'The Cusp of Every Bibliomaniac's Dream'

It is possible that I have too many books. There, I said it. (That felt weird.)

November 25, 2009

It is possible that I have too many books. There, I said it. (That felt weird.)

Heading off to visit her mother before all of us rendezvous for Thanksgiving, my spouse dropped a gentle hint: “Maybe while I’m gone you could do some reshelving?” The most recent effort to impose some order had involved transferring books from the coffee table and windowsill to a consolidated mound on the living room floor. This was, I thought, progress – though evidently this is debatable. Then four or five huge boxes and a dozen padded envelopes arrived from publishers, in connection with a literary award I’m helping to judge. Americans may not read much poetry but they sure do write a lot of it.

So ... point taken. I’ve been wheeling belles lettres by the pound over to the Inside Higher Ed offices. At home I pack the already doubled-layered shelves as tightly as circumstances allow. This process has its downside: the rediscovery of volumes acquired years ago that now go into a “must read soon” pile.

This is not defeating chaos so much as rearranging it. In the midst of all this, I’ve stopped to look over the new issue of Against the Grain, with its symposium asking “Is There Any Such Thing as an Out-of-Print Book Anymore?” The short answer, it seems, is “no.” I feel like a junkie learning there will be heroin in heaven.

Against the Grain is the most interesting periodical you have probably never heard of. It appears bimonthly. It is written by, and intended for, what could be called the metapublic for scholarly writing: the research librarians, academic press people, booksellers, and digital publishing mavens. This is where they gather to compare notes. The magazine’s layout is plain, even severe. The intent is obviously to squeeze as many articles, interviews, reviews, rumors, and nerdy diatribes into the available space as possible.

Much of the content ends up online eventually. To get the full ATG effect, though, you have to read the print edition, and not just because of the lag time. The pages swarm with ads for books, databases, and specialized encyclopedias. For the ordinary bookish person, this fusion of commerce and conversation is intriguing and revelatory. It leaves you with a better sense of what happens to scholarly writing in the interval between the peer-review process and readers finding it in the library.

The November issue contains a special section of 10 pieces on what has happened to the concept of “out of print” work. New media, print-on-demand, and the online secondhand book market have rendered the label anachronistic. The lead article by John Riley (one of the magazine’s associate editors) conveys the scale of the transformation: “It is estimated that one hundred million separate titles have been printed since Gutenberg. At the rate that books are being scanned, we can expect to see the majority of important out-of-print books available online or as POD [print-on-demand] within a few years.”

Unfortunately this process has been uneven and chaotic – with digital warehousing proceeding apace, while bibliographical competence is a distant afterthought. Books are routinely miscategorized or assigned spurious publication dates. And the quality of the scanned text can leave a lot to be desired.

Here, my own experience may be worth mentioning. A few months ago, I was happy to be able to acquire an obscure volume of essays from the 1920s in a print-on-demand paperback edition. The book was something it seemed unlikely, a few years ago, ever to see reissued. Now it was suddenly available from online booksellers at a fair (in not exactly low) cost.

But when it arrived, I had a less pleasant surprise. The reprint house had not bothered to get a clean copy of the original text. It was full of underlined passages and marginal scribblings (all of them, as it happens, strikingly inane).This kind of disappointment is far from unusual. Other reprints may come with missing pages -- or a shot of the hand of whoever did the scanning.

“Perhaps we are on the cusp of every bibliomaniac’s dream,” writes Riley: “a universal library of all the important books from all times and places....There is a threat, however, that this utopia might actually turn into a dystopia as we risk trading all of our bookstores and libraries for a database of confused editions and missing text.”

The issue also discusses how libraries are using the robust secondhand market online to replace missing titles in their collection – or sometimes to acquire recent books at a bargain. A statistical overview of these changing buying habits appears in an important article by Narda Tafuri, an acquisitions librarian at the University of Scranton, who reports on a survey conducted in August.

Using data collected from collections-development specialists at 144 institutions – more than 86 percent of them academic libraries – Tafuri shows the role that used and discount book services such as Abebooks, Alibris, and Amazon now play. Most of the libraries responding (59 percent) had an annual acquisitions budget of under $500,000 a year.

Not quite 30 percent spent more than $1 million on acquisitions. The one thing held in common by the overwhelming majority (92.4 percent) of institutions was that they acquired books from the secondhand market. The few librarians who didn’t cited vendor contracts or lack of an institutional credit card as the reason. Among the reasons cited for buying books online were to replace copies of books gone missing or to acquire rare volumes.

But a surprisingly large number of institutions -- more than 72 percent -- “indicated that they were purchasing used or out-of-print books as part of ‘regular purchases’ for their library’s collection.” Most indicated that they devoted no more than 10 percent of their budgets to used books. The 15 percent or so earmarking more for secondhand acquisitions fell into a distinct group: “All of those individuals [who] responded that their library’s used and out-of-print purchases accounted for up to 11 to 25 percent of their book budget were from academic libraries.”

Other articles describe the digital-edition and secondhand markets from the other side of the transaction, including Bob Holley’s account of his own double life: “At work, I’m Dr. Jekyll – professor, scholar, and consumer of high culture. At home, I’ve gone over to the dark side to become Mr. Hyde, the Internet vendor who values books, CDs, and movies not for their intellectual content but for their marketability.”

Holley, a professor of library and information science at Wayne State University, has turned his basement into a warehouse for his online business. “Mr. Hyde scarcely looks at the great works of literature unless they are very cheap or used as college texts,” he writes, “but instead seeks out quirky non-fiction. He especially buys books on self-help, astrology, religion, or sex. While Dr. Jekyll wouldn’t ever read these books, Mr. Hyde is quite willing to sell them since they offer a good profit.”

Alas, people at university presses may read this and decide to bring out self-help books on astrological sex religions. It is probably a matter of time. Over the longer term, contributors to the symposium seem to be describing an emergent situation in which the online sales will drive down the price of new titles while academic collections are hoovering up scarce old books that will then be digitized, and so kept in print forever.

One of the survey questions that Narda Tafuri discusses gives a glimpse of what the next step might look like.When asked whether they had any plans to make digital titles available at their libraries through print-on-demand, almost 91 percent of respondents answered “no.” But when asked if they might want to offer such titles for sale as a source of revenue, more than 40 percent said that it was something they would be willing to consider.

Only 2.8 percent indicated they had immediate plans to do so. Given the cost of a print-on-demand book machine runs from $75,000 to $95,000, this is probably not the wave of the short-term future. But in ten years, who knows? The nature of progress is that it multiplies temptations. Diligently reshelving before I leave for the holiday, I’m not sure if this is a development for which to give thanks.


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