I recently bought a book on Ebay which the seller had described as a ‘primary source edition’. In the area of military history it was a well-known title, ‘The Secret War 1939-1945’ by Gerald Pawle, an account of a department of the Royal Navy responsible for testing wild and weird ideas about how to prosecute the war, with a foreword by the well known novelist Nevil Shute who had been a member of that department.
It was the expression ‘primary source edition’ used by the seller which confused me a little but I assumed that it was his way of saying that it was the first edition. The image shown was obviously of the original Harrap edition, with which I am familiar, and so I was not concerned about the purchase until I received a message from the seller. He had been about to pack it when he realised that it was not the ‘primary source edition’ that he had described. I replied that as long it was what I had understood, the Harrap edition, then I was happy and we went ahead. I have been selling books for over thirty years but I am happy to admit that I am still learning my trade and as I had not come across this expression ‘primary source edition’ before I decided to try and find out more about it.
My investigation was quite short. A search of one of the major bookselling sites revealed over 470,000 instances of books described as ‘primary source edition’, all but about 600 of them from ‘print-on-demand’ houses and all but about 350 being listed as new books. Over the last few years there seems to have been a rapid growth of small publishers with quite large ‘print-on-demand’ lists. Personally I don’t like ‘print-on-demand’ books but I do give one US publisher, Nabu Press, credit for being honest about their shortcomings, each of their books being described as:
‘This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923. This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process. We believe this work is culturally important, and despite the imperfections, have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide. We appreciate your understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process, and hope you enjoy this valuable book.’
… and that’s when it’s new. I would also say that describing the book as ‘valuable’ is a moot point as I have yet to find any sort of market for second-hand ‘print-on-demand’ books. Sadly some subsequent resellers of Nabu Press ‘print-on-demand’ books do not appear to repeat the original publisher’s disclaiming description and neither do many of the other publishers and print-houses that describe their offerings as ‘primary source editions’ give any indication of their limitations.
For the life of me I can’t understand how these publishers expect to find buyers for scanned reproductions of books, books which are still available on the second-hand market in the original editions if you look hard enough but I suppose they must, because they are still in business. Perhaps it is the instant satisfaction of a need that seems to predominate these days, no-one is prepared to wait. Can’t people appreciate that the hunt is more fun?
I am just a second-hand bookseller but at least my stock has some history in its own right! I think I have at least established a definition of ‘primary source edition’ although I am still unsure what the Ebay seller who introduced the expression to me really meant. A primary source edition is not a first edition, it is not even an attempt to be a facsimile edition but it is a modern photocopy of virtually any book which is out of US copyright.