The Cranky Old Reader

I'm a Goodreads refugee, looking for a new home. Old books for children, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and humor are my main areas of interest. I've little interest in books that were written after 1975 or so, and prefer books that are older still. There are, however, a few still-living authors that I respect.

The free ebook bait-and-switch

I own a Nook Color, so my experience is mainly limited to Nook ebooks and books that are compatible with that reader. But I suspect that my experience probably applies to the Kindle as well. If anyone can enlighten me on that point, I'd appreciate it!


Barnes & Noble technically allows free books to be read on the Nook. But their market does everything possible to force shoppers to pay for public-domain books short of literally holding a gun to their heads.

Search the Nook market for any classic work - A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, for example. It was published in 1896, and is therefore in the public domain. By default, pay versions are all you'll see on the first page of results. Scroll through another page or two, and you'll eventually reach a few free versions. But god help you if you download and try to read one! The text is utterly mangled, with a truly astonishing number of trash characters and formatting so tortured that the whole thing is effectively unreadable.

Yet the free copies on Project Gutenberg are pristine and perfect.

I was angry enough to write the following review of the Nook edition:

The verses get five stars from me;
The presentation, one.
A scandal t’is that OCR’s
So mangled Housman’s fun.
The headers cleave each verse in twain
The lines lie torn and rent.
How cruel to make him die again!
Needlessly violent.
But hope lives on, for pristine text
Of “Shropshire Lad” is free
On Project Gutenberg, the home
Of Housman fans like me.

This is not an isolated instance. Time and again, I've found "free" copies of public-domain works from Barnes & Noble that looked as if they'd been OCRed with 1980s technology, or else hand-edited by a deranged monkey. Yet the Project Gutenberg version is always virtually typo-free and far better-formatted. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Apply Occam's Razor: is it more likely that all the free Nook copies of public-domain works just happened to be screwed up, or could it be that they are deliberately mangled with the intent of forcing the reader to pay for copies instead?


Of course, it is possible to sort books in the Nook market by price. But that requires more technological knowledge or aptitude than the majority of the ebook-reading public seems to posses. The fact is that most people simply aren't that comfortable with technology. Sorting by price is something they aren't likely to be aware of, much less try. But even if they did, the free copies that Barnes & Noble offers ARE mangled. What other purpose can there be for that mangling except to force ignorant customers to pay for something that they can have for free?

Barnes & Noble is screwing their less technologically-adept customers. Is that ethical? Is that really what we've come to? Is lex talonis the only standard of corporate behavior?


Why not try treating their customers with respect? I'd suggest that the loyalty gained by not abusing their customers would produce MORE sales than they get from their current sleazy business practices. I, for one, am making every effort to avoid buying any new books from them.

It doesn't help that they're charging outrageous prices, either. As I noted in the previous post, both Barnes & Noble and are charging $9.99 today for a book that cost me $1.95 new in 1981 at a bricks-and-mortar store. Yet the cost of production and transportation of the ebook is virtually nil compared to that paperback. What justifies a 512% price increase? That's far more than inflation!

It's not necessary to screw your customers. There are publishers out there who sell ebooks at reasonable prices, or at least less-unreasonable ones. Baen Books, for example, sells a large number of excellent science fiction ebooks for $4-$6 each, in any format and without DRM. That includes quite a few Heinlein juveniles, although not the one that I referred to above.

Yet Baen Books manages to stay in business, while Barnes & Nobles had to be rescued by Microsoft and is generally agreed to be on their last legs. When will these companies learn?

Currently reading

Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium d100 system (Basic Roleplaying)
Sam Johnson, Charlie Krank
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Rebecca Solnit