Saturday, April 28, 2007

Google Books' Plain Label Books

Several years ago I uploaded a plain text book to Project Gutenberg called "Chess History & Reminiscences" by H. E. Bird. Recently I wondered if the book had been digitized and was available through Google Book Search and I found that it was. The first page of the full-text copy was titled "Plain Label Books." Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I wondered what this was and couldn't find anything in a google.com search. The second page with the copyright notice caught my attention:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Many questions come to mind: Who are Plain Label Books? They are responsible for a lot of texts in Google Books. Who is the Editor, "Chumley P. Grumley"? And is he related to "Chumley P. Crumley," another Editor with the good folks at Plain Label Books? Someone has assigned ISBN numbers to this text as well (but they aren't in WorldCat). I see the words "Not copyrighted in the United States," but at the bottom right of every page is a watermark that reads "Copyrighted material." Who is copyrighting what, and where?

Looking through the text itself, I have the overwhelming suspicion that it is the exact same text that I uploaded to Gutenberg five years ago, except the introductory Gutenberg-related text has been stripped off. Nowhere do I find any explanation of the relationship between this text and the one I sent to Gutenberg. Why not? And why the bogus "Grumley" character?

A search of google.com provided no light as to the identity of Grumley or his doppelganger, Crumley. A pity, because surely they deserve at least a biographical Wikipedia page for their work in Google Books. I'd like to know something about them and their editorial philosophy.

Google's mission, as I think we have all memorized by now, is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. But a goal such as this demands transparency, and I can't see through the first two pages of this digital book.

Looking through other books, I was distressed to see the full-text copy of This Side of Paradise. Many of the words along the inner margin were cut off during the scanning process, making the book of limited value. Once scanned, aren't the books returned to their library? But if the scanning was unsuccessful, as I think we can say in this case as well as many others, wouldn't it need to be rescanned at some point? It seems to be an inefficient process. Someone should be on hand to review the scans and determine if changes need to be made. Obviously, that isn't happening.

The Google Book project is a wonderful thing. I hope the bugs can eventually be ironed out. But if the goal is to make information accessible, the Google scanning process has a long way to go to claim success. And so the question remains whether that really is the goal.

UPDATE: See my "The Mystery of Plain Label Books Solved."

UPDATE: See my "Google Responds to Our Plain Label Books Post."

UPDATE 092908: Daniel Oldis of Plain Label Books recently sent me a note describing his fascination with Google Books. He posted every book he could find, and included some of his own published writings as well. He could download, format and convert a book to pdf in 5 minutes! Like me, he was unimpressed with the quality of Google's own scanned facsimiles. I well understand his obsession with digital books, but it does drain one and we might not see any new Plain Label Books.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Ludlum Betrayal

“Does this industry have a conscience anymore?” Norman Mailer, 15 years ago, raised the question that has been asked repeatedly of the book publishing business since soon after it began and which seems at least as appropriate today as any time previously. If books can now be published under the names of famous people who didn’t write them, what does that say, if anything, about the current and future health of the industry?

The death of a famous and popular writer is often an inconvenience—especially when unfinished manuscripts are left behind. Vladimir Nabokov didn’t live to complete his final novel, The Original of Laura. He instructed his wife to destroy the manuscript (said to be about 40 pages in length) after his death, but she then left the decision to their son Dmitri. The latest word seems to be that he will not burn it but may instead bequeath it to a scholarly institution with heavy access restrictions and no plans for publication. (But then why the tantalizing praise in public for a manuscript that if completed would have been “his most brilliant novel, the most concentrated distillation of his creativity,” as Dmitri proclaimed it, if we are never permitted to judge for ourselves?) This manuscript, if published, would outsell anything by Nabokov since Lolita. The heirs are not thirsty for easy lucre but instead anguish if those 40 index cards shouldn’t be incinerated without anyone ever viewing them.

Franz Kafka, who published almost nothing before his death, requested the destruction of his papers as well, but his wishes were ignored and he subsequently became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. (Was Nabokov unconsciously echoing Kafka, one is tempted to wonder.)

Ernest Hemingway asked that his letters not be published but that wish was ignored. He also left several manuscripts which over the years have been edited and published as A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, True at First Light, and Under Kilimanjaro.

In these cases, the value of the written words is often seen as superseding the specific request of the author; everything each wrote is considered of significant value to society at large and what is best for all is the deciding factor.

But not all famous or best-selling authors are great writers, and when the expiration date of this sort of writer arrives, few if any seem to have left directives to dump their unfinished scribbling. Publishers and heirs, confronted with the loss of a valuable stream of income, scramble to find some way—any way—to keep the silenced golden pen penning.

V. C. Andrews is credited as an architect of a genre of books described as “children in jeopardy.” She died in 1986. Since then, books under her name have been written by horror author Andrew Neiderman and published by Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster. Neiderman isn’t named as the true author in any of the books I’ve seen, although it isn’t a secret he is the one behind the Andrews name (except no doubt to some of the readers!). The copyright page of the recent “Andrews” books sheds some light on what we will see below in the recent Robert Ludlum novels:

Following the death of Virginia Andrews, the Andrews family worked with a carefully selected writer to organize and complete Virginia Andrews’ stories and to create additional novels, of which this is one, inspired by her storytelling genius.

That spells it out rather well, except that the name of the person who wrote the books (Neiderman) isn’t mentioned. The page informs us that “V. C. Andrews” is a registered trademark, and sure enough, it is listed in the US Patent & Trademark Office’s database.

Let us turn now to the recent Ludlum novels. No doubt emboldened by the Andrews example, on the copyright page of The Tristan Betrayal, The Ambler Warning and The Bancroft Strategy, I find this pithy clarification:

Since his death, the Estate of Robert Ludlum has worked with a carefully selected author and editor to prepare and edit this work for publication.

