The Amazon Kindle: wonderful device, shame about the books

The only time I tend to have to read is when I'm travelling to and from work. Unfortunately, it's rather inconvenient for me to have to remove and replace the book from and to my rucksack. This sometimes also leads to me damaging the book in question. Hence, my decision to purchase an Amazon Kindle.

The Kindle is certainly a nice device. It's reasonably light, and despite having a resolution of only 600x800, the properties of electronic ink and a pixel density of 167 ppi result in an impressive display. The user-interface can be a little clunky, but this is only an issue when you're doing something with the Kindle other than flipping the pages of a book.

For my first read, I decided I wanted a complete collection of all Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Surely, not an unreasonable request since "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (the first of four collections of stories) is prominently featured by Amazon as one of the free classics available for the Kindle.

My first choice was to download them from Project Gutenberg and avoid any DRM-related issues. Alas, none of these had any images (many stories were originally illustrated by Sidney Paget when first published in The Strand magazine). Hence, I decided to purchase them from Amazon. I expected that it would be trivial to find a complete collection including original illustrations, ideally typeset for the Kindle, and not subject to typographical errors. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Finding such a book in paper form isn't an issue. However, searching for an equivalent ebook led me to reviews complaining about missing images, missing contents pages, missing lines, poorly typeset conversations, poorly scanned images and adverts for other books embedded within the text1. Note that most of these editions were non-free and it would be necessary to buy the ebook before spotting the issues, and again to get a revised version (if one was produced in the future).

The first problem is that searching Amazon for Sherlock Holmes ebooks reveals many, many, results and it's extremely difficult to distinguish between them. Amazon's site aggregates the reviews of all editions of a book together, regardless of publisher. As a result, it's rather difficult to find reviews for a specific Kindle edition of a book. Multiple Amazon customers seemed confused by which ebook edition was being described by which review. Unfortunately, if the quality of ebooks varies massively across editions, finding reviews for a specific edition becomes altogether more important.

The next problem is the lack of trustworthy publishers. I had hoped that I might be able to make a guess about the quality of the ebook based on its publisher. Publishers of physical books tend to have well defined reputations but typing many of the ebook publishers into a search engine revealed no other sign of their existence. Other books were simply listed as public domain or had no publisher at all. One publisher's website had vanished entirely. Of almost all the publishers I could find, there was no indication that they'd existed for more than a year or two.

This is perhaps, hardly surprising. In the UK, all the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories have passed into the public domain. It doesn't take much work to imagine a business model to become an ebook publisher selling only classics.

  • Download out of copyright works from Project Gutenberg or other public domain resources.
  • Edit away undesired text and modify typography.
  • Create persuasive description and cover page, then sell on Amazon.

The best part is that creating an ebook has no physical printing cost. Of course, I have no way to know whether this is happening. What I do know is that the reviews suggest some extremely shoddy publishers. Given the difficulty of checking for issues before purchase and no way to return or get refunded for an ebook, it's probably rather easy to make a pretty penny.

However, there is spark of hope. An illustrated edition by Seashell Press seems to have had an unparalleled amount of effort placed into its creation and received excellent reviews. It's probably also worth noting that this is the only publisher I've seen that also appears to produce physical books.

Alas, it looks like this collection was originally complete, but then was revised to not contain "The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes" as it was still under copyright in the US. This change was also applied to the version available in the UK as well. I've since emailed the publishers to see if it is possible to get the original version distributed in the UK, where copyright of that particular collection is not an issue.

Amazon's use of DRM, remote content removal and the choice not to support EPUB indicate how much they wish to retain control of Kindle ebook distribution. As such, the quality of ebooks available from the Kindle store directly affects the utility of the Kindle, and it's sad to see issues like these that I never anticipated.

These are simply first impressions, and I have no idea if the issues I've described affect other books. If they do, they probably only exist for for older, out of copyright works. However, one of Amazon's main selling points for the Kindle seems to be that it provides an acceptable experience for reading classic literature. Just look at the Kindle's display every time it's switched off.

  1. For example, this free edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, currently at #3 in the Free Kindle store, contains character encoding errors. One such error is in the story "Adventure II. The Red-Headed League" which contains the text "there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of �4 a week for purely nominal services". The three strange characters should instead be a pound sign.

    In this non-free edition of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection", I found that the links in the table of contents for the stories "The Adventure of a Case of Identity" and "The Adventure of the Read-Headed League" pointed to each other's stories instead of their own. It seems free of more major issues though.