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A Little Book Biz Cynicism, Now that the Holidays Are Behind Us

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by Clark Matthews, Chief Technology Officer

I received the Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this year for Christmas. It was a gift that I had specifically asked for, because I needed it. Needed it as I also sometimes need socks and underwear. Needed it as I also need, from time to time, a visit from the electrician. (I required, and received, all three this Christmas).

You must understand, I have two small children of my own, now. One will soon be ready for Little House in the Big Woods. This is to be the absolute foundation of the Matthews Family Literary Tradition. Followed soon after by Farmer Boy, then Little House on the Prairie, then all the others in the 9-book series. Chased, perhaps, by Robinson Crusoe.

It is important to me that my son weep, as I did, when he finishes the last page of the last book—The First Four Years— sometime towards the end of fifth grade. And that I too cry, as my mother did, when she told me of the forced march of the Native Americans—the Trail of Tears terribly, but gently, brought down to the level of a primary schooler in the heart-wrenching pages of Little House on the Prairie.

And so it was with real sadness that, having removed the cellophane wrapper from the box set and cracked open my new copy of Little House in The Big Woods, I found that the publisher had made a complete hash of it. It is a version so overtly optimized for profit that it undermines the hardy values espoused in the series.  What would Pa think?

Here’s what I think. I think the terrible production quality of my new edition is a gallon of ice water dumped on some of the warmest childhood memories I have. The publisher should be ashamed. Below, my top five complaints, and some analysis.

1.    Groundwood Paper Should Not Be Allowed in Boxed Sets of Literature.

What should be a thick, custardy, luxurious stock known as Creme in the manufacturing business has been swapped with the cheapest stuff possible—an extremely thin, grey, almost translucent paper known as groundwood.

Don’t get me wrong. Groundwood has its place in the world—on newspaper stands and at airport bookstores. However in a work of serious fiction, and in a boxed set no less, it comes across as outrageously cheap and out of place. It would be almost comical, if my intention were not to spend a few thousand hours actually reading the series to my children over the next decade.

Sadly, the cheapness of the paper ends up compromising other aspects of the design as well.

2.    I Don’t Want to See Cover Graphics on the Spine.

When a thinner paper replaces a thicker paper, (as in this case), a book collectively becomes slimmer. The mechanism that keeps those pages together is known as the spine, and adjustments to the spine, as well as the front and back graphics, must be made to accommodate the book in its new smaller dimensions.

Yet in this case no adjustments were made. As a consequence, the front and back covers (which are now too big) encroach onto the spine, creating a sloppy, rough-hewn look. On a bookshelf, only the spine shows, with the graphic therefore serving as the de facto business card for the entire series. Like so many others, I would toss this business card right into the trash.

3. I Expect Book Interiors to Follow Design Best Practices. These Don’t.

I might spend a few paragraphs detailing what is wrong with the interior design of the series, but I think that in this case, the book can speak for itself:

Which begs the question. Did Laura traverse the continent on foot—(the ride in the caravan was bumpy, and most space was taken by the Franklin stove)—did her sister get so ill that she went blind; did the family burn their furniture so as not to freeze to death; did Pa rush a tree stump, having mistaken it for a bear; did all this happen, just so that, 150 years later, we could sell each other knockoff versions of our childhood treasures, but at full price?

4.    If You Are Going to Cheap Out On Your Boxed Set, then Your Boxed Set Should be Cheap.

With Chicago tax included, this set cost nearly $80.00. True, there are 9 books in this series, but one of those books (the last) is less than 100 pages long, and isn’t technically part of the series at all. I don’t think that $9.00 per copy is acceptable if there is no color interior, the trim is smaller than 6 x 9, and the paper stock is groundwood—these are the least costly manufacturing standards possible. I would guess that this edition was also manufactured on offset equipment and in the tens of thousands or more. The unit cost here was probably quite low.

5.    There Is No Way for the Consumer to Know What They are Getting for their Money.

This may be the issue that gets me the most. Boxed sets are traditionally packaged in plastic to prevent their contents from spilling out. That is reasonable, but it also prevents the consumer for inspecting their wares. Given the reality of poor design and, especially, the low-grade groundwood paper inside, I find this particularly disingenuous.

 Especially considering that of all things, the design of the box itself is devoid of any of the production quality issues I discuss above and, in fact, has a look that suggests a recent marketing makeover.

It would be difficult indeed for a bookstore browser to notice anything amiss. Not to mention a web browser, who would have absolutely no information to go on.

…And No, This Is Not A Manufacturing Defect.

This essay is ready to come to an end, but I think that it is possible that, having read this far, a question may still be lingering in your mind: Did I simply receive a box set with a manufacturing defect? To answer that question, I took a trip to my local Barnes & Noble.

They had the boxed set in both my groundwood edition and a higher-priced white-glossy stock, which turned out to be in full color. I was ready to buy a second copy of my boxed set, along with the color version for comparison, when I spotted some loose copies of individual titles in the series were also available. I cracked open both editions of Little House on the Prairie and took a gander:

While the groundwood edition appears identical to mine (proving mine to not be a manufacturing defect), I was surprised to see that the color edition—though it uses the same trim size, type face, and artwork—does not suffer from the same quality issues. The margins in the interior are correct. There is no encroachment of cover graphics on the spine. There is no groundwood.

Which makes me wonder: why was the groundwood edition so poorly done? Is there a sad story of rushed manufacturing here? Is the edition I bought another symptom of the massive printing disruption that rocked the publishing business this Christmas? I don’t know, but I suspect as much for two reasons.

First, the price of the fancier, color edition is only 99 cents more per title (for titles sold individually). Given the enormous difference in manufacturing costs between the two editions, this suggests that the groundwood edition may have been a stopgap measure to keep units available over the holidays. Second, consider that one major facet of the current printing crisis is a shortage of paper supplies. Is it possible that the publisher / printer was literally out of acceptable color paper stock, and so resorted to groundwood in desperation? Perhaps.

Problems in the Printing Business are No Excuse for Bad Design.

Still, I don’t think that the right answer here is to present consumers with poor products. At the very least, I expect to be forewarned if the quality of a product I am to consume is going to be noticeably below expectations. Or, as I said earlier, I expect the product to be much cheaper. And, there is this other thing, too: I still don’t see any reason why the groundwood edition should have suffered from design problems. I might forgive groundwood paper if interior and exterior designs are still acceptable. Perhaps some reader of this article can provide more insight as to why production quality suffers in the case of the groundwood edition in particular. Is there more to this story?


Author Bio

Clark spent several years as a user experience engineer at Microsoft and Oracle before coming to IPG as an architect of new digital systems. Clark supervises the teams involved in new software development as well as IPG’s short run digital printing and e-book and audiobook distribution units.  As CTO he works with in-house staff, publishers, and the software development community to design and build new services, platforms, and functionality to make navigating the digital age of publishing simple, straightforward, and effective.




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