A Christian bestseller (and CT Book of the Year) was targeted by a major counterfeiting scheme.
KATE SHELLNUTT JULY 08, 2019
It took Tish Harrison Warren nearly three years to publish her first book. It was more than 18 months of arranging childcare and carving out time to write before she had a manuscript—11 chapters chronicling details from her day-to-day life paired with the rhythms of church ritual.
By the time Liturgy of the Ordinary debuted in December 2016, she and her publishing team had gone through the process of selecting a cover (an open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwich against a bright green backdrop) and editing the page proofs to check every dot and detail.
But over the past year, thousands of readers ended up with copies that didn’t quite look like the book she and InterVarsity Press (IVP) had finalized three years ago. The cover was not as sharp. The pages were a bit off-center.
These were not IVP’s books at all. They were counterfeits.
Just as The New York Times put out a report in late June on a surge of counterfeit books available on Amazon, the 70-year-old Christian publisher discovered that one of its own had also “been victim of a highly organized and sophisticated counterfeiting scheme.”
The Times covered complaints that the country’s top bookseller “has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue” and found examples of Amazon’s third-party sellers pushing fakes across genres: medical handbooks, popular novels, and classic literature. With Warren’s case, add Christian books to the list.
IVP estimates that at least 15,000 counterfeit copies of Liturgy of the Ordinary were sold on the site over the past nine months, their retail value totaling $240,000. That nearly cuts sales of Warren’s book in half; IVP reported 23,000 legitimate copies were sold over the past year. IVP also found evidence of counterfeiting on a smaller scale for one other title, Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity, which came out in 2002.
“I’ve been constantly thinking of the verse about, ‘Do not store up treasures where moths and rust can destroy, and where thieves can steal, but store up your treasures where moths and rust cannot destroy and thieves cannot steal’ (Matt. 6:19–20), and it’s really hard to process,” Warren told CT last week, a day after she learned about the scope of the fraud when IVP officials called her at her home in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a huge loss of money for my family. Percentagewise of what I make as a writer, it’s an enormous amount of that.”
Stealing spiritual formation
Any creator would be frustrated to learn their work had been swiped, but the offense hits especially deep for a Christian author like Warren, an Anglican priest and writer in residence at Church of the Ascension.
In her debut release, she shared not only the personal details of her life—marital spats and sick kids and lost keys—but also her core belief in encountering God in the everyday. The book was well-reviewed, well-ranked, and named CT’s Book of the Year in 2018.
“This isn’t just a consumer experience with people. This is part of their spiritual formation,” she said. “We have some moral language to care about things other than just getting the lowest price possible.”
Christian values can seem increasingly countercultural in a society drawn to the instant gratification offered by the world’s biggest online retailer.
“Some may protest that … we don’t all get what we want, when we want. Yet, Amazon is already awfully close to making it so,” wrote Craig Detweiler, author of iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives. “We may bemoan the consumerism that such options encourage, yet … we love choice. We love bargains. We love convenience. [Amazon founder Jeff] Bezos doesn’t expect any of those virtues to ever go out of style (and neither do I).”
Even as Christian writers continue to offer their books at conferences and church bookstores, “Amazon looms large in the life of every author because it is where most books are sold today,” according to Kelly Hughes, a veteran publicist for evangelical authors and president of DeChant-Hughes Public Relations.
Amazon has pushed up the marketing stretch for books, as authors clamor for pre-orders months in advance of their release day, Hughes said. And it trains shoppers to expect lower prices and free shipping.
These impulses can fuel fraud attempts, as illicit sellers claim to offer the cheapest version of everything from phone chargers to paperbacks. But even authors often announce when their prices drop on Amazon, knowing that it’s likely the easiest, most affordable, and most accessible outlet for people to find their books.
“Knowing your book will be for sale on Amazon means you’ve got to think of your cover in terms of a one-inch image that’s easily readable and back cover copy that’s laser-focused on immediate felt needs,” said Margaret Feinberg, a Christian author and writing coach with Write Brilliant. “Just as the medium influences the message, the distribution medium does, too.”
Most titles on Amazon—now responsible for half of book sales in the US each year—are also available through “other sellers,” like used book distributors or individuals. Shoppers can scroll down to select from these third-party outlets if they want to buy from them instead of Amazon itself.
With Liturgy of the Ordinary, a third-party seller undercut the publisher’s price and sold enough cheap knockoff copies that it became the default; when shoppers clicked to add Warren’s book to their carts, they weren’t selecting an IVP copy in an Amazon warehouse but a knockoff version from a fraudulent seller, according to IVP, and that’s how they sold so many copies.
