Amazon now states it will remove some public domain versions

I reported earlier on Amazon’s announcement that they would no longer be accepting public domain titles through its Digital Text Platform (DTP), which is the way that independents self-publish to the Kindle store.

In an update of the announcement, Amazon now states:

“Later this week, we will be removing many of the duplicate copies of the best selling public domain titles.”

Amazon provides an e-mail address where a publisher can ask for a review of a version that was removed:

The basic intent of this is apparently to remove duplications.  A public domain title is owned by the public: anybody can publish it, sell it…do pretty much whatever they want to do with it.

No question, having multiple editions of the same title at different prices is confusing for Amazon’s customers: it’s one of my Frequently Asked Kindle Questions. 

However, there are a few points about this that concern me.

1. This appears to only affect the Digital Text Platform publishers.  Amazon cited Pride and Prejudice in both of their announcements.  When I search I find about 150 Kindle books.  I say “about”, because the search also returns some other things, like a recent sequel and books about the book. 

They range in price from a free version (from Amazon) to $9.99.  One of them at $9.99 is from Anchor, a traditional publisher.  One title is annotated, one is a “Collector’s Edition”. 

I don’t know of an easy way to tell which ones came through the DTP, but a generic cover image is suggestive. 

My intuition is that the Digital Text Platform tends to be small (often one person) publishers, while publishers going through the main publication process tend to be large organizations.

Will this result in only large publishers having Pride and Prejudice in the Kindle store?  Is that fair? 

That’s not an easy question.  Amazon has no obligation to publish anything through the DTP.  There isn’t an inherent right of publication…it’s a business: this isn’t a governmental free speech issue.

There are a couple of reasons why this could be a problem.  If traditional publishers had said to Amazon, “We don’t like that there are all these cheap versions competing with our more expensive versions.  We won’t put ours in your store if you let them be there,” I believe that’s not okay under the law.  If there was an agreement that books were to be sold at a certain price (not lower), that could be a problem, but I doubt the latter happened.

If the evaluation is based on merit, that’s one thing.  If it is simply based on the type of publisher…well, that would bother me.

2. Does this also affect paperbooks?

When I run a similar search for the paperbooks, I get 1,693 results.  Roughly .04% of the 352396 Kindle store books are Pride and Prejudice, and only .006% of the 27337215 Amazon store books are, so it’s a bigger problem in the Kindle store.  Still, if multiple versions of the same title are a problem in e-books, isn’t it the same problem in p-books?  Somehow, I don’t see Amazon removing those. 

3. Will this noticeably reduce the title count in the Kindle store?

4. Does this mean that Amazon is ceding the public domain market to its competitors, including Sony and Barnes & Noble? 

5. Is this preparation for a different flow of public domain titles to Kindle owners?  If Amazon enabled EPUB, for example, Kindle owners would have easier access to many public domain titles.  They can be converted now: A Kindle World has instructions here.

6. What if a book has new material, like an introduction?  Is that enough?  What would make it enough to justify it being in the store?

I should say, I’m a bit disappointed by this policy.  I was planning to digitize some public domain titles of which I have copies in paper.  I haven’t seen them anywhere else as e-books.   I suppose I could find some other way to distribute them, but I would have preferred to just do everything through the Kindle store.  Kindle store shoppers will not have the option to buy them, and Amazon won’t get the benefit of selling them (and expanding their number of titles). 

However, I do see the advantage in not having ten versions of the same book that are exactly the same.  I also don’t think “first in wins” is the best policy.  Ideally, Amazon would compare the relative merits of different versions, just like a brick and mortar store would do (I used to manage a bookstore).  We might have chosen to have five versions of Romeo and Juliet, for example.   It might be based on what versions we knew schools were going to assign (many would send us a list), or even just a nice cover.  That seems quite labor intensive, though…although not wholly inappropriate for a bookseller.

I have lauded e-books as the next step in the “de-eliting” of books: from movable type to paperbacks (and dime novels and penny dreadfuls), books have been becoming less a thing of the upper classes and more available to everybody, I think to the dismay of some.  So, my gut reaction to this is that it’s not a good thing to limit the publication of public domain titles.  However, my head tells me that there are (and will continue to be) plenty of other places to get them…and that many of them will be free.   It is interesting, though, that Amazon would make the choice for Kindle owners.

FLASH!  Amazon has apparently restored MobileReference books to the Kindle store.  MobileReference is a major publisher of public domain collections, and hundreds of titles were recently made unavailable, apparently in the wake of the Orwell situation (in which Amazon removed a MobileReference Orwell collection.  This was apparently a situation complicated by different international copyright laws.  I have bought a MobileReference title in the past: they tend to be comprehensive collections at a very low price, with an interactive table of contents, and a bio of the author (although the bio in the one I had appeared to come from or be based on Wikipedia).

MobileReference books at Amazon

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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