Dagny Taggart spends her time travelling the globe, meeting new people and learning new things. She speaks more than 15 languages, including Latin, Russian and Chinese. In the past year, she has written a new book at the rate of about one every five days: 84 books in total. All of them have received glowing reviews from her hordes of Amazon groupies, who leave five-star reviews on everything she does.
There's only one problem with Dagny Taggart - she doesn't exist. Evidence collected and examined by The Washington Post suggests that Taggart (who is named after a character in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged) is a made-up identity used by an Argentine man. Alexis Pablo Marrocco - like other self-described "Kindle entrepreneurs" - is part of a growing industry of "Amazon catfish".
The catfishing process varies according to the entrepreneur using it, but it typically follows the same general steps: after hiring a remote worker to write an e-book for the Kindle marketplace, Amazon's e-book store, publishers put it up for sale under the name and bio of a fictional expert. Frequently, Kindle entrepreneurs will then buy or trade for good book reviews.
At the end of this process, they hope to have a Kindle store bestseller: something with a catchy title about a hot topic, such as gambling addiction or weight loss.
"Kindle is by far the easiest and fastest way to start making money on the internet today," enthuses one video that promises to guide viewers to riches. "You don't even need to write the books yourself!"
Internet marketers and other entrepreneurs have been advancing this morally dubious practice for years. Critics in that industry call it a scam that has misled consumers and given all self-published authors a bad name. When questioned about Taggart, Marrocco staunchly defends himself from any accusations of wrongdoing.
"I act and have always acted according to Amazon's policies and rules, rules which prohibit the acquisition of biased or dishonest reviews," he says. "There is absolutely nothing wrong and unlawful about using a pen name … The key is always to provide value to the marketplace."
My search for the real "Dagny Taggart" began when a Redditor using the name goans314 posted a rant about Taggart in the forum /r/books. Goans314, who wishes to remain anonymous, is the author of two self-published language e-books, both of them pretty well reviewed.
Goans314 had some suspicions about the language acumen of Taggart, whose author biography describes her as a polyglot and professional language teacher. When he read one of Taggart's books, he was surprised by how primitive some of the material was and by the number of language and grammar mistakes.
A Washington Post review of Taggart's bestselling Learn Spanish in 7 Days! revealed that it sometimes uses grave, or left-pointing, accents, which don't exist in Spanish. Its example conversations contain grade-school-level grammatical errors, switching between formal and informal forms of the verb or mismatching verbs and subjects. And while the book has Spain's flag on the cover, it's concerned only with Latin American Spanish: it completely omits conjugations for " vosotros", a common verb form in the Castilian dialect. ("I'm absolutely determined to provide value to my company's readers," Marrocco says, "and thus we're constantly fixing and uploading what needs to be fixed.")
Despite the errors, Learn Spanish had 40 user reviews - almost all of them awarding the maximum five stars (the reviews posted since the scam was publicised on Reddit expose the book for what it is, and most award the lowest, one-star rating). Goans314 wondered whether Taggart was buying reviews and faking her credentials to sell thousands of e-books.
The theory doesn't shock Mick Rooney, a self-publishing expert and the editor of the industry site The Independent Publishing Magazine.
"These scams have been in existence since [Amazon] took a significant hold in the book marketplace," he says.
Recently, dozens of self-described "entrepreneurs" have begun selling e-books and online courses that teach catfishing techniques. One online course, called K Money Machine, preaches the art of building a "successful Kindle Publishing empire (without ever writing a single book yourself)". Another, called K Money Mastery, promises to teach adherents the techniques that its creator, Stefan Pylarinos, says helped him buy a high-end sports car and a US$1.7 million apartment. Its small print forbids "members of the media" from taking the class, unless they agree that it's not a part of any investigation. (Neither Pylarinos nor Jason Bracht, the man behind K Money Machine, responded to inquiries for this article.)
To be clear, it's not a violation of Amazon's terms of service to write a book under a pen name or to contract a book by a freelancer. Amazon allows e-book sellers to use up to three pseudonyms. And the service Epic Write, formally known as Fweez - the site that Pylarinos says he uses to find his freelancers - openly advertises the fact that its international workforce will churn out white-label content for as little as a penny - that's 7.8 HK cents - per 100 words.
But it's hard to charge US$5 or US$10 for a "book" that is simply the result of rudimentary Google research by a non-expert author - so some marketers have openly turned to other techniques.
The documents that Pylarinos uses in his course recommend inventing an authorial persona that the reader "can relate to". For a book on gambling addiction, he suggests a recovering addict who overcame the disease - and can tell the reader how to do it, too. (Catfish often pretend to be doctors, therapists or other health-care providers, because those professions confer authority.) Pylarinos has himself published a book about gambling addiction and another about binge eating.
Meanwhile, in Lesson 18 of his course, Pylarinos suggests reporting bad reviews en masse for "abuse", to hide them from future customers. Because the vast majority of buyers are unlikely to take the time to review their Amazon purchases - particularly when the purchase was so inexpensive - this can effectively stifle complaint.
Bracht tells students outright how to partake in a practice called "astroturfing": buying or trading for reviews. On Facebook, dozens of groups exist solely to connect independent authors who want to swap glowing write-ups. On the website Fiverr, hundreds of paid reviewers offer to pen them for as little as US$5 per batch.
Many entrepreneurs see these purchases as investments: studies have shown that there is a causal relationship between a product's Amazon reviews and the strength of its sales. By inflating reviews, Kindle publishers can sell more books - which, in turn, makes their book more visible in Amazon's lists of bestsellers. (If their forums and Facebook threads are any indication, even legitimate self-published authors fear that failing to buy reviews will put them at a competitive disadvantage.)
