About a year ago, while researching cocktail books on Amazon, I noticed that many of them had a spiral-bound edition, typically listed as the third or fourth option after Kindle, hardcover, and paperback. Most of the leading books in the genre now had this option, including “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki,” “The Bartender’s Manifesto,” and the Death & Co. books.
“At last!” I said.
Every dilettante mixologist has faced the same problem: You’ve found a cocktail recipe you’re intrigued by, lugged the weighty tome over to your home bar or, more likely, kitchen countertop, and began putting together the ingredients. Often, after you take your hand off the book to jigger in a half-ounce of Maraschino or Velvet Falernum or whatever, the book has flapped shut. You’ve lost your place.
These lay-flat, spiral-bound books were finally a solution, I figured.
And then I ran into Rebecca Cate, co-author of Smuggler’s Cove along with her husband Martin Cate, while at their bar of the same name in San Francisco. I was standing with her and fellow author Camper English, drinking Daiquiris and commiserating about all the ways authors get screwed these days — standard off-hours author talk — when she mentioned that some random person was seemingly buying up copies of her book, chopping off the spines, and spiral-binding them.
“I think we first heard about it when a tiki person said to us at one of our bars how happy they were that there was a spiral bound version out and we said, ‘Huh?’” Martin Cate recalls. They reached out to their agent to see what was going on and learned that their publisher, Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, most certainly wasn’t responsible.
So, if it wasn’t the actual publishers who were spiral-binding these famous cocktail books, who the hell was?
The Ones Doing the Coiling
“It is pretty niche,” admits Derek Burt, the vice president of DotCom Liquidators, a former brick and mortar bookstore that has acted as a third-party book seller on Amazon for 23 years, pretty much since the website’s inception.
I thought it was going to take some serious sleuthing to figure out who was offering the spiral-bound pseudo-editions, but if you click on the title set buying link on Amazon you’ll eventually notice a small disclaimer attached to many of them. “Professionally spiraled and resold by Sweethome Books. Sweethome Books is not necessarily affiliated with, endorsed by, or authorized by the publisher, distributor, or author.”
“I used to sell medical books in the stores, and I noticed if someone had any studies they were trying to pass, … if there was a version of that book available in spiral, it would sell out first every time. So it kind of dawned on me, you got a good market here.”
A little Googling eventually took me to Sweethome’s parent company, DotCom Liquidators, based in Fort Worth, Texas.
“When you emailed me, I thought you might be writing a hit piece,” Burt admitted.
The fact is, though, even if this business seems to annoy some authors, DotCom Liquidators’ operation seems to be 100 percent legal. Since a 1908 Supreme Court ruling, the First Sale Doctrine has prevented copyright owners from stopping someone who has lawfully purchased or acquired their works (such as a book) from selling it, loaning it, or giving that item to someone else. What DotCom Liquidators does is really no different than a college kid marking up and taking notes within their textbook and then later selling it on a used marketplace. The publishers still get paid and the authors still get their royalties.
“We buy the book — the authentic book — from an authorized distributor or directly from the publisher, and we disclose that we are the ones that are doing the coiling,” Burt says.
What DotCom does is not proprietary, but it’s not cheap or necessarily easy, either — surely another reason the big publishers don’t do the work themselves. The company has specialized machinery that must be operated by humans one book at a time. (Roughly one out of every five books is lost to shrinkage — i.e., ruined — during the coiling process, another economic issue to deal with.)
DotCom tries to monitor Amazon sales rankings to see which books are selling and if they might benefit from a spiral-bound edition. Because of the additional work, the spiral bound editions often cost quite a bit more than the standard hardcover, typically more than double. Smuggler’s Cove, for instance, runs around $45 spiral-bound for a book that might be $20 in hardcover. Despite that elevated price, these books sell quite well.
The owner of DotCom Liquidators, West Berkovsky, has been in the book business for nearly five decades. Long before he was hawking books online, he noticed that certain books just sold better if they were spiral-bound.
“As far as reprints of our books that are clearly not sanctioned, Amazon (or whoever is selling them) should be responsible for policing this stuff.”
“What struck me was not the cocktail books, not the cookbooks at first. It was the medical books,” he explains. “I used to sell medical books in the stores, and I noticed if someone had any studies they were trying to pass, USMLE [United States Medical Licensing Examination] for instance, if there was a version of that book available in spiral, it would sell out first every time. So it kind of dawned on me, you got a good market here.”
As Amazon began to dominate ever more factions of the book business, Berkovsky realized that spiral binding was one place DotCom Liquidators could differentiate themselves. It now accounts for 80 percent of their business and this is a company that has 60,000 books listed on Amazon. The rise in cookbooks and cocktail books over the last two decades has been a further boon for this niche business, even if most of the cocktail industry seems unaware of what is going on.
Too Big to Stop
While some authors like the Cates are annoyed, most are just confused about it. Many authors I reached out to either didn’t realize this was happening, or assumed their publishers were the ones selling the spiral-bound variants. Others claim the whole thing is just indicative of online commerce run amok.
“As far as reprints of our books that are clearly not sanctioned, Amazon (or whoever is selling them) should be responsible for policing this stuff, but this is just more evidence that massive e-commerce companies eventually become too big to stop corruption and thievery,” says Nick Fauchald, co-author of the Death & Co. books among many others. He’s gone so far as to order a bad imitation of a cocktail journal that he helped produce with Death and Co. to see how bad it was. “Answer: pretty bad,” he told me.
DotCom claims it reaches out to the publishers of any books it wants to spiral and explains the market and the value proposition it offers (though a prominent agent told me that isn’t quite true and several times he’s seen his clients’ books just appear spiral-bound on Amazon). In some cases, publishers are happy to work directly with the company. For them, it’s just too hard to do their own spiral-binding. Despite it being legal, if any publishers don’t want DotCom to coil their books, the company claims they are happy to remove their listings.
If anything, though, DotCom (and a few other companies that offer similar services like TB Superstore and Lay it Flat Publishing Group) believe they are benefiting the publishers and, as a result, the authors. How else might a reader know they need a spiral-bound copy of a book if they haven’t already purchased the traditional hardback? Thus, DotCom is causing them to often buy a second copy of their favorite books.
“One publisher that we work with, they have some very highly ranked books, and we’ve been working with them for a couple of years. And [the publisher] told me that one book of theirs around Christmas time will sell 500 [spiral-bound] units a day,” Burt claims. He estimates that total spiral-bound edition copies account for about 5 percent of the total volume of certain cocktail books.
Until recently, however, that did not include any of my cocktail books.
But on a recent Thursday, the FedEx man rang my bell and handed me a small box. Inside I found a copy of my 2018 book “Hacking Whiskey,” the spine lopped off, and 23 white plastic rings now coiling through it.