Scene from White Lotus, a wild and crazy HBO series

Everyone knows that male genes equip us guys to recognize that a woman reading a book in public is only doing so because she really wants to get a guy to talk to her. Ever-chivalrous, we stand ready to relieve the terrible situation. LitHub brings us an extended examination of this phenomenon.

In defense of these guys — it is a truth universally acknowledged that women read more books than men. So for a non-reading idiot, doesn’t seeing someone of the opposite sex buried in a book carry an implied reproach — which calls for blustering self-justification. Testosterone is well known to enhance the rational functioning of the brain, so it’s no surprise that guys often manage to put two and two together to yield twenty-two. Alcohol acts as an efficient catalyst of testosterone in its brain-numbing action, but, whatever your gender, a bar is never a great place to try to read.

TorrentFreak (link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing) tells us that a default judgement of $7.8 million has just been handed down in a lawsuit brought by Amazon Content Services, Penguin Random House and several authors including John Grisham, Lee Child, and R. L. Stine against ebook bargain sites,,, and The sites, which operated under the “KISS Library” brand, sold pirated ebooks at bargain prices. The defendants in the suit spent more time dodging than addressing the complaint, and the judgement was handed down in their absence.

I suppose we expect to be able to collect, do we? Probably not, according to Publishers Weekly. It may also prove difficult to get the Ukrainian principals to cease and desist in this obviously highly profitable business. Maybe some potential customers (libraries) will pay attention.

I think we can all get behind the idea that a Ukrainian company (any company) should not be allowed rip off ebook authors in order to get ebooks cheaply to libraries.* But closer to home we have attacks on-going against the terms on which publishers supply ebooks to libraries. The basic problem is of course that everyone knows that ebooks cost nothing to produce — so why should we have to pay anything for them? Need I say that this is of course nonsense?


* Motivation, however plausibly noble, doesn’t matter. The law is the law. Theft is theft. Robin Hood was after all “an outlaw”. Cf. the Sci-Hub saga, and the lawsuit against the Internet Archive.

Ask a stupid question I responded to learning that The New York Times, as part of its celebration of a century and a quarter of its Book Review section, was asking its readers what the best book of the last 125 years might be.

Now the waiting is over; The Times has decided.

Well, there were certainly worse candidates on the short leet, so maybe we should be relieved that the winner is To Kill a Mockingbird. A well-loved book of course, a book read by lots and lots of schoolchildren in America (no doubt the reason for its vote-pull), but the best in any category other than “Books by Harper Lee“? At least it wasn’t A Gentleman in Moscow.

A disappointed Ulysses will just have to be content with whatever attention comes along with his centenary this year.

Once upon a time there was a Doubleday Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. There was another store further down which changed from Scribner’s to Rizzoli. These were bookstores, owned by publishing companies, which would sell books from any publisher, but presumably they’d have extra quick access to books published by their publishing wing. More specialized are the shops maintained by some university presses which sell books from their own press only.

(Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the picture.)

For many years Oxford University Press maintained a bookshop in Oxford — and now it’s gone. When I worked in Cambridge, Cambridge University Press didn’t have a bookshop*, but now they do — and they show every sign of keeping going, and of doing pretty well. Why can CUP but not OUP support a bookshop? Both locations are “downtown” and rents one might expect to be similarly high. Perhaps it’s no more than a timing thing: maybe OUP’s lease came up for renewal at a particularly bad moment.

Mr Dean calls in his letter shown above for an explanation from the Delegates, the committee of academics who manage OUP on behalf of the university (members of the corresponding group in Cambridge are more charmingly called Syndics — members of the Press Syndicate). I’m not sure Mr Dean should be holding his breath: explanation is unlikely to be forthcoming. Business decisions get made for lots of reasons, but one has to assume an element at least of “the cost of the operation is no longer worth the return”. To what extent is this retreat liable to have an adverse public relations effect? In so far as you believe Oxford University Press should aggressively support “the book” — and I sort of think they should — this will seem like a bad idea. Regular customers may miss it, but how many others will regard having to go to Blackwell’s as a serious inconvenience?

