I suppose I should have seen it coming. “Kindle?” somebody said, “Are you still worried about Kindle? I am so over that.”
The theory is that the number of people who would rather read a book on a lighted screen is finite: once those people are supplied, the rest of us can go on reading books. Let them spend money for the e-version, and the inevitable upgraded e-reader every couple of years, and we will keep up with things which are printed. Newspapers and magazines may disappear, he went on, because those are things which try to stay current, and you need to get the latest one as soon as you can. The text of Moby Dick ought to be the same tomorrow as it was a century ago, and can be read from a page or a screen depending on how you like to read.
The real danger to the book trade, he claims, is an invention which was a mere novelty a decade ago. There used to be gosh-wow human interest bits on the news about them, and now my informant, for one, and I, for another, can’t seem to get away from them.
“Look look!” the on-the-spot reporter would say, “These folks have fed the texts of fifteen books into a computer, and at your request, can print and bind a copy for you without you having to rummage for one in a bookstore.”
They sure can. Several firms now load their computers with any book that’s out of copyright and advertising these books which don’t yet exist. Send them money, and you will get a copy. Furthermore, the text of that copy will look exactly like the original because that’s what they’ve learned to do. Instead of having to type in or download a text, they simply scan the pages into the computer from an original copy.
It has gotten to the point now that when I try to look up prices for an old book, I have to delete all the Print-On-Demand copies (a copyright date of 2013 is generally the tip-off). In some cases, over 90 percent of the copies listed are these paperback mock-ups, or, to be more precise, 90 percent of the copies listed were listed by people honest enough to admit these aren’t the originals, but computer-made copies.
“But why would you want the old, dusty copy with creaky binding and brown paper?” they inquire, innocent as newborn babes. “This way, you get a nice paperback with acid-free, archival paper: it’ll last a lifetime, unlike those grundgy things YOU sell.” Their variety is as vast as their nerve: there are half a dozen copies available on eBay right now of print-on-demand copies of the first report of the Newberry Library trustees (July, 1887 to January, 1888.)
Other groups of print-on-demanders aren’t even scanning old books. One outfit downloads articles from Wikipedia dealing with a single subject, and then binds those. I am waiting for one of them to start downloading books from a Kindle and putting them into book form. Come that day, the Newberry Book Fair will consist of five cashiers and three Print-On-Demand machines. Uncle Blogsy will hang out in the background and occasionally drop a bookend on the floor to make you feel at home.