On his blog Fiction is So Overrated, Chad Hull recently posted an essay on well-made books—the physical book. He was evaluating Easton Press. He discussed the merits of hand-sewn signatures rather than glued-in pages, the importance of low-acid papers and other things that make a book an object of quality or even art, beyond the printed words it holds.
The Sig-O and I have been having experiences at the other end of the quality continuum. Two weeks ago I picked him up a Simon Green book. It wasn’t one of that British author’s series with which we were familiar; it looked more like traditional fantasy. It’s called Hawk and Fisher; a collection of novellas and short stories featuring characters with those names. The Sig-O said he would have liked the book better if twenty-five pages hadn’t been missing in the center. This was a trade paperback, purchased new. It didn’t come from a used book store where the pages could have been torn out, or where the book got wet and the glue softened, or so on. This is a new book. In production, one signature did not get glued into place. If it happened to one book, odds are good it happened to a thousand in that particular print run. Or, I don’t know, maybe it is just a hiccup in the machine and it just happened a few hundred times in some random order.
I told him that between the two of us we broke even, because one of the Cherie Priest books I had purchased, as new, had twenty-five pages repeated in the first third. The whole book was there; I had just gotten a bonus—twenty five pages I could read again, after I had just finished reading them.
These are quality control problems that shouldn’t happen. I won’t go so far as to say they never happened in the good old days. I read plenty of paperbacks in the 1970s that had typographical errors in them, at least (although, I have to say, not as many as today). And I remember being horribly disappointed by a copy of DH Lawrence’s book The Rainbow, which I did buy used—and rather battered—when I got to what I thought was going to be the end and found that 30 pages had fallen out before I purchased it. That was a used book, though. I paid a buck-fifty and I knew the risks when I bought it.
Paperbacks in the 70s were made on bad paper that already looks a hundred years old, with cheap covers that tore and split. They weren’t meant to last, but they were usually intact when you got them at least.
Apparently the companies marketing fantasy and science fiction now don’t care whether you get the entire book you bought. I suppose these errors could just be an effect of automation—clearly there is no human entity checking the books at the end of the assembly line. This may be unfair, but I can’t help thinking that when books were produced by publishing companies, rather than conglomerates that got started making shoes, there was some tiny spark of pride in what was being produced. Clearly that is not the case now.
Caveat emptor, with books, used to mean that you might not agree with what you read; that you might find the work offensive or poorly written. It really didn’t mean, “Good luck getting the whole thing you purchased!”