Back Talk — Following Ulysses on (the) Amazon

by | Feb 22, 2016 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Jim O’Donnell  (University Librarian, Arizona State University)

This is a sobering moral tale about what becomes of the printed book in today’s marketplace.  The print book, I tell my faculty and administration, has a long and glorious history in front of it yet, but just at the moment some of its friends aren’t helping much.

When I left home for college on a red-eye flight long ago, I took a suitcase and a Smith-Corona portable typewriter and in the typewriter case a single book – the sort of book “college men” would read, I was sure.  It was a brand new copy of the old Vintage paperback of the 1934 edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.  It kept me company through college and indeed keeps me company still, though that copy has never actually been read.  I got a couple of chapters through several times and then drifted off.  When I finally read it the first time, I’d been studying in Dublin for a year and bought a perfectly lovely small trim-size hardback copy published by the Bodley Head and read it in a week, while going out and jumping on city busses to track down the locations of every chapter.  That copy I’ve read several times since, always with great enthusiasm.

So what if a young person today needed a copy of Ulysses, I asked myself some weeks ago.  What’s available?  Time to check Amazon.

Bad news.

Let’s stipulate that we want a well-made and serviceable paperback book, sturdy enough to last through a serious reading of 800 or so pages, well-printed, in an edition that you can be sure has something to do with what Mr. Joyce wrote.  Simple enough?

No.  Try the Amazon search yourself.  There are three main versions of the text, to start with.  One is the long-standard British and American edition that was my Vintage paperback.  That text stabilized in the early 1930s after the first printings were corrected and the publishing situation mostly regularized; there’s a later edition from the 1980s by a German scholar who did an elaborate critical edition to clean up the inconsistencies of the earlier editions; and as it happens now you can buy reprints of the 1922 original printing, full of misprints, as well.

The copyright situation, you see, is messy and contested.  It’s pretty certain (I am not a lawyer) that the 1922 text is out of copyright; it’s pretty certain that the 1980s critical edition is in copyright; and the status of the 1930s edition is tangled in different national copyright laws and haunted by the Joyce estate, which has been notoriously protective of its rights in every way.

Still, it used to be easy to buy this book.  It’s always been in print, the supply chain was always full of copies, it was assigned reading in hundreds if not thousands of university courses.  There’s every reason for this book to be a business success, and we should all benefit from that.

Well, try that Amazon search, ok?  You’ll get dozens of pages of hits, but what you find is a vast mishmash of dumped-to-digital e-books of dubious provenance, dumped-to-POD p-books equally dubious, and secondhand copies of editions you half-recognize but can’t be sure what condition they’re in.  When I first did the experiment, I gave up, partly because I don’t actually need a copy right now, but also because I genuinely could not find one that met my relatively simple criteria — new, well-made, dependable edition.  (Print on Demand books are particularly insidious today, cheaply made and variously unsatisfactory.  Even staid Oxford University Press for almost ten years has been doing POD to keep some classic scholarly titles “in print,” but the objects they sell now are barely serviceable and to my eye downright ugly, a conscious betrayal of half a millennium of serious book-making.)

Amazon contributes to this problem in two ways.  First, many of the trashware editions are in fact published and distributed by Amazon’s own “self-publishing” print and digital services.  But worse is Amazon’s relentless failure to pay heed to metadata.  You can’t tell what version you’re looking at.

When you find a given title on Amazon, it generally lets you choose among Kindle, hardcover, paperback, and sometimes audiobook versions of the same book.  When it’s a new commercial product from a single publisher, that works well.  Time after time on the Ulysses pages, you will be given that choice, but the three or four versions whose tabs appear on the same screen turn out, when you click on a tab, to be completely different editions.  What looked like a possible contender for the paperback choice offered a “hardcover” tab that linked to an out-of-print edition by a completely different publisher.

So then I went back a day later, had the same result, and got in touch with Amazon for some help.  There’s a click-here-and-we’ll-call-you help service that I tried first.  The Amazon representative there failed completely.  He had clearly never heard of Joyce or Ulysses and could not find any copy for sale at all on the Website.

So then I wrote in to their email customer service and received back a note encouraging me to purchase this volume:  This is a dump-to-POD edition distributed by Amazon’s own self-publishing arm.  It’s the most remarkable copy of Ulysses I’ve ever seen, since it fits the whole book into 228 pages, trim size 8.5×11, formatted with two columns of 56 lines each per page, each line averaging ten or so words.  I’ve not seen the physical object and can’t be sure, but the type face must be 10 point or more likely smaller.  My eyes hurt just thinking about it.

So I squawked again and got one more message from the email customer service, saying that no reputable publisher now offers Ulysses through Amazon.  This is unlikely to be true, but it is what Amazon’s representative says.  This customer service representative again seemed to have no idea who Joyce is, what the book is, or why someone would care.  When I had said “most famous and important novel of the twentieth century” he reacted not at all.  He invited me to submit a product request online.

I persisted.  I got Amazon to make another try to find a good new paperback copy of Ulysses for me.  What they came up with this time was a Wordsworth edition from the UK for $1.45.  This has the merit of coming from a somewhat serious publisher, producing inexpensive copies of out-of-copyright classics.  Reader, I bought it — don’t actually need it, but for $1.45 (and free shipping with Prime), I couldn’t resist.  It’s not bad at all.  It does the job.  Coming from a corporate publisher, it’s probably even copyright-legal.

Of course, I’ll think a little about just how it makes sense to sell a book at that price at all and where the concept of profit has gone.  Which part of the $1.45 pays for the printing and binding, which for the distribution to booksellers, and which part for the shipping to me?  It’s a good choice for a professor to assign her students in a world of overpriced textbooks.

While I waited for that to arrive, I happened to walk past a bookstore.  You remember bookstores.  They’re easy to spot:  big sign “Books” outside and lots of greeting cards, wrapping paper, and writers’ supplies inside.  But behind them, actual books.  It took me thirty seconds in the store to find what I was looking for:  Vintage books edition, near-exact reprint of that copy that went to college with me.

I photographed the ISBN and mailed it to myself.  Back to Amazon:  if I search for editions of Ulysses or even just paperback editions of Ulysses, I do not find the Vintage edition at all.  I do find its cover illustrated on one entry on page 13 of the hits, but that points only to four used copies priced each at more than $2,000 (two thousand dollars:  not a typo, but no explanation what could justify the price).  If I input the ISBN, I get the correct edition, for $12.45, Prime eligible.  It comes with other tabs for hardcover and eBook editions, but those tabs lead to editions that have nothing to do with the Vintage edition. (When I wrote up this sad tale on the redoubtable Liblicense-l discussion list, a reader pointed me to an Oxford World’s Classics edition.  It is similarly invisible to the basic search but available if you know the ISBN already.)

That copy of Ulysses I took to college must have come from the Basset Center Book Store in El Paso, where the leftist philosopher Paul Goodman’s books spun on a rotating rack just across the aisle from the special corner hosting the richest selection of John Birch Society publications I’ve ever seen.  I never knew I had it so good.  And you can’t go home again.

You can, of course, go to a library.  I’ll resume this story in my next column and explore the alternatives.  Joyce is not dead yet.

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