Last week, I finally got around to ordering Nick Catalano’s biography of the great jazz trumpeter, Clifford Brown, which I had been meaning to read for several years. I checked with Amazon to find out its availability. Oxford published the book in hardcover in 2000, but the hardcover was out-of-print. I checked the nearby Strand Bookstore, and they had no copies; I checked at McNally Jackson in Prince Street on a stroll home from work, and they did not have the book either; so I decided to order the trade paperback version, published in 2001, from Amazon. It was still in print, for $16.95. I considered for a moment buying one of the many used copies offered on Amazon—both in hardcover and paper—with some priced as low as $2. But then decided, why not have a new book and support a university press that had seen fit to keep an important book available.
I ordered the book on Monday, Sept. 19. I got an email two days later that it had shipped. On Saturday morning, Sept. 24, there it was in the distinctive Amazon box. I immediately set to reading. The book was smaller than I had expected, for a biography. The cover was a muted, two-color black-and-blue on white—cheap but perhaps tasteful for a book about a trailblazing musician who died tragically at age 25. The paper was a very bright white. And then I got to the photo section—a horror show: terribly greyed out, low-quality, perhaps galley quality (at best). They were like photocopies of photocopies of very old photographs. I thought—this must be a terrible production mistake. As I looked around in the book, I found 12 completely blank pages at the end, but for a bar code on the last page and the words “Made in the U.S.A. Lexington, KY, September 21, 2011.” That is, my book had been printed three days earlier.
I assume what I held in my hands is the fruit of print-on-demand technology. By virtue of this technology, I understand, this book was available to me as a new book. But had I known that the quality would be so shoddy, I would either have gone to a library to find the book or ordered a used hardcover. It seems like poor business practice to price this book at a full trade paper price–$16.95—and not to inform the customer that what he or she will be receiving is a product of very low quality—not what we have come to know as trade quality. As print struggles to co-exist with e-books—and distinguish itself as a viable medium—it strikes me that such a technology- and economics-driven erosion of production standards is no way to go.
Coda: today I wrote to Amazon with a complaint and they responded quickly, offering a 30% refund ($5.10) if I choose to keep the book or a full credit if I return it, with Amazon paying the postage. Since I have already scribbled in the book, I will keep it. I’ll apply the discount to a used hardcover. I want to see that picture of Brownie and his wife toasting each other on their wedding day, two years to the day before he died.