Recently, I paged through a friend’s copy of a just-released bestseller in political theory. I then ordered my own copy, exactly twenty days after the book’s release. When my copy arrived, I found that it sported the same dustjacket as my friend’s, but underneath the jacket it was different. In place of a sewn binding, the pages were glued to the spine, and the cover was cruder. It wasn’t a true hardback at all, but a paperback slapped between boards.
I had the same experience with another book, from a favorite established author whose new release was still riding the first wave of reviews. My purchased copy was substantially lower in quality than the one I had borrowed. I discussed it with friends, and on social media, and found that others were noticing the same thing: Respectable presses were issuing “fake” hardcovers. In some instances, fuzzy, pixelated text made matters worse.
Perhaps you have had a similar disappointment—but probably not. My attention to the details of book production is unusual. Most book buyers would not notice these problems, or if they noticed, they wouldn’t care. Publishers know this, which is one reason why they get away with it.
By “get away with it” I’m not suggesting malice. I’m going to criticize publishers, but I want to be helpful. I love books, and I love the publishers who make them. Publishing is a business, and a difficult one. (And with ever-new pressures. Last year, tariffs led to a paper shortage and a backlog of print orders. This year’s pandemic further disrupted some supply chains and hit demand for academic books especially hard. I’m told that sales at most university presses were halved this year, and universities with tight budgets are cutting press subsidies.) The last thing I want to do is add to the trials.
My main concern is the quality variation in hardcover books. As a basic artifact, the printed and case-bound volume has remained essentially unchanged for five hundred years (and the practice of binding manuscripts is hundreds of years older): print words on paper, then bind the pages together between “boards” (a protective cover). A well-made book has clear, legible printing, quality paper, and a durable binding fit for extensive use over a long time. Technological refinements (methods of transferring ink to the page, methods of holding pages together) are aimed at improving quality and lowering cost—alas, sometimes sacrificing the former for the latter.
The gold standard for ink transfer is offset printing, which uses physical plates to press liquid ink onto paper. Though this method involves up-front setup costs, it is economical for large print-runs and leaves crisp, clear text on the page. Every other printing method tries to attain this look, some methods more successfully than others. Digital methods (essentially laser-printing) are economical for small runs and can produce nearly the same quality, but everything depends on the equipment and source files. Cut corners here, and you get degraded text—fuzzy, pixelated, and gray.
The gold standard for bindings is “Smyth sewing,” in which booklet-like collections of pages called “signatures” are sewn through their folds and then to one another. Sewn pages cannot fall out unless they are ripped, and they allow a book to lie flat, or nearly flat, without the spine breaking. Sewn bindings best ensure that a book will endure, even with heavy use. Modern machines handle the sewing, but like offset printing, Smyth sewing is most economical at scale. For smaller runs, glue is commonly used. It is possible for signatures to be bound by glue if they are milled or notched along the fold so that the glue reaches the interior pages, but more commonly, individual, unfolded pages are glued to the spine (a process called “perfect binding,” originally developed for inexpensive paperbacks). The drawback of perfect binding is that pages will fall out if the glue fails, and if the book lies flat or opens too wide, its spine will break.
There is much to be grateful for in these advances. Take the case of “print-on-demand.” Once upon a time, a publisher that sold out of a book might not print more unless confident that several hundred copies would sell. But digital printing and glued bindings mean that a book that sells out can still be ordered in small print runs—even one book at a time. This practice spares the publisher capital investment (and the risk of overstocking and the cost of storing inventory) while allowing the customer to purchase a book. Print-on-demand means that many books are staying “in print” (or at least “printable”), and it can’t be denied that advances in glue technology, and in how pages are prepared for gluing, mean that many glued books are reasonably well-made.
But technical advances have also separated publishers even further from printers and binders. Publishers who prepare a finished text often have little direct oversight—and sometimes no technical knowledge—of the physical craft of printing and binding their products, and they often source different print runs to different printing and binding operations. Variations in the kinds of paper, printing, and glue used, and how paper is prepared for gluing, can be difficult to track, even for publishers that try.
