It's peak back-to-school shopping season. But before you buy a copy of Moby Dick online, read this first.
Countless books available for cheap from Amazon and other sellers are low-quality or even legally dubious—filled with strange punctuation, typos, missing pages, and a host of other results of shoddy production, according to recent reporting in The New York Times.
You're most at risk of being disappointed with a subpar edition when it comes to buying classic works of literature. This makes sense, after all: These books are staples in English and literature classes, so there's always demand. And in many cases, the work is in the public domain, meaning its copyright has expired. That gives publishers—and potential scammers—reason to churn out copies as cheaply and profitably as possible.
The Times' David Streitfeld wrote about his experience buying a dozen "fake and illegal" George Orwell books on Amazon. The books Streitfeld purchased were cheap, but they also had "typos galore, flap copy lifted directly from Wikipedia, [and] covers that screamed 'amateur,'" he wrote. Amazon removed listings for those questionable Orwell books, several of which seem to have been published in India, where the author's works are in the public domain. But Orwell's work is still protected under copyright in the U.S., which is why the books were removed from Amazon.
Amazon says that the subject of copyright is incredibly difficult to police, and it sent examples of questionably published books available from other sellers (including Barnes & Noble) to show that the problem is hardly just limited to Amazon.
"There is an issue of differing copyright timing between countries and sometimes even different titles within the same country," an Amazon spokesperson said via email in a statement to Money.com. "Today, there is no single source of truth for the copyright status of every book in every country that retailers could use to check copyright status."
The main takeaway for book shoppers is that many of the same problems raised by the Times article about George Orwell titles sold on Amazon apply to other books sold at Amazon and elsewhere.
Amazon told Money.com that selling such book titles in the public domain is standard practice among retailers, and that it's a way to make low-price books available to more readers. Amazon also said that it recommends that customers read reviews to see if and why an edition of a book has been bashed by critics. But ultimately Amazon defended the act of republishing and selling even a low-quality version of a book, provided the title is in the public domain. Some customers simply want the lowest price period, even if that means a classic work of literature gets a bit garbled.
Our advice is that if you are indeed in the market for a book in the public domain at the lowest price possible, first look to see if it's available for free online. There are many databases out there full of classic books you can readily download completely for free — and there's no cheaper price than that.
If instead you want a respectable, high-quality version of one of these books, or at least a copy that isn't full of typos, unreadable print, and bizarre formatting issues, take note of our tips here.
Be on High Alert With Classic Literature
You should be on especially high alert when browsing online for copies of books from classic authors like Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and yes, George Orwell.
We spotted at least 15 different versions of classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island for sale at Amazon. Which ones would actually be considered complete and legit by a high school English teacher? It's hard to tell. When in doubt, it's best to shop at your local independent bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or your school's bookstore. That way, you can see the goods in person and know what you're getting before purchasing. If you're buying a book for school, it's often important to have the edition specified by the teacher — so that you can literally be on the same page as the rest of the class.
Amazon also says you should ask them for a full refund if you've made a purchase on the site and feel it wasn't advertised accurately.
Watch Out for Abridged Copies
Some (but not all) shortened editions of books state clearly that they are abridged copies. This means they have been edited and shortened for a specific audience — typically, for younger readers. One problem is that the trimming and rewording is often done sloppily. It's also sometimes not apparent that a version of the book has been abridged, and buyers can feel misled. A seemingly-authentic book may, in fact, be nothing more than a loosely summarized guide to the original work of literature. We spotted one book, titled Mark Twain by Mark Twain and priced at $16.99 as a paperback, and it was only 30 pages long, consisting of a brief, sloppily written autobiography (which was most certainly not written by Twain himself) and some famous quotes by the author readily available on the Internet.
One step to take before selecting a copy of a book listed with multiple versions is to compare the number of pages among the different editions. We saw one copy of Moby Dick listed at Amazon at a mere 284 pages, while other editions had over 700 pages. If nothing else, this could mean that you're at risk of buying a book with teeny-tiny type, which might cause more headaches than you'd get trying to decipher the meaning behind Melville's white whale.
In addition to watching out for words like "abridged" and "guide" in book listing descriptions, be wary of a "translation," especially if there's no specific brand-name publisher tied to the edition. These books may be printed overseas haphazardly in order to be sold cheaply in the U.S. and elsewhere. We even saw one sketchy listing at Amazon stating that it was a "Modern English Translation" of Treasure Island — a book that was originally written in English, of course.
Be Skeptical About the Publisher
In the "Product details" section of Amazon listings, each book generally states the publisher's name just under the number of pages. If no specific publisher name is listed, that's a red flag. If the publisher is one you've never heard of and can't find much about in a Google search, that could also spell trouble.
Many classics appear to have been republished by vaguely "independent" publishers or on-demand businesses, and their professionalism can vary. In some cases, it looks like books have basically been cut and pasted from the Internet, and reviews indicate they can be riddled with typos and awkward formatting, with entire sections missing.
Read the One-Star Reviews
Online reviews are often questionable, and you shouldn't accept any one particular review as the gospel truth. Even so, it's worth taking a look at a specific edition's reviews, with particular emphasis on the one-star ratings. This is where reviewers may say that the version they purchased was a poorly republished abbreviation or an outright scam.
Also, be skeptical of book editions with very few reviews, and books that have reviews that don't seem to apply to the version at hand. For example, we spotted a one-line five-star review for an edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise that said, "Great set of classic books!" The problem with this is that the listing was for only a single book. Amazon indicated that this review was based on a "Verified Purchase," no less.
One complication with checking out book reviews at Amazon is that critiques aren't always directed at the specific version you're interested in. As the New York Times explained, "Amazon sometimes bundles all the reviews of a title together, regardless of which edition they were written for."
If Possible, "Look Inside" the Book
Take advantage of the "Look Inside" option if it's available for a book listed at Amazon. Just like it sounds, this tool lets you look inside a book and read selected sections. Typos, strange punctuation, and misspellings are obviously bad. Also, inspect the formatting. Among the clues that you're looking at a cheaply made version are when there are no indentations for paragraphs, or the copy is centered, or the table of contents is underlined as if cut and pasted from hyperlinks on the Internet.
Finally, be skeptical even when viewing the "Look Inside" option. Why? After clicking to peek inside one book — a copy of Billy Budd, by Herman Melville — at Amazon, some fine print stated that the view presented was actually from an entirely different edition of the book. In other words, sometimes when you try to "Look Inside" a book at Amazon you may not really be looking inside the book you're thinking of buying.