The language of the Andrews statement was apparently a heavy influence. It’s a lawyer’s word wiggle because I don’t see where it admits even one syllable was crafted by Ludlum. It simply states that this work has been prepared and edited since Ludlum died. But what connection, if any, is there between Ludlum and these assembled wordsone sentence scribbled on a napkin? The implication we are expected to draw is that these new novels are based on something Ludlum wrote, but for the present we are left to imagine what it was and how many pages of it he left behind to be passed like a relay baton, as it were, to the living ghostwriter. Only a lawsuit or the public scrutiny of Ludlum’s manuscripts will solve the mystery. From what I’ve seen, many readers and critics are concluding that these novels are substantially the product of someone other than Ludlum. Wouldn’t it be in the interests of the Estate, as well as the publisher, to submit proof contradicting that view were it untrue?

The name “Robert Ludlum” includes a ™ with it on recent books but there is no trademark notice on the copyright pages, and there is no record for that name in the US Patent & Trademark Office database. What could be the holdup?

The two differences of note between the Andrews and Ludlum publications are that we know who is writing the Andrews books and they freely admit someone is creating new novels from nothing more than “inspiration” from Andrews. Novelist Gary Jennings died in 1999, but Aztec Rage was published in 2006 with his name printed in large type on the dust jacket while the names of the true writers are in smaller type at the bottom.

Compare the Ludlum obfuscation with the publication of James Jones’ last novel “Whistle” (Delacorte Press, 1978). The book included an Introductory Note by the person who completed it, explaining how much Jones had written and the exact point in the narrative where he had left off before his death. All but the final few chapters had been completed, and Jones had left notes for the rest. Ludlum’s estate rejected this option and I would suggest the reason is obvious.

By refusing to supply Ludlum’s readers with similar details about who wrote what for the posthumous novels, St. Martin’s Press and the Estate of Robert Ludlum leave one with no choice but to conclude that not much at all had been written, and most, if not all of the verbiage must have been supplied by the as-yet unnamed ghostwriter(s). Perhaps all interested parties are too embarrassed to announce, “Ludlum left a one-paragraph sketch for The Bancroft Strategy. The entire thing was fleshed out by John Ghostwriter and the final product is 99.9% the creative work of someone other than Ludlum.” But then that would give the lie to the name on the cover of the book—trumpeted prominently for the sales it guarantees. But it doesn’t seem to bother the Andrews beneficiaries.

The ethics of publishing a book under the sole name of a deceased author when it was primarily written by someone else falls on both the publisher, in this case St. Martin’s Press, and the Estate. It’s not as if the Estate presented St. Martin’s with a manuscript and claimed it was penned entirely by Ludlum: both sides conspire to produce a ghostwritten book. That’s good for them in terms of sales but it’s bad news for fans and researchers because we know all isn’t what it seems. The Ludlum Betrayal works entirely in the favor of the seller, not the buyer, and is therefore unfair in my book. Apparently it’s legal, either because it just is or because no one has challenged this quirky arrangement. But isn’t a fraud being perpetrated here on the buying public? If the writer in question wore a heavy coating of literary gravitas—such as a Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or a Nabokov—the outcry would reverberate throughout the halls of academe, at the least.

One can quarrel with the editorial surgery performed on Hemingway’s True at First Light or the liberties Edmund Wilson granted himself with his version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon, but at least we know who wrote most of the words found in those books. We can’t say the same for the latest Ludlum novels, can we? There is a different standard for a non-literary best-selling author on the one hand, and a Nobel-quality literary lion on the other. Where does the one begin and where does the other end?

Franchises like Ludlum’s Covert-One books, Tom Clancy’s Op-Center & Net Force, and Clive Cussler’s NUMA Files play fair by comparison because the names of the famous writers as well as the names of the people who actually wrote the novels are on the cover. Several authors have written James Bond and Sherlock Holmes novels in recent years, and their names are credited, not Ian Fleming’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s. You pretty much know what you’re getting there. James Patterson collaborates but gives credit. The Ludlum Betrayal evinces a lack of any conscience and tramples the unstated agreement between reader and publisher.

There has been a gradual progression of deception in the publishing world that has now reached its apotheosis with the Ludlum Betrayal: the pretense that a famous person wrote a book actually penned by someone else; the objective being to deceive buyers into purchasing a book they might not otherwise consider if a lesser author were advertised on the cover. Any chicanery is now fair game in the interest of higher sales; the ancient pact with the reader is immutably broken. Caveat emptor. The reader is no longer a respected partner in a triad of equals but has been relegated to the status of a mark to be targeted by the author-publisher dyad. The new arrangement alters the role of the book buyer to that of an adversary who must be kept incognizant of the back room sausage-making. The game is afoot, the war is on!

Like Nabokov, Ludlum never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But surely the Russian exile must have been discussed at some point while the name Ludlum must never have crossed the lips of any member of the Swedish Academy. Ludlum wasn’t a great writer, but he outsold most everyone. So in the final analysis, it’s not about the words with Ludlum; it’s about the sales. With Nabokov and the Nobel-quality crowd, it’s the opposite. So it’s acceptable to stamp Ludlum’s name on books he didn’t write, while it would be unthinkable to do so for the likes of Joyce, Borges, or Fitzgerald.

With the real author’s name unworthy of the limelight, blotted out and replaced with a familiar brand slapped on the spine and emblazoned on the colorful dust jacket, St. Martin’s Press can be defined in no way except as an opportunistic publisher willing to peddle fiction so cheap it can’t even stand on its own but needs to limp along with the aid of a famous crutch. There aughta be a law. A conscience. Are things really so bad in the publishing industry these days? Is it for real this time?