Beasts, Men, and Cheap Books

So: The man is Ferdinand Ossendowski, a Polish adventurer of the Russian Civil War era. The book is “Beasts, Men and Gods”, Ossendowski’s account of Tibet, Mongolia and similar places.

The problem, that of mine that is, is to find a physical copy of the book.

This is not a problem because the English translation was published in 1922 and is long out of print.

No, this is a problem because there’s a dozen editions of the book in print, all it seems from pay-per-print “publishers” and other shady operations, all a part of the mostly slapdash industry of finding public domain books and making a quick buck on the long tail (or hoping so anyway) by producing cheap-o print versions of them.

Much to my edification and horror, Amazon has previews of the first pages for some of these; it’s not a pretty sight, I tell you. The font tends to be small (since with these operations more pages will cut into the profits), and what fonts are used for headers and decoration are usually pretty damn ugly, the sort of things you and a hundred million others know come with your standard release of Microsoft Word. (If you ask me, anyone that tries to use Mistral in a professional publication of any kind should be shot. And then shot again for good measure.)

Consider this: for this (presumably) same text, the following amount of pages were used by different editions: 142, 160, 162, 232, 240, 256, 260, 268, 284, 328, 336, and 346. What kind of horrible typographical decisions can make one edition 2.4 times the length of another?

And the covers… eyagh, spare me. One would think it would be easy to fall back on some quiet, generic cover when one wasn’t really interested in paying a lot of individual love in production. Not so. The lurid font horror continues, and is much more horrible when the Impact or Mistral adorns a wash of generic marbled-paper or a Powerpoint-like background or something which looks like a garish grid of bathroom tiles. The covers fairly scream them being sterile industrial vessels ready for any and all content. And if there’s a picture, it most often clashes terribly with the surrounding elements… or is, due to the limits of Wikipedia, blown up from something originally sized 300 by 400 pixels.

Then again: One of the publishers of this manner of editions is Nabu Press, which I hear has a mind-staggering 600 000 books in (pay-per-)print; with numbers like that, the business is more brute printing than actual individual book design. (Incidentally, “Nabu Press” is a very restrained name in this field. Most operations that do this or serve as the printer for this are Create something or Biblio the other, or something whose noncommittal nature well tells there’s a few thousand books out since last January, and their copyright’s the only thing which unites them.)

The prices vary, too, from 25 euros for a paperback to a modest tenner; then there are hardcovers whose prices hover between moderate and ludicrous.

Might not be such an immense risk to order one and hope to be typographically lucky. I certainly appreciate all those arcane old books remaining in print, no matter how I might gripe about typography.

Might be easier to just take the text off Gutenberg, spend a few hours folding it, and then trot off to Lulu. That way the result would still be amateurish but, operating according to Intracranial Axiom One, it would be perfect being made by me, so I couldn’t complain. (This is what it is like when you find the budding typography geek within. And I say “budding” because I haven’t found the time to read the LaTeX memoir manual (see pdf) yet; I’ve heard that after reading it you shall fear no typographical evil ever again, and shall forever format everything nicely, without fail.)

Which all leads, I think, to the Observation of Scalzi: the work that publishers do, the work between having unformatted text and having a book that doesn’t cause eyeball-breaking panic diarrhea the moment you see it, the work between a manuscript and a proper pretty publication — that’s a lot of work actually.

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