Controversy Over Anne Of Green Gables Cover Is Way Overblown, And That's A Great Sign For Indie Publishing

from the publishing-vanity dept

You may have caught wind of an online uproar today surrounding an edition of Anne Of Green Gables. If you're not familiar, it's a set of Canadian stories published in 1908 about a charming, precocious, freckled, red-headed orphan girl, and beloved by a lot of people. As with many things that people warmly remember from their childhoods, its legion of fans fiercely defends its integrity—so you can imagine how they reacted when a new edition appeared on Amazon with a cover depicting the titular character in a way that is quite faithful to modern audience expectations, but not so faithful to the text:

People are appalled, they're outraged, they call it disgusting—a sign of our shallow times where art is warped by corporate pandering. But really, the whole thing is a bit of a misunderstanding, which seems to have been sparked by an NPR "round-up" style column with a bunch of brief news snippets. What a lot of people failed to realize before running with the story (or chose not to emphasize) is that Anne Of Green Gables is public domain, and this edition was published independently through Amazon's CreateSpace. So, all of this broad outrage has really been sparked by one anonymous person using an independent publishing platform. The opinion that the cover choice is stupid seems perfectly legitimate (couldn't it at least be a sexy redhead and not completely betray the text?) but the reaction is a tempest in a teapot. There are tons of editions of the book on Amazon, self-published and otherwise, as is almost always the case with popular public domain works. There's really no conclusion to be drawn from this new edition, other than "some person out there didn't actually read the book," or possibly "gentlemen prefer blondes."

But there is something worth drawing from the controversy that has emerged: there's no difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing in the eyes of the average consumer. They simply don't notice anymore. While this is best demonstrated by the popularity of some self-published books, sitting right alongside books from big authors and big publishing houses in the Amazon listings, it's also demonstrated by a controversy like this, where the public considers one self-published public domain edition to be every bit as representative of "the world of publishing" as one of the major house's "classic" lineups. Can you imagine, even ten years ago, people getting worked up about what would have still been called vanity publishing?

Filed Under: anne of green gables, copyright, cover photos, public domain, self publishing


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  1. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 8 Feb 2013 @ 12:54pm

    The Public Domain Scammers and Amazon

    I think what is going on is that people are all attempting to game Amazon's recommendation engines. The recommendation engine can tell that a print-on-demand book is a copy of the Gutenberg e-text, and it can tell that the print-on-demand book has a color cover picture (*), but the recommendation engine cannot tell if the picture is relevant or not.

    (*) Which nineteenth-and-early twentieth-century books generally did not, so you can't just use the original.

    Suppose you are teaching Anne of Green Gables in a school. In that case, you need to buy, say, thirty copies so that each student can have one, and, and so that you can say, "Okay, gang, open your books to page 76, where Anne says, blah, blah, blah, and what do you think she means by it?" Given the kind of students you have, you cannot expect them to read e-texts on-line and write out lists of questions and comments. The paperback book is well-suited to applying controlled pressure to make students learn when they would prefer not to. You basically want some kind of printed edition, but, beyond that, it doesn't matter which.

    Well, Amazon has decided that it doesn't want to give this kind of business to, say, Viking Penguin, but prefers to steer the business to someone who will use their print-on-demand system, and that is reflected in the recommendation engine. Amazon's thinking is that, on an order of thirty books, they can quote a reasonably competitive price. The result is that someone who doesn't read any books at all sets up to produce editions of, say, a thousand public-domain books commonly used in the schools. This person, who is in effect, a kind of Moron in a Hurry, posts a book every five minutes, and literally doesn't give himself time to think. He has to chose a picture for each book, and hence he chooses these purely idiotic pictures.

    If you will recall, something similar happened with e-books a while back, and Amazon responded by pulling in all the Gutenberg/HathiTrust e-texts and making them free on the Kindle, to drive the scammers out.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20090717/1559425587.shtml
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles /20120310/19034718067/authors-guild-boss-e-book-price-fixing-allegations-but-brick-and-mortar.shtml

    The problem is that they can't do that very well with a paper book. The printing, and the paper, and the shipping have to cost something, and there has to be a profit on it, and it is difficult to settle the matter thus directly, because it might amount to unfair competition. What Amazon might be able to do would be to give Gutenberg Project a grant to produce "paperback print-off-ready" editions, freely available to all, with suitable covers. They would then charge for "printing services," with charges explicitly based on the amount of paper and ink required, the way a print-shop charges. However, they would also try to encourage schools to buy suitable printers, capable of generating paperbacks. Ideally, the teacher would cross the hall, run the machine, and return with an armful of brightly colored, well-constructed, paperbacks with Gutenberg Project printed on the spine.

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