18 October 2011

The Non Non-Book / Half Book, Half Biscuit

Dealing in used books you occasionally come across scam genealogical books. These were going before the internet and must be an early example of 'Print on Demand' (POD) technology. They were sold as genealogical books about your family and usually cost about £25. You got a general introduction, a section about the origin of surnames in general, a section about heraldry, a couple of blank charts to copy and complete once you had done your own research, a few recipes and (sometimes) a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of persons with the same surname culled from world telephone directories. People probably bought them as presents but for anyone who consulted them disappointment was guaranteed. Content was all totally generic with nothing about your family. If your name was, say, Liddell the book would be called The Book of Liddells. On the 'never give a sucker an even break' principle these are still marketed and have graduated to the web - they are pathetic objects of no real second hand value and have to be unceremoniously pulped by dealers along with those rather sad scam directories of 'important' people etc.,

I was reminded of these by an article in the most recent Private Eye on the activities of a German company called Betascript who produce books culled from articles on Wikipedia. To be fair this is now proudly declared on the cover and on Amazon 'High Quality Content by Wikipedia Articles.' Like all the best scams it's all legal. They have produced over 150,000 books, mostly edited by a cove called Lambert M. Surhone. They cover thousands of subjects, mostly minor e.g Rail Accidents in Winsford (£28 for a 96 page POD paperback.) It has the 2 page Wikipedia article on crashes in Winsford and pads out the rest of the article with full Wikipedia entries that are hyperlinked within the article - Battersea Park Rail Crash, a history of Cheshire etc., As the Eye says 'people in Winsford aren't to know that and might even be tempted to buy it.' One suspects these books are generated without human interference-- their scholarly work on Orford Ness in Suffolk, U.K. has a map of America on the cover and another work on the Soviet republic of Georgia has a picture of downtown Atlanta on the cover.

The book above on Scams in Intellectual Property is so close to the bone that it may signify that the publisher actually does not know what they are offering. Another major non non-book player 'Books LLC' also out of Germany and responsible for 200,000+ such books, has a book on this style of publishing and the Wikipedia article is less than friendly towards the enterprise. Such a programme could, in theory, generate an infinite number of books. You could even ask it to write a book just for you.

Often the books will wander into irrelevant or whimsical territory through the hyperlinks. In a book on the actor Ronald Colman it mentions that he went to a boarding chool in Littlehampton - so readers get two pretty thorough pieces on Littlehampton and on boarding schools. He had hoped to go to Cambridge but didn't make it-- this is a good excuse for an exhaustive history of the university. The journalist Gene Weingarten found they had generated a book on him which has sold 3 copies apart from the one he bought: these are not great sellers but with 300,000 PODs sitting on their computers even 2 sales per book is handy. There are 950,000 Lambert Surhone books for sale at ABE of which only 500 are actual printed books, presumably bought by unfortunate punters and returned swiftly to the market. This indicates poorish sales -- for example in the relatively sane world of new age publishing there are 3000 used copies of just one title The Celestine Prophecy for sale on ABE.

Some of the connections found in these books are almost Dadaist --in the magisterial Vreni Schneider: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Winter Olympic Games, Slalom Skiing, Giant Slalom Skiing, Half Man Half Biscuit basically a non non-book about the Swiss skier Vreni Schneider there is a longish piece on English indie rock band Half Man Half Biscuit. Schneider had been namechecked in a song by them called 'Uffington Wassail.' Some trivia hound has added this to Schneider’s Wikipedia page and the Biscuits end up in a slalom skiing book. It's a mad world my masters.
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