How did an obscure photo book become a counterfeit prop?

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist. Photos: Keep the bag; Pssnshop-Live; Courtesy of Gus Powell

In August 2020, photographer Gus Powell received an Instagram message with a photo of what appeared to be his book the loners sitting on a shelf in a cafe in Seoul. Only it wasn’t a copy of the book, which Powell first published in 2015 via J&L Books — it was a cardboard box designed to mimic the book’s cover. “What is it? Is this the avatar from the book? Powell wrote to @noloosies, the user who posted it. “I think it’s some kind of interior props” , they replied.

Curiosity piqued, Powell began looking for more fake copies of his book. A reverse image search revealed photos of the fake – identifiable by a blocky typeface that doesn’t quite capture the polished, academic feel of the real version’s cover – as a prop, styled alongside pajamas, shoes, bras and sundresses being sold through Facebook Shops in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. It was weird: Powell only printed 1,000 copies for the first edition of the lonersa book of color photos interspersed with spare text pages, and it’s been more or less out of print ever since.

Powell began contacting sellers. Eventually, he heard from a jewelry store using the fake book as a style accessory. The owner directed him to Shopee, the Singaporean e-commerce platform that resembles a Southeast Asian Amazon, where Powell found himself staring at a paper lure of his real 96-page hardcover book in linen. After finding it on Shopee, he buys six copies, one of which he gives to his publisher. When he posted about it on Instagram, the fake the loners received a kind of philosophical appreciation. “Like an NFT but more,” someone commented. “Congratulations on your book transcending into a concept,” someone else wrote. But he remained mystified. “You have to assume that even in the world of bogus books, editorial decisions are made about which ones will work. What I’m trying to figure out is if someone actually had my book in front of them.

Unable to resist a retail mystery, we decided to take a look at why Powell’s book was made into a prop in the first place and who was behind the decision. The obvious place to start was Shopee, where Powell and a few Facebook stores had purchased their copies of the fake. This particular seller’s page doesn’t have a name, but it features a huge assortment of boxes decorated to look like books, all loosely organized according to theme. The ersatz edition of the loners belongs to a group called “Northern Europe Decorative book ins fashion decoration study room hotel cafe photography pendulum props”, and is listed next to a fake Kelly Wearstler monograph with a misspelled title and an invented Chanel book. (According to trend analysts, the “ins” stands for “Instagram style.”) As I write this, there are 9,566 units available – a nine-fold increase from the first set of Powell’s book.

To contact this Shopee seller, listed as, you need a phone number in the Philippines. I don’t have one, so I contacted the Shopee team instead, who graciously agreed to contact the seller on my behalf. While waiting to see if would respond, I spoke with a representative from Shopee who evaluated the rest of the online store. “He’s a very typical Asian vendor,” she says, comparing him to street vendors who sell everything from phone cases to flip-flops to eye masks. “I’m from the Philippines, and you see that a lot in stores. It’s a hodgepodge of merchandise instead of something very specialized. In other words, this particular seller is unlikely to be able to tell where their wares are coming from. They never answered anyway.

Made-in-China, another sprawling e-commerce platform, has a different search function where you can shop directly from factories, including page after page of fake book factories. Qingdao Hoda Pack-Tech is one of them, and it sells some of the same fake books as Shopee seller, like a dummy Parents coffee table book, a fake Loewe monograph, and the vaguely Scandinavian Urban. Importantly, Made-in-China allows you to contact each factory’s supplier directly, which meant I quickly spoke with someone known as Miss Amanda. She quickly confirmed that Qingdao does not make the fake copy of the lonersbut agreed to answer a few questions about the fake book market.

According to Miss Amanda, fake coffee table books are usually made at the request of hotels, restaurants, cafes and interior design companies. But since Qingdao requires a minimum of 1,000 pounds for custom orders, it began designing its own stock based on images found online and allowing customers – like Seoul cafes or Taobao clothing sellers – to make their purchases on a case-by-case basis from a catalogue. (This approach is not unique to Qingdao: “We have special designers to design fake books,” Iven Lee, a supplier from Guangzhou Mqc Printing Co., told me. market trends, popular patterns. , and other factors, supplemented by special processes to realize the simulation.”) When I asked what makes a book (like, for example, the loners) worthy of being copied, Miss Amanda did not pretend to know. “It’s hard to know, my friend,” she wrote. “Maybe the designer thinks the name is good.” And then she dropped a staggering fact: China has more than 2,000 fake book factories.

China produces an astonishing amount of counterfeit goods across all categories, so it makes sense that books are no exception. In the matrix of fake books, there are novels that infringe copyright (a few years ago, a wave of fakes Harry Potter books – mostly fanfiction, but printed by genuine publishers – have been widely read) and hollow books that work great for hiding drugs from your parents. Those made in factories like Qingdao are purely decorative. Avery Booker, co-founder of Jing Daily, which reports on luxury consumer trends in China, also points out that limited distribution channels and censorship laws could make a genuine Taschen or Phaidon monograph more expensive and hard to find in China. China. So why not make a fake?

The dummy copy of the loners can be found elsewhere online, such as Taobao China (a store called sells it alongside its regular cohort of Loewe accessories, ParentsBauhaus and Urban book boxes) and AliExpress, through a seller called Onewen Store that sells the same books. But that didn’t do much for the investigation. Taobao is notoriously difficult to navigate for overseas buyers, so much so that you can pay for services known as Taobao agents to help negotiate cross-border purchases. (I even wired $10 to whoever agreed to help uncover the origins of the fake Powell, to no avail.) And when the owner of Onewen Store responded on WhatsApp, they only offered a vague “the book was very good and beautiful in appearance, so I did,” before leaving the rest of my posts to read.

And yet, that seemed to be the prevailing consensus. “I feel like it’s completely random,” Booker says. “Sometimes it is this book looks good, so we will copy it, and there is nothing more. Eric, a former export businessman who runs the Taobao advice blog How to Tao, offered an even more nihilistic version: “Maybe they don’t even know why they chose these books. “

Powell began referring to the fake book as his “third edition”. (The second was printed in English, Italian and Japanese in 2017.) “What I love about making books is that they have a life of their own,” he says. “The idea that the book would not only have a life of its own, but that this simulation would come to exist, it’s incredible. And besides, not everyone is allowed to have a fake book.

Northern Europe decorative book
the loners

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