beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

The Worst Excuse for a Book I've Ever Seen

Recently I have encountered a book which on its cover announces itself to be Electromagnetic Radiation And The Mechanical Reactions Arising From It, Being An Adams Prize Essay In The University Of Cambridge, by George Adolphus Schott, first published in 1912.

Schott was a physicist notable for predicting the radiation lost by electrons passing through a magnetic field. This was recognized experimentally in 1947 and we know it today as synchrotron radiation. Important stuff.

The copy I have seen is a modern edition, "published" --you will soon understand why I put the word in quotes-- in 2009 by General Books, LLC.

Behind the Cover Lies the Sad Truth

I picked it up. I looked at the title page. A horrifying suspicion began to dawn.

This really seems like an odd format for a title page. Also, the wrinkle in the page does not bespeak great care in the publisher's quality control.

A close examination reveals multiple errors; for example, the phrase PRINTED BY JOHN CLAY, M. A. AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS becomes PKINTED BY JOHN CLAY, M. A. AT THE UNIVEKBITY PEESS.

I opened the book to a page with a lot of math on it, page 134. It contained Section 176.

In the Cambridge University Press edition of 1912, section 176 looks like this:

In the General Books edition of 2009, the same passage looks like this:

Here's what happened: Someone scanned the 1912 book. Someone ran optical character recognition (OCR) software on the scanned images, which results in a lengthy string of characters. General Books obtained the OCR output file. They offered it for sale as a print-on-demand book for thirty bucks or so.

When naively applied to the sort of mathematics Professor Schott was writing, OCR does not work very well. In Equation 260,

"delta d sub phi equals" becomes js 7
"two lambda double-dot prime" becomes 2a,"
"minus omega mu dot prime" becomes oji'
"plus" becomes + (the only thing correct so far)

Page 134 of the General Books edition is, in fact, useless gibberish.

The entire book is useless gibberish. It's the worst excuse for a book I've ever seen.

Prof. Schott has become a casualty of the digital age. Lots of old books have been scanned. Facsimile files of them are available on the Web, especially the ones, such as Electromagnetic Radiation, whose copyright has expired.

General Books LLC, and other firms, offer to publish new books, the paper kind, derived from such scans, using modern print-on-demand systems. They offer millions of titles. A customer buys one. An OCR file is dumped into the POD machinery, a fresh paper volume emerges, and the new-old book is shipped off.

Many online booksellers offer this book. On, the product description includes this:
Notes: This is an OCR reprint. There may be typos or missing text. There are no illustrations or indexes.

Presumably the publisher feels this is adequate warning to customers about to buy Page 134 and a bunch of pages like it.

But as we have seen, using OCR on a mathematical text is The Wrong Thing to do.

What's more aggravating is that the scanned image files-- from which the OCR versions are derived-- would make a far more satisfactory book if they were printed out. And General Books offers purchasers a look at these files online:
When you buy the General Books edition of this book you get free trial access to where you can select from more than a million books for free. You can also preview the book there.
On the back cover is a code number. Type it into a form on the Million-Books site, and you will be allowed to download a PDF of the scanned version of the book. Why couldn't they put that on paper, instead of the OCR gibberish? Having investigated, I still have no idea.

A Word from the Publisher

Their Web site offers some further interesting information in the form of FAQs:

Why are there so many typos in my paperback?
We created your book using OCR software that includes an automated spell check. Our OCR software is 99 percent accurate if the book is in good condition. However, with up to 3,500 characters per page, even one percent can be an annoying number of typos. We would really like to manually proof read and correct the typos. But many of our books only sell a couple of copies so that could add hundreds of dollars to the cover price. And nobody wants to pay that. If you need to see the original text, you can download a copy for free.

How can I check the quality of a paperback before buying it?
Simply click the details link on our search results page to see a random 2,000 character except from the book.

Can I buy a paperback of the scanned book rather than your retypeset version?
No. We have tried reprinting books without re-typesetting them, but we received too many complaints due to the discolored paper and faded type of the original copy. Sometimes the original book (which usually comes from a library) even has hand written notes, underlined sentences, or paragraphs highlighted in yellow. Reprinting all that as is, looks really bad. If we only expect to sell a couple of copies, retouching hundreds of pages could add hundreds of dollars to the cover price. While most people prefer we re-typeset and design a book (with some exceptions), we continue to develop the technology necessary to restore the original rare book so we can reproduce it as is. Hopefully, we can offer that service in the future, but not yet.

What would it cost to manually retype, proof, typeset and design a book for me so it's perfect?
Proofreading a book alone can cost $13 or more per double spaced page. So a 100 page could cost $1,300 plus typesetting and design and printing. If that's of interest, we can prepare an exact price on request. But it would be less expensive to download a scanned copy from our website and reproduce that instead. Alternatively, you could do the proof reading and just pay a minimal printing cost.

How can I help?
Some kind readers have offered to correct the typos in a favorite book. We provide you with a plain text copy to edit (which our typesetting system requires). Our formatting requirements are simple: a blank space between paragraphs and chapter names in all caps. You need to put the footnotes at the end of the book. We will credit you as voluntary proof reader.

No Shortage of Capitalists Willing to Sell You Shoddy Goods

General Books is not the only publisher peddling this sort of book. Each print-on-demand publisher seems to have more than one ISBN for its edition of the book. I'm not sure why.

ISBNs for General Books LLC: 1152644327, 1152014560
ISBNs for BiblioBazaar: 1113698780 (large print?), 1113698764
ISBNs for BiblioLife: 1113698837 (hardcover), 1113698810, 1113698853

A Google Shopping search reveals 12 merchants offering copies of the book, ranging from $7.99 for an e-book to $59.68 for a new paperback.

Abebooks shows 61 sellers offering copies at prices from $20.24 to $66.95; all appear to be the General Books or BiblioBazaar editions. I can't find an original 1912 edition.

Amazon appears to carry at least three versions.

This review of another book contends that General Books is a branch of VDM Publishing, notorious for flooding the book market with other kinds of questionable print-on-demand books:
Basically, VDM Publishing is flooding Amazon with these low quality prints and, unfortunately, many of them have the reviews associated with the original or with beter quality imprints associated with them.

Schott Free

As for offering paying customers access to scanned images of the 1912 book, this practice adds little value unless customers are unable to find such files for free.

Google Books offers two scanned versions of this book. Although its copyright has expired, neither one is a complete facsimile (nor OCR version); one has a partial preview, and another offers only snippets., however, carries two complete scanned versions, in mulitple formats. One came from the Cornell University library and one from the University of Toronto. (Possibly this is the reason General Books has assigned it two different ISBNs; they may correspond to the two different source scans.)

Bookworm Beware

From this experience, I've realized that there are implicit assumptions I make when I buy a "book." I expect that the publisher has made a reasonable attempt to fill the pages with text that makes sense.

I've also learned there are publishers willing to make a quick buck from "the long tail" by selling (something they call) books without making any attempt whatsoever to assure that they are readable.

Unwary purchasers of print-on-demand books, such as UNIVEKBITY libraries, may find severe disappointment. If there are any publishers putting out decent-quality editions of old books like Schott's they unfortunately have to compete with clowns like General Books.
Tags: books, mathematics, physics, pod, publishing
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