Foner Books’s blog reports that Amazon has lately reassigned new ASINs (Amazon Sales Identification Numbers) to thousands of free public domain e-books. This has the practical effect of orphaning them from their sales histories and reviews, and making thousands and thousands of web links to them no longer work.

Amazon has also apparently changed the weighting of its “also bought” lists, so that paid public domain books show up with more prominence and frequency than free versions of the same books.

It may not necessarily be all bad news, though. The relative absence of public domain titles from bestseller lists means that their places can be filled out with more contemporary literature, which might actually bring more sales to modern authors.

The Foner Books blogger doesn’t think this is the result of any sort of nefarious plot or conspiracy by Amazon to kill off free public-domain books. Rather, it’s that Amazon just doesn’t care that much about them, and doesn’t worry that it just wiped out several years of data and sent the free public-domain titles back to day one.

(Found via TechDirt.)


  1. This is about as surprising as this morning’s sunrise. The specifics may be new, but the general policy has long been true. As a Amazon programmer once told me, never trust Amazon’s search results. And in a phone conversation I had with an Amazon lawyer, she defended the fact that Amazon’s search result make profitable (for Amazon) titles readily visible, while making less profitable (or here free) books almost invisible.

    This isn’t just moving a book further down in the search results where you can still find it. Less profitable titles are simply blocked from search results. I saw one title whose paperback was not even listed at all. The only way you could get to it was via the search result for the hardback edition. You had to go to the hardback page for that particular edition and then click on the link to the paperback.

    That policy is yet another reason why the DOJ’s lawsuit against Apple and its indifference to Amazon’s bullying and monopolist trickery is so absurd. Amazon’s not remotely ‘about’ giving customers lower prices. Steering potential customers to a higher priced edition is so deeply embedded in the search code, it’d probably be difficult for them to extract it from their code and present honest search results.

    Here, Amazon is simply extended that same principle to ebooks. It’s making the free ones less visible under the assumption that’ll result in more sales of paid versions, even though the latter are often based on the same Gutenberg text as the free book. Changing these titles ASIN was probably just the simplest way to ‘game’ those search results and make those popular free titles less visible.

    So that The Foner Books blogger is wrong when he thinks this isn’t the “result of any sort of nefarious plot or conspiracy.” It’s the result of a long established policy. Amazon distorts search results like Ford makes cars. It’s what they do.

    And anyone that thinks that Amazon simply “doesn’t care” (pro or con) about anything at all simply doesn’t understand Amazon’s corporate DNA. Amazon cares about everything they do. Calculation down to excruciating detail is one of the company’s core values. There are those at Amazon today who’re already calculating, down the the last penny, the added income this downgrading of PD ebooks is bringing Amazon.

    That’s simply how Amazon does business. Online sales give them unlimited shelf space. Quite a few people have noted that. What is far less often said is that it also gives them the ability to manipulate what books appear on the online shelves you see.

    One tip. If you want to actually find a book on Amazon, use the book’s ISBN. I’ve yet to see a time when that didn’t work. Any other search result, except perhaps for bestsellers, can lead to deceptive results.

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