Libraries can be complex places of work. Large libraries have many departments that handle collection development from acquisition, to check-in, to accounting, to cataloging, and onto the shelf. Sometimes this means that a book is ordered by one person, checked in by someone else, cataloged by another, and shelved by someone else entirely. Another person or department in the library then pays for the book. Perhaps because of this labyrinth-like journey through a larger library it is easier for illegitimate publishers to peddle their shoddy wares.
Assessing Publishers and Writers
So what qualities make up an illegitimate publisher? Let's start with a prime example of illegitimate publisher: North American Book Distributors LLC sells, "Encyclopedia of West Virginia", by Nancy Capace, Somerset Publishers, 1999. Here is a sentence about abolitionist John Brown, "John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, self-conscripted to an act of madness or of glory, focused the thought of his time upon the problem of slavery." For a whopping $95 you can buy this poorly-written, hardbound book that has zero good reviews available online. If I look at Amazon, I can see that Ms. Capace has written all of the 50 books that are said to be the "definitive history" of their respective state. Really? How can one scholar create the definitive history book for each state? Historians I know might spend a lifetime studying the history of their home state, or a few states, but the whole country? Really? I can see that Ms. Capace bills herself as a writer/editor on LinkedIn but I do not see a proud resume, credentials, or a list of degrees. My theory is that Ms. Capace is a mediocre writer who has been paid to put ink on paper to sell pricey reference books to unwitting librarians and media specialists. And North American Book Distributors is just as complicit in the con game as Somerset Publishing. Perhaps they are even the same entity?
So who is Somerset Publishers? I can see from a Better Business Bureau (BBB) site that they are located in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, the same state as Nancy Capace. Somerset is not registered with the BBB. I can find no reviews of Somerset Publishers, they have no website, and no Internet presence other than perfunctory business listings. Who is North American Book Distributors? Here is a quote from the generic descriptions on their "About Us" page: "Since 1989 North American Book Distributors, LLC has been the leading distributor of reference publications specializing in state history. The history of individual states is being taught in schools and is becoming a focal point of the curriculum at various levels of education. Librarians and Media Specialists are looking for dedicated reference titles on the people, places and history of their particular state. Questions regarding state history information are some of the most frequently asked questions received by reference librarians." That's it. No names, no profiles, no photographs of people. Somerset Publishers could very well be a small printing press in Michigan that gets by selling mediocre books with scholarly-sounding titles. Reference works can be pricey, so Somerset gets to charge even more for their poorly researched and written books. Somerset is merely a book mill and nothing else.
What is an Illegitimate Publisher?
Why is Somerset Publishers an illegitimate publisher? Because they lack credibility and they produce a poorly written and researched product pawned off as the "definitive history". Let me tell you about the "West Virginia Encyclopedia", edited by Ken Sullivan in 2006 and published by the West Virginia Humanities Council. This is an excellent reference work for any library or media center. The articles are written by different scholars and historians from all over the state who specialize in one region or aspect of wild, wonderful West Virginia. The "West Virginia Encyclopedia" is a great model for how to know that a reference work has legitimate value and true scholarship. The publication utilizes many legitimate and experienced scholars who have spent years accumulating knowledge. These scholars are usually engaged in ongoing research and updating their field of knowledge by staying current on emerging information and interpretation. Many of these scholars are college professors and chairs who teach or specialize in a history field. The West Virginia Encyclopedia gets even better because you can access the whole document online, anytime here This is what a legitimate reference source looks like.
Definitive History of West Virginia
I love West Virginia history and it gets my goat that a publisher would try to tell me what the definitive title is on the history of the Mountain State. In my opinion, the definitive history is "West Virginia: A History" by John A. Williams and published by the West Virginia University Press. If you can only read one history book about West Virginia, this is a well-written and well-researched masterpiece that is still in print. And, Dr. Williams got his PhD from Yale. Legit.
Is This Illegal?
What Somerset and other illegitimate publishers and distributors do is not illegal. They have books with titles that sound like staple reference works and they sell them to librarians and media specialists who don't know any better. So by the time the book trickles through the levels of librarians no one has really had a good look at it. Sadly, I can see Somerset published books in the collections of major libraries and universities. Do they not have serious collection development departments that make wise and informed decisions about acquiring and cataloging new reference works? This is not illegal but it is certainly unethical.
So is Somerset Publishers all bad? Not necessarily. They do sell a complete WPA slave narratives archive in 19 volumes that sells for $1,995. Fine. But why pay almost $2k for something you can access for free via Project Gutenberg? The bottom line is this: as library professionals it is our duty to connect our patrons with the best information and to spend library funds wisely. Reference books especially should have lasting value. Just as North American Book Distributors says on the bogus site, "Questions regarding state history information are some of the most frequently asked questions received by reference librarians." This is the gap this scam fills. Be wary and be vigilant so that these poor quality reference books don't end up on your valuable library shelf space. Patrons, scholars, students, and librarians deserve only the very best.