This may not be directly related to the recent decision by Oxford University Press to declare itself desirous of being seen as a digital company rather than as an old-fashioned book publisher, but it would at least seem to be a decision from the same drawer as their logo change.

But of course there is a longer-term trend here with the book business becoming less and less vertically integrated as time goes by. Originally a publishing office was effectively nothing other than the front room of a print works, which also acted as a retail bookstore. It took till the nineteenth century for “publishing” to become a business distinct from printing. Gradually of course we got to a place where there were book manufacturers, and book publishers, and booksellers, and literary agents, and we have become used to regarding these as separate distinct businesses. Of course this was never as clear-cut a picture as we like to think.

Who recognizes the name Wolvercote? The paper mill in Wolvercote, a village north of Oxford, had supplied paper to Oxford University Press from 1672 onward when the Delegates bought it in 1772. The benefits of OUP’s owning a paper mill never outweighed the costs and ultimately the mill was sold in the 1970s. Wolvercote’s fortunes did not improve after the sale and production ceased in 1997. Oxford stopped printing their own books in 1989, and just shut down the last vestiges of their printing services this year. Cambridge never had a paper mill and didn’t get out of the book manufacturing business till the last few years.

Lots of other university presses had their own printing departments. I suspect none now do. Here’s an old picture of Princeton’s composing room.

Now of course we should not overlook the fact that the largest trade publisher in the world is owned by a printing company. Bertelsmann is big in printing and in book clubs. Of course nobody would claim that Penguin Random House “owns their own printing house” — here the ownership is in the opposite direction. The temptation needs to be resisted to over-compartmentalize things. We know, don’t we, that bookshops can publish books, libraries can publish books, authors can publish books, magazines can publish books (e.g. Reader’s Digest), printers (and here’s another link) can publish books, and we know that several printers set up book clubs which would efficiently utilize their machinery? Dover Books is a striking example of a printer-owned publishing company, having been acquired many years ago by Murray Printing Company, now part of LSC.

Publishing is not a very difficult business to get into: we can all do anything, so don’t be surprised when we do. But allow publishers to do a little book manufacturing and book retailing too.


* For many years, when I first started in the business, there was a stated reluctance on the part of publishers to by-pass the retail bookstore business and sell direct to the public. This was part of the settlement represented by the Net Book Agreement. We used to sell university publications (exam papers, The University Reporter, Statutes and Ordinances etc.) in our Euston Road office, but would resolutely refuse to sell any books, directing customers to Dillon’s, the nearest bookshop. The Agreement is gone, and gradually so too is evaporating that direct-sales reluctance.

A year ago on 6 January I wrote a piece entitled Motiveless Theft? Now, exactly one year later, here comes Publishers Lunch with a resolution:

The FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, 29, on Wednesday afternoon when he landed at JFK Airport in New York, and unsealed an indictment, in a long overdue deal,  charging him with with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Bernardini is accused of conducting “a multi-year scheme to impersonate individuals involved in the publishing industry in order to fraudulently obtain hundreds of prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books.”

Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York FBI office Michael Driscoll said in a news release: “We allege Mr. Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses, and literary scouts. Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”

According to his LinkedIn page Bernardini has worked in the rights department at Simon & Schuster UK since October 2019, a “junior staffer” if you will, and previously had interned at Mira Trenchard Literary Scouting and Andrew Nurnberg Associates). He is an Italian citizen, living and working in London. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges that, “Beginning in at least August 2016, Bernardini, who was based in London and worked in the publishing industry, began impersonating agents, editors, and other individuals involved in publishing to fraudulently obtain prepublication manuscripts.”

Simon & Schuster said in a statement it was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations against Bernardini, who has been suspended pending further information. “The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator.”

Bernardini is said to have created fake email accounts at more than 160 internet domains and “impersonated hundreds of distinct people and engaged in hundreds of unique efforts to fraudulently obtain electronic copies of manuscripts that he was not entitled to.”

