Sunday, June 10, 2012

What’s Wrong With Gutenberg & Why There Will Always Be A Classic Book Reprint Market

I’ve downloaded tons of free public domain books from Gutenberg and other sites like it that offer free old books, many of them classics. It’s wonderful that people have gone to the trouble to scan and digitize so many thousands of books around the world. However, for many years anyone could scan and upload a book to Gutenberg. The website relied on the people doing the digitizing to proofread the books themselves. The problem was that most did a poor job of it, thus many texts at the site have many errors in them. A couple of years ago, Gutenberg teamed with a company called Distributed Proofreaders in order to properly proofread the texts. They also do most of the scanning/OCR work and even pick out most of the books that get uploaded to Gutenberg’s American website. Of course, the American site only constitutes 1/4th of all the books at Gutenberg’s worldwide sites, most of whom don’t have a decent proofreading process.

While I applaud the effort from Distributed Proofreaders to help out Gutenberg, I still see a big problem here. They say:
"The Project Managers pick whatever books we can find. Due to US copyright laws, we are severely limited in the books we are allowed to work with. We go to Used & Rare bookshops and scour the Internet websites & auctions. We check out rare books from libraries and scan them. We obtain page images from other archive sites. We try to find books that we think people would enjoy reading and that we can find at an acceptable price."
Gee, wouldn't it be nice to actually bother finding the most correct edition of the book rather than "whatever books we can find." Do you know how many errors are fixed in subsequent editions of print books? Plenty. For that matter, many old books have been sliced and diced over the years by editors for various reasons, often religious ones, to the point of it being a painstaking process putting together a correct edition today. A great example (among dozens I could give) is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Only the original 1824 Longman's 1st edition had the text in it's entirety until Oxford Press came out with one in 1981. That 1st edition generally goes for better than $1,000 if you're lucky enough to find one. And even that edition had at least seven typesetting errors that I'm aware of (and considering Hogg's mixture of Scotch and English spellings, only a scholar would catch). I’m not sure of the exact size of the original print run, but I know it was very small. The next edition was in 1837. It had 115 pages omitted and the text was so heavily redacted that it bore little resemblance to the original. For the next hundred years or more, nearly every subsequent edition relied on the 1837 edition making them also incorrect. L Shiells and Co. came out with an 1895 edition which claimed to follow the original, but scholar John Carey found it had errors or omissions on all but three of its 266 pages. Campion Reprints in 1924, and later Cresset Press in 1947, both came out with reprints that also followed the 1824 1st edition, but they both changed some of Hogg's deliberate (and often playful) spellings and some of the punctuation. Thus, it wasn't until 1981 that a decent reprint of the 1st edition came out by Oxford Press (even fixing the seven errors in the original.) But while the original text in not under copyright, Oxford Press' version is, so you cannot use it legally to copy from for Gutenberg. Not that any of the amateurs scanning texts willy-nilly for Gutenberg would know, or care about, true scholarly work anyway, and herein lies the problem.

What I just described is all too common of old books. Editors thought nothing of redacting (even vandalizing) earlier editions. It takes a true scholar to really scour out all the editions he/she can find and to analyze them with great scrutiny. This often requires having an intimate knowledge of the author’s entire cannon and having familiarized himself with whatever biographical material he can find on the writer. For instance, in the 1837 edition of the book by Hogg mentioned above, the editor, D.O. Hill, made the rather absurd claim that Hogg himself had done the final emendations. This would have included his having chopped out every single reference the original text had made against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. However, James Hogg argued against predestination his entire life. To think he would have changed the text in this way is simply ludicrous. It also took away the entire scope and meaning of the book which was itself almost entirely an argument against predestination. Take away that argument and there’s little left worth printing.

But how many people uploading books to Gutenberg, whether on their own or through Distributed Proofreaders, have the scholarly training to select the right editions of texts and to make the correct emendations in them where necessary? This, in my opinion, is a great oversight by Gutenberg and other public domain text aggregators. These books should be selected and edited by true scholars with a great knowledge of a particular author’s life and works.

I’m not trying to be overly critical. Gutenberg is trying to do a good thing and probably are doing it the best they can. They’re a volunteer effort working with little funding. They can no more afford to pay scholars to do this work than you or I could. But this is also exactly why there will always be a market for fine editions of reprints by real publishers who take the time to do things right.