Friday, February 19, 2010

Ressurection Machine

We've taken our first, tentative steps into retailing the books printed for our stock on the Espresso Book machine. Heretofore, most of the books we've produced have been customer orders for specific Google books. Alright, being honest, most of what's been printed heretofore has been for employees and most of those for me. But, we have had our first special orders from persons not in the employ of the bookstore. One gentleman, for example, had us make him a copy of his grandfather's (?) memoirs, long out of print and difficult to come by, of life the great Northwest. A local used books dealer came in and we printed him up a lovely old book on the design of wooden boats. The drawings and diagrams came out beautifully, the photos less so, but still, everyone's seemed happy with the results so far. There are also a number of self-publishing types and local authors lining up to use the services of the new EBM as well.

Nearly all the titles I've ordered to date have been Google books. I've already pictured most of these here. These books are ordered blind, usually with little or no way to anticipate their actual contents or the state of their library-copied text. All that's provided on the database from which Google books may be selected -- at least the ones I've wanted so far -- are title, author and price, and an often impossible to read image, usually of the title page. I haven't even been able to tell, on more than one occasion, that what I was ordering was only a stray volume of a set. So far, none of the missing volumes have turned up on the lists. Very frustrating, and not a little silly. Google books come in various sizes, but are otherwise immediately recognizable in their printed form because of their uniform blue & white covers. These can be typographically eccentric: long titles reproduced in tiny type to fit the whole thing into the allotted space, though just as often the titles have been incomplete. Also, editors have been confused with contributors, so that the wrong name is on the cover, or the right name, but printed in some eccentric way, or the title or the author's name broken off to fit the space; so that Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Blackstick Papers, for example, on the Google books cover, becomes:



The most weirdly amusing Google books cover in my collection so far, also by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, was her biography of Madame de Sévigné. See for yourselves the bizarre results:

Evidently, Homer -- the leading choice of name for our EMB -- doesn't speaks French, except on the inside, where he does just fine, by the way. No matter. Early days yet, and the interior of the Thackeray Ritchie book was fine.

Google books, I'm learning, are what they are. They are not, by any means always the only affordable option on the EBM.

There are any number of more attractively reproduced books already available for print with the EBM. For these, the plan has always been to print a few copies to be sold in the regular inventory. Staff has been encouraged to request favorite, previously unavailable, titles, and then write them up for the in-store display. A number of booksellers have already done this. (Personally, until now, I've been a little too busy selfishly shopping, but I've just made a start.) Various attractive books have resulted from these first staff-recommendations, including a handsome copy of Hardy's Woodlanders, and a grand old ghost story, by Algernon Blackwood, The Willows, both from "bookjungle." (Note: I include the link for amusement's sake as neither the website, nor the listed email address for this company, both taken from the back of one of their own books, could be made to work!*)

The first book I've actually had made up for stock was Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, in a pretty reprint of an 1965 edition from W. W. Norton. I actually like the graphic style of the period, and the text is perfect: bright, clean, and in a bold modern font. More importantly, this is exactly the kind of book that I at least had in mind when I started thinking about all the possibilities of the Espresso Book Machine.

Maria Edgeworth (1 January 1767 – 22 May 1849,) hasn't been much in evidence in bookstores for years, at least in the United States, (she needs a BBC television adaptation!) but she is well worthy of rediscovery. Known as "The Austen of Ireland," she's hardly Jane, but then no one else is. Edgeworth is however a damned fine writer, a novelist of manners, but also a woman of wider views. If she is not so perfectly polished as Austen, she can be just as much fun. She is credited with having "reintroduced the English to Ireland;" bringing, for instance, the disgraceful abuses of their Irish estates and dependents by absentee English landlords to the attention of the English reading public in, appropriately enough, her novel The Absentee. A member of the "Anglo-Irish," Protestant elite herself, she nevertheless championed Ireland -- within the limits of her time and class -- and used her writing as a means of making the English aware of their traditional mismanagement of the place, and the injustices done there. But Maria Edgeworth is no prim, English bluestocking. She is witty and bright, her plots recognizably romantic and yet restrained, and her style the equal of, in fact often superior to, many a better remembered writer.

Castle Rackrent is her most famous novel, and perhaps her best (It was one of her only productions not edited and "improved" by her brilliant, but meddlesome papa.) The story, again, treating generations of misbehaving English landlords, who will find themselves bested by a clever lad, and surrounded by clever women. For anyone wanting to augment a collection of the complete works of the divine Jane, dear Maria is the best suggestion I could make.

To date, there are still too few publishers who have followed Norton's lead and agreed to make their out of print backlists available to be reprinted with an EBM, but negotiations are ongoing with a number of university presses, as well as other major publishers, and more are already on the way, as I understand it. For now, this means, for the most part, EBM publishing is still dependent on the kind of reprint houses I remember from earlier days: smaller operations, with book-covers of a uniform style, the texts cleanly printed, but without such frills as notes or new introductions. That's fine.

The Echo Library, 131 High St., Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8HH, -- I can't resist reproducing that very nice address -- is one such operation, with which I had no previous acquaintance. (Again, an attempt to consult their quaintly primitive website for further information proved fruitless, as it looks to have been formatted some time in the Thatcher Era, and updated about as regularly as Tory policies.) No matter. Already from their otherwise inscrutable stock, I have pulled two titles dear to me.

Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse, is one of the great English autobiographies and a fascinating confession of one man's progress away from the God of his childhood. Gosse became a great man of letters, and among the most widely read and personally beloved personalities of the late Victorian era. He started life in a loving, but suffocatingly pious home. His astonishingly fond, and forgiving portrait of his rigidly Evangelical father, is among the few such successful portraits of a good, but deeply flawed man, written by his likewise good, but utterly unlike son. I have never been able to read the beautiful, angry end of this book without tears.

The other book I'm recommending from the same source is, if anything, even more obscure and unlikely to find a modern audience, but Coventry Patmore's celebration of Victorian domesticity and the virtues of English womanhood, The Angel in the House, was once a huge bestseller and still contains many good things. Written in tribute to his wife, these poems are souvenirs of a genuine devotion, but they are also quite accomplished in their way, and just the sort of thing new readers may well be surprised to find still charming, amusing and touching.

Today, exploring my options, I decided to try the print-on-demand version of the missing second volume of Maria Edgeworth's life and letters that Google books failed to give me when I had printed up what I assumed to be the complete biography. The result, from Echo Library, cost me roughly four dollars more than the first volume from Google books, but is a superior object in every way; big and clear and very attractive when set next to it's elder sister. So much so, I may orphan that first and have Homer sire me a first volume to match this second.

I am just learning how all this works, but I must say, with a little patience, I may yet see the resurrection of my favorites, body and soul. Have faith, good people.

*Actually, for now, perhaps the best way to get a sense of what is actually available to be printed on the EBM, "on demand books" has probably the most accurate listings. Though very limited in details, this site will at least give the best list of what titles can -- so far -- be purchased. Remember, new publishers and titles are being added all the time, so these listings will expand.

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