He is also accused of “a phishing scheme to surreptitiously gain access to a database maintained by a New York City-based literary scouting company” in 2020. The indictment says he acquired login credentials to two client accounts, and used those for unauthorized access to the scouting company’s site.

Vulture has a round up piece giving details of several victims.

“Motiveless theft” is how I referred to it last year, and I’m still puzzled about motivation, as it seems is everyone. The FBI says “Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.” Well, OK, in a way, but . . . If that was really his motivation wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just to go to the library or read book reviews — it’s not possible to keep plots and ideas locked up inside books after all. Stealing manuscripts might have been a business plan forty years ago when they were either handwritten or typed out: you might even have been able to demand a ransom for a unique copy of a handwritten original, but there would have been a black market for manuscripts of questionable origin. Now surely all you’re getting is a duplicate copy of an electronic file. I suppose it’s theft, but I can’t see that he stole anything really worth stealing — though I guess the FBI wouldn’t nab him if there wasn’t a crime going on.

Did Filippo want to be a published author, making use of plagiarized texts? There is one Filippo Bernardini listed at Amazon, but as his book was published in 1929, I suspect this is a different person, as no doubt is the man after whom Via Filippo Bernardini in Rome is named. So if he didn’t want to be an author, did he want to be a publisher? Apparently not, otherwise that would surely have happened already, and nobody seems to have reported duplicate publications of the “hundreds of unpublished manuscripts” involved, even under noms de plume. A victimless crime? He is being charged with wire fraud and identity theft. It’s clearly not “right” to do this sort of thing, but really who has been harmed? The indictment states that Mr Bernardini shall “forfeit to the United States . . . any and all property, real and personal, that constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense, including but not limited to a sum of money in United States currency representing the amount of proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense.” So maybe there were some proceeds, but neither the indictment, nor the press release provide any details. A bit of wasted time would seem to me to be the “cost” for the authors and agents involved. At Defector Kelsey McKinney shares my puzzlement as to Mr Bernardini’s motives: she inclines to think he must have done it just for fun. Maybe it just goes to show that Simon & Schuster failed to keep a smart employee fully busy. Mr Bernardini has been released on bail.

“thus passing the time” from a book printed by Wynken de Worde, 1495

We are all familiar with & and @, but we have to remember that manuscript scribes worked out many more abbreviations, partly to speed up transcription no doubt, but probably mainly to save space on fairly expensive parchment. Early printers aimed to make their products look as much as possible like the manuscripts which had all the prestige in the late 15th century, so they brought over all these features into their hot metal composition.

The Collation provides a comprehensive list of brevigraphs including 37 items. They make the obvious point that most brevigraphs look utterly confusing to us just because we are not familiar with them. Reflect: only a few years ago the meaning of @ and # were not altogether obvious to many of us.

Not sure whether there’s any significance to this, but the word brevigraph does not appear in The Oxford English Dictionary. Nor does it under its alternative spelling breviograph. Does this imply that the word is a fairly recent creation? I suspect we can assume that scribes didn’t swap ideas for new contractions using the word brevigraph.

On 2 September The New Yorker published an article about ebooks in libraries. This was basically a portrait of OverDrive, a major force in the market. (Link via BookRiot.)

“Last year, more than a hundred library systems checked out a million or more books each from OverDrive’s catalogue, and the company reported a staggering four hundred and thirty million checkouts, up a third from the year before. (Barnes & Noble, which has more retail locations than any other bookseller in the U.S., has said that it sells about a hundred and fifty-five million print books a year.)” Digital purchases are consuming a bigger and bigger part of library budgets (taxpayer money) as time goes by. At the same time it becomes more and more common to “blame” publishers for something or other.

How do libraries buy ebooks and audiobooks? It varies, and of course they are not really “buying” ebooks: they are just licensing access to ebooks. By and large public libraries do not make deals with publishers: the publishers subcontract the right to sell access to their ebooks to a handful of companies, the largest of which is OverDrive. Amazon doesn’t sell to libraries either, and indeed they didn’t allow access to their ebooks for libraries until last May when they struck a deal with Digital Public Library of America. Academic books are often supplied to libraries in digital format as a subscription to a collection of books from one or a group of publishers. There may be a few such subscriptions at public library systems, but this publisher-library-direct business tends to be focussed on college and academic libraries.

