The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for conspiracy theories, but it’s been just as much of a racket for profiteers.
Since the new respiratory illness first made the jump from Wuhan into the larger world, there have been people attempting to monetize it.
Masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper all skyrocketed in price as people panic bought items they believed would be needed in advance of a quarantine.
But there’s also been an explosion of coronavirus related books—a flood of quickly-produced Kindle singles promising to tell you “everything you need to know” or offering “the ultimate guide to survival.”
They are almost entirely equal in their content and tone, running mostly between 30 and 50 pages, and many are written by authors of questionable authority working under fake names.
The books started appearing on Amazon almost as soon as the pandemic started spreading past Wuhan, and within weeks there were hundreds of them.
A few got instant media coverage for their bizarre claims, such as conspiracy theory-laden ebooks “Military Virus Apocalypse” and “Jesus vs. Satan: The Origins of the Coronavirus,” which were quickly pulled down by Amazon.
But while the worst of the conspiracy and obvious rip-off books have been taken down, what’s left is an endless mess of identical sounding electronic pamphlets—many of which are actually for sale as real paperbacks, and getting dozens of positive reviews.
Consumers now have no indication of what’s real, what’s fake, what’s vetted, who’s behind them, what’s useful or what is just rank exploitation of a terrifying pandemic.
Searching for “coronavirus ebook” brings dozens of options, some of which were either published or updated within the last few days.
What readers will find is a mix of cut-and-pasted Wikipedia entries, copied or slightly re-written news articles, and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. Most of them share the same information, and nothing makes one more authoritative than another.
Some barely read like coherent English, such as “WUHAN CORONAVIRUS 2020 ADVISORY INFORMATION: A traveler’s guide to stay safe and frequently asked questions and answers” by Victoria Scott, which opens with: “A new Coronavirus has been on the news lately. Not only because it’s a new virus, but because its outbreak has led to thousands of people getting infected, and records of several deaths across the globe, which has created fear on the faces of people, both young and old.”
Their covers are full of stock images of (mostly Chinese) patients in masks, or generic pandemic imagery, and their titles are a word salad of SEO keywords and vague promises.
“COVID-19: Coronavirus Disease – Predictions of the Pandemic and How you Can Stay Safe” is a popular one based on reviews, as are “The Coronavirus Outbreak: A Comprehensive Report on 2019-nCoV’s Symptoms, its Detailed Prevention and How to Keep Informed from Official Sources” and “CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN: Essential Guide How to Prepare for Pandemics and Survive [sic]” which features a heavily-armed figure wearing a gas mask.
What makes any of them authoritative? Nothing.
Trying to read the brief samples provided by Amazon doesn’t provide much insight.
The book with the highest review average is “COVID-19: Coronavirus Disease – Predictions of the Pandemic and How you Can Stay Safe” is written by Emecheta Callista Chinenye and Mba Martins. Neither of the two have any significant online footprint. Chinenye advertises herself as a “digital health content marketer” on LinkedIn.
The book, though, has 27 ratings, 26 of which are five stars.
What does it offer to justify its lofty reviews? Chapters that ask “what are corona viruses?” detail “global spread and response” and offer “guidelines on prevention.” What’s available to read on Amazon is mostly an information dump that’s not all that different from a Wikipedia article—but lacking citations or oversight. Almost nothing in any of these books has any citation or indication that an expert or factchecker has ever seen it.
Despite all of this, people are buying these books.
“WUHAN CORONAVIRUS [sic] (COVID-19): Facts, Myths and Everything in Between….All You Need to Know About the 2020 Pandemic” by Sarah Wisconsin has gone to #1 in three Kindle categories, including “Southeast Asia travel” by promising “all the latest information about this virus.”
This includes chapters about drones, whether the World Health Organization will designate the outbreak to be a pandemic (which the WHO just did today), and answers to questions like “can rubbing sesame oil on your body prevent COVID-19 from entering your body?” (For the record, no, it can’t.)
Yet another, “Coronavirus: Everything You Need to Know About the New Wuhan Coronavirus and How to Prevent It” by Richard Baily reached #44 in the “medical ebooks” category before Amazon pulled it down.
In fact, the retail giant has mostly been able to get coronavirus conspiracy theory books under control.
But there are a few still floating around, such as “CHINA VIRUS: CORONA PANDEMIC : WHAT COUNTRIES AND FAMILIES CAN DO,” which proclaims without hesitation “the Novel Coronavirus is a biological weapon. We can thus say it was weaponized in a Wuhan virology laboratory […] as a weapon of war” and blames former President Barack Obama for the U.S. lacking a high enough number of respirators.
Dubious science is still being promoted as well, through “CORONAVIRUS – COVID 2019: A SURVIVAL MANUAL – MYTHS TO FACTS – HOMEOPATHY AND ALOPATHY APPROACH,” released in mid-March and promising to use discredited pseudoscience and homeopathy to treat the illness.
Even without conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, there are coronavirus books for every niche and need.
Looking for one written by an actual microbiologist, or at least someone who claims to be one?
There’s “Coronavirus: All Secrets about Coronavirus, Practial [sic] Advice to Protect your Family, Symptoms and Treatment” by Dr. Wilson C. Morrell, whose only biographical information is that he is a “Professor of micro Biology [who] is famous for his thesis and discovery.”
He doesn’t appear to exist outside of an Amazon author page.
Need a complete guide to prevention? Get yourself “The Wuhan Coronavirus: Everything about Covid-19 and Face Masks, How to Prepare for Pandemic and Quarantine, Simple Guidelines to Protect Yourself and Prevent Infection,” a short paperback by Robert Hwang, which claims to be for “educational and entertainment purposes only.”
Hwang has no author information on Amazon.
There’s even quickly-pumped out coronavirus fiction, such as the thriller “The Novel C Virus: Once Upon a Time in China,” where a “disgruntled Chinese general joins hands with a prodigious victim of the Chinese administration to create a lethal virus that will kill millions and plunge the world into chaos.”
Amazon promises that Kindle books can be published in “less than 5 minutes” with books appearing in Kindle stores within a day or two.
There’s no gatekeeping, no vetting of the content, and the site promises a robust royalty rate—incentivizing creators to keep pumping out books in the hope that one hits. There’s no telling how much money has been made off these books, and neither Amazon or any ebook writers that Daily Dot contacted responded to requests for comment.
But someone is clearly profiting off these books, selling either cut and pasted publicly available information or nonsense on a rapidly moving pandemic.
With conflicting information coming from American authorities, and a population inching closer to panic, these books provide at least a voice out of the darkness—but it’s one you shouldn’t trust a word of.