How long do you expect the books on your shelves to last? The oldest book I own is a Victorian-era edition of The Collected Poetical Works of Samuel T. Coleridge, purchased from a street vendor for $15 some years ago. It’s an absolute beauty: a heavy little volume, solidly constructed, cloth-bound in bright blue with hand-painted vines and gold lettering on the front. The paper is thick and smooth, and—this is what I find most remarkable about it—hardly discolored by time. Well over a hundred years after publication, the paper is a bright and even cream. I fully expect that this book will outlast me. I can see no reason why it shouldn’t persist for another century or far longer.
I don’t, of course, expect this kind of longevity of all my books. I recently pulled my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf for the first time in some years, and was surprised to discover that the pages had gone yellow. I’m used to thinking of yellowed pages as a sort of pre-existing condition among books of my acquaintance, something I’d expect to find in the 1965 editions of books picked up in second-hand stores. But for all that, the yellowing and increasing brittleness weren’t entirely unreasonable: my copy of The English Patient is a trade paperback, and while trade paperbacks occupy something of a gray area in terms of paper quality—typically nicer than a mass market paperback, but in most cases not as nice as a hardcover—one doesn’t really expect them to last forever.
Hardcover books are a different matter. I’ve been buying a fair number of first edition hardcovers recently, one every two or three months. I happen to know a few people who are in the habit of publishing novels and I feel very strongly about supporting writers, so I often find myself buying first editions at readings and book launches. This is an expensive habit, and I tell myself that if I didn’t know the authors in question I’d just wait for the paperback, but I can’t say that the expenditure bothers me—hardcovers are beautiful, and they look so solid on my shelves. They look like they should last forever.
But a few months ago I purchased a book that rattled this assumption. An acquaintance published his debut novel with one of the major New York houses, and I acquired it at a book launch party. When I picked it up in the store, I was startled by how light it was: a hardcover with the weight of a paperback. Later, flipping through the book at home, I discovered why this was. The paper was so thin that I could read the words “Chapter One” through the title page. For all intents and purposes, the book was printed on tracing paper.
I had essentially purchased a disposable first edition hardcover, and it made me a little angry. Aside from the obvious—I’d just spent $26.95 for a book that will turn yellow and become brittle in a matter of years—I found that I was angry on the writer’s behalf. He’d spent years of his life on his novel, a book lauded as an astounding debut, but his publisher didn’t value him highly enough to print his book on paper that might reasonably be expected to outlast him. In another decade or so, perhaps sooner, the pages of his book will be as yellowed as the paperback of The English Patient that my aunt gave me for Christmas when I was fourteen.
I spoke recently with Melissa Klug on the subject of paper quality. Melissa is a director of marketing at Glatfelter, a paper manufacturer with locations on three continents, and she’s involved with their Permanence Matters initiative. I met her online a year and a half ago or so, when I ventured nervously onto Twitter to promote my first book, and we’ve run into one another in person a few times since. She’s one of my favorite people online, an avid reader, and she’s the person I vent to in private when I buy an expensive book that turns out to have been printed on tracing paper.
The Millions: How did you wind up in the paper business? Did you always have an interest in the field?
Melissa Klug: I grew up in a small town called Chillicothe, Ohio, where the major industry of the town was, and still is today, a large paper mill. At the time I was growing up it was a part of a company called Mead (which most people know from school supplies like my childhood favorite, the Trapper Keeper.) It is such an integral part of the community that people called it “The Mead.” For readers of The Millions, it might be most interesting to know that the paper mill is about 5 miles away from the setting of Knockemstiff, and the author of that book, Donald Ray Pollock, was a papermaker at the mill for several decades before becoming published.
At the end of college I had interviewed at a lot of places, and was deciding on the path my life might take. I had offers that would take me in different directions, but the one that felt the most right was to become an employee at the paper mill. I sold paper in New England for two years, and after that went back to Ohio to the mill and have been in several different positions since then, mostly in the sales and marketing field. In 2006, the paper mill in Chillicothe was purchased by Glatfelter, who has been making paper for books since the 1800′s. As a result of that, we began making book paper in Ohio, and I was fortunate to become the Director of Marketing for several lines, including the one closest to my personal love—books.
TM: I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about the Permanence Matters initiative.
MK: Eight years ago we started to notice the shift in buying patterns from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood paper for hardcover books. Groundwood is the type of paper used in newspapers and mass market paperbacks, and its production is such that it is much lower-quality and degrades more quickly than traditional book publishing paper—this is called free-sheet, or what we at Glatfelter term Permanent Paper. Groundwood is certainly an acceptable paper for some categories of publishing—few people would expect a $6 mass-market paperback to look pristine for years.
However, what we began to notice around eight years ago was a shift to the use of groundwood for first edition hardcover books. This has accelerated with the decline in newspaper print sales—the paper mills which used to manufacture newsprint for papers now have a tremendous amount of open capacity that has to go into something, and they’ve shifted to groundwood publishing papers.
In 2008, we decided that we wanted to take a more public stand about this issue. We launched the Permanence Matters campaign to educate and activate the literary community about the rapid degradation of the quality of books. While we realize that much of the publishing industry is moving their attention to e-books, we still believe there is an important place for print books in the future of publishing, and want people to recognize that e- and p- books are not an either/or proposition, but rather an “and.”
