only claims that half the people on the planet will die of Ebola by 2016, but that 90 percent of the disease’s victims perish from internal bleeding. None of these claims are true.
Of course, the spread of gross misinformation online is nothing new: On social media and conspiracy Web sites and far-out forums, people can advance literally whatever theories they’d like. The phenomenon is so widespread, in fact, that we devote a weekly column to it.
But the twist with Ebola is that misinformation can be deadly. Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations have said it’s contributed to the spread of the disease. In fact, per the WHO, one of the most persistent obstacles to fighting Ebola is “rumors on social media claiming that certain products or practices can prevent or cure” it — when in fact, they can’t.
Amazon’s self-publishing arm doesn’t tend to take an activist stance on these things; while the site has guidelines for authors, they only prohibit content that’s pornographic or illegal. And while the site does reserve the right to pull self-published books from the store at its discretion, it appears they’ve let a lot of other questionable material stand, including guides to selling illegal drugs and building improvised explosives. (Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.)
And why shouldn’t they, honestly? Fear-mongering seems to be profitable. While there is no breakdown of numbers on this sub-section of e-books, many of them are on best-seller lists. And on Amazon, self-published e-book authors receive between 35 and 70 percent of the list price on each book sale. Meanwhile, Amazon pockets the other 30 to 65 percent for itself. (We’re not talking loose change, either: E-books are a $3 billion industry, and according to one estimate, nearly a third of Amazon’s e-book sales come from self-published authors.)
So it seems that, for the time being, authors, such as Steve King and Alex Anderson, will continue to wrack up royalties from their panic-inducing PDFs. And gullible readers, of whom there could be thousands, will continue to fall for their dangerous shtick.
“I was literally shocked as a I read the pages of this book,” one reviewer wrote. “I hadn’t realized that we were so much at risk.”
Disclaimer: Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.