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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Print on Decrepitude

I've had a generally good relationship with Penguin over my 28 year career, but right now I am not feeling very charitable toward the folks on 375 Hudson Street.

Sometime in 2012 or 2013, it's hard to know exactly when because they don't really announce these things, they started a Print on Demand program.

Which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  POD has come a long way since its early days, and you can do very attractive POD books, especially trade paperbacks, that are hard to tell from the standard offset edition.

But that's not what Penguin is doing.  They are doing mass market POD editions, and they are awful and crappy and markedly inferior to the regular offset editions in pretty much every way imaginable.

Today's example, a copy of Simon R. Green's Hell to Pay, the 7th Nightside novel, spotted at a Barnes & Noble in CT.

I knew it was POD the second I opened the book.  That's kind of bad sign #1.  You shouldn't be able to tell a POD book from a regular book that easily.  But these Penguin POD books have Wimpy Spine Syndrome.  Which is...  well, if you pick up a regular paperback and open it a wee bit at the center point and kind of push on one side and pull on the other, you aren't going to get a lot of give. The spine is going to kind of hold itself firm.  Not the POD editions.  You open it up, and there's a spine, but it's very malleable and elastic.  This was that kind of book.

Then there's the paper stock.  It's a very bright white.  I gave my younger brother this book and another similarly sized Nightside book and asked if he could tell anything about them, and that was the thing he noticed.  It didn't look like a book.  It looked like it had been printed on copy paper, was how he described it.  That nice 87 brightness sort of copy paper.  The problem with that is that it offers a lot more contrast between the black ink and the white paper which can be a little annoying, and may also offer a little more glare.

Then there's the guttering.  Depending on a lot of factors, a regular paperback you can usually read without having to push the pages back too far.  There's enough space between the inside text and the spine that you can hold it open with one hand, and get enough room to read the book.  Not with these POD editions.  Even though they are the same size and use the same page plates in theory, the text is much more likely to run far enough into the spine that you've really got to hold the book open with two hands to read it.  This means there is a much bigger risk that you might break the spine of your book.  Happily, I guess, these POD editions have such wimpy bendable spines that they won't break in quite the same way?

In this particular book, the copyright page was very blurry.  The text was generally crisp enough, but you could really tell on the copyright page that this wasn't well printed.  It was the book version of watching a movie somebody recorded from their seat in the theatre.

The binding of the cover to the innards is just a little off.  In a properly printed mass market, the gluing of the cover to the spine runs to the edge of the spine.  In these POD editions, the gluing will be off kilter.  On this copy of Hell to Pay, the front cover was glued a fraction of an inch more to the first page than it is supposed to be.

According to our website, the last regular printing we spotted was 5th printing.  This one says it is the "1st".  On the copyright page, that's the "10 9 8 7 6" countdown.  The lowest number is supposed to be the printing.  I am pretty certain that the list of other books by Simon R. Green was updated along the way from the first printing to the 5th printing.  This POD edition has the list of other books by the author that was current when Hell to Pay was first published seven years ago.  The Nightside series was twelve books, but this "other books" panel only goes up to this 7th book.  Good luck figuring out from here the right sequence for reading all the books that came after.  There is no mention of the Secret Histories series, a NY Times bestselling series by the author. There is no mention of his Ghost Finders series.

The POD books are much more susceptible to generic printing errors than regularly printed books.  Another client of mine, Del Howison, has purchased a few batches of these POD copies of his first Dark Delicacies anthology to sell in his Dark Delicacies store.  Can't have purchased more than 20 or 30 of these.  One had a seriously wrinkled spine.  Another had the cover for his book wrapped around the innards of another book.  In another, they put the final pages of the book from page 340 on at the beginning of the book instead of at the end of the book.  All of these are the sorts of things that sometimes happen with books printed by regular means.  But they don't happen in 10% of the copies.

Penguin also tries very hard to say that these aren't POD books, because there are contractual implications to saying that.  They are "managing the inventory."  Maybe we have 5 copies, maybe we have 48 copies.  But the bottom line is that they are printing them in very very small quantities, and only when they absolutely need to print them.  Del Howison generally has to wait a bit getting his books from Baker & Taylor, because B&T doesn't maintain much more than a one or two copy inventory and has to wait for Penguin to supply if Del wants to get five or six.

Penguin now charges $9.99 for a shoddily printed copy of Dark Delicacies.  The better-printed copies cost $7.99.

How can you tell if your paperback with Berkley or Ace or Jove or Roc or NAL or whatever imprint of Penguin is being printed in this way?  Well, on the one hand, it's very easy, because if you've read this blog post, you might accurately get a "you'll know it when you see it" feel.  But  it's also very hard, because the publisher doesn't want to utter the words POD or let you know that their book is in their Special Inventory Program.  It's hard just looking at Amazon or B& or anyplace to tell a book that has just a few copies around because it's in this program from one that is in its end of days with the regularly printed copies.  By definition they're doing these POD runs for books that don't sell a lot of copies and are probably not carried regularly at most bookstores (in fact, I'm surprised a Nightside book by Simon R. Green is being printed this way) so you may not know until you decide you need another five copies for your shelf or some reader complains to you via the contact link on your website.  However, on the very last page of the book opposite the inside back cover, I have noticed that the POD editions have some kind of string of characters, a printing code of sorts, that you don't see on the regular editions.  Of course, Penguin will now do its best to get rid of that, or to add a random string of characters to the back ad on the last page of all of its books just to confuse us.

Do you want your book printed this way?

I've had communication with people at Penguin about this dating back many months, and I don't get the sense that they really care.  We are supposed to be happy that our book is being kept in print.  And the decision to do this isn't the editor's department and isn't anything the editor can influence, and who wants to spend a lot of time worrying about things you can't do anything about.  So even though I don't usually like to do business blog posts like this one, I think at this point that it's time to let the sun shine in.

This is the kind of bad, foolish, short-sighted behavior that will end up putting big publishers like Random Penguin out of business.  Because any of us can go to CreateSpace or Lulu and print a book that looks better than these Penguin group POD editions.  And if I can't even count on the publisher of my clients' books to print them half decently...


Anonymous said...

Synchronicity - see this:

Gramix Publishing said...

Of course, CreateSpace is pure POD. But out of about 50 copies of different books I've got from them at different times, I've only seen one bad one. That's a 2% error rate on a small sample size. Overall, I've been impressed (so far) with the quality from CreateSpace.
CreateSpace lets the author (or more accurately the author-publisher) select such things as paper color/weight, gutter size, etc...

Anonymous said...

You know, I was wondering why sometimes I ended up with a wrinkled edged book when I ordered the book online. Many bindings split as I was reading them, and actually fell apart in my hands. I could never figure out why they were so bad, except I thought it was the machine made a mistake making the book. This explains it. Thanks. (a reader from Iowa)

Anonymous said...

Having read this post, I was not overly surprised to find a book by DAW today that suffered from bad glueing, bound so tight it was unreadable, and overall felt slightly off.
It claimed to be a first printing from 2003, but the book itself was utterly pristine, and while Forbidden Planet keeps odd books on their shelves longer than other people, that just did not add up.