Publishers invent whole new reason not to buy books

For several years, I owned two out of the four volumes of an edition of an important twentieth-century writer-philosopher, who shall remain nameless here because he is long dead and innocent of the crime I am about to describe. Recently, having been paid and feeling flush, I decided to buy the two volumes missing from my collection. Since Amazon and the publisher’s own website list the volumes as still in print, I elected to buy the books new. A portion of my cash was transferred electronically to Amazon; I waited patiently by my mailbox; and in due time, a brown cardboard box arrived.

But woe came to Brooklyn with that cardboard box. There was no trouble with volume 1. Like the volumes I already owned, its pages were fine in texture and cream in color, the binding was sewn, and the printing of the type crisp and clear. Not so volume 2. Its pages, by contrast, were bluish and flimsy, its binding was by glue, and the printing . . . Oh, the printing was the worst part. The illustrations were textureless, as if they had been photocopied, the ink was blobby on the page, and the type was filmy and inexact, so that the thick parts of letters were thicker than they ought to be, and the thin parts dropped out altogether.

It was clear what had happened. Volume 2 had gone out of print. And to put it back in print, the publishers had hired a print-on-demand service. Inside hard covers deceptively similar to those of the other volumes, the publisher had stuck a text block that was only a shoddy knock-off of what ought to have been there. But, reader, they charged full price.

I returned the volume to Amazon, after having selected from the drop-down menu “Product performance/quality is not up to my expectations.” And now I haunt the online booksellers, writing to them plaintive requests to take down the volume from their shelves before they sell it to me, and to answer me, Is the binding sewn? Are the pages clearly printed? Someday, I hope, I shall find the volume I am in search of, in its true form.

Bruised by the experience, I became alert to clues that I had not noticed before. Leafing through the stacks of books in my study, I recall the illegible numerals in a monograph from a university press, and indeed, it seems to have suffered the same changeling swap, sometime between its first and its second printing. In a bookstore, I pick up a paperback issued by a very-tony publisher, and selling for $20; the eye rebels against the out-of-focus type; it is printed no more carefully than a Xeroxed coursepack.

Publishers of the world, did you need to give your customers another reason to distrust you? If you are going to sell us shoddy goods, couldn’t you lower the price? Couldn’t you let us know? I do not like a print-on-demand title, but I do not mind it if I know that that’s what I’m purchasing, and if the price corresponds. But to farce print-on-demand slurry between prestigious-seeming cloth covers—who do you think shells out hard cash for nice editions? People who don’t care about books?

UPDATE (Feb. 20): The world may not in fact be coming to an end, it turns out. Last week, in response to an email that I sent around the time I wrote this blog entry, I received a polite and very informative reply from someone responsible for design and production at the university press in question. This person wrote that yes, indeed, the volume I had purchased was on lower-quality paper than its siblings, and the printing was digital whereas its siblings had had offset printing. In fact, he further explained, the printing on the objectionable volume was worse than digital printing usually is, because it wasn’t printed from “live” PDF files but from scans of an earlier printing. “This was not a good decision on our part,” he wrote.

There were a couple of pieces of good news in his message. Only about 300 copies of a print run of nearly 9,000 were flawed the way mine was; the bad decisions were part of a one-time stopgap measure. And the glue binding that I objected to was a “cold melt” binding, also known as a double-fan binding, that is in fact stronger and more durable than Smyth-sewn binding.

9 thoughts on “Publishers invent whole new reason not to buy books”

  1. What a dilemma you present! If this book were not available print-on-demand, it might not be available or easy to get at all. I agree, however, that the quality of these things is terrible for the most part. And I think your suggestion about labeling such books is a good one. But it should be noted that the cost of producing a PoD book is not low at all, despite the shoddiness of the things. It's more that producing one (or 20, spread over 20 years) PoD copy is less an investment than printing the minimum required by a printer, not to mention housing these unsold copies. What's a poor publisher to do?

  2. P.O.D. is far from ideal, but as Sara K says, "If this book were not available print-on-demand, it might not be available … at all." However, I have noticed over the last couple of years that P.O.D. books are getting better all the time. In a few years time one hopes they'll be as good as traditionally printed books … I doubt it, but they'll certainly get a lot closer than they are now.

    I presume you've scoured for your missing volume?

  3. Thanks for the comments, Sara and Mark. I'm not against POD in principle; they're usually a step up from photocopies. It's the truth-in-labeling issue that stirred me up. I've looked on ABE for the volume, but it hasn't proved easy to verify from afar whether I'm about to buy another POD-book or a real one.

  4. There's still something to be said about words and accurate description. At my favorite specimen of dollar-store, there exists a wire rack featuring cellophane-wrapped goods. The package says "blueberry muffin," yet upon examination of the ingredients, there's no trace of blueberries, flour, milk or egg. Instead, there are dyed soy nuggets mixed into a chemical precipitate. Should this item be kept around for the sake of the muffin-lover, or preserved as an example for the mere muffin-dabbler?

  5. Print on demand can indeed be frustrating if unannounced — but the fault really lies with Amazon's lack of decent book descriptions, which are often standardized or inexpertly penned: "Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside." But I'm surprised to hear that ABE hasn't served you better — I both purchase and sell on their site and would recommend it to all, in large part on the back of its often very detailed descriptions of books. My advice would be not to buy a book without enquiring, if it's not described in detail (and certainly to return the book if it is a lemon, so to speak).

  6. Hi Caleb,

    Please excuse me but I have a non-thread related question. I would have e-mailed you but I couldn't find your contact info on Steamboats.

    Do any links exist to your Out Magazine story, "Did a Germ Make You Gay?" I would love to read it.

    You may have been a little ahead of the curve on that piece. A recent study shows that homosexuality corelates with blood type. Any first year medical student will tell you that blood type and immune system go hand in hand.

    The study

    Box Turtle mention of the blood type study.

    I hope your story is out there somewhere. Thanks either way.

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