Public domain books being blocked by Amazon; silly marketing decision?

Screen shot 2009-08-31 at 4.26.25 PM 2 I just received the following email from Laura McDonald of Girlebooks about Amazon blocking one of her public domain books.  It seems to me to be another example of Amazon inexperience in the ebook area and a case of making a foolish marketing decision without thinking the facts through.  The correspondence is below and it has been reprinted with Laura’s permission.

Hi Paul,

I’ve recently encountered an interesting situation when selling my ebooks through the Amazon Kindle Store. I thought you might find it interesting too.

The ebooks I sell are 99% public domain. The difference in our ebooks is that we read each one we post and correct errors in the text, hand format them, and create new covers. They are free on our website and I also post them for a minimal fee in the Kindle Store and some other ebook outlets.

I’ve found that people do appreciate the extra effort we put into creating the ebooks, making the covers, and reviewing the books. People who want the ease of using whispernet to put ebooks on their Kindles don’t seem to mind the fee we charge for them in the Kindle store. And I’m sure a lot of people buy our ebooks in the Kindle store because they looked nicer than the other ones available, whether they knew the ebooks were also available for free on our site or not.

The point is that Amazon apparently is starting to block our ebooks from sale in the Kindle store because they are public domain. Whether they will also do this for big publishers who sell public domain books remains to be seen. I’m thinking not. I don’t have the whole story of course, but you can see correspondence I have had from them below. Thanks!


Dear Publisher,

We’re working on a policy and procedure change to fix a customer experience problem caused by multiple copies of public domain titles being uploaded by a multitude of publishers.  For an example of this problem, do a search on “Pride and Prejudice” in the Kindle Store.  The current situation is very confusing for customers as it makes it difficult to decide which “Pride and Prejudice” to choose from.  As a result, at this time we are not accepting additional public domain titles through DTP, including the following:

Whose Body? (Girlebooks Classics) by Dorothy Sayers

If you believe that we have wrongly identified this title as a public domain title, and you are the copyright holder or are authorized to sell it by the copyright holder, then please reply to with appropriate documentation of your e-book rights.

Thank you,

Please note: This e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.  If you have any questions or concerns, please write to us at

Best regards,

Muruganandham Malayalam

—- Original message: —-


Just looking at my backend books list and I see that Whose Body? has been blocked. Can you let me know why? This text is public domain and freely available at Project Gutenberg, so it can’t be a copyright problem. If there is another problem, please let me know.


10 Comments on Public domain books being blocked by Amazon; silly marketing decision?

  1. On 8/31/2009 the Girlebooks edition is listed on Amazon as not yet available. There were eight other editions for Kindle ranging in price from $1.00 to $24.95.

  2. It sounds to me like Amazon has found a problem, they’re calling a time-out, going to look at the problem and see how they might address it, then arrive at a policy that is clear to everyone that wants to try and capitalize on selling public domain titles for the Kindle.

    I recall more than a few folks being upset when they found people were selling public domain titles for the Kindle to begin with (“Morons” they screamed. “You can get them elsewhere for FREE”).

    Just the other day there were commenters here blasting Google for releasing millions of titles in ePub (for FREE) that had not been formatted to the readers liking. There is just no pleasing some people.

    I’ve tried a few times to find public domain titles on Amazon for my Kindle in the hope that someone may have taken a bit of time to correct some formatting issues for titles I could get straight from Gutenberg. I’d gladly pay a buck or two for a “clean” ebook.

    The choices can be overwhelming – 100 versions of Huck Finn with prices ranging from zilch to 7 bucks (most with zero customer reviews). It is also difficult to try and determine how much effort the publisher put into cleaning up the offering or if they are just one of many folks throwing dozens of titles up in an effort to try and make a quick buck.

    Right offhand I don’t have a clue what the best course of action is for Amazon. I doubt they have the resources to vet each and every ebook title they sell. I know from personal experience with a few titles from major publishers that I have bought that formatting and database errors/sloppiness occurs. To Amazon’s credit whenever I have notified them they are quick to work with the publisher to correct the mistake.

    Of course they could just remain in a laissez faire mode and let the buyer beware and try to just rely on customer reviews. It is a damned if they do and damned if they don’t sort of thing methinks.

