Forget it if you had assumed that live readings of poetry or short stories were a recent phenomenon. Go back a couple of thousand years, and public readings were the norm.

In its review of T. P. Wiseman’s The Roman Audience the TLS tells us that Wiseman’s “thesis is simple: all literature, thoughout Roman history, was first performed in front of public audiences, and only secondarily released in book form”. In the second volume of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature E. J. Kenney tells us that we can assume that all Roman literature was written primarily to be heard. He points out that it was difficult for Roman authors (in the absence of what we would recognize as a publishing industry) to correct errors in any works they had already sent out into the world, and that as a result authors were inclined carefully to test-run their works by reading them before small, perhaps friendly, audiences, and to use the resulting comments to revise and correct. Horace recommends that intending authors should keep their manuscripts by them for nine years before publication so that they can garner enough private criticism.

This process of reading your works before an audience was called recitatio. Professor Kenney continues, “In the first century A.D. the recitatio became a regular feature of the literary life of Rome, as numerous contemporary references indicate. Some of these occasions were private and were genuinely intended to elicit criticism final publication. However, for writers who were in any sense professional – i.e. who depended on writing for their living – the recitatio was primarily a form of advertisement or puffing.”

Public reading/chanting /singing apparently became all the rage in the early years of the Empire in Rome. The Believer has a piece by Tony Perrottet. Many of the contemporary references to recitatio are negative: it seems the élite quickly became exasperated by excessive public reading by no-talents. Anyone could get up on stage and perform, and apparently did, with the result that the quality on offer kept on declining. Cheerleaders were often employed to lead the crowd in acclamation. Perrottet tells us “The standard cry was Euge! Euge!—’bravo’ in ancient Greek, the favored tongue for Roman snobs.*” Private readings in private houses could still provide a less chaotic experience, but we cannot be surprised to discover that the very popularity of the form lead to its degradation. All this negativity may merely be a function of the accidents of survival: so much of what was written in Roman times has been lost. Of course if a reading of your work was an integral part of the editorial/revision process, this is perhaps something you might not publicize in the very work itself.

An embryonic publishing industry was getting going by the start of the 1st century A.D. Jerome Carcopino writes in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, “Scholars and men of letters in Rome knew nothing for two centuries of what we mean by ‘publishing’. Down to the end of the republic, they made copies of their own works in their own houses or in the house of some patron, and then distributed the manuscripts to their friends . . . The multiplication of public and municipal libraries resulted in the rise of publishers (bibliopole, librarii). The new profession soon had its celebrities: the Sosii, of whom Hoarace speaks, who had opened a shop for volumnia at the exit of the Vicus Tuscus on the Forum.”

The reading police seem to insist that we use our eyes only if we are to qualify for their special club. Having a book read to you apparently doesn’t count. This is of course nonsense. You read a book to access the information or enjoyment it contains. To say that hearing a book isn’t reading it, is a bit like saying eating a yoghurt is impossible, since consuming it is a non-chewing activity. Audiobooks are booming. Audible projects two billion hours of book listening for 2016, which is double the 2014 number. “According to a company spokesperson, Audible members on average listen to books about two hours a day, averaging 17 books a year” reports the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their review is mostly on the subject of a perceived decline in reading!


*One might note that such “snobbishness”, if that’s what it is, lives on — do we think “bravo” and “encore” have roots in ancient English?

Robert Gottlieb, eminent editor, states in his memoir Avid Reader “. . . readers shouldn’t be made aware of editorial interventions . . . they have a right to feel that what they’re reading comes direct from the author to them.” He’s talking about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (and of course violates his dictum by its very statement).

Nobody, I imagine, thinks Gottlieb’s argument here is directed at declining to have the editor’s name appear on the title page — Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe with help by Maxwell Perkins — that’d just be stupid. But do we really have a “right to feel” that Harper Lee came up with the idea of ditching most of her manuscript and mining To Kill a Mockingbird out of it? For many years that just wasn’t a question in people’s minds of course, as the famously reticent Ms Lee wasn’t talking. When the news was broken at the time of publication of Go Set a Watchman (the mine from which the excavation took place), lots of readers expressed dismay at being forced to know this, and having to accept a different side of the hero. But a right?