It is not even clear that the industry uses a common vocabulary for the technical specifics of book manufacturing. For example, “digital offset” printing is sometimes distinguished from “print-on-demand,” but not always; and “case binding” can mean sewn signatures from some printers, glued (including glued signatures) from others, and perfect-glued from others. Even a proper history of modern book production is difficult to come by, and the industry keeps changing; thousands of new patents for book manufacturing methods are filed every year.
So, partly through confusion or inattention, but certainly also by choice, publishers are resorting to digital printing and glued bindings even before sales have dwindled enough to justify print-on-demand. Based on my recent book purchases, it seems increasingly common for even first printings with reasonably high sales expectations to be produced with digital printing and glued bindings.
Still more frustrating is when the first printing is produced to a standard abandoned in later printings—hence my disappointment in receiving poorly printed, glued books when I expected offset-printed, Smyth-sewn volumes. There may be good economic reasons for this practice, but it raises a truth-in-advertising issue. The later, inferior runs are described, and priced, exactly as the initial runs, and book-buyers have no way of knowing (without holding the book) whether the books they are ordering have clean print and a sewn binding, or degraded text and a less durable binding.
This isn’t fair to consumers. I can’t think of another industry in which two fundamentally different physical artifacts can be advertised and sold as the same item. Make a fundamental change to the design and production standard, and you have a different model. If a shoemaker stitched soles to some shoes, but glued them to others, he couldn’t sell them as the same model. An artist would be dishonest if she sold lithographs and digital prints as “the same.”
In principle, there should be a way to designate how a book has been constructed. Publishers already use separate ISBN numbers for paperback and hardback (and other binding styles, as in some academic textbooks). Why not add an ISBN number (and corresponding price point) for digitally printed perfect-bound hardbacks? At present, the industry doesn’t consider the book-production differences substantial enough to warrant separate ISBN numbers. But there could be other ways (likely requiring the coordination of publishers and booksellers) to encode and display more information about the physical specifications of books for sale.
If this sounds like a minor concern, it is, but to many book-buyers it does matter. I know of two cases involving different university presses in which major publicity event plans changed—and large book orders were cancelled—when an author learned that the volumes to be supplied by the publisher would be of inferior quality. This kind of thing needs to happen more often, and those of us who care about book-production quality should be louder and more demanding. Book lovers should exercise “minority rule”—whereby a small, passionate minority influences an otherwise indifferent majority. (Minority rule is why we have kosher Coke and gender-neutral pronouns.)
Poor printing is usually the printer’s fault, a mistake that publishers will correct once they learn about it. When I’ve received books that were hard on the eyes, I’ve complained to booksellers, left comments on Amazon, returned the books, and notified publishers. Generally, publishers can pressure their contractors to deliver higher quality.
It is harder to complain about glued bindings as such, but when the gluing is done poorly and pages fall out, it is worth complaining. Unquestionably, publishers should hear from buyers who notice differences in quality between print runs. It is simply dishonest to charge the sewn hardcover price for glued print-on-demand volumes. Publishers may even sell more books if buyers do not feel at risk of being disappointed, and if print-on-demand volumes are priced fairly to account for the drop in quality.
Authors should insist on transparency concerning changes in process and quality from one printing to the next. (Only authors with serious clout can stipulate printing and binding methods in their book contracts, but those who can should.) Very often, I think, authors are not aware that many people who receive their books are receiving a different artifact from the high-quality copies comped to the author.
Booksellers should take it upon themselves to indicate the physical specifications of their volumes. The book industry needs to find creative, honest ways to signal different production standards, with accurate descriptions and fair price points. (Some publishers are starting to indicate when a title’s production was “transferred to digital printing.”) Publishers might fear that more transparency here would hurt sales, but that hasn’t yet been put to the test, and done right, it may inspire confidence. In any case, if publishers won’t start using separate ISBNs, they should at least establish some clearly announced house standard, for part or all of the catalogue—for instance, first printings are always sewn, and later printings are glued, unless otherwise specified.
My hope is that a vocal minority of book-lovers will push for more transparency and honesty in book marketing. Publishers should strive for candid salesmanship and true quality, even if only the fastidious few will take note.
Joshua P. Hochschild is professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University.