P.O.D. people

I accept that journal articles are influenced by the same aerodynamic forces that make boomerangs return to the thrower, but one never wants to see the paper return without bringing something else with it. Much of the past week was devoted to revising a paper to fit a different house style and it took up rather more time than I should have allowed. I did get a really good re-write in, which makes it a better paper, but it’s no closer to publication than it was back in April. Having climbed out of the pit of Chicago style, I can return to some productive writing. Instead of dwelling on that frustration, I will revisit the issue of Print-on-Demand publishing (POD) and its unexpected ills.

I confess a personal bias in favour of the POD model where it is applied to publishers’ back-lists or its use in lowering prices of trade editions where the publisher can’t afford to keep stock at hand. Unfortunately some publishers have decided to use this technology to lower their own overhead for reprints, at the cost of quality, without passing even a fraction of the savings to the buyer.

The first POD books I intentionally bought were digital reprints of public domain works from Nabu Press, an imprint of Lightning Source, the POD arm of Amazon.com.1 The business model is pretty simple: find digital copies of public domain texts, often from the internet archive, format them into a PDF that the Espresso Book Machine can read, make a bog-simple cover (and don’t fret over much about the accuracy of said title) and then list it on Amazon for under $25. When you get an order, you dispatch the POD request to the company that has the machines and you are in business.

The Espresso Book Machine is little more than a heavy duty digital printer with a perfect-binding machine bolted on. You feed in the PDF file, and tell it how large the finished book is. It prints it, trims it, feeds it into the binder, and attaches a separate glossy cover printed on heavy stock. Out pops the finished book.2 There is considerable range for quality depending on how much care is taken to format the digital copy and what sort of paper is used. The Nabu Press titles are about as low on the scale as you can get and it doesn’t help that the digital sources for the books are not always complete and they don’t worry about matching foliation. This is a problem with dual-language texts like the Selden Society editions of legal documents. But, considering how much I loathe reading digitized books on a computer, and considering that an original Selden Society text would cost about ten times what I paid for the POD edition, the trade-off is tolerable.3

I say these were the first POD texts I intentionally bought because I appear to have bought books made through this process before without knowing it. The clue is the little bar-code on the last page, and POD paperbacks always have a glossy cover. The machines can’t do matte covers. This is how I learned that Boydell and Brewer had brought most of its back-list into trade paperback. It appears that Penn State Press is issuing trade copies of its hardcovers in digital re-prints. Cornell, Cambridge, Toronto, Palgrave, Pearson, Polity, and Johns Hopkins are doing the same for new and back-list trade titles.4

If the publisher takes the time, you usually can’t tell the difference between traditional trade-paperbacks and the POD copies. Penn State uses the original digital documents for their editions and nice, cream coloured paper. Cornell and John Hopkins take similar care with their reprints. Polity and Boydell appear to use digital image files scanned from 1st issue print copies. This makes for slightly muddy text, but this is tolerable considering the price (at least that’s my rationalization).5 However, not all publishers have made similar concessions to readers for the decline in quality. Oxford University Press is a case in point.

OUP has its own series of critical editions of Greek and Latin classics, much like the Loeb series from Harvard. Oxford’s classics are handsome little volumes in dark blue cloth with matte turquoise jackets. Starting around 2005, OUP decided to use the POD technology to keep these in print.

Sounds great, except that the POD version is a serious step down in quality. The books are perfect-bound in paper boards that mimic the matte jackets, but they are glossy and slightly more green. For some strange reason the text isn’t from a digital file, but from a photographic scan of the 1st edition print copy. For a major press like OUP that’s inexplicable. This could be tolerated if there was a corresponding change in price. I think you know where this is going.

The POD editions sell for the exact same price as the 1st edition hardcovers.

This is bad business. If you are going to keep a book in print, at the cost of quality, the buyer expects some reflection in the price. No one should expect to pay the same price for an inferior product just because OUP has decided to make a tiny, and extremely cost-effective, step to keep the book in print.

I was made painfully aware of this practice when I tried to find a 1st edition copy of Epitoma rei militaris edited by M. D. Reeve (2004). I searched half a dozen book stores in London and Oxford (during the last trip in Feb.) without luck. All I could find was the crappy POD version for about $60 Canadian. Searching online only turned up more POD copies. My local university library didn’t have either version.

I finally broke down and ordered the copy that Amazon.ca had. I asked them if they could tell me if the one copy listed as in stock was the POD edition but because their stock is hidden away in a warehouse, inaccessible by human hands, apparently only the customer gets to see what book comes out of the bin. I’m not convinced there are human eyes involved in the shipping process at all.

What arrived was a cocked and seriously bumped POD copy.

Therefore, I photocopied the book, cover to cover (it’s fairly short), and mailed it back to them as a return because it wasn’t what I wanted (which was the 1st edition, and they knew that).

Yes, I admit to violating fair-use, but really, OUP should know better than to try this crap with academics. We may be the type of book buyer who will live off macaroni for a week to save up for an important book, but we still know when we are being screwed.

NOTES

1 I think Nabu Press is affiliated with Lightning Source but I can’t prove it. There may be more than one imprint in use by LS, and Nabu is just one of them.

2 Some large bookstores, Blackwells in London and the Harvard University bookstore have these machines in the retail space. The company that builds and maintains the machines sells a subscription package to their own supply of digital POD titles, many of them from Google, and you can have copies printed for you while you wait.

3 I have a Nabu Press edition of Francis Packard, ed. Life and Times of Ambroise Pare (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1921) with 19 illegible pages which I was able to replace from a different digital copy. The Nabu version of Select Cases Before the King’s Council in the Star Chamber… (London: 1902) is formatted in a odd way such that the text is teeny-tiny, with huge blank margins.

4 The first ‘sleeper’ POD volume that got into the collection was, oddly enough, a damaged sale item from the Cambridge University bookstore. That places the CUP use of this technology back to 2005.

5 Unfortunately Boydell has gone a little crazy with the POD technology and most of their new stock is direct to POD, with hardcovers. That means they have no incentive to move later printings to trade. What appears in a 1st edition hardcover will appear, in later printings, as a 1st edition hardcover and with the same price-tag.

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