Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Mass Market Hardback; a Book Review.

In this series I'm going to evaluate the quality of book manufacturing from various publishers. I intend only to focus on the quality of the physical book itself. For previous comments on Easton Press and Everyman's library please see the respective links.

This review will be the biggest undertaking yet and one I've struggled with for quite some time. My self imposed minimum of book ownership for a review has been three--a low number all things considered, but one I think fair, considering the price and high consistency of the higher end publishers. This review encompasses more than twenty-six books from Bloomsbury; Warner Books; Doubleday; Tom Doherty Associates; Harcourt; Berkley; ACE; Little, Brown; Penguin Group; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bantam Spectra; Harper Collins; Putnam; The Dial Press; Knopf; and Houghton Mifflin Company. While I'd like to give each their fifteen seconds of fame, there is little to distinguish one from another in the realm of mass market of hardback books.

In considering such a large spectrum of materials consistent inconsistency is the common thread. Paper quality ranges from stark white office copy paper, ecru with speckled color marks (a sign of recycled paper) with that 'soft' insubstantial texture, to the standard fair one would expect from a 'regular old hardback book.' By and large most of the paper used from the major publishers and their multiple imprints is acid free (for greater flexibility) and all-around really good.

Tor has a penchant for decorative endpapers which is a small measure of class from from an unexpected source. The endpapers usually comprise of a random color, heavy card stock in the front and back with minimal texture. They add nothing to quality but are a nice nod to the past when book binding was more of an art.

The covers, not dust jackets, of all these books tend to be standard cardboard though some have cloth bindings. Very few seem to have full cloth coverings and there is something new out there that looks like cloth but is in fact not; a faux cloth if you will. There really doesn't seem to be rhyme or reason as to what book gets what binding other than publishers whims. A sad fact when considering the varying size of books.

Door stoppers get no special treatment and their added girth isn't expected to hold up as long. Indeed after a single reading some will seem to have incurred substantial wear. Little, Brown and Knopf seem to be publishers of "Giant f------ Books" among other things, and they would be wise to take special measures to ensure the pages don't separate from the cloth strip on the spine and the cover itself. However, I'm not sure there is much they can do. I do own several of their copies where the only thing holding the cover on are the end pages (not a good sign). In the case of the big boys, I think the trade paper back editions are all around better: you get the hardback formatting without the threat of the spine breaking or covers wearing out (off?) assuming the book is treated with due respect of course.

Publishing head scratchers persist in book manufacturing as they do in marketing. By and large, books that are expected to sell less get some special treatment while those writers who sell in great quantity receive only standard fair. Susanna Clarke's "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" is fully cloth bound with beautiful artwork and print on the cloth complete with endpaper and deckled edges. I can't imagine this collection of short stories (from one I wouldn't consider a short story writer) sold very well but, the production values are extremely high. Meanwhile, eternal best sellers such as Frank Hurbert's Dune or The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova receive little more attention that a mass market paperback. I'm sure it all makes sense to someone but, it seems that the books that sell are very far from the books that are made to last. Speaking of deckled edges…

I hate them. Yes they look nice and have a appearance of antiquity, but we have paper cutters for a reason; I call said reason progress. Combine deckled edges with the super 'soft' recycled tissure paper feel that seems to absorb moisture from my fingers and you have an actual page turning issues. As with most issues in this review, which ever way the wind blows seems to be the deciding factor on whether or not a book receives deckled edges.

My biggest complaint with all books of this quality from these types of manufacturers is that of cost. 'Mass market hardbacks' cost marginally more to produce that paper back books, yet at retail they are substantially more for what is essentially the same quality. Hence the reason I do the vast majority of my hardback book shopping in the bargain bins and from selections of publishers remainders; at those prices I feel I actually get what I pay for.

We all know these books. We all have many of them. There are exceptions; the previously mentioned "Ladies of Grace Adieu," Houghton Mifflin collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings (finally a lasting piece of 'literature' printed in a lasting format!) and Doubleday's unique--though by no means better quality--cover to The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (and I'd love to hear exceptions from your collection!) but for the most part blah…

If I were giving grades in school I'd probably appoint a "C" as far as quality goes; they could be much better or much worse, but with no expectation of quality from such books it's hard to judge them.

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