  3. It’s possible that GirleBooks has signed a different Amazon contract than I have but my contract stipulates that I won’t offer them at a lower regular price elsewhere than the list price I set for Amazon (everyone gets the same list price although discounts etc. are possible). If GirleBooks is selling for free on their site and for money on Kindle, they may have another issue beyond the public domain one.

    Rob Preece

  4. I have a question about public domain ebooks on the kindle? If you buy a public domain book for cheap or even get it for free through Amazon’s whispernet does it come to your kindle wrapped in Amazon’s proprietary DRM?

    Are you turning public domain ebooks into locked-down restricted use version whenever you acquire them through Amazon? If so this really does not seem in the spirit of public domain.

  5. OH WHAT A BUNCH OF CRAP! Confusion, indeed. If you search Pride and Prejudice for pbooks there also are a dozen or more editions. Penguin has an edition, Oxford has an edition (two actually), Cambridge has an edition, Dover Thrift has an edition, Bantam has an edition, Tor has an edition for crying out loud. I own four or five copies myself, and it’s not even my favorite Austen. (I have a copy of Northanger Abbey in Italian.) Janeites have their favorite and will have deep and lengthy discussions about “which is best.” Are they going to pick one and tell the others they can’t sell their books? I’d like to see that. Academics will storm the castle with pitchforks and torches.

    By the bye, Girlebooks does a fabulous job and I recommend them highly for public domain and other books.

  6. Richard Askenase // September 1, 2009 at 10:18 am //

    I have recently “purchased” two Sherlock Holmes collections that Amazon is selling for free. These are story collections. These ebooks do NOT have a linked Table of Contents!! How helpful is that! If I want the third story I have to scroll my way to it. Inexcusable!

  7. In response to Rob, the contract with Amazon says the SRP must be consistent with the SRP provided to “other retailers and wholesalers”. I take “other retailers and wholesalers” to mean exactly that: other ebook stores where I sell the ebooks like Scribd, Mobipocket, Smashwords, etc. Not my own site where I offer them for free. I’m not a lawyer, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

    And thanks for the kind words, Mags. 😉

  8. I wonder if there is a workaround. Maybe girlebooks could add some content — an original introduction would be all that is needed, but more might be offered — and then they have a unique and (parts at least) copyrightable edition that they can retitle so as to avoid the no-doubt robotic means Amazon uses to weed out these duplicate titles.

    ‘The Girlebook Edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’ would do it. Writers can be ‘Jane Austen and girlebooks’

    But then when a user searched for the title ‘Pride and Prejudice’ alone, would the girlebooks edition show up?

    Another thing this strategy (which is at least a couple weeks old, by the way) brings up is the forbidding prospect that Amazon might be considering grabbing all the public domain titles for themselves. I’ve seen nobody suggest such a thing so far, but in order to ‘clear up the confusion’ and ‘help all our Kindle users,’ Amazon might just repackage all the Project Gutenberg titles and sell them as ‘Authentic Authorized Amazon Editions’ — a sideswipe at google books editions, a variant on the Barnes & Noble self-published classics, and a way of locking up these titles for themselves.

    Amazon might also copartner with various ‘authorities’ in the universities to publish ‘Amazon Scholarly Editions’ of these PG titles, all with introduction and notes by authorities in the relevant fields, and proofed and reproofed by these authorities. That would be part of the push by Amazon into the textbook markets.

  9. I suspect what is going on is that some greedy sellers are slapping up poorly formatted public domain books, Kindle readers are buying them, and then complaining or demanding their money back (and I’ve no problem with that), so to solve the problem Amazon isn’t letting anyone sell public domain books. That doesn’t solve the problem, just masks the cause.

    B&N has been selling their own editions of public domain books for years. They include two Austens in the download of their new ebook software. But they offer other editions, too (including the indifferently OCRed Google Books versions).

  10. Hugh Beaumont // April 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm //

    I’m wondering if I can scan books in the public domain and sell them on Amazon in pdf format. These can be read through Adobe or a Kindle, though they tak up considerable more disk space.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail

wordpress analytics