After producing books that withstand decades of abuse, publishers are now shipping titles that hardly survive a week. New books from top imprints are falling apart days, weeks, or months after being delivered to libraries and schools.
Pages peel away like sheets off a notepad. Cover stocks rip, revealing sleeves where spines used to be. Callused strips of glue crack apart with little coaxing. And surprisingly, even Smyth stitched titles are coming undone.
"We order books once a month, and I noticed [new] books were starting to come apart," says John McManus, director of the Millinocket Memorial Library, in Millinocket, Me. "I thought it was overuse by patrons. But one book fell apart picking it up off the cart. It hadn't even gone out yet, and the whole thing just came apart, which is unbelievable."
Another librarian reports problems with hardcover editions of Scholastic's Captain Underpants and Ricky Ricotta books. "These are very popular, so I would expect normal wear and tear," says Caryn Werlin with the Bridge School Library, in Lexington, Mass., in an e-mail. "But what I have been seeing for the past year is anything but. Most of my copies have come unglued from the spines."
Werlin called Scholastic and pointed out their catalog states bindings are suitable for trade and library use. Scholastic's picture books are Smyth sewn and reinforced. Books for older readers are casebound, and have three-piece cloth and board covers.
"The [customer service] supervisor said that after books circulate once, they do not replace them," Werlin says. "Most are falling apart after five to 12 circulations. This is completely unacceptable."
HALL OF SHAME
Perhaps not surprisingly, publishers appear to be dodging the issue. None responded to BookTech's request for an interview. But if the companies behind these poorly made books don't seem to care, John Clark does.
He's the library system specialist for the Maine State Library, in Augusta. He's also the man behind the Hall of Shame, a Web site gaining international attention by exposing defective imprints.
Clark noticed discussions about new books falling apart were a common topic on Internet newsgroups frequented by librarians. He chose to act. Posting on various newsgroups, Clark invited librarians to tell him which titles were falling apart.
In return, he promised to feature the titles on his personal Web page. Clark's Hall of Shame was born. Little did he know it would become a lightning rod for librarians and textbook buyers around the world.
"My intent was just to get a venue for people to let some steam off," Clark says. "The next thing you know, it developed legs. I did this in response to a collective frustration on the part of the library community, which seems to be shared not only nationally, but internationally."
The problem isn't limited to library books. Reports are coming in from higher education as well.
"I've had a couple of medical and academic libraries that forwarded very expensive books of text material," he says. "There's one from a medical college library in Australia that cost $600 Australian, and it fell apart almost immediately. That gets your attention pretty quick."
As the volume of bad book reports grew, Clark's librarian instincts kicked in. He categorized and ranked the offenders.
" 'Mad Cows' are books that have been reported once," Clark says.
" 'Roaches' have been reported two to four times. 'Real Dogs' have been reported between five and 10 times. And 'Absolute Stinkers' are the ones that are reported over 10 times."
Topping Clark's rogue's gallery: AOL Time Warner. Its Warner and Little Brown imprints garnered the highest number of librarian complaints. Other top offenders: Knopf, Simon & Schuster, William Morrow, St. Martin's, Penguin Putnam, Harper Collins, Scholastic.
Of the 84 publishers fingered on the site, none appear to be feeling the heat. They're ignoring librarians' complaints, and only occasionally replacing defective titles.
A STICKY PROBLEM
Librarians blame the glues. They say books of recent vintage seem to be manufactured with cheap adhesives that don't maintain a grip.
"We've taken apart some books and looked at the text block itself," says McManus of the Millinocket Memorial Library. "Sometimes it's one solid impenetrable mass of glue that dries like glass, and you can see that it's not even attached to the paper. So the glue is horrible. It may hold the text block together, but it certainly won't hold it to the spine."
Glue manufacturers and binding experts agree. They point to recession-era market pressures driving publishers to cut costs, and cut corners. Manufacturers are substituting low-grade glues, papers, and inks for the good stuff of years past.
Making matters worse, some makers are ignoring the art of binding, failing to properly match adhesives with materials.
"You have to think about the whole process, and the preparation of the book block," says Xavier Ardanaz, marketing manager for book binding adhesives at the National Adhesives division of National Starch and Chemical Co., in Bridgewater, N.J. "It depends on the glue, the paper, and preparation-like rocking or sanding or notching or burst binding methods-so you expose fiber for adhesives to grab onto."
Ardanaz says different papers require different adhesives and preparation methods. Newsprint or bleached should be handled differently than coated. Likewise, there are special adhesives and prep methods for light- and heavily-coated stocks.
Solvents and inks should also be considered when devising the manufacturing process, Ardanaz says. "If you're using solvents and inks, then you require a whole different set of adhesives," he says. "So the preparation, and the marriage between the adhesive, substrate, and the machine you're using are critical."
Ink migration might be at the root of many bad book experiences. Publications that contain very sharp graphics often use inks that contain solvents. The solvents migrate toward the backbone and eat away the adhesive, especially when the book is wrapped, stored in a warehouse, and exposed to heat.
GLUES STRONG AS SMYTH
Ultimately, the backbone comes apart, and the pages fall out. Glues that cost more per-pound are engineered to avoid these problems, and provide bindings that hold up over time. Surprisingly, superior adhesives can be price competitive with popular cheap alternatives, Ardanaz says.
That is, if their application is managed according to the manufacturer's specifications. Ardanaz touts National Adhesive's PUR line, a polyurethane reactive hot melt that company officials say binds as well as Smyth stitching.
"These adhesives are a little more expensive, but usually you can apply maybe just a third of the total," Ardanaz says. "[PUR] has tremendously great strength and flexibility, and can handle all kinds of different heavily-coated stocks. We liken it to Smyth or staples, [because] it is parallel in strength."
It's a bold claim book manufacturers might have a hard time swallowing. But an internationally respected expert on binding says such skepticism might be ill-placed.
"I would imagine there's some truth to that," says Dr. Brian Roberts, operator of The Book Doctor, a hand bindery and book repair service in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Roberts has been repairing books for 30 years.
He uses an adhesive imported from Germany. It's a polyvinyl acetate glue engineered for use in hand binderies.
"To repair the kind of mess that's produced in that market, this is the best [approach] I know of," Roberts says.
Their bare budgets notwithstanding, librarians would gladly pay more for books that hold up. And they hope publishers will take note.
"I would be willing to bet that if you asked librarians, 'Would you be willing to pay 50 cents more for a book that would hold up for five years?,' 99% would answer, 'Yes, we'd do that,' " says Hall of Shame operator Clark. "We'd do it in a heartbeat."
Meanwhile, librarians will continue to protest bad books by sharing their stories on the Hall of Shame site. And possibly continue to be ignored.
"I'm looking at a book from the '50s, for heaven's sake, and it's still fairly structurally sound," says Lynne Allen, library director for the Vose Library, in Union, Me.
She compares that to a new book from AOL Time Warner's LIFE imprint, titled One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001.
It retails for $29.95. And it fell apart after circulating three times. "When it came back, it had split apart," Allen says. "And I thought, 'This is ridiculous.' "
Allen heard about Clark's Web site and logged on. She looked up the publisher's customer service address, another service Clark provides. Allen fired off an e-mail to AOL Time Warner.
Three weeks later, and with no response to her e-mail message, a replacement book arrives. That should be the end of the story, but it's not. The replacement book has the same quality problems.
"Book binding is probably the only human process that has systematically deteriorated with every added mechanization, in the process of getting the book from the writer to the reader," says Dr. Roberts, the Book Doctor. "Every time we've added a new layer to the process, [the] product has been