At the end of June, the publisher reported the counterfeits to Amazon and were able to reclaim the buy button—but it is still “currently pursuing a number of actions to put a stop to these counterfeits, including working with lawyers at the ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) and in dialogue with the AAP (American Association of Publishers) to come up with a plan of action,” according to a spokesperson.
At this point, the problem is not pervasive—or at least not known to be—among fellow Christian publishers queried by CT, including Tyndale House, Baker Books, and LifeWay Christian Resources.
Sharon Heggeland, vice president for sales operations at Tyndale said, “We have monitoring software in place that looks for third-party sellers. We have very minimal issues with third-party sellers taking over the buy buttons on our products, and we have seen no instances of counterfeit Tyndale titles.”
Ambivalence over Amazon
A longtime Amazon Prime member, Warren recognizes her own complicated relationship with the corporation that facilitated the fraud against her.
The 39-year-old considers herself a locavore, fan of independent bookstores, and vinyl junkie ready for the resurgence of analog. But within 48 hours of learning about the Amazon counterfeiters, she bought groceries at Amazon-owned Whole Foods, rented a movie on Prime, and received a package with the telltale arrow logo on her porch. (She paused our interview to greet the delivery driver.)
It’s this kind of expansiveness that publishers are pushing back against. Amazon dominates in online book sales, sure, but it’s everywhere else, too. As AAP, the trade group, wrote in a filing to the Federal Trade Commission on June 27, Amazon is a “major publisher, printer, self-publisher, review hub, and textbook supplier” as well as a “platform for third-party sellers and resellers.”
Publishers Weekly reported how AAP specifically called out Amazon for facilitating sales of fraudulent books: “The organization claimed that Amazon, on its retail site, allows ‘widespread counterfeiting, defective products, and fake reviews that both degrade the consumer experience and diminish the incentives of authors and publishers to create new works and bring them to the marketplace.’”
Amazon, whose policies ban counterfeit products and screen for fraudulent sellers, has saidthe claims of the scope of this problem and their negligence are overblown.
“We invest heavily in prevention and take proactive steps to drive counterfeits in our stores to zero,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement to CT. “In 2018 alone, we invested over $400 million in personnel and tools built on machine learning and data science to protect our customers from fraud and abuse in our stores. From the moment a third party attempts to register a selling account, our proprietary technology begins screening and analyzing during the account set-up process, blocking suspicious bad actors before they are able to register or publish a listing.”
After CT contacted Amazon last week about its response to this case, all illicit sellers of Liturgy of the Ordinary were removed from the site.
Commodification and injustice
The shock of the counterfeiting scam comes as Warren is working on her second book for IVP. Because she’s a new writer, the lost sales have the potential to hit hard. First-time writers often contract with their publisher for a modest advance and a small percentage of sales on a sliding scale. Losing out on 15,000 books diminishes Warren’s cut, but it also affects her contracts for future titles, since they are negotiated based on overall sales for earlier work.
This saga involving Liturgy of the Ordinary began in June when a reader contacted IVP to complain over the condition of her book. When the publisher reviewed her copy—bought on Amazon—it was immediately recognized as a fake. IVP urged readers who suspect their copy may be a counterfeit to return the book to Amazon for a refund, report the seller, and buy a real replacement.
The publisher offered this guidance in its statement:
It is very difficult to discern which books are legitimate copies, printed by IVP, and which ones are counterfeit. Some of the signs can include but are not limited to: lower quality paper, letters missing parts of their glyphs, and distorted colors on the book cover. It should also be said that some of the counterfeit books look nearly identical to legitimate copies, and only a publishing professional comparing printings would be able to tell the difference.
It can be even more challenging to root out which sellers are producing counterfeit books, but they are usually sold at a lower price than Amazon.comand they are usually sold by an individual and “fulfilled by Amazon,” which is different from the typical language of “ships from and sold by Amazon.com.”
In the worst-case scenario, third-party sellers are fake names pushing fake products; online shoppers aren’t able to easily verify the identity of the individual or thumb through the book to make sure it’s authentic.
In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Warren actually references a broader issue with commodification. She sees capitalism distancing buyers from the source of a product and thus promoting a consumer mentality.
“With this anonymity comes ingratitude,” she writes, “and with anonymity and ingratitude comes injustice.”
Update: Warren has posted a full statement on her website, which outlines the process for how customers can report counterfeits.