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Ripping Off Good Reads in China

In the land of bootleg merchandise, fake management books by fake authors flourish.

April 24, 2005|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — The five-volume "Executive Ability" book series is a classic in Chinese business and management circles. Collectively, it has sold more than 2 million copies in the last two years. Top universities and public libraries in China keep multiple copies on hand.

It's also a big fake.

The series purports to be a translation of English-language works, but no such titles exist. The principal author -- a Paul Thomas, said to be an eminent Harvard University business professor -- is not real. Also made up is the rave review on the back cover, attributed to the Wall Street Journal: "The most practical and advanced management thought of our time."

There are many more where these came from. China's booming economy has spawned a new class of private entrepreneurs, managers and students craving how-to books on management, particularly Western ones. But in a land where bootleg goods are widespread, fake books are no exception.

Although bogus books in China are not confined to business topics, they are particularly prevalent in that field, largely because most management volumes are translated and are in high demand. Management books are so popular that they take up huge sections in bookstores, often in the very front.

Previously, fake books simply were pirated copies of real versions, sold on the streets for a small fraction of bookstore prices. But these days, experts say, scores of business texts in Chinese bookstores make phony claims of origin or authorship. The contents of some are lifted right out of journals and magazines. Others overstate the number of volumes sold or gin up glowing reviews.

"There are [bogus] recommendations from Bill Gates, New York Times or even Einstein, which is really ridiculous," said Jiang Ruxiang, general manager of Beijing Zion Consulting Co., which has been trying to expose the problem ever since Jiang found out that his own articles were copied into someone else's book.

He and his staff of six recently inspected about 1,000 different management books. A third were deceiving readers, Jiang said.

"The most harmful influence of these books is that a large number of China's best entrepreneurs are learning wrong and misleading management principles," he said.

Yet many readers have no idea just how common fake books are, highlighting China's bumpy transition to a market economy as well as people's inexperience with advertising.

"Most people still believe books tell the truth," said Oliver Liu, legal counsel for Chinadotcom Corp., a software and mobile communications company based in Hong Kong. Although the government has begun to crack down on the fraud, Liu and other experts don't think things will improve much until there are laws that target phony books impose stiffer penalties for violators.

At the heart of the problem, though, is the central government's system of censorship and control of the book industry.

Before a volume can be printed, it must obtain an official book registration number. Numbers are allocated by the government to publishing house editors, who in turn sell them to people wanting to have their books printed. All publishing houses are state owned.

On average, Jiang said, a book number in Beijing is sold for about 20,000 yuan, or more than $2,400. But in the last couple of years, analysts say, some have been fetching considerably more, perhaps as much as $12,000. Editors pocket some of the hefty gains. But the ones who profit the most are individuals or groups who put these fake books together and collect a big share of the sales.

At about $4 a copy, "Executive Ability" figures to have grossed about $8 million. The publisher of the first volume, which was coauthored by a fictitious white-haired Duke University professor named David Byrne, said it was duped just like everybody else.

"We lack the experience to distinguish these new fake books," said Chen Xiaojun, vice president of China Chang An Publishing House.

Chen said Chang An took on the book after people claiming to be from a Phoenix Publishing Group in Hong Kong showed what appeared to be a copyright license to an English version of "Executive Ability." Chen said Chang An agreed to pay Phoenix Publishing an 8% licensing fee. (Business directories and other publishing sources show no company called Phoenix Publishing Group in Hong Kong.)

Chang An sold about 160,000 copies of "Executive Ability" before the publisher learned that it was a sham. Chang An stopped printing it and pulled copies from bookstores. But other publishers soon put out Volumes 2 through 5, Chen said.

"Many publishing houses are having lots of troubles these days competing for readers and trying to survive in the market," Chen said. "So, many of them tend to publish books that can be easily compiled and sold."

Wang Zhe, who works for an investment banking firm in Shanghai, said he received a copy of "Executive Ability" for his birthday in November.

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