Monday, May 23, 2016

Don't Call It a Bargain!

You see 'em everywhere online.

These big, dirt cheap e-compilations of novels and short stories by some of the better known (but not A-list) authors of the genre. Twenty-Five Hard-Boiled Classics, Volume Eight! The Amazing Sherlock Holmes and Watson Megapack! Gritty Crime from the Pulps, Collection 15! Five More Great Awesome and Amazing Crime Novels by Whomever!

Stories or complete novels by some really great and/or popular P.I. writers. William Campbell Gault, Thomas B. Dewey, Robert Leslie Bellem, Stewart Sterling, Spencer Dean, John Carroll Daly, George Harmon Coxe, Norbert Davis, Raoul Whitfield and the like.

Some of the writers in these books are personal favourites; some are of historical interest; some are just fun to read. But what they do all have in common is that the authors (or more importantly their copyrights) are all dead.

Which means some publisher can grab a bunch of stories and squirt out an ebook without ever having to pay any of the writers a cent. Amazon and the other online enablers are littered with these things, generally selling them for as little as 99 cents.

Yeah, I know the price is right, but I’m not a fan.

There are some publishers who do reprints right: they offer class, not crass. They edit, they commission artwork, they introduce new and relevant material into the mix. They treat the material with respect. They curate. They care. They actually edit. Outfits like Hard Case Crime, Stark House, Crippen & Landru -- they do it right. (And let's have a moment of silence for the late, great Rue Morgue, who rescued so many classics from obscurity. Tom and Enid? Thank you. Particularly for the Norbert Davis stuff).

Mind you, all of these publishers charged more than 99 cents a book. But their books were worth it. Well worth it.

These cheesy public domain hit-and-run e-compilations, though? At 99 cents, they can ship an awful lot of units, without ever having to pay anyone a damn cent. At 99 cents, you might even call it a steal.

But I think they devalue, if not outright disrespect, the act of writing and creativity, and lower the reader’s expectations of what writing is truly worth. It may look like a boon to non-discerning readers, but in the long run it hurts both writers and readers.

Or at least the ones who can tell the difference between shit and Shinola. Believe it or not, there are still some of us out here. Even in the era of La Donald.

But beyond the dubious ethics, if not legality, of these books, these quickie cyber-turds are poorly curated (if at all), often lack any thematic or editorial cohesion, generally sport lousy generic covers, and are often riddled with typographical and formatting errors. So we're not exactly talking quality control here. I also doubt any effort is made to share the profits with or obtain the cooperation of the estates of any of the now deceased authors. And often they mix in stories by their own “authors” to make it look like they’re in the same league; another rather dubious tactic.

Erle Stanley Gardner. Joe Phlegminski, Jr.. William Campbell Gault. Which of these things is not like the others?


What prompted this? A reader of my site recently contacted me, asking me to explain a story by Thomas B. Dewey that he'd just read in one of these collections. He complained that it just didn't make any sense.

Now, Dewey's one of those P.I. writers I really like, and his plots are generally well-constructed, with all the loose ends neatly tied up; solid, dependable fare that's always a bit more clever and insightful than you expect. I know this because I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the last few years, in preparation for that book I’m working on.

But I hadn't read that specific story in decades. So I told him it’s possible it didn’t make sense because the publisher had inadvertently left out part of the story. I’ve seen this happen before with these sort of collections. The publisher grabs (or scans) a bunch of old stories and slaps ‘em together for a quick buck, without any real editing.

In fact, this particular publisher apparently expects typos and errors, because when I checked out the free sample, I noticed that they apologize for typos  right on their copyright pages. Think about that. What sort of legit publisher apologizes in advance for errors? "Don't worry about them," they say, in essence, "We'll probably fix 'em with the next upload."

But these bottom feeders can’t just lay it off on poorly scanned source material (assuming they actually scanned the original material -- I suspect many of these clowns simply rip off their fellow e-scavengers. Besides, looking at the copyright page, it was clear they’re fully capable of introducing plenty of their own errors. So if they don't even bother to edit their own material, should we really expect them to be any more conscientious with other people's work? Especially if those authors have already shuffled off this mortal coil?

And if they can't be bothered to treat their authors right, what do you think they'll care about treating you right?

So it’s not exactly a stretch to believe the "publisher" may have lost a few paragraphs along the way. Ooops.

So, yeah, the price may be right, but as both a reader and a writer, I just think these guys are all wrong.


Blogger Guillaume said...

Hey, that's in my price range! No but seriously, that's a horror story you are telling. Here in the UK, we are lucky enough to have serious publishers doing serious work re-publishing old forgotten classics, either anthologies of short stories either full novels. I managed to make myself a rather decent collection of horror stories.

2:53 PM, May 23, 2016  
Blogger Dan_Luft said...

I agree with half of what you're saying. The typos can kill a story in two pages and some writing is forgotten for a reason. But public domain works have usually been cheaper than most books. Bantam and Signet classics were always about half the price of most paperbacks and Dover kept their tiny-print books at a dollar for many years.

Growing up there was always a lot of old-timey stuff that was hard to find whether it was by Zola or Robert Leslie Bellem, the market was too small to warrant a new print run. It's good that so much of these older books are available again because they pretty much belong to all of us.

i have a bigger problem with larger publishers selling these same public domain books in expensive, trade paperback editions.

3:41 PM, May 23, 2016  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Well, what's expensive?

More than 99 cents?

The thing is, most of these e-book scavengers wouldn't even have material at all if some traditional publisher hadn't stuck their necks out at some point. It's astounding how many of the stories in these e-book collections happen to be taken from print collections from twenty years ago or so.

I'm glad these stories aren't lost, but editing and treating material -- even allegedly public domain material -- with some sort of respect does cost some effort. And therefore money. Even if it is an e-book. But I'm willing to pay a little more, if I thought there was some care put into production and presentation. Or if some of those profits actually find their way back to the writers or their literary estates.

But my real problem with some of these cheesy e-collections is that a lot of them look like total shit, with garbled layouts, rampant typos and missing text. If it deserves to be reprinted, it deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of respect.

5:01 PM, May 23, 2016  
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11:14 PM, October 11, 2018  
Blogger Locked Room Reader said...

I agree with you except about Crippen and Landru. I love that they put out amazing stuff but nearly every single book I have by them, print and digital, is RIDDLED with typos and formatting errors. Most often

the errors will look like this.

With a new paragraph
suddenly full of gaps

that often mysteriously stop without punctuation and begin a new paragraph.

In one locked room story when th sleuth is carefully describing the setup they change “the window was now locked” to the “not locked.”

Again, I love their content but they’re attention to detail is awful and just as bad as these crappy e-scavengers.

4:02 PM, May 14, 2021  

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