The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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For a few more years of shelf life
Old and tired

Why don’t books last in India' Mass market paperbacks packed with sex, glitz and violence that spin off into television serials last two to three years on the outside: the paper yellows, the binding snaps when you open it, and the books generally fall to pieces. Hardbacks with jackets last a little longer, but here too, the board covers warp and pages become brittle. Logistically, they are often unreadable after a while.

Is this some kind of planned obsolescence or just an exercise in cutting corners for higher profit margins' Or is it the elements — heat and dust, humidity and sea-wind that “eats” into adhesives and paper' Or simply poor maintenance'

Of course, each of these factors has something to do with the book’s rapidly decreasing life span. But take the publishers first. Since the early Nineties, when the market became the sole criterion of excellence and the governing philosophy, all ethical values have been pushed back. The earlier notion that publishers ought to make books that last, not just for their content but for their production qualities too — paper, binding and so on — has been, more or less, tossed aside. Success is what counts; and success means profit margins.

So how does this translate in the making of a book' Itemized cost cutting. More and more authors are now being asked to submit their typescripts on an electronic file (floppies or compact discs) that have been proof-read and formatted, according to the publisher’s specifications. All that the publisher has to invest in are paper, binding and, if there are illustrations, in computerized scanning for the best-quality reproductions.

Costs for all these items vary considerably. Especially for paper that includes board or card for the covers. Many factors go into assessing the quality or suitability of paper for a specific job, but the rule of thumb is that the lighter the paper the lower the cost. The cheapest paper is ordinary newsprint, used in most daily newspapers and now quite often by downmarket paperback publishers. Newsprint (here too, there are different qualities) simply cannot keep. Besides, the ink dries up and fades, the adhesive solidifies and cracks, and the book falls apart in loose sheets. There are ways to get around these problems, but these add to the costs which publishers would rather not incur. But new technologies and materials cannot be a substitute for good quality paper.

It is the poor quality of the basic inputs of paper and binding that cannot stand the rigours of climate. Dust and salt-laden winds are the greatest enemies but so is heat and humidity: the paper withers and the glue melts. Air conditioning is the ideal answer, but it is far too expensive — quite apart from chronic power shortages — and not something that even central libraries could afford.

So what is the solution' Physical maintenance is the only answer. This means that dust must not be allowed to settle on the books and where humidity and sea-winds are a factor, books would have to be kept behind glass cases or at least each book is covered with thin plastic sheets. And periodically, books that have begun to wither and decay, rebound under fresh covers. If you consider how much is spent by libraries on just replacing old titles that have fallen apart, higher maintenance costs would be more than justified.

But when all is said and done, publishers must put out more enduring books than they have been doing in the recent past.

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