Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Writing About Deteriorating Paper Quality

Do you remember my post from several weeks ago about the surprising thinness and heaviness of the finished copy of The Lonely Polygamist? It turns out that while this made the book seem less like the big, fat book that it was, it turned out to be very high quality paper, a disappearing attribute from trade publishing.

My post elicited a response from Melissa Klug at Glatfelter, the paper company that is pushing the Permanence Matters initiative. It is an attempt to call attention to the increasing use of groundwood in publishing, a development that has crept from mass market to trade paperback and now to hardcover, from commercial titles to high-end literary and scholarly award winners.

Here's an excerpt from Klug's original note to me, on the difference in the manufacturing process:

"Groundwood is manufactured differently than free-sheet, in that a key component of the tree fiber (called lignin) remains in the groundwood paper. Lignin is the binding that holds tree fibers together. When this is not removed from the pulping process, it causes the resulting paper to yellow and become brittle when exposed to even minor amounts of heat and light, and degrade at a rate that is an order of magnitude faster than other papers."

When Jason and I thought about and took a good look at our libraries, we had to agree that our books from 10-15 years ago look better than many of the books we bought in the last few years.

Why is this happening now? In my lowly opinion, there might be several reasons. Costs are going up at the same time pricing pressures (from general merchandise and internet retailers) are keeping the selling price of books low. According to Klug, there is an excess of this kind of paper on the market, due to the declining newspaper business. Yes, I know that groundwood isn't exactly newsprint, but it's close.

Remember how horrified folks were about paper acidity years ago? Well, there doesn't seem to be much concern about this more recent development. It's all about the digitization of course. Why do we need books? They'll all be on disc. Or in a cloud. Well, unless another change in technology renders your library useless. Or we have one of those cyber attacks that it's now in vogue to imagine. Or maybe something happens to your ebook reader account. I'm not even sure how many librarians are on this side of the battle this time. Wah.

Klug sent me a lot of photos. The one at left is of two books by the same author. The top one is older by several years. The bottom one is groundwood.

My concern is that the physical book's competitive edge over ebooks is that it's an object. Quality needs to increase, not decrease. Because if hardcovers deteriorate to the extent that they are disposable, I have one less argument for their existence.

I know I'm in the sweet spot for a market that may be in fact really small--customers that actually might care about the physical quality of a book. It's also pretty much out of my hands. And I can't figure out how to address the problem--can you imagine publishers printing a book on permanent paper at $30 and groundwood at $25? Or a sticker saying, "I'm printed on permanent paper." I'd print the stickers myself, only for the life of me, I have no idea what paper is used in any given printing.

Furthermore, if readers did know everything, I don't know what they'd choose. It's my thought that many people would prefer a cheaper book. Heck, there's a strong cry to eliminate hardcovers altogether (though I suspect the resulting trade paperback would probably approximate the hardcover price) and we all know about the struggle regarding the perceived value of ebooks.

I really don't know the answers here.

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