Do we think any worse of Lee, or Raymond Carver, or Thomas Wolfe because we know that they got editorial help, than we do (or at least in my case, did up till now) of Heller? The book we have is the book we have, and the path by which it got there is almost irrelevant to all but the scholarly reader. Changes and deletions are made in manuscript and proof, often massively, but many of these are made by the author, some by the author at the suggestion of another reader, and some by a publisher’s editor. So? The book we know is the book we care about.

Poets notoriously revise their verse. An old (wo)man will want to express things differently than a youngster. My German teacher insisted we only read the early version of Goethe’s Willkommen und Abschied. Goethe obviously didn’t agree, but I’m with Mr Hammer in prefering the youthful expression. Luckily of course with poems by tinkerers who rewrite throughout their lives, we (usually) have both versions and can make a judgment. As Eliot Weinberger writes in the preface to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, “Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go”. There seems no reason why the right to make new translations should rest with readers only.

If you want to get back behind editorial changes (either by author or editor) in a novel you need to find the original manuscript, though of course scholarly careers have been founded on exactly what “original” might mean in this context. In the end, for almost all of us, the novel we read is the only novel there is. How many non-specialist readers pay any attention to the textual variants when reading a scholarly edition?

Not all editorial work (actually probably very little editorial work) involves actual rewriting and stylistic massage. Psychological support may be the most important gift from editor to author. The neatest trick of editorial intervention Gottlieb describes is his recognizing that the rather wooden characters in the manuscript of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain could be turned from disadvantage to advantage not by trying to liven them up, but almost the opposite: by looking at the book as a fictionalized documentary rather than as a documentary novel. Doubtless Mr Crichton feels grateful.

Gottlieb’s memoir is reviewed in The New York Review of Books.

Giambattista Bodoni was born in Saluzzo in northern Italy in 1740. His father and his grandfather were printers but at the age of 18 the ambitious Giambattista decamped to Rome. After a while he succeeded in getting work at the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s missionary department which had a printing office. There he got exposure to their many foreign types.

He was tipped as the printer to the Duke of Parma and went there in 1768. He spent the rest of his life in Parma. Like so many 18th century printers Bodoni fell in love with the work of John Baskerville, who revolutionized the print world by achieving a lighter pressure allowing for thinner lines on smoother paper. The extensive use of white space, which Bodoni favored in imitation of Baskerville, established our preference nowadays for well spaced type. One of the tour-de-force works he printed was a book with the Lord’s Prayer in 155 different languages, many with their own typeface: this he presented to the Pope in 1806.


From a typographical point of view, probably his most important work is his Manuale Tipografica which was eventually printed by his widow who took over the business when Bodoni died in 1813. You can see on the title page the reference to La Vedova, the widow.

Bodoni’s typefaces, archetypical modern face, feature very thin serifs. A warning: do not try to reverse Bodoni out of a solid color (don’t try to reverse any type out of 4-color process, unless it’s very large). The thin serifs will plug if you do and make you look like a fool!

The Columbia University Book History Colloquium sponsored a talk in September by Valerie Lester who recently published a biography of Bodoni.

Kit Caless writes in The Guardian about books one might choose to read in a pub. This may not be a question which has much bothered the average American reader (nor I suspect, the normal British pub crawler), but is sufficiently salient to this carpet-obsessed writer that he has established a prize for the best book for the job. The terms of entry are fairly restrictive, but who knows there may be more than the three books suggested which might contend for the prize of £100 in coins for use in a slot machine. You can enter by way of a link at the bottom of the Guardian article.

77ed7fbd-ba35-418f-b7df-0458bc17433eIn a related story: I can’t say I see wine bottles sold with a short story glued to them and wrapped around them as the salvation of the book. In fact it strikes me as a rather bizarre idea. brings us the news via Shelf Awareness. But I suppose you could of course read one of these bottles in the pub. How about booky beer bottles? A pint and a pamphlet seems a bit of a supply problem: too much dampness about.

img_0435Thumb indexing can be done more or less thoroughly (expensively). This picture shows the cheapest way, just printing a locator near the outer margin, varying vertical alignment from section to section so that when the reader riffles through the book, some sort of indication of where they are will show up. This basically costs nothing. Placing the type in the margin of every page and using a tiny bit of ink to print them really doesn’t cost anything noticeable. I have also seen this done with the boxes extending further out so that they actually trim off in binding. This means that a shadowy gray smudge shows up even when the book is closed. And this can be quite effective. It’s all a matter of the budget for the book. Publishers’ manufacturing departments are used to having to shave money off the budget at the last minute. By the time the book reaches us people up-stream have merrily overrun their own budgets and so it comes down to the manufacturing backstop to salvage the cost picture. Thumb indexing, would be an obvious place to look for savings.

Real thumb indexing involves using a hydraulically-powered clipper gun to cut a semi-circular bite out of the edge of a bunch of pages. I find it hard to believe that this could ever be automatable: the pages have to be riffled before the chopper does its work, so that a bigger bite is taken out of the last page and progressively smaller bites as you get further away. Even before that, the first step in the process which is done on bound books only, is to go through the book and insert bits of paper to indicate where the cut should start and the tab be pasted. The operator then opens the book at each marked location and makes the cut. The fewer tabs you have the cheaper indexing will be, and people often double up their tabs. I have a dictionary I worked on which manages to compress the alphabet into 11 tabs.


This second picture shows the full treatment: a triple rank of index cuts. Note that Zephaniah’s tab appears on the first page of the Book of Zephaniah. Sometimes the publisher will seek to save money by allowing the tab to be placed near where it ought to fall: if the Acts tab falls anywhere near the beginning of Acts, this would be acceptable. However if you are going to do thumb indexing it seems to me you might as well go all in: saving a few pennies just looks cheap and nasty.


As you can see in the third picture, even a de luxe thumb indexing job on an expensive Bible will combine some of the tabs. Many books of the Bible are just too short to warrant their own cut.

I believe this book was indexed at Ross-Gage in Indianapolis. Their website almost unbelievably offers a video where you can see the world’s first automated thumb cut machine. They also illustrate other indexing methods, some of which I wasn’t aware of. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a corner step edged indexed book.

John Thompson is taking a third look at the book business following up on his Merchants of Culture. The new edition is due next year, and a trailer appears at University of  Cambridge Research. (Link via Book Business.)

Professor Thompson quotes a modernizing publishing executive, struggling to redirect his colleagues’ minds into digital channels: “A book is not a book. Books are categories. Books are types. Books are different styles of things.” If you have had the misfortune to drift into trade publishing as a career, maybe you do have to adopt this view of things. I always regarded a book as something I’d like to read (or not) — as information waiting to be accessed.

The executive continues: “The thing that people always hoped was the digital world would get simpler and it’s actually a whole lot more complicated because your end result isn’t the same. The end result is a database, the end result is a PDF, it’s an image-based PDF, it’s an XML file, it’s an ad-based, Google-search-engine toolset – we’re going to have many more properties digitally than we possibly could have physically. We have seven physical properties [for our books] . . . and online we have hundreds of formats and types and styles.”

Of course we all got it wrong. We got it wrong in two ways. We thought print was dead; and we thought all we had to do was stop throwing away the digital files we’d already been using for a year or two to drive our typesetting systems. The result of this naivety is a mass of disks and tapes which largely verge on the useless: hardly anybody can afford to go back in and make them usable. It is always the case that going forward is simple: you just say “Store everything in this or that format” (of course you can guess the wrong format, but that’s another story).

Going back to books you’ve already dealt with presents a very different picture. For really old books (30 years or more) you have nothing but a printed book, or if you’ve failed to destroy it yet, negative film. For more recent books you may have stuff ranging from say a Wang disk which nobody now can access, to a fully-formatted typesetter’s file — formatted however for a process which won’t work when it comes to making an e-book. These older books are by definition almost all slow-sellers. Maybe they sold well when first published, but now 15 years later demand is modest to invisible. If you rush into bringing these files up to snuff, you will quickly lay out more money than you can ever expect to bring in, and this, as a business strategy is generally called bankruptcy.

I bet that most books (by numbers of titles, not by sales) will in fact never become e-books. There’s just not sufficient demand for most books published in the first half of last century or earlier for the investment to be made. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong by all the volunteers keying away at Project Gutenberg, but I think the need can be adequately and most efficiently filled by image scans and print-on-demand output. Thus every book ever written could in theory become available — just not for reading on an e-reader.

One of the problems commentators on publishing often overlook is the fact that what they are studying is not one single thing, but a collective made up of myriad separate and wildly different companies all doing their own thing. After the event it may well be possible to analyze things as categories and draw historical judgements, but making broad-brush forecasts is virtually impossible because book publishing has no central planning organization — PRH’s plans will differ from S & S’s, which will differ from The University of Chicago Press’s etc., etc. Almost all claims about what is going to happen in the future are thus no better than my speculations about human settlement on Mars or who’ll win the Premier League next season. They are guesses, and should never be treated as anything more solid than that. For folks who enjoy speculation, this provides fertile ground. As a guide to the future it’s all irrelevant. Still people will persist on doing it, and really they have every right to do so. It’s the second-level commentary I tend to object to when mud gets slung because this or that is going to happen. Stop and think. It’s probably never going to happen.

Professor Thompson has of course every right to research just trade publishing. To a large extent that is of course what people out there think of as publishing. It’s an interesting business — rather more interesting no doubt to most people than directory publishing, nursing book publishing or almost any other variety of “publishing”. But analyzing trade publishing under the label “publishing” courts and perpetuates misunderstanding. Maybe Professor Thompson can be persuaded to add the word “trade” to his subtitle The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century for this revision.

“’What I mean by that is you can be the best ice salesman in America until the refrigerator comes out,’ Edwards said. ‘You can be driving your taxi one day and Uber knocks you out the next day. You can be in the hotel business and then Airbnb can surround you with 20 properties with a great size at a lower cost. I think you have to face the digital impact head on and not go through denial and don’t rely on past tactics to change the trajectory of the company because it doesn’t work anymore.’”

Mike Edwards was the CEO who had to take the Borders bookstore chain into liquidation. I’m not sure what exactly he means by facing “the digital impact head on” and maybe he doesn’t either. It’s a bit like the tsunami that hit Fukushima: TEPCO may or may not have “faced it head on” but facing up some things isn’t going to make any difference to the outcome. It’s hard for a company to turn and run for the hills. Changing the trajectory of a corporation sounds like a reasonable aim, but what really does it mean? Selling clothing instead of books, or as well as books, or clothing with extracts from books printed on it. If you are in books, and what your staff knows about is books, what really are your options? Sell a bit of other stuff — B&N’s now almost the only place you can go to buy a CD. But that’s not really enough is it? Still I guess these guys get the big bucks to come up with the big ideas. The Edwards story comes from Retail Dive via The Passive Voice.

The soon-to-be-closed Bronx store.

The soon-to-be-closed Bronx store.








Barnes & Noble has outlasted Borders, but rumblings keep on surfacing. Here’s Mike Shatzkin’s take on the recent New Yorker article which has garnered a lot of attention. Like Mr Shatkin I am doubtful that smaller stores with better food and coffee is the real answer*. Mr Riggio may have a point that people will tend to go to the bookstore that’s nearest to them, but that surely doesn’t mean that you can succeed à la Starbucks by setting up a cute little store on every corner. The most important points that come across in this discussion are the strength of B & N’s distribution network, and the fact that bookstores which are set up to cater to their local audience are the sorts of independent bookstores which are prospering nowadays. Maybe a giant conglomerate can mimic a collection of small, quirky, independent-minded store managers — but I doubt it. The share price won’t tolerate the right to fail (or even to fail to prosper quickly). As soon as stores of one stripe start underperforming, they’ll be told to do it the right, the corporate way. I suspect that independent thinking and public ownership are just mutually incompatible. Parenthetically, dare I point out that the corporate aesthetic strikes me as pretty dire.

It doesn’t matter how many books a shop stocks. What matters, obviously, is that they stock the right books, and that they care about them. Staff who are excited about the books on their shelves will be able to talk them up. Staff who are receiving scaled-out inventory allocations may be interested in some titles, but won’t have the same enthusiasm. Plus, if you have a gigantic store it’s not too surprising that customers will often find it hard to locate a sales person even if there is one there behind the ranks of shelves — and if you have a question you need to ask, this can be infuriating enough to make you swear never to darken their door again. In Three Lives you can’t ever be out of the sight of an employee: there’s just no room for that. (Good news: Three Lives’ lease is being renewed. They will not have to move. Seems not all real estate interests are utterly conscienceless.)

I am most struck by the observation that professors don’t go to B & N for their specialized monographs any longer. This makes perfect sense: if you know the book won’t be there, why would you waste your time trekking into your nearby B & N so that they can special order the book for you and make you came back and get it a week later. You might do this at your local indie bookstore, letting them get the book for you as a gesture of support. In the past these were your only options of course. Now you’d most likely get the book from Amazon. If B & N really has such an efficient network of warehouses, could they not promise two-day delivery to the customer’s door?

Leaving aside institutional purchasing for a library or school system, buying a book is a thoughtful choice made by an individual. It’s a small-scale one-to-one transaction. The idea that a mass audience can be drawn in to a massive, well-stocked store has been tried and while it may have worked in the past now seems to have passed its sell-by date. Time to move on. I hope Mr Riggio can come up with a cunning plan. As far as I can see I think the best strategy would be to become an alternative to Amazon, and focus on, leveraging those distribution warehouses. I have no idea whether this can generate sales sufficient to keep a big organization going (or even succeed at all).


* I’ve never thought about what it’d be appropriate to eat while reading this or that book. Quirk Books makes a small stab at this important subject.

We do seem to be beginning to take on board the counterintuitive idea that giving the product (or bits of the product) away free of charge can actually stimulate sales. Publishers have always resisted the idea. A book is a closed system: once you have it you don’t need it again. If your greengrocer were to offer you free rutabagas you might find you liked them and rush out to buy more (not, I fear, that I’ve ever been offered free vegetables, though they do often offer free apple slices at farmers’ markets). With a book once you’ve read it you’ve read it, and even though you may lose it or throw it away you won’t need another copy, at least for many years.

Of course in crude terms, when it comes to giving books away, publishers are to some extent constrained by their contracts with authors. Giving too much of the product away might be seen as courting legal problems. In actuality publishers are mostly acting merely as agents for their authors. The author owns the book, and leases the right to publish it to a publisher in return for some sort of payment, usually royalties. This is why giving books or chapters away for free is much more common in the world of self publishing: obviously a self publisher making a possibly risky decision has only one party to consult: themselves. Their ability to change the retail price of their e-books almost on a daily basis may help sales — in the days following a discounted offer lots of people still purchase although the price has gone back up. This by and large is not an option open to a traditional publisher, given the wording in most contracts. If you keep discounting the price to a level below that at which the author is due any royalty, authors and their agents will be after you. It may increase sales, and may help the publisher’s bottom line, but the author has been defrauded unless some special arrangements have been made. One-off side deals like this are expensive, and many publishers will conclude that spending money to conduct that negotiation just in order to give the book away, is not a good way to invest their resources. Thus the idea that free offers might increase overall sales trends to remain largely untested.

Publishers have always budgeted for a proportion of the books they print to end up as freebies: 10% is not unusual. Most of these copies will go to review media, who frustratingly often “lose” the book and need more. Some may go to the buyers for book chains, and to opinion makers who might be hoped to start some buzz, that essential ingredient of success in book marketing. Some of course end up as “office copies” and some are just lost as a result of damage in shipping, being hit by a forklift truck in the warehouse, or being rained on. I once had to cope with a container falling off the ship into the Atlantic.

It’s giving books away to potential customers that has always stuck in the publisher’s throat, even though we rather suspect that doing so might help sales. With the author’s agreement there’s lots that can be done: but this will eventually need to be incorporated into the original contract in order to be affordable. For example, it’s not that unusual to find a chapter from the next book in the series at the end of the installment you are reading. Giving away one chapter can’t damage sales too much (there may be one or two readers who find they hate the book, but they’d probably have figured that out before buying anyway). But of course that chapter can’t be there without the author’s agreement — at the very least it’s got to be written!

Things are beginning to change though. Book Business has an article describing some of the initiatives being taken by trade publishers. At the end of the day I think it all boils down to the split in publishing between trade publishing and the rest of the industry. If you publish a book which might be used in advanced courses in nuclear physics, you can’t increase the total potential sale beyond the number of PhD students in nuclear physics. Giving the book away is never going to increase the audience: “Oh, look. I can get a book for free. I must sign up for a PhD course in nuclear physics!” On the other hand there will always be more people out there who you might entice into getting hooked on Tyrion Lannister’s survival prospects.

Here’s news of a promising UK initiative in this direction. Exact Editions makes books temporarily available free of charge. Carcanet are allowing access to ten of their books via this site

Tomes of Leamington 'waysgoose' at Cheddar Gorge 1935

Tomes of Leamington ‘waysgoose’ at Cheddar Gorge, 1935

The OxfordWords blog speculates on the origin of this charming word.

I seem to be unable to avoid returning to this topic from time to time. The word exerts a fascination. Earlier posts can be found here and here.

Chandra Johnson has a nice article at Deseret News under the title What do Americans Lose if Bookstores Disappear? More than you think. The author runs through lots of nice things we all love about books and bookstores. The piece seems to have been stimulated by Keith Houston’s The Book, recently published by Norton. Unsurprisingly that volume is a paean to the book, something all of us can agree that we love.

As I say it’s a nice atmospheric piece, but it’s based on false premises. Perhaps the key sentence in this regard is “If books are reflections of human history and development, the existence of bookstores arguably shows how a society prioritizes knowledge, personal growth and access to those virtues — quite a thing to lose given the shaky state of the publishing industry.” Wow! Are books “reflections of human history and development”? Not sure I really know what that’d mean. Maybe some are, but masses and masses of them have nothing to do with human history and development do they? Does the existence of bookstores show “how a society prioritizes knowledge”? “Arguably”, as she says, but I suspect it’s an argument you’d never win except in the trivial sense that if there’s any bookshop with a copy of a book on, say, fluid dynamics, that shows that fluid dynamics is a type of knowledge that we prioritize. This isn’t saying much, if anything. The rest of that clause is just there to add apparent weight to the weightlessness. I don’t think any bookshop can show me anything other than a tiny selection of what one person (the buyer) thinks people in that neighborhood might be interested in buying. In so far as they are prioritizing, they are prioritizing by salebility. This tells us something I dare say, but it’s not something about “human history and development” or those mysterious “virtues”.

Whatever all these things may actually be though, they are undoubtedly regarded by Ms. Johnson as good things. But they are apparently at risk as a result of “the shaky state of the publishing industry”. Come off it. The publishing industry can’t win! On the one hand we get told off for being fat cats lounging about in flashy New York offices defrauding starving authors out of the bread their bestselling works should be delivering to them, and on the other we are told we are part of an industry going through its death throes. Wake up world. The book publishing industry is not dying. It’s not even in a “shaky state”. It’s rudely healthy thank you. Just like any industry there are parts of the business facing problems, but overall we sell  an amazingly large quantity of books, mostly printed, but also now digital.

In a much more positive, down-to-earth take on the subject, bookseller Jeremy Garber writes at Literary Hub a concrete, straight-forward description of why working in a bookstore is satisfying, and why the service a bookstore provides is likely to continue. This is the right way to help: reminding us what we need bookstores to do for us, not flooding us with overwrought sentimentality about what we risk losing.

We are all agreed that we don’t want to see the end of bookstores, but harping on about how much we love their smell will do absolutely nothing to help. It’s nice to tell how much we’d miss them if they were gone, but that’s not really doing any good. Mr Garber shows that bookstores will survive because the public wants bookstores. Let’s hope people want them enough to spend sufficient money there to allow them to cover their costs and make a bit of profit too.

I posted about all this a couple of months ago. Let’s stop the vaporing about the ineffable, and go out and buy a book, maybe The Book.