I was browsing around the internet a few weeks ago, and found a link to Star in a Story. Your name in a classic story! for only $5.95! What a bargain, eh? How can you put a price on being part of classic literature?

Well, the ‘classic’ bit really is a bit of a hint. A quick glance at the list of title shows that they are all public domain! (well, actually, they’re not – more on that later).

I saw the site, thought ‘pah!’, and went away. But I couldn’t quite shake a nagging feeling, and ended up back on the site last night. The cause of my morbid curiosity?

One of the books was Anne of Green Gables. Now, I’m fairly familiar with the book, and remembered that Anne being called, well, ‘Anne’ was fairly important to the story at a few points. Hmm, thinks I. Surely they must allow for that? Surely they actually have some knowledge of the text, and have put a bit of effort in to making the name change believable. Surely, for $5.95 per text, they’ve not simply done a string match find and replace? Am I really going to fork over 4 quid of my hard-earned cash to find out?

Let’s see, shall we?

The original:

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

“Very well, then, Anne spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?”
(From Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45. Public domain in the US.)

and the ‘Star in a Story’ version

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Bethan, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordeliaat least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Bethanplease call me Bethan spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Bethan spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

“Very well, then, Bethan spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?” (From Bethan of Green Gables, copyright (apparently!) Chris Burgess)

And later on:

‘”Ann Ruddock has a very bad temper. Ann Ruddock must learn to control her temper,” and then read it out loud so that even the primer class, who couldn’t read writing, should understand it.’

Yup, string matching on ‘Anne’ and ‘Shirley’ it is. And if you look closely, you’ll see the formatting on the Bethan version isn’t great either – the em dashes are missing (as in ‘was Cordeliaat least’). For $5.95 I was expecting a nicely formatted pdf at the very least – what I got was an automatically generated webpage. If you’d like to see how it looked as a whole, (minus any name at all for the lead character!), check out http://www.star-in-a-story.com/Anne-of-Green-Gables.php. This (with my name in it) is what I got for my money. When I bookmarked the page and went back, lo and behold it’s the template copy! At least I’d copied and saved my little piece of immortality first, eh?

So what’s the lesson from this, for us as info pros? (other than that I’m a fool who can’t be trusted with money). It’s all about education, information literacy. I knew immediately I saw the list of titles that they were public domain. I chose to pay for it for investigative purposes. If I just wanted a copy of Anne of Green Gables with my name in it I know darn well I have quick, simple, and free alternatives.

But what about people who don’t know? Isn’t this the sort of thinking that we should be instilling through information literacy – don’t pay for anything on the internet without first checking out that you have to!

This doesn’t just apply to individuals offering services such as ‘Star in a Story’. The big boys are guilty of it too. Recently, I was looking for a version of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four to read on my phone, and thought I’d check out the new Kindle for Android app. The cheapest copy I found in the Kindle store? 72p. Now, I know that’s only 72p, and not exactly a major investment – BUT I knew full well I could get a copy from Project Gutenberg (in a number of formats, including Kindle-compatible) for free. And hang, on, what about my local library? Yes, it’s available for download as a free ebook there too – but someone has it checked out. Back to Gutenberg for me!

Obviously, people may well prefer the convenience of the Kindle store, and that’s fine – as long as they’re making an informed choice, and not thinking that paying 72p in the Kindle store is their only way of getting hold of that text as an ebook.

And it’s not just potential buyers who might be in need of a little advice from an info prof! When I scanned the list of titles available in ‘Star in a Story’, my first instinct was that they were all public domain. ‘But hang on’, thinks I, ‘Pygmalion? I’m sure George Bernard Shaw is still in copyright in the UK!’ And yes, he died in 1950, and won’t be public domain in the UK for another decade yet. What about Anne of Green Gables? A quick check on the dates of L M Montgomery reveals she didn’t die until 1942 (I think the assumption that she’s public domain probably comes from Anne being published in 1908), and therefore her works are still in copyright in the UK too. Not only did Chris Burgess of Star in a Story sell me an overpriced, shoddy piece of work, but – unless he paid royalties to the estate of LM Montgomery – he also broke the law in doing so. Perhaps a little advice from his local librarian could have prevented this?

Now, I’m not against ‘your name in…’ in general. Ok, I found Bethan of Green Gables creepy and disturbing, but I see that there is a market for this sort of thing, especially for encouraging reluctant readers. But the key is doing it right, and ‘Star in a Story’ is, I’m afraid, doing it wrong.

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