Column Editor: Jim O’Donnell (University Librarian, Arizona State University)
This is the life! I sit in my office and I think of a book I’d like to read. Often in a few minutes and never more than a few days later, I’m reading that very book. For one who started out his library life in a quonset hut on an army base in the desert, this is amazing and beautiful.
If life were merely amazing and beautiful, of course, we’d have no great works of art: no Picasso’s Guernica, no Moby-Dick, and no rivetingly memorable columns in Against the Grain. Fortunately, my experience has gone beyond amazing and reached the level of “you’ve got to be kidding.”
It started this way. There came upon me a fierce desire to read a new translation of Thucydides. Hobbes and Jowett and Crawley and Lattimore and Blanco are all so other-century, so let’s see what Mynott can do. Jeremy Mynott ascended through the editorial ranks at Cambridge University Press to become the Press’ CEO and then in retirement ascended even higher, to enter the ranks of Thucydides translators. It’s a tough and unforgiving task, but he has carried it off splendidly, no question. I knew of his success at second hand and wanted to witness it myself.
But though the book was published in 2013, our library hadn’t yet acquired it. In these days of access over ownership, that’s no firm obstacle to the satisfaction of desire, but I still thought we should buy a copy, and so we placed an order. True to the magic of the times, the book showed up a few days later, 761 pages, with translation, notes, index, and the like.
I was disappointed. The book that arrived was a hardcover copy that had clearly been “printed on demand,” as the cover was that kind of shiny washable plastic stuff that gives PTSD flashbacks to the textbooks we so loathed in seventh grade. Some publishers have decided, you see, that the way to keep a place for the print book in the digital age is to make those books as cheap and ugly looking as possible. Big, too: trim sizes bloated beyond all recognition. Do they think that the reader will be more likely to spot the book in a bookstore if it’s the size of the Sears Roebuck catalogs of my childhood? When I buy one of those, I always go looking for the bicycle tire valve on it, hoping that I can let all the air out and shrink it down to the size of a classic Modern Library edition, which is the right size for human hand and eye. Doesn’t work very often.
POD packaging is a success in taking ugly to the next level. Ugliness didn’t surprise me about my new Thucydides, but what did surprise me was trouble reading the book. One of the things Thucydides is famous for in his books is all the reported orations by distinguished statesmen, who explain exactly how they mean to take opportunity for glory and turn it into the shabbiest, bloodiest war of all antiquity. What does it mean, then, when I find that this copy of the book calls them spccchcs? Cost containment I can understand, but just how much do we save eliminating the cross-bars on the letter “e”? The vanishingly faint print of this badly made copy rendered the artifact nearly unreadable.
I harrumphed. Yes, librarians are too genteel to harrumph, but I was trained differently. Harrumphing is one of the core competencies inculcated in Provost School, and there I did very well indeed. Word of my harrumphing went out through the library staff, who heard me say that we should send this book back and get a better copy. A small number of days later another copy arrived, this time a paperback. It too was big — 1.75” thick, to be precise. I sat it next to my old Signet paperback of Moby-Dick and realized that if I’d had this Thucydides when I read Melville at 16, it wouldn’t have been so hard to imagine just how immense the white whale was.
And so I began to read. This copy was better than the last, containing actual speeches and no spccchcs, though to my bifocular eyes it was rather faintly printed and in type rather smaller than necessary for something as, well, bloated as this. The “perfect” binding cracked the first time I opened it, not a good sign for a book meant to be a college textbook for diligent readers. I grew grumpier, uttered a few imprecations, and talked to a few people, whom I will preserve with anonymity from being immortalized in a rivetingly memorable ATG column, and I discovered a remarkable thing.
Sitting quietly in my office on February 19th, looking closely at the inside back cover of this second copy, I discovered a small logo there confirming that this book had been printed in San Bernadino CA on the 16th of February, 72 hours earlier. How could that be? I asked my colleagues; they confirmed that they had known that The Harrumpher wanted a fresh copy, and so they got it as fast as they could — from Amazon. Yes, and?
Well, it turns out that when a major publisher hands over a book to Amazon to sell, they may require the publisher also to provide Amazon with a PDF of the book. Amazon thereby acquires the right to produce what I will now call “Print-on-Discretion” copies. For whenever Amazon decides that their commitment to deliver the goods as quickly and cheaply as possible so requires, they have the right to produce a print-on-demand copy of the book and send it whizzing on its way. Never mind that the publisher, formerly an important link in this chain, has an abundant supply of copies in their U.S. warehouse, for those can all stay on the shelves, while Amazon runs off another one and sends it skittering down the supply chain.
When I learned this, gentle reader, I’m sorry to say that I harrumphed again. Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia, I cried, and with it a copy of this book that was actually produced by its publisher! More scurrying ensued, and soon I had what I asked for.
This time I smiled. The actual book published by Cambridge University Press had the same trim size but was only 1.25” thick. The Amazon bloat-on-demand edition was fully 40% bulkier at 1.75”. The CUP cover was better printed, the binding was better (actual signatures), the paper color was easier on the eye (slightly off-white), and there was less bleed-through of text from the verso of a given page on the slimmer, lighter weight volume than on the Amazon copy.
So where had the original “hardcover” POD copy full of spccchcs come from? That, I was now truly interested to learn, had come via Coutts, our old reliable distributor, and had come into being at Lightning Source’s Tennessee home, because the original print run of hardcover copies had run out. (This book is in a textbook-ish series published simultaneously in hard and soft covers, with a very short run of the hard covers. Unless you have the book coming on an approval plan or pre-publication firm order and are lucky, your chances of getting the washable edition are very high.)
I draw two lessons from this epic saga. First, the “who knew?” lesson that the physical manufacture of the books we buy nowadays is a far more complicated process than I realized. How many mass market paperbacks sold through Amazon are printed by them in this way? Sure, many readers today get a book in their hands and if they take a moment will sniff at it and grumble about how books aren’t made the way they used to be, but Henry Adams was right, “The world grew cheap, as worlds must.” It’s just bad luck when one of those books falls into the hands of a pig-headed university librarian with time on his hands.
But second, I draw the conclusion that more transparency is needed. If I go back to the CUP Website, I find that the U.S. pricing for this title is $89.95 hardcover, $29.95 paperback. All evidence indicates that those prices are the same whether you receive a well-made artifact from the oldest university press in the world or a junky substitute manufactured by a vendor. I harrumphed about that to a non-Cambridge publisher I know, suggesting I should get a discount for the tacky version, and she was kind enough to explain to me patiently that I am getting that discount, because if the publisher can’t count on switching to POD at a certain point in the print run, the paperback copy would probably have to cost $39.95. That might very well be true, but as our presidential candidates repeatedly teach us, just because something is true doesn’t mean I have to believe it.
Now, I do have a six year old Cambridge Press Print-on-Demand title on my private shelves that is a perfectly serviceable book, good paper, vividly clear printing, soundly bound. Quality is possible. The problem is not new technology but cheap people — publishers, vendors, and readers who all think that second and third quality objects are quite good enough for “mere” reading. The old Roman senators, when their turn came in debate and they wanted to express dissent, sometimes confined themselves to a two word spccch: ceterum censeo. “I think otherwise.” I do.