It can’t be that lousy a business if it attracts scammers, can it?

The Digital Reader alerts us to the fertile publishing of Forgotten Books. Forgotten Books, founded in 2007 with the goal of “rediscovering and republishing formerly out of print books”, claims to be the world’s largest publisher by number of titles. The Digital Reader tells us the company has “discovered 484,473 titles so far, and plans to discover another half million”. The Digital Reader continues “The titles I saw were made from the scanned print editions (like what you might find in Google Books) and did not contain text. [By which I assume he means searchable digital text, as opposed to a picture of the page.] The books were marginally readable at best; most had artifacts from the scanning process blurring the text on one page or another. And to top things off, Forgotten Books also slaps adverts inside the ebooks they ‘publish’.” An Amazon search for “Publisher: Forgotten Books” brings up 537,645 results. The comment Digital Reader makes about their books not being good enough for Kindle, doesn’t seem altogether borne out in toto, though many of the books are available in print-on-demand editions as well. One example is enough and is perhaps indicative of how fluid such publishing can be. Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons is available for 99 cents as a Kindle book from Amazon Digital Services in four (at least) editions all with different publication dates, but looking like they are really the same thing; it is also available from Forgotten Books as a paperback for $10.28. Project Gutenberg doesn’t have it. Forgotten Books offer membership at $8.99 a month, or will sell you a book or ebook. You can however read their books on-line at their site for free. The Digital Reader characterizes this as scam publishing.

They are however far from being the only publisher charging people for content which is also available free. Scholar’s Choice looks like a similar sort of operation: a search on their name brings up 100,420 hits. Kessinger Publishing gets 626,228 hits, Ulan Press, 525,306, FQ Books, 12085. Here from Scholarly Open Access is a listing of these and the many others active in this nether-world of publishing. This seems like an important listing, and should be made widely available. I remember being told a few years ago on a visit to Ingram/Lightning Source that we regular publishers had no idea how immense this perfectly legal if almost clandestine publishing was. Amazon Digital Services themselves are clearly active in this area. For instance you can pay them $1.99 for each of four of the five parts of Volume 9 of William Kerr Higley’s Birds and Nature, which if you took the time to look you could get from Project Gutenberg for free.

But is this really a scam? Surely, any publisher of “classics” is doing this sort of thing. The basic texts of most of Oxford’s World Classics are available free of charge at Project Gutenberg. The Oxford and Penguin editions do have authoritative texts and introductions by reputable scholars, but who among general readers cares too much about that? Why are we not protesting about Lady Audley’s Secret which is available from OUP for a monstrous $11.95 while it can be bought from Amazon’s CreateSpace as a paperback for $7.49, as an e-book from Amazon Digital Services for $5.19, $0.99 or $0.00? It can also be gotten for free from Project Gutenberg as an e-book or an audio book. Intriguingly they, Amazon Digital Services, also offer it as part of a $1.99 compendium of twenty mystery novels: Wilkie Collins: The Dead Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret, Collins: The Haunted Hotel, Collins: I Say No, Fergus Hume: The Bishop’s Secret, Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Edgar Wallace: The Four Just Men, Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent, Emmuska Orczy: Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, R. Austin Freeman: The Eye of Osiris, Grace Livingston Hill Lutz: The Mystery of Mary, Freeman: A Silent Witness, Ford Maddox Ford: The Good Soldier, Louis Tracy: The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley, Tracy: The Postmaster’s Daughter, Wallace: The Secret House, J. S. Fletcher: The Paradise Mystery, Wallace: Mr Justice Maxell, Fletcher: Ravensdene Court, and Agatha Christie: The Secret Adversary. Even if they were all available at Project Gutenberg, which they aren’t, this would be an attractive offer for the mystery addict. I got it, and can report that it looks fine (quality-wise) thus far. This does make me reflect on how fortunate we are nowadays. Why should we do anything other than celebrate when such opportunities are laid before us. Carping about the publisher just seems the opposite of what we should be doing.

There’s been a bit of a stir among academic librarians about how (and whether) they should catalog the many collections of public domain material offered by non-standard publishers (by which I guess we mean companies we’ve never heard of). These “publishers” appear to have little editorial interest in their product — if you are publishing half a million titles how can you? — and often reproduce nonsensical elements which any human looking at the item would have seen shouldn’t be there; and also of course failing to notice that whole chunks of the book may in fact be missing. Many (most?) of these quasi books don’t have an ISBN, which was the starting point for the librarians’ debate. They are bought on the basis of the title only, and it’s not until the customer receives the book that they recognize its inadequacies.

My view is “caveat emptor”. It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that there’s a lot of stuff out there which just isn’t worth paying for. If you follow the link above to the Forgotten Books site, you may be as gob-smacked as I was by what they can describe as “Most popular books”. Anyone who can manage to sell stuff like that must be a super salesperson! I do see that this sort of thing ending up in libraries is a waste of scarce funds, but if the problem is individual readers purchasing on an institutional account (getting the library to buy it) then isn’t the problem really the library’s policies and purchasing control mechanisms? When all’s said and done, if money can be made doing something, someone will be doing it.

Relevant in this context is my recent post “Predatory publishing”.