- Anyone can publish text that’s in the public domain, meaning there are plenty of bizarrely formatted versions of classic novels out there.
- Amazon conflates the reviews for multiple editions of a title, making it difficult to tell what you’re actually buying.
- One customer’s story of getting a bizarrely-formatted version of “Pride and Prejudice” led me to track down the copy’s origins – and publish my own edition of a classic book using Amazon’s tools.
Danielle Kurtzleben wanted a copy of “Pride and Prejudice,” so she went on Amazon and clicked on one of the first links that came up in the search results. When the book arrived in her mailbox, there was a surprise.
First of all, it was huge – the size of a children’s colouring book, not like a typical paperback novel. Things only got weirder from there.
The text inside was so tiny, nearly six lines fit underneath a quarter. The book’s introduction read like a clunky translation, describing Jane Austen as “one of the founders of classic novels for women.” Kurtzleben spotted what appeared to be a Russian logo on the book’s cover and concluded she’d “been had by a Russian publishing house.”
— Dan Bobkoff (@danbobkoff) February 13, 2019
“This is an absolutely bonkers book,” Kurtzleben, a political reporter for NPR, told Business Insider’s Household Name podcast. “I don’t know how I screwed up, but this apparently is what I ordered.”
How did this weird product end up in Kurtzleben’s Amazon shopping cart?
Listen to the whole story here:
Anyone can publish a classic work that’s entered the public domain
As it turns out, anyone can legally republish a classic once the copyright expires and the work enters the public domain. Respected publishing houses like Penguin periodically reissue titles with updated cover art and introductions to reach new audiences. Many companies print annotated versions designed for students or English language learners in specific markets.
Still, that doesn’t explain why a presumably Russian publisher would create such a bizarrely formatted book, and how it wound up at the top of Kurtzleben’s search results. So Household Name asked me to investigate where this particular copy of “Pride and Prejudice” came from.
Amazon’s self-publishing platform makes it easy to reprint a book like ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ but it doesn’t police the quality of these editions
The company behind the book, Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, is located in Kyiv, Ukraine. The publisher’s editor in chief, Vitaliy Lukyanenko, explained that its main business is e-books. However, in an effort to expand sales, the company recently started using Amazon’s self-publishing platform to create paper books in English. It’s a print-on-demand system, so a book only gets made when someone, like Kurtzleben, orders one.
Lukyanenko agreed that the minuscule font of Kurtzleben’s copy of “Pride and Prejudice” wasn’t easy to read, but the fewer the pages in a book, the cheaper it is to print. He said the intended audience for this edition was a reader with “young eyes, sharp vision and a thin pocket.”
Strelbytskyy’s colouring-book-sized edition of “Pride and Prejudice” sells for nearly $US10, but the company isn’t making big bucks off it. It costs around $US3 to print the book and around $US2 to buy ads that push it to the top of the search results. After Amazon takes its cut of the sales, Strelbytskyy says it earns about 30 to 50 cents a copy.
Strelbytskyy says it takes customer feedback seriously and strives to make its books better. Lukyanenko said they don’t plan to create any more giant versions of English classic novels, though the product Kurtzleben bought is still for sale on Amazon. He even asked if I could help him edit the company’s wacky, error-riddled book introductions. (I declined.)
Kurtzleben expressed some shame that she’d “been had,” but Amazon makes it easy to accidentally buy a book like this. The site lumps customer reviews for multiple editions of “Pride and Prejudice” together. The product she bought appears to have 8,353 reviews as of this writing, with an average of 4.5 stars, but so do versions of the novel published by Penguin Classics and Dover.
I published a classic work of literature in a few hours using Amazon’s tools
Amazon declined to comment for this story. The copy of “Pride and Prejudice” Kurtzleben bought technically falls within their rules.
So I took the platform’s self-publishing tools for a spin to see just how easy it is to publish a classic work of literature and put it up for sale on Amazon.
I set up an account on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and followed an instructional video that explained how to format a book. In a humorous coincidence, the tutorial actually used “Pride and Prejudice” as the example.
I got the text for my book from Project Gutenberg, a website that catalogues works in the public domain. I decided to go with something by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes character. One of his short stories, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” seemed particularly fitting to tie up a mystery about a surprising product that had arrived from Amazon.
I copied, pasted, and formatted the text using Amazon’s template. Then I designed a cover using a stock photo and submitted my book to Kindle Direct Publishing for review.
A day later, Amazon had approved it and put it up for sale on the site.
You can buy my edition of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” for $US3.99, but I’m not holding out any hopes that self-publishing the classics will be a lucrative side hustle – I only make 24 cents in royalties per copy.
Kurtzleben’s experience shows that when shopping for classic books on Amazon, it pays to look closely at what you’re actually buying. So next time you’re browsing for a classic, scroll down to the “product details” section of the page to see the book’s dimensions and use the “Look Inside” feature to check the font size and formatting.
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