Royalty for commonersJust how do you spot bad books—P or E? I can think of some best-selling authors whose books I don’t want to buy, borrow or accept as gifts unless I’m paid handsomely to read the dreck. The bylines tell all. Also, many e-books are inherently junk—disguised marketing pamphlets or horrid melodramas.

For tougher calls, meanwhile, here are some gems from Making Light:

–“In genealogy: Roderick Stuart, Royalty for Commoners. (The first edition was recalled by the publisher. The more recent ones are slightly better, but still bad. There’s one place where he conflated three women, who thus has been given two marriages after her death.)”

–“Anything with a PublishAmerica or AuthorHouse logo on the spine. The sad thing is, there may be one or two decent works among the dregs, but there’s no guarantee that the good stuff (rather though it may be) has been properly edited or reviewed.”

–“Are there any books that are (say) over a century old and still useful as scholarly works? I’d imagine citing Gibbon would get you into trouble with an ancient historian; similarly, I’d be very suspicious of anyone that used The Golden Bough for a discussion of the development of religion. Most science texts will have been superseded.”

Question: Without modern context, might some old books in science and other areas actually do harm? Perhaps that’s something for Gutenberg, Google, the Open Content Alliance and others to consider in setting priorities. It also makes you wonder if certain kinds of books, such as novels, should enjoy longer copyrights than works intended as nonfiction. But where do you draw the line? Ain’t easy.

(Thanks to John Mark Ockerbloom for the pointer.)


  1. a totally different issue: ebooks have the advantage of allowing for easy (and cost-free) updates. You can correct typos, improve design and navigation. Of course, there are versioning issues to deal with, plus the possibility of pissing off early downloaders. But it reduces the risk associated with editing and publishing.

  2. After reading the original article, I see that I have totally missed the point of the thread. My random thoughts:

    1. The internet makes it easier to spot bad/unreliable sources. Wikipedia is a place to find these controversies.

    2. Fiction is a totally different thing from nonfiction. Fiction can be mislabeled, or ignored or be independently produced and still very interesting. You learn to seek out works precisely because I’ve never heard of them. Yesterday I bought 3 novels by individuals I’d never heard of. (It just so happens that 2 of them were published by bigger houses, but they were all obscure). With nonfiction, people in the field are more likely to know about hot/controversial works.

    3. Despite what people on the thread said, I like it when nonexperts write nonfiction works outside their fields. The results are often interesting though you have to recognize that their methods/logic/research may have problems.

    4. My fave comments from the thread:

    I was in the middle of reading Atlas Shrugged when I went to the AHA convention with my dad while I was in college. He forbade me to mention it to any of the historians in attendance or to ask any questions inspired by it at any of the talks I went to.

    as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that that may very well have been one of the only two or three wise or helpful things he ever told me.

    One thing that sets off my bullshit detector is footnote padding. A book, usually aimed at a popular audience, that is just thick with footnotes and citations, only when you flip to the back, it’s full of:

    412 Cheatum, 1974, p.315
    413 Ibid. p. 317
    414 Ibid. p. 318
    415 Ibid.
    416 Ibid. p. 320

    and so on, turning a single reference into five footnotes, with the seeming aim of impressing non-scholars with the sheer quantity of references (“this thing has over 2000 footnotes! the author really must know what he’s talking about!”) and trusting them not to dig deep enough to realize just how redundant and useless 80% of them are. I see this a lot in right-wing pseudoscholarship (Bjorn Lomberg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist was a particularly egregious offender).

    And finally:

    The basic theory here is that if the Wikipedians are flaming one another over the source you might be about to cite, then odds are good that you’ll get flamed for citing it yourself.

  3. Robert, I couldn’t agree more that fiction and nonfiction should be judged by different standards—and the participants in the thread were obviously coming at this from angles such as references. That said, I meant my own post to be a general one covering all bad books. I hope other people will jump in with their own thoughts.

    I really liked your essay about the hyperbad book; may others follow the link!

    Now, to change the subject a bit, I noted the point that some people may have looked down on the book because it was free. How much will that apply to pub domain and Creative Commons books? I hope people will feel to wander off topic to address the issue you’ve raised. Oh, and yes, by extension, this could cover other Net-distributed writings as well, including blogs. On days like this I am a little more susceptible than otherwise to Tamas’s micropayment proposal.


  4. Might old books do harm?

    Any book on old life-saving techniques techniques may very well do so. Not to mention some of the books on curing diseases not quite understood at the time. And also all books on creative use on the safe and useful material asbestos. And let’s not forget the odd book with clear and irrefragable opinions on the nondesirability of permitting witches to remain alive …

    As to fiction …

    Hardy’s Jude the Obscure can be (somewhat) harmful … that’s a R or perhaps NC-17 book, if ever I read one. It was called “obscene” at the time, and in the very strict meaning of that word, it is correct. I don’t think I know a more depressing presentation of married life. It needs some kind of an antidote.

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