Don’t Call ’em a Bargain!

You see ’em everywhere online.

These dirt cheap, scan-and-print e-compilations of novels and short stories by some of the better known (but not A-list) authors of the genre. Twenty-Five Hard-Boiled Classics, Volume Eight! The Amazing Sherlock Holmes and Watson Megapack! Gritty Crime from the Pulps, Collection 15! Five More Great Awesome and Amazing Crime Novels by Whomever! Sometimes you even see them in print, at suspiciously low prices.

Stories or complete novels by some really great and/or popular P.I. writers. William Campbell Gault, Thomas B. Dewey, Robert Leslie Bellem, Stewart Sterling, Spencer Dean, John Carroll Daly, George Harmon Coxe, Norbert Davis, Raoul Whitfield and the like. Recently even Chandler and Hammett have joined the fray.

Some of the writers in these books are personal favourites; some are of historical interest; some are just fun to read. But what they do all have in common is that the authors (or more importantly their copyrights) are all dead.

Which means some publisher can grab a bunch of stories and squirt out an ebook without ever having to pay any of the writers a cent. And, because it’s all digital (No paper! No ink!), there’s no real investment at all, except for a little time. Amazon and the other online vendors are littered with these things, generally selling them for as little as 99 cents.

Yeah, yeah. I know. The price is right, and it’s certainly all legal (mostly), but I’m not a fan.

There are some publishers who do reprints right: they offer class, not crass. They edit, they commission artwork, they introduce new and relevant non-fiction material into the mix, treating the original material and its creators with the respect they deserve. They curate. They care. They actually edit. Outfits like Hard Case Crime, Stark House, Crippen & Landru — they do it right. (And let’s have a moment of silence for the late, great Rue Morgue, who rescued so many classics from obscurity. Tom and Enid? Thank you. Particularly for the Norbert Davis stuff).

Mind you, all of these publishers charged more than 99 cents a book. But their books were worth it.

These cheesy public domain hit-and-run ebook publishers, though? At 99 cents, they can ship an awful lot of units, without ever having to pay anyone a damn cent. At 99 cents, you might even call it a steal.

But I think they devalue, if not outright disrespect, the act of writing and creativity, and lower the reader’s expectations of what writing is truly worth. It may look like a boon to non-discerning readers and cheapskates, but in the long run it hurts both writers and readers. Living and dead.

Or at least the ones who can tell the difference between shit and Shinola. Believe it or not, there are still some of us out here who care about more than the bottom line. Even in the Trump era.

But beyond the dubious ethics, if not legality, of these books, these quickie cyber-turds are poorly curated (if at all), often lacking any thematic or editorial cohesion, generally sport lousy generic (or ripped off) covers, and are often riddled with typographical errors, the result of lazy and inattentive scanning. Some of the ebooks aren’t even formatted properly, and are polluted with truncated page breaks, blank pages, inconsistent layout, seemingly random typography choices, varying font sizes, and wandering alignment.

“Witten by Peter Collinson”?

“All copryights reseved.”

“The Big Sleep by Raymond Chander”

“Sudenly a shot ran out…”

These are all examples of the attention to detail available in these bargains. And all immediately visible–for free!–in the “Look inside this book” previews offered on Amazon and other sites. Talk about airing your dirty laundry in public.

So we’re not exactly talking quality control here. I also doubt any effort is made to share the profits with or obtain the cooperation of the estates of any of the now deceased authors. And often these pirates of the public domain mix in stories by their own author pals to make it look like they’re in the same league; another rather dubious tactic.

Erle Stanley Gardner. Joe Phlegminski, Jr.. William Campbell Gault. Which of these things is not like the others?

Anyway…

What prompted this? A reader of my site recently contacted me, asking me to explain a story by Thomas B. Dewey that he’d just read in one of these collections. He complained that it just didn’t make any sense.

Now, Dewey’s one of those P.I. writers I really like, and his plots are generally well-constructed, with all the loose ends neatly tied up; solid, dependable fare that’s always a bit more clever and insightful than you’d expect. And still surprisingly relevant, even half a century or so later. I know this because I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the last few years, in preparation for that book I’m working on.

But I hadn’t read that specific story in decades. It turns out the publisher had inadvertently left out part of the story. I’ve seen this happen before with these sort of collections. The publisher grabs (or scans) a bunch of old stories and slaps ‘em together for a quick buck, without any real editing.

In fact, this particular publisher apparently expects typos and errors, because when I checked out the free sample, I noticed that they apologized for typos right on their copyright page.

Think about that.

What-the-fuck sort of legit publisher apologizes in advance for errors? “Don’t worry about them,” they say, in essence, “We’ll probably fix ’em (maybe) with the next upload.”

But these bottom feeders can’t just lay it off on poorly scanned source material (assuming they actually scanned the original material — I suspect many of these clowns simply rip off their fellow e-scavengers. Besides, looking at the copyright page, it was clear they’re fully capable of introducing plenty of their own errors. So if they don’t even bother to edit their own material, should we really expect them to be any more conscientious with other people’s work? Especially if those authors have already shuffled off this mortal coil?

And if they can’t be bothered to treat their authors right, what do you think they’ll care about treating you right?

So what if a “publisher” may have lost a few paragraphs along the way. Ooops.

So, yeah, the price may be right, but as both a reader and a writer, I just think these guys are all wrong.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Call ’em a Bargain!

  1. By the sound of it (and I can vouch for having picked up a few of such well-edited editions of famous early-last-century works from Amazon’s free-bin), these aren’t even worth the money the bandwidth costs to download them.

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