Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Cloth" vs. "Hardcover"

A recent post by Dimitri recalls the tactile experience of owning, reading and appreciating quality history books; but it also brings to mind a common misrepresentation. The publishing industry generally deems it an acceptable shorthand to list all hardcovers as "cloth", as if the two terms were interchangeable. Buyers should have a right to expect that "cloth" books be fully covered with real cloth material -- not spine-only cloth, textured faux-cloth, or (worst of all) simply heavy paper. I suppose an important question is whether we have deliberate deception here or simply antiquated supply chain terminology that hasn't yet adapted to the industry's use of ever cheapening materials. I would guess it's more of the latter.

Even the finer purveyors of Civil War books, if they use cloth at all, seem to use it on a case by case basis. It is surprising that those that do do it, tend to never mention it as a selling point. Anyway, as a nod toward the more concerned bibliophiles that frequent CWBA, I try to remember to note the true state in the info line of each review.


  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the post regarding this subject. The majority of my collection comes from university presses and I've noticed a change by some publishers. Most of the books I bought that were published by North Carolina University press used to be covered in full cloth.

    Recently they are advertising many books as cloth, but they are what I call a two tone binding. Not a good definition, but I don't know what it is called? The spine is cloth and rest of the board is usually another material. Some look like cloth, but most are a very smooth paperlike material.

    I actually asked them about this as I noticed it in their very good series, Civil War America titles. They didn't say it was a cost saving measure, but a design decision. Since most of the books in thise series don't have the price printed on the flap of the jacket, you need to know about the binding materials to find the real first edition, first printings. There are copies out there that have exactly the same copyright pages, but different bindings.

    Peter Cozzen's recent book is an example of what this looks like. The real first edition, first printing has a two tone material board. As I remember, part is blue and the rest is brown. There is also an edition out there with the board being one color. I assume this must be some type of BCE. I continue to aggrevate un-informed booksellers when I ask for specifics about the bindings.

    Speaking as a collector, I'm not really thrilled with these decisions from the publishing world, but as long as they keep publishing good quality material, I'll be happy.

    Sorry for such a long post. By the way, really like your decison to create the links to the University Press sites. Do you know anything about the new series being developed by The University of Tennessee Press(Western Theater)? Really enjoy their other series Voices of the Civil War.

    Don Hallstrom

  2. Hi Don,
    Finally, someone who's with me on this!

    I don't like the two-tone thing much either [what the trade definition is, I don't know. Sometimes the spine covering part is made out of cloth, and others just a slighter more durable paper]. The boards are another increasing problem -- very flimsy. One shouldn't be able to bend them with the slightest pressure.

    I also experience the same frustrations with incompetent online sellers. Buying used books is an increasingly risky proposition, IMO only to be ventured when the price is too good to pass up! Good luck finding one that knows what a BCE is, let alone be able to tell the difference...

    I am guessing the "Western Theater in the Civil War" series is still in the planning/acquisition stage. All I know about it, and it isn't much, I posted back in Dec. 07:


    Check out Art Bergeron's note in the comments section.

  3. Drew,

    Interesting comments -- I'm surprised to hear about the various hybrid bindings you and your corresondent have mentioned, coming from a single publisher. As you know, I worked 9 years for a university press, and the last 4 years for a college textbook publisher. At least up to the point that I left the U-press, "cloth" was "cloth," and nothing else. With the textbooks, it's strictly "case," "casebound" or "hardcover," no cloth, since there isn't any.

    You make a good point in that institutionally, the language lags behind actual specs. This is an industry that still uses terminology related to hot lead, though everything is digital. In correspondence with printers, we still speak of cover "mechanicals" -- a large artboard with the drawn design layered upon it -- but we're really referring to a Quark or InDesign file.

    But that's all PRODUCTION lingo. If publishers today are MARKETING books as "cloth" by putting some fuzzy stuff on the spine, that's just simple dishonesty.

  4. David,
    I googled various things to see if there is any significant online debate about this issue. Doesn't seem to be. I did find a blog post authored by someone who was displeased that the final volume of an expensive series was listed as cloth but was instead covered in some easily damaged faux material. The publisher actually responded, with the lame excuse that it is a RETAILER expectation that hardcovers be listed as cloth.


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