By Dennis King
Many book lovers use Amazon’s Kindle e-readers and Kindle Store (closely integrated into Amazon’s dominant role in the e-commerce of printed books) for their extraordinary convenience and because they provide access to books at much lower prices and sometimes either for free or for nominal payments:
kindle content: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200952510
https://archive.org/details/texts?&sort=-week&page=2 (22.3 million texts available)
Likewise, many book readers are enthralled by Amazon’s Good Reads “social cataloging” website, because it enables you to rate the books you like or dislike, publish your own reviews and interact with other readers on the broadest available scale (as of 2019, Good Reads had accumulated ninety million members around the world).
But with Amazon, the devil can be in the details. In 2018, I posted on Good Reads a five star rating for Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours (1850), a book by Susan Fenimore Cooper, the daughter of novelist James Fenimore Cooper. It was based on a diary that Cooper had kept for over a year in the upstate New York village of Cooperstown (named after her grandfather) where she lived with her family, including her father. With due regard for quantitative method, she studied the change of seasons and its effect on birds and other wildlife, on Otsego Lake (which the village was and is nestled against), and also on her human neighbors on nearby farms and in the village. Charmingly written as well as deeply thoughtful, Rural Hours was an influence on Thoreau and a best-seller in its day, but was unfairly forgotten along with her other naturalist writings for most of the 20th century. To help in the process of “un-forgetting,” I had posted my rating in reference to the 1998 University of Georgia Press edition prepared by Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson; it was the first edition in over a century to contain the full text and the first ever to provide the footnotes and scholarly introduction so essential for fully appreciating a classic.
The other night I was looking over my old Good Reads ratings and reviews, and found the following query regarding Rural Hours: “I read an amazon [reader] review that this book, as printed, is full of typos and as a result not a good read. Has anyone else had this problem?” I found the customer review in question not on Amazon but at the Barnes & Nobles website page, advertising a paperback edition from Dodo Press that has also been sold via Amazon. Dodo Press publishes a large number of out-of-copyright classics and has been criticized for allegedly leaving out chapters. The complaint, identified as being from “7 years ago,” was from “Anonymous” and simply states “NO! One of those books that are full of typos. Spent the $2 and get the other version.” It is unclear if the statement refers to the Dodo Press version of Rural Hours or to its line of classics in general. The reference to “$2” is apparently the version available from NOOK Books, B&N’s rival to Kindle, which currently goes for $0.99.
I figured that, most likely, the reader had purchased an OCR [optical character recognition] version that had never been properly proofread before being made available electronically or sent to the printer; or it could be a version made from a PDF of an old library copy in which handling by many people or improper storage has produced textual defects. Electronic texts of either type need careful proofreading. The publishers of what I call quickie classics, whether in ebook or print-on-demand or other versions, often provide an inferior product. I have purchased such books in the past, as have friends of mine. If you are someone who is accustomed to always reading actual, physical books, you will have a problem getting a good version of a relatively obscure classic. This appears to be an Amazon/Kindle/Good Reads-created problem that amounts to false advertising and, indirectly, to text vandalism, while also having copyright implications for new scholarly editions of old and out-of-copyright books in general.
Many readers may not know that Good Reads was purchased by Amazon in 2013 and now has over 90 millions members, making it an important element in Amazon’s massive influence over the publishing industry, including its ability to steer reader’s purchasing choices. Furthermore, when a reader posts on Good Reads, he or she becomes entwined with Amazon/Good Reads advertising and sales software that may provide confusing information about editions and quality of books, thus steering buyers to shorter and harder-to-read versions of older, out-of-copyright books. I gave Rural Hours a five-star rating on Good Reads back in 2018. When you click in this rating at “My Books” (all my ratings and reviews) you get an image of the cover page of the 1998 edition, directly to its right, with the title, the 1998 editors’ names, and promotional that you find if directly searching Amazon for the edition.
Beside that image and directly below the title are three choices: “Kindle,” “Hardcover” and “Paperback.” It would be understandable how a viewer would think that these choices are related to the 1998 book, even though directly above them, in small text, is “See all formats and editions”. The confusion would be compounded by the blurb below that says “This new edition, the only printing of the full original text since 1876, restores passages excised by the author for an 1887 edition.” [Emphasis added.] The Kindle box gives a price of $1.99; the hardcover box, $44.76; and the paperback, $30.95 (new). Going by price alone, a buyer would easily click on the Kindle box, without thinking. I clicked on it and got a new book cover image (well, the same book can sometimes have different cover displays for different formats, the buyer might think). The heading beside the image says “Rural Hours Kindle Edition.” I clicked “Look inside” and found that this version was based on the shortened 1887 edition. The expensive hardcover edition was also based on the 1887 edition and the blurb states: “This scarce antiquarian book is a fascimile reprint of the original.” [Huh? Read that twice.] As is common with fascimile reprints, the blurb includes the warning the “[d]ue to its age [the age of the original, I presume], it may contain imperfections such as marks, notations, marginalia and flawed pages.”
Then we go to the third box, “Paperback,” where we get “Rural Hours Paperback – October 28, 2008.” Here again the 1998 scholarly edition has been used as a come-on. The picture displayed is that of what is probably an OCR based edition with a different cover and supposedly offering both new and used copies from $21.99 up. I clicked on “Look Inside” and received the cover page image not of this 2008 book from Dodo Press (an imprint of Book Depository, a UK company) but of the 1998 edition. (Probably just as well; a subject guide on the print-on-demand book business made available by American University regarding Dodo products: “materials frequently are missing portions of the original material.”) Amazon was offering, directly underneath the cover image of the 1998 cover book, an inexpensive Kindle that many buyers would assume was a Kindle of the 1998 book. Certainly they would be faced with a choice of the Kindle for $1.99, as opposed to $30.99 for the softcover edition of the 1998 book. The aim apparently is to induce people to adopt Kindle as their primary means of accessing books, even at the cost of dishonestly confusing the editions it offers.
Amazon should stop its practice of edition obfuscation, and until they do so, purchasers should not unthinkingly buy a Kindle edition that, when you click on it, shows a different cover image than the one you saw before your clicked. Such Kindle editions may be based on bowdlerized versions or versions that do not reflect important authorial revisions, as well as being full of typos. This is especially important in the case of books with very complicated publishing histories; for instance, Susan Cooper agreed to excisions from her book, after many years of gradually decreasing sales, to keep it in print; and editions thereafter (until 1998) did not have the full text.
The OCR quickies offered through Kindle will sometimes display, in their purchase come-ons, very attractive cover art. This is not always bad; I have an OCR-based copy of Deephaven, a classic 19th century novel by Sarah Orne Jewett, with a cover art choice that very well expresses the spirit of the novel, and with text clean of typos in spite of including much dialogue in a Maine dialect that requires many apostrophes (maybe someone doing the proofreading really loved the book). Still, I don’t know what edition the OCR text was made from.
If you want a reliable electronically transmitted version of any old, out-of-copyright book, you can usually download a PDF from an academic library for free, either directly or via your own public library. If the book is important to you for research or sentimental reasons, make sure you’ are not getting a bowdlerized edition (or an early edition of a work that the author expanded or otherwise greatly revised later on). If the book has a complicated publishing history, you will need to seek advice from a research librarian on these points. Below is the link to where, on Good Reads, I posted my reply to the question about the Kindle version of the book. You will see the links to Kindle and Amazon which appear to be for the University of Georgia edition. But when you follow the links under GET A COPY, you see that the Kindle offering is for the $1.99 price, with a different cover and none of the special information found in the scholarly edition, while the Amazon GET A COPY link offers the softcover version of the University of Georgia edition for $30.95 but also offers the $1.99 Kindle edition. (Indeed it currently states that the U. of Georgia edition is out of stock but suggests the Kindle ebook is available now without stating that the Kindle ebook is a very different book.) Of course It would be easy for the purchaser to get confused and buy the inferior edition that the reviewer complained about, thinking that he or she was ordering the University of Georgia edition, which, as of Monday, March 22, 2021, 12:33 AM, is here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/597374.Rural_Hours
Dennis King is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1965). He has lived in New York City for over 50 years. He is the author of Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism (1989) and Get the Facts on Anyone (three editions, last in 1999). A specialist on political cults and the far right, he has written widely for national and local publications and on the web.