Amazon Hides Classic Free Public Domain Ebooks

from the disappointing dept

Via Chris Anderson, we find out that Amazon recently made a big change to the free ebooks it lists on the site, making them much harder to find. The explanation, by Morris Rosenthal, is a bit confusing, but apparently Amazon reassigned ASINs (identification numbers) for most of the public domain classics that were available on the site. In doing so, all of the historical sales info, reviews, comments, etc., were lost. That means that the works, no matter how popular, get pushed way down in searches and in “related” items. It also means tons of links are now dead.

Last weekend Amazon removed the vast majority of free classics that they published (adopted from Project Gutenberg) prior to 2011, after replacing them with the same books using new ASIN’s, meaning new product pages. In doing so, Amazon orphaned millions of links from the web, which now arrive at a “Can’t find what you’re looking for” page, not to mentions tens of thousands of customer created Listmania lists, So You’d Like To guides and Customer Discussions. They are orphaned because Amazon does not redirect, or forward the ASIN’s of eBooks removed from their catalog.

A major side effect, if not prime effect, of changing all of those ASIN’s, is the loss of their historical sales data. In other words, a customer going to the Kindle store and searching for Jane Austen would once have gotten back a list that started off with free editions of her most popular works, starting with Pride and Prejudice. This morning, the only free Austen book appearing in the first page of the search results is “Love and Friendship”, certainly not her most popular title, but there because it hasn’t been updated since 2006.

Rosenthal doesn’t think there’s anything nefarious going on here — just a sign of a company that doesn’t much care about these public domain works. His post also explains some of the wider impact, including how certain related items results are pointing people to fee-based versions of authors’ works, rather than free public domain ones. Obviously, such a result could be seen to benefit Amazon, since Amazon is more likely to make money by pushing you to fee-based books instead of free ones.

There is one silver lining he notes: for those who go straight to the “top free” list of books, most of those old public domain books have disappeared from the list, meaning that newer free books are now more prominent — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, to take all those other classics and effectively hide them seems like a big mistake.

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Companies: amazon

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Comments on “Amazon Hides Classic Free Public Domain Ebooks”

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ltlw0lf (profile) says:

And the $1 public domain publishers rejoice...

I have nothing against those who use Amazon to peddle public domain books for a price, and in some cases, I’ve found that the person doing so has done sufficient work to fix the Gutenberg scans. And at least one that I’ve purchased for $0.99 has come annotated with a lot of good material. But I have to wonder whether this move had something to do with the folks selling public domain books? I do notice that there are a number of works on Amazon which were scanned by Gutenberg, but don’t exist because someone is flogging them for $4.99 or more, such as Shakespeare’s more well known works (i.e. Romeo and Juliet.) I cannot seem to find them for less than $0.99, even though the work is well in the public domain. And most of the $0.99 versions look like the original scan with no extra work done.

anon says:

Pirate them

If someone had to create a torrent with every book that is free in .mobi format then everybody could just download it, if you want a review then search for that particular title on Google and you get the reviews before reading them.If anything this could encourage forums with people discussing the older works and maybe generating more interest for them.
I know it will impact on the sale of new books but in all honesty there is enough literacy out there that is free to keep everyone reading for there lifetime. If new authors want to compete they would have to give a reason for people to pay, more than just saying it is our right to make money from creating content.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Pirate them

I suspect you mean a liking of the public domain classics when you say literacy.

Never mind that the broad story lines of Romeo & Juliet, Henry V, The Scottish Play, Taming of the Shrew among others have been copied and reproduced countless times on Prime Time TV and in the movies. Twelfth Night is probably a bit to risqu? for them 🙂 It’s a good thing copyright didn’t exist then. Some cases would probably still be in the courts some 600 years later. 🙂

To get back to what Amazon itself has done. Let’s just call it what it is. Damned stupid to wipe out an entire shelving sector, artificial though it is. Even if it was an accident, which I’m far from saying it is.

It’s one of these good will things. Something that will aggrivate people more and more until it becomes something mythological where people will text one another saying that if they did it to some of the world’s greatest literature then what’s next? Stephen King? That doesn’t need any facts just boiling aggrivation.

Deirdre (profile) says:

I’m not seeing the problem. I just checked some authors– Austen, Anne Bronte, and some more obscure works: The Pleasures of a Single Life, Or, The Miseries of Matrimony Occasionally writ upon the many divorces lately granted by Parliament. With The choice, or, … to the beaus against the next vacation. [Kindle Edition] by John Pomfret and everything seems to be where it should be.

I just downloaded that last one, looks like an interesting historic document/pamphlet (34 pages).

xenomancer (profile) says:

Superficial Annoyance

This action sounds like that of a manager wanting to “streamline” a database: ie. rearrange the rows to make it look pretty. Decisions in kind typically don’t take into account the end user experience as they don’t result in a directly related change in cash flows and have the nice side benefit of making it look like you did work to the higher-ups. Most of these kind of annual review fillers are innocuous.

Nick says:

Quality issue


I must say quality may be something important in that case too.

Quite recently, Amazon announced they won’t sell files generated with Calibre any longer, and Calibre’s dev answered he sort of understood this decision as he admits Calibre’s KF8 (new Kindle format) conversion is pretty bad. But Apple is focusing on quality too. If there is one single problem in the file, e.g. a picture sliced/displayed on two pages in reflowable text, then they reject your book.

Now, I’ve tried a dozen of their classics (and Guntenberg classics elsewhere) and I must say the formatting of those files is disastrous. I know we’re talking about benevolents in this case? but it’s high time they tackle this problem and consider improving the quality of the formatting they are doing, especially as more and more people are complaining about bad quality. Sometimes they even thank publishers selling classics at a fair price tag because they encountered a terrible reading experience with a free classic from Gutenberg.

I know some will say “it’s all about content, stupid” and I disagree. Typography is one important thing since it facilitates reading. Hence, if formatting is bad, readers can’t focus on content. At best, typography is transparent, you can’t even see it. That’s because the designer made a wonderful job and nothing can be felt as an obstacle. So there is nothing you can notice as everything is smooth.

Now, with classics you get :

– chapters starting at the middle of the page
– First chapter starting right after front-matter (same screen-page)
– sometimes “indent method” and “block method” used at the same time (which has been proven the most terrible mistake one could do in book design centuries ago)
– whitespace between chapters using line breaks (which has been proven the most terrible mistake one could do in ebook formatting years ago and you will find this is strongly discouraged in any ebook-formatting guidelines available in the universe)
– etc.

And that’s just a matter of making “best practices” available to benevolents. This problem could be solved quite easily.
I’m not criticizing benevolents, they are doing a terrific job and show some huge love for literature. But, that’s also a huge issue they should tackle sooner than later. Macro-typography is something really simple (they can even use default styles). And e-books are no reason why we shall forget macro-typography, something we know is absolutely necessary so that readers can focus on content and enjoy reading.

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