Books are supplied to public libraries on a variety of terms, none of which seem entirely satisfactory to all parties:

  • One copy, one user
  • 26 check-outs, then rebuy
  • 2-year license with unlimited borrowing
  • Perpetual license
  • Multiple pay-per-use licenses

Maybe the one thing we can confidently predict is that the ultimate pricing model for library ebook purchases will not be a unitary one-size-has-to-fit-all deal: it will provide a variety of options which can be exercised now and then, on this or that title, in these or those conditions.

One of the problems with the boom in lending that took place during the pandemic is its cost. The New Yorker gives an example provided by the New York Public Library, which revealed “its January, 2021, figures for ‘A Promised Land’, the memoir by Barack Obama that had been published a few months earlier by Penguin Random House. At that point, the library system had purchased three hundred and ten perpetual audiobook licenses at ninety-five dollars each, for a total of $29,450, and had bought six hundred and thirty-nine one- and two-year licenses for the e-book, for a total of $22,512. Taken together, these digital rights cost about as much as three thousand copies of the consumer e-book, which they could get for about eighteen dollars per copy. As of August, 2021, the library has spent less than ten thousand dollars on two hundred and twenty-six copies of the hardcover edition, which has a list price of forty-five dollars but sells for $23.23 on Amazon.”

A rather more radical solution to the pricing of ebooks (basically just taking them) was discussed in Suing the Internet Archive, a law suit which still rolls on. And the States of Maryland and New York have also just legislated that ebooks must be made available to libraries “on reasonable terms”. Of course that means almost nothing: one man’s reasonable may be another man’s extortionate. Of course from a publisher’s point of view the big problem is that everyone knows that ebooks cost nothing to produce, and so almost any price north of zero must axiomatically be unreasonable!

Publishers Weekly reports on possible action in Congress. I suppose questions do have to be asked. Chunks of taxpayer money devoted to libraries (relatively small chunks it’s true) do have to be accounted for. There’s a fair (reasonable) deal out there waiting to be made, but it’s not going to be a deal which just appropriates the property of authors and publishers and gives it away to library patrons for free. The states are stirring. New York State has followed Maryland’s lead and voted to make licensing of ebooks to libraries “on reasonable terms” a legal requirement: though the bill has just been vetoed by Governor Hochul. The Publishers Association has also sued to counter Maryland’s law.

There is an argument to be made that ebooks sold to libraries are being sold too cheaply! And it’s not just an argument from greed. The costs involved in making a book — notably the author’s work in writing it and the publishers’ in whipping it into salable shape — do have to be recovered. Look at the figures above for the Obama book. 310 audiobooks and 639 ebooks bought for the same amount as 3,000 copies of the physical book would have cost. One would need to know how many New Yorkers had borrowed the audiobook or the ebook to know for sure, but 3,000 physical books might well not have been able to satisfy demand without long waiting lists. To go to a more recherché example — it might be possible to satisfy almost all the demand there was for Advanced Studies in Calabi-Yau Manifolds with half a dozen ebooks, maybe even a single one, so what becomes the reasonable price for such a thing? The author may have spent decades acquiring the knowledge of the subject and writing it down. Nobody can suggest that $9.95 might be the reasonable price — more like $9,999.95 which of course no library could afford. But, as I said, there’s a fair deal out there waiting to be made — different types of book will obviously require different terms of sale and pricing levels.

See also Mandatory ebook licenses for libraries? which was about the Maryland decision.

The symbol for acid free paper

We rather carelessly talk about acid free paper, when what we really mean is acid neutral paper. Acid free, i.e. totally alkaline, is not an available condition in the manufacture of paper. Acidity is measured on a scale from 0 to 14. Neutrality is marked by a pH* reading of 7. Acid free paper will have a pH reading of 7 or slightly higher. In order to reduce the acidity of the wood pulp the highly acidic lignin and sulfur will have been removed in processing. and some calcium carbonate or magnesium bicarbonate may be added. Paper like this, on which lots of books are printed nowadays, is referred to as permanent paper and is covered by ANSI NISO ISO 9706 which specifies a pH level of at least 7.5. Non-permanent paper, which includes newsprint and groundwood paper, is the stuff that turns brown in sunlight, and left long enough, becomes brittle and breaks down into dust particles. It’s the acid in the paper which makes for this reaction. Permanent papers, are made from wood fiber, thoroughly treated to remove impurities. Archival papers, covered by ISO 11108, are made from cotton, cotton linters, hemp or flax, and may contain only small amounts of fully bleached chemical pulp. Archival papers are often claimed to last for 1,000 years.

Is it odd how freedom clings, erroneously, to papers? Acid free doesn’t mean free of acid, and nor does wood free mean free of wood!


* Casually used to mean acidity, but actually “potential of Hydrogen” (or power of Hydrogen”). The pH scale is used to specify the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution. Acidic solutions (solutions with higher concentrations of hydrogen ions) have lower pH values than basic or alkaline solutions. The scale is logarithmic.

Where does the word dingbat come from? Could it be a mysterious Australian mammal, a cross between a dingo and a wombat? Guess not. It does sound a bit Germanic, with that Ding an sich up front, but the Oxford English Dictionary refuses to commit its corporate self on etymology, stating under that heading “Origin uncertain”. Less rigorous that the Oxford Dictionary editors, I am always ready to imagine a German-speaking USA immigrant influence in the formation of words like this. Dingbat seems, in any of its meanings, to date from the mid-nineteenth century, so such an origin could be possible. One of the meanings listed by the OED includes reference to “thingummy”, a word I was charmed to find in such a formal context. This school playground slang word probably sums up the whole thing. But the earliest reference in their entry on thingummy surprisingly dates to 1737. (Given that meaning, it is far from amazing that another euphemistic usage of dingbat is “penis”.)

Nevertheless, what dingbats mean to me is a font of typographical symbols. As the OED puts it, a dingbat is “A typographical device other than a letter or numeral (such as an asterisk or rule), used to signal divisions in text, to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word, or for ornamentation. Also in plural: a font or typeface consisting of these.” This meaning didn’t come into existence until the very end of the nineteenth century. I wonder what they were called before that — thingummy-jigs? The usage of dingbats “to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word” takes us straight to grawlix, and must surely now be “obsolete”, as we no longer feel much need to disguise “vulgar words”.

Here are a couple of dingbat collections from Mergenthaler LinoType:

Dingbats live in the same world as Type ornaments. Type ornaments are little drawings which you know you’ll need again and again, so having made them in metal pieces, you store them for the next occasion on which they’ll be called for. Dingbats are little ornaments which you’ll need again, and again, and again, indeed so often that it makes sense to incorporate them into your system just like the letters a, b, c and so on. So dingbats are type ornaments that recur so frequently that they end up being typeset rather than inserted as a block or cut.

Photo Stephen Bond

Cambridge University Press (Printing Division) would produce a gift volume for presentation to important people each year at Christmas. I guess I should feel grateful that for a single year I was important enough to get one, but it was just for the one year, the year in which it all came to an end. No doubt the gift list was extra-wide in 1974 for the valedictory survey volume A Printer’s Christmas Books.

Perhaps it’s surprising that the Press never kept a full set themselves, though this is not too surprising if you devote a couple of minutes of thought to just what you’d do when you get a book for Christmas — returning it to the publisher after a couple of years is certainly not high on the list of options. And if you’ve got a couple of them lying around the office when you retire, where do you think they are going to end up? However, the Press has now managed to accumulate a full sequence of their own Christmas books, which runs from 1930 to 1973.

The BBC has the story, along with several pictures. (Link thanks to Jeremy.)

R. R. Donnelley did the same thing. Their series is named Lakeside Classics, and started publication in 1903. It still continues.