To Omnibus or Not to Omnibus?

Lately I’ve had the good fortune to add a few very nice omnibus editions to the Teetering Stack that is my To-Be-Read pile. In looking them over (I won’t actually read any of them until I make a dent in the Partially-Read pile, but that’s another matter), I started thinking that omnibus editions are both a good thing and a bad thing

A good thing…

It’s really handy to have several novels between one set of covers, convenient to have the books in one place. They’ll necessarily be shelved together, and they can’t be inadvertently separated. This is a good thing, you’ll never have the experience of looking for that one title and somehow it’s slid along the shelf, or worse has hopped to another shelf entirely, separated from it’s mates just when you really want to read it, or look at the cover, or check the copyright date, or whatever.

The contents of an omnibus are in some sort of logical order. Usually it’s two or more novels and they are in chronological order as published, which is almost always what I want when I read them. This gives automatic continuity, and there’s no need to take several books off the shelf and compare copyright dates, to discover the earliest, or the next, in a series, which is something we’re all likely to do if we want to read ‘em in order.

Buying an omnibus is almost always less expensive than it would have been to buy the individual books. No, it’s not always true, and it’s not always a lot less, but there is usually some savings. Also, by the time an omnibus becomes available the original books may no longer be available, or not new copies. Omnibus are rarely published until the contents are out of print and there is sufficient demand. That demand may be generated by a film adaptation of one of the books, or a new volume in a series long unavailable, or just some mystical “suddenly these are hot” occurrence. Or a book club may be the publisher.

Many people, especially the ones who fancy themselves Collectors with the capital C, look down their noses at book club editions, but the books clubs have published some pretty handy omnibus volumes over the years, and they often survive the individual books and are cheaper.

Another great thing about omnibus volumes is they usually (and I think should always) come with an introduction. This may be by the author, publisher, another author, a friend or a critic’s cat, but it will have some information about the books collected, the author, and that’s usually both useful and interesting.

Occasionally, the novels in an omnibus edition will have been reviewed and revised by author. If you see this as a good thing, then think of it as the “author’s cut”, a chance for the author to correct those niggling little things that bug him/her, and possibly the reader, whether they be inadvertent mistakes in continuity (the one story house suddenly has an upstairs on page 92) or just something the author always wished had been slightly different, like a proofing/editing mistake that can now be repaired.

There’s certainly much to like about an omnibus volume.

…and a bad thing

However, there’s a down side. For a lot of readers, the book cover is part of the experience, and with an omnibus, you might get one of the covers but usually you get something new and different. That means you don’t get the original covers, and that may be a bummer. It doesn’t seem publishers spend a lot of time (or money) on the graphics with these books. If I wanted, say, some Perry Mason books (which I happen to like a lot), I’d sure rather have the paperbacks with their covers, than a generalized omnibus cover: 3+1 PM cvrs

Except those paperbacks are pretty fragile now, while that Mystery Book Club omnibus is still sturdy.

Another problem with omnibus volumes, even paperback ones, is their weight. The heavier a book gets, the more difficult and awkward it is to read. Put three or four novels between one set of covers, and you get three or four times the bulk. Less if the publisher moves to smaller type, as is often the case, but always more than the individual books. With this extra bulk comes another problem: spine strength. In my experience, any paperback omnibus is going to end up with a creased if not cracked spine by the end of even the most careful reading. Hardcover editions are pretty much exempted from this problem, but then their weight is against them.

I read a certain amount of fantasy, and often – thought not often enough! – these have maps in them. An omnibus may have one map at the beginning or, if it’s hardcover, as the frontispiece. But that’s going to be it. If the individual books had separate maps in them, it’s almost certain the collection will not include them all. Since I like maps and refer to them often while reading such a book, this is a big negative for me.

As mentioned under the good things about an omnibus, the novels may have been reviewed and revised by author. If you don’t like this idea, if you want the original words, warts and all, then this isn’t a good thing. There are a couple of collections of short stories by John D, MacDonald, The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff in which he “updated” the stories to make them less dated. Let them be dated, I say. I want to read the story as written and published, not updated or massaged into political correctness.

Last, it’s disconcerting to me to have finished reading a novel and still have a bookmark sticking out of the middle (or wherever) of the book. Somehow, finishing the book, closing it and putting away the bookmark (or tossing away the slip of paper or whatever has been used) is part of the process of finishing a book. To have that bookmark still there bothers me a little. Sure, I could take it out, but then would I remember which novel was next in my reading? Which brings to the last of the down side things. I can’t always, or don’t always want to, read the whole thing at a gulp. Sometimes I want to read one of the novels now, and another one in a couple of months. So what happens? Does the book stay out in a ready-to-be-read area of some kind, or go back on the shelf with a bookmark in it, or?

Good, side, bad side. Up side, down side. To omnibus, or not to omnibus?

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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10 Responses to To Omnibus or Not to Omnibus?

  1. Patti Abbott says:

    The weight completely turns me off. The skinnier the better since my hands have begun to ache.

  2. Richard says:

    Yes, that’s a consideration, though many people rest the larger books on something; a table, their lap, the cat… 🙂

  3. George Kelley says:

    Patti’s right about the physical problems that come with big, fat omnibus volumes. But, that being said, I buy all the NESFA omnibus books. I’m guessing this will be a moot issue when we all have Kindles or Nooks, or SONY Readers.

  4. Richard says:

    We won’t “all” have them, George. Or if we do, some of us will prefer, by far, to turn the page with our fingers and feel the paper curl over and lay down. I can see an electronic book reader (EBR) as being convenient in some situations, but for me it will never replace ink-and-paper.

    I buy the NESFA volumes too. The one that got me thinking about this was Tales of Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

  5. Evan Lewis says:

    They’re handy if the stories really belong together and are in the right order. But sometimes they’re not, and unless you’re already very familiar with the author’s work, you don’t know what you’re missing.

  6. Richard says:

    Good point, though in many cases one is simply trying to lay hands on pieces of a series, like the Perry Mason books shown. The books in the omnibus aren’t in published order and weren’t publish on after the other but it doesn’t matter if those are the only copies I can find and I want to have & read them.

  7. George Kelley says:

    Theoretically, in an e-book universe, everything will be available. The KINDLE “holds” 200 books which trumps any “omnibus” volumes. And, sadly, e-book formats might be the only way to access some books given the rapid decline of the publishing industry.

  8. Jeff Meyerson says:

    First I thought you meant omnibus short story collections.

    I don’t particularly want to collect anthologies of books or stories with a few exceptions:

    Uniform collections of series, as when they reissued Anthony Powell’s 12 volume Dance to the Music of Time series in four matching papebacks.

    Collected editions, as in the complete LORD DARCY collection by Randall Garrett, which has TOO MANY MAGICIANS and all the stories, and in chronological order to boot!

    And Rick, the best part is I got it from PaperbackSwap.com.

  9. Richard says:

    Jeff – I meant both, Jeff, collections of novels or collections of short stories in a more complete, single volume. So everything from C&L to NESFA to book club editions of mysteries or SF novels.

    I have the Lord Darcy stories, but in three or four paperbacks, and since I have them I wouldn’t replace them with the omnibus you mention. If I didn’t have them, though, the omnibus would be an attractive alternative to finding the single paperbacks.

    I recently got the 2 omnibus volumes of C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels, which, along with the Jack Vance collection of 4 novels, got me thinking about this subject.

  10. Richard says:

    George – I fear the day, but I know it’s a possibility. As you saw with BOY IN STRIPED PAJAMAS, some music comes in download only these days, so e-reader format only for books is certainly likely.

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