TM: It’s an interesting issue. It seems to me that most people don’t really notice the paper quality in the books they buy, unless the quality’s either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, but we expect our books to last a long time. How pervasive has this problem become?
MK: Many people know about the “acid paper crisis” which got a lot of publicity in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s. Many authors and other publishing industry notables banded together, and publishers lobbied for paper mills to produce only acid-free paper. After this, people felt comfortable that books would endure because the paper mills began producing only alkaline paper (which allowed the paper to endure much longer.) But as I mentioned, approximately eight years ago we started to notice a shift in order patterns, as more publishers were moving some titles to groundwood.
As the years progressed, more and more titles began to shift from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood, until now, when well over 50% of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list is now printed on groundwood. Someone recently challenged me on this, saying that the New York Times list isn’t necessarily what literary people would consider the most important works of current literature. This degradation in paper quality isn’t only happening to non-literary works—many award-winning works, including many of the 2009 National Book Award nominees and one of the major category winners, are also not printed on free-sheet Permanent Paper.
This is what I know professionally. But personally I am, first and foremost, a reader. I have noticed a marked decline in the quality of the paper in the books I’m reading personally (almost all hardcover books, first or second editions.) In the past six months, I have had a number of books whose paper is so flimsy feeling and looking that I was extremely frustrated to have spent money on it. I read a book on vacation in March which was literally almost see-through—words from the opposite pages showed through (by the way, major bestselling author, big five publisher.) My personal feeling is, as publishing turns its head increasingly to e-books, the physical production values of print books will decline even more (all the attention will go to e, few will be paying attention to physical print copies.) This is saddening both personally and professionally.
TM: As you see it, what is at stake here?
MK: I truly believe that we are at a critical crossroads in publishing. As the attention, bandwidth and energy of publishing turns to e-books, we are concerned that what is currently a trend toward lesser quality print versions of books will then become a landslide. Our stance in a world of e- and digital, very simply, is: If you are going to print a book, it should be on permanent paper. Our concern is the longevity of print books in the future—if many book editions will be digital, this is less permanent than a print version—as our CEO recently said, “My last laptop lasted 3 years”—and if a print version itself is not permanent, these words will not endure. Digitization is not a fail-safe answer to preservation, especially as formats change almost constantly. Print is still the most enduring way to preserve a work. As we see it, it’s the future of the printed word.
I also don’t want to lose sight of the “book as object” or “book as art”—I believe it’s important to still view important works as permanent artistic objects. I get an email each day from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the “piece of the day” which I enjoy looking at–but I still wish to know that I could go see it in person to gain the nuances of that work. Books are no different.
TM: Have publishers been receptive to the Permanence Matters message? Have you encountered any resistance?
MK: We do try to be careful and walk a bit of a tightrope on the initiative, as we are a paper supplier to both major publishers as well as smaller publishers, and it is not our goal to alienate or upset them—they are incredibly important to us. One of our goals is to educate publishing employees as well—to help them make thoughtful decisions about the print production of books, and to start a dialogue with them.
TM: What’s next for Permanence Matters?
MK: We launched a new website at Book Expo America, www.permanencematters.com, one that will have more educational components rolling out this summer. One of the great aspects of the new site is a video interview with the director of book conservation at Johns Hopkins University, and we have educational components about the true costs of print books, among many other features. Additionally, we are launching a blog called “Gutenberg Girls” which will be co-written by myself and a coworker, which will allow us to more casually discuss issues within the book publishing industry as well as write about the books we’re reading.
Although we are in the business of making and selling paper, I can tell you that we have many employees who are extremely avid readers and are troubled by this issue, and thus Permanence Matters is much more a personal passion than a business initiative. Also, we are not the only company that makes free-sheet book publishing paper, and we support the shift back to permanent paper whether we are the beneficiary or not.
TM: Has the decline in paper quality impacted your buying habits at all? I know you’re an avid reader, and given your line of work, I imagine you must find yourself noticing the quality of the paper in all the books you buy. I’m wondering if you ever find yourself hesitating to buy a first edition hardcover because you can tell it won’t last.
MK: It has absolutely changed my buying habits. Professional hazards make me more cautious about what I buy—often, when I know a book is on groundwood, I will either wait for it to come out in paperback, or I will get it on audiobook instead of spending the money to buy a book which will yellow and degrade on the shelf. I buy a lot of books, so there is a financial impact of me choosing to shift what would have been hardcover purchases to either a library lend of an audiobook or a paperback purchase. Based on comments I’ve heard from book buyers, and an increasing number of articles I come across on the internet about book quality, I believe we may be on a precipice of people starting to change their purchases based on the poor quality of the finished product.
An interesting facet of all of this is that we’re not talking about enormous cost differentials here: according to the Permanence Matters website, the savings a publisher might expect to realize by printing a book on groundwood rather than higher-quality paper amounts to about ten cents a book. And yes, in the current publishing environment every cent counts, but I’d like to respectfully suggest here that some things are worth paying for.
The day after our interview, Melissa sent me some photographs. The below images, courtesy of Permanence Matters, show what happens to a book printed on groundwood when it’s left out in the sun for a mere two days. A sticky note was left on the page for the entire two-day period to show contrast.
I think our books deserve better.