Professional reviewers typically aren't difficult to spot: most of them have left gushing four- or five-star reviews about hundreds of books, frequently in a very short amount of time. Sometimes they will review every book an author has ever written in the same hyperbolic terms. Other times they will review a book the day it comes out.
Researchers at Cornell University, in New York state, have found that this sort of behaviour isn't necessarily unusual among Amazon's super-reviewer, and, generally speaking, even anonymous users tend to leave positive reviews. But compensated reviewers leave other clues: sometimes, they will slip in biographical details that, when put together, don't make sense. A reviewer says one book helped "him" plan for his wedding, for instance, then says another book helped "her" cope with osteoporosis.
The first review for Taggart's Learn Spanish in 7 Days! comes from a native Spanish speaker who would, presumably, have no reason to buy it; this reviewer, when contacted for this article, confirmed that he had been contracted by a third party to write paid reviews for books associated with both "Taggart" and Pylarinos. He says he has stopped writing paid reviews since learning that Amazon explicitly prohibits reviews written "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product".
"Amazon has a zero-tolerance policy for content that is designed to manipulate or mislead customers," Amazon spokeswoman Julie Law says in a statement. "We have built mechanisms, both manual and automated, that detect, remove or prevent reviews which violate guidelines. And we continue to take action against those who violate our policies prohibiting review manipulation."
It must be noted, though, that Amazon also profits off its catfish: for every dollar someone like Pylarinos or Marrocco makes from the Kindle store, Amazon makes US$1.86.
The system pays small dividends to other stakeholders, as well: Epic Write and Fiverr take a cut of the sales made on their platforms. Freelancers who research and write quickly can earn hundreds of dollars a week. Some books also include affiliate marketing links, which means they funnel readers towards other online products and companies.
Taggart's Amazon author page, for example, also lists a book by "serial entrepreneur" William Wyatt, as if they had written it together. Wyatt's Amazon page shows a smiling man with years of corporate experience and a working Gmail address. The photo is a stock image, however, which is for sale in an online database. No one answers emails sent to the account.
Taggart's e-books also mention a New Zealand firm called Rocket Languages: she writes in the Spanish edition that she has "partnered" with the company, which makes "the very best Spanish online course I've ever seen".
This, it turns out, is the key to the mystery of Dagny Taggart.
Rocket Languages has never heard of a Dagny Taggart. It has certainly never "partnered" with her. But when chief executive Jason Oxenham digs into the company's records, he does find the name once in a 2014 email chain: that's when ClickBank, the sales and affiliate marketing firm that helps advertise Rocket Languages' software, first heard from an Argentine man named Alexis Pablo Marrocco.
"I'm a book author," Marrocco writes in an email provided by Oxenham. "I own +14 foreign language books (French, Spanish, German, Italian, etc), several of which are best sellers … I plan to promote your courses to my list of readers, so we both will benefit big time."
Taggart was his pen name, Marrocco explained. So ClickBank approved Marrocco as a Rocket Languages marketer - and soon after that, last November, references to the big "partnership" began to show up in Taggart's books. (In a statement, ClickBank says its fraud prevention team is looking into the incident; Marrocco has, on Oxenham's request, also been terminated from the Rocket Languages programme.)
Taggart wasn't actually Marrocco's pen name, Marrocco confirms by email. Instead, he says, "All books listed under Dagny Taggart's name have been written and edited by professional translators, language teachers and language experts." He declines to name these experts, explain how they are certified or clarify why they need to use not only a pseudonym, but also a fictional persona. He also refuses to reveal any of his other pseudonyms (though William Wyatt's profile disappeared from Amazon shortly after our conversation).
According to his Facebook profile, Marrocco began law school in Buenos Aires several years ago. Records show that he owns a Delaware-registered company called Marrocco Enterprises. Only one person has liked that company's Facebook page: a Kindle author who openly advertises for five-star rating trades.
Marrocco insists he's never violated Amazon's policies by buying or trading reviews.
"The victim here its (sic) me and my company," Marrocco says, "and if you insist on publishing these infamies you will become the aggressor, as 'Goans314' already is."
Goans314 doesn't see things in quite the same light; since he wrote his Reddit post complaining about Taggart in September, it has attracted thousands of upvotes and appeared briefly on the site's front page. He has published three private messages from a Redditor who claims to be an American lawyer representing "Taggart". The messages threaten jail time and financial ruin. At one point, the lawyer uses the Spanish word for "indemnities". At another, he refers to Taggart as a "him".
Meanwhile, Goans314 has other worries: his books aren't selling terribly well. He recently made them free to attract more downloads; more downloads equal more reviews, more reviews equal more sales. Now he wonders whether people will hear about catfish and stop trusting all self-publishers.
"I feel like exposing this scam might even hurt my own sales," he says.
Experts are more optimistic: Jane Friedman, a professor of digital publishing at the University of Virginia, in the US, describes catfish as an ongoing but "not that significant" threat. "It increases the noise for everyone, sure," she writes by email, "but for any author building a long-term career, it's not hard to distinguish yourself from low-quality opportunists." Amazon, meanwhile, promises that it is weeding out deceptive accounts and their products.
If that doesn't reassure the real self-published authors of the world, there are plenty of e-books vying for the privilege: a search of "how to write an ebook" in the Kindle store turns up more than 4,000 options.
Even Marrocco has published one book under his own name. It's called Success is Yours: TAKE IT! Before it disappeared from Amazon last month, it had 21 reviews and a 4.7-star rating.
"This is the book you should read if you are looking to be a better you," wrote one reviewer, who had also bestowed five-star reviews on Taggart, Wyatt and Pylarinos' e-books. "A great read and super informative."