books buying, selling, publishing

Talking about scientific publishing is a large topic, it includes the problems like the expensive and raising journal prices, voluntary copyright transfer to the publisher and our free service on editorial boards and as reviewers, quality of journals, low reliability of various impact factors and so on. But today I will not talk the journals but rather books. I will start with a shortened personal story but then go into more hot topic of some contemporary disorientation of publishers and bookstore in publishing and selling good books.

As a child I did not have much access to the books in science although I was interested in science; my first advanced math books I bought with my father at about age of 16 in some second-hand bookstore; quickly after I was reading Postnikov’s volumes on geometry and algebraic topology and started buying books massively; In a way I would make myself happier by indulging into choosing and buying the books; those books in Russian were cheap at the time but the problem was that you had available only what was published very recently. For example, I would get the second volume of Penrose-Rindler’s book on spinor geometry but not the first as the first was translated to Russian earlier and was not available hence any more. One of the secrets of the cheap Russian books was that the publisher did not make too many copies and finance their staying for years in the stocks. The whole stock would be sold very quickly. I was told by Russians that in Moscow people would go to exhibitions like Soviet Exhibition where they would get books which were not available often in bookstore; while cheap, most of the books were rare to find.

Of course, after years, it became a problem that I could not fit the books in my room and other places and had to stock them in boxes and so on. Then also travel came, my graduate school in Wisconsin and my interests involved, new books were coming, at much higher price and lower pace. And then I got in a way saturated. I had a nice personal collection (parts of it were lost though in travels, movings and so on), but was often accessing good libraries and kind of got used that I can have what I need most of the time, unlike in my early history. One of the reasons of the saturation is that I had to narrow my main interests to professional ones, and read less and less other subjects like linguistics, and in my own field there are few surprises unnoticed: we know in advance that somebody is writing a major book so coming to a bookstore will rarely raise great interest. I became a book-quality sceptic: books are either known to me, or bad or out of my interests.

Now after nearly 10 years of not buying books much, and even not being anymore fond of entering bookstores, I felt some revival of my book apetite in recent weeks, and made some spontaneous excursions into bookstores. But now I travel less and bookstores which I specially liked like the one of Cambridge University Press in Cambridge, like the former foreign bookstore in Zagreb in Gundulićeva street, the University Bookstore in Wisconsin, one impressive bookstore (I do not recall the name) in Barcelona and so on are far from my reach timewise or spacewise.

The new generation buys books online and does not bother browsing. the choice is bigger, and often there are online excerpts. But I really get the feeling whether I like the book mostly only if I browse it in my own hands. Online I often get wrong impression on proportions and feeling of the style and content. So I would still like to have good bookstores.

In Zagreb, now you have very little choice, the only reasonable collection of foreign titles is the Algoritam. Of course you can order anything but lets focus on the browsing feel and real competent choosing by sitting and browsing within the bookstore.

Well, the collection has few meters of math, physics and computer science titles at all levels mixed (“mixed” is here the bad thing, though I am sufficiently experienced to find my way through wrong targeted parts of the stock). But you know Zagreb is not a big market for scientific books and the bookstores should sell the books which are of sufficiently broad interest. For example, proceedings volume of a conference, or extremely specialized topics are unlikely to find a buyer. So what happens is that such books stay in the pool, and of course the bookstore can not afford spacewise and timewise to keep so many books unsold for long time, so once the crap takes over the shelves, it is hard to replace it by more reasonable titles. People tell me that a reason is that some people order books and then decide not to buy them, so the bad books enter the bookstore unplanned. But I see many bad choices in more than one copy, so the books were really ordered not by such an error but otherwise.

So if you look through the Algoritam bookstore, math section, you see that the they did not choose famous and widely sold books, and series but chosen some random books from random publishers. For example you have some expensive PDE textbook written by some local experts in Beijing but you do not have the most famous textbooks on PDEs of Gilbarg and Trudinger or the one from Evans. In fact there are no books published by American Mathematical Society which is a very good, modern and reasonably cheap publisher. There are some Indian reprints of books which I know are unlawful by Indian law to be sold out of India, but in Algoritam they say that they bought it from a regular supplier. Strange that they learned of a strange supplier of strange reprints in India but do not know that AMS publishes good many quality books in the field. The Springer’s Yellow series is underrepresented and Algoritam does not seem to maintain the action of the Yellow sale, which is traditionally quite an event for math book fans.

I was also disappointed into finding so many new editions of outdated books. For example some sort of Oxford companion of philosophy of mathematics, talking so much of 19th century and earlier metaphysical thinking of nominalism and alike notions, while have no hint of the thrills brought by modern foundational, semantic and other developments from schools of Lawvere, or Grothendieck and so on, who changed mathematics so much.

There are of course, also the dedicated reprint series. Like the Dover. Well, I think that youngsters should be warned that Dover series is outdated in large. Not in the way it was before. There are still great books there, like Goldblatt’s Topoi, or Abrikosov, Gоr’коv, Dzyaloshinskii Quantum field theoretical methods in statistical physics , ever quoted Weyl’s Classical groups and so on. But Dover also published reprints of many minor authors; some books of historical type without copyright which can be found online for extremely rare users (for example Chandrasekhar’s Mathematical theory of black holes is a masterpiece, but not good for a contemporary student; it is choice of exact and detailed calculations which a very rare specialist will look apart from a rare consultation in a library). But you know, a student sees a book which is reasonably well written about a subject which is not known to her/him. And after reading few nicely written paragraphs will decide to buy an obsolete book. I mean something what looks readable may be suboptimal from today’s point of view, notation, conventions, language, knowledge and after many new discovered powerful shortcuts or stronger results which are now standard. So, the student may subjectively feel that he gained a great insight, while the learnt material is not as powerful as what modern introductions offer or is not as organized as a contemporary colleagues would expect.


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