Shocked disapproval seems to be the reaction of many when they hear that a library system in rural Florida isn’t going to pay for an on-line subscription to The New York Times. Knees are jerking all over.

Well, wouldn’t we all agree that a library system can decide to fork out for whatever subscriptions it wants to? After all the taxes of local people are what funds the library, and in theory at least the library’s management is responsive to the people’s wishes. If residents of Citrus County in Florida don’t want to subscribe to The New York Times on-line, then surely that’s just fine. The implication that they therefore regard our current president as more “truthful” than The New York Times says, I fear, more about their gullibility than it does about their powers of judgement, but nobody can force them to spend the $2,700 to have the paper digitally accessible in their library. (They do have a print subscription though for the few intrepid liberals in the area.) The Guardian, which I’m sure doesn’t have a whole lot of readers in Citrus County either, brings us the story (linked to via BookRiot).

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County

For those, like me, unfamiliar with Citrus County, its largest community is Homosassa Springs and its county seat, Inverness is about 70 miles north of Tampa. Citrus County had a population of 141,236 at the 2010 census, and has voted around ⅔ Republican in national elections since 2000.

Quad HQ in Sussex, WI

So not only is Quad Graphics, because of anti-trust concerns, not going to take over LSC, the book part of R. R. Donnelley, they are now quitting the book business altogether, as Book Business Insight reports. Facing depressing overall results, they want to sell their book manufacturing business which generates about $200 million a year. This consists of the old World Color assets (previously Quebecor) and involves three large plants:

  • The Versailles, Ky., plant employs approximately 700 employees. The 1 million-sq.-ft. facility specializes in educational textbooks and trade books.
  • Quad’s 370,000-sq.-ft. Fairfield, Pa., facility employs approximately 300 people and specializes in trade books.
  • Its Martinsburg, W. Va. (Baker Road) plant produces trade and mass-market books. The 380,000-sq.ft. facility employs roughly 350 workers. Quad operates two manufacturing facilities in Martinsburg. The company’s other facility (located on Caperton Boulevard) primarily prints magazines, catalogs, and retail advertising inserts, and is not impacted by the decision to sell its book business.

This is a large chunk of book manufacturing capacity, and while one can assume any buyer will want to make efficiencies, we can perhaps hope that there will not be mass layoffs or capacity reduction.

The book manufacturing business is going through changes. I do think the fears of a few years back that ebooks were killing off the printed book have dissipated, but we are living through an effort to right-size the industry. While much book work continues to move towards longer and longer runs, most books are actually being printed in ever smaller runs. Bestsellers are printing more and more; regular books fewer and fewer. In crude terms the shorter runs favor digital printing, while the longer runs of bestsellers still support the use of large web offset presses. Book manufacturing, in contrast with book publishing, is a capital intensive business. Investment is always needed in new equipment: you are perpetually tempted to keep on using your already amortized machinery, twisting and turning to avoid new capital outlays by operating equipment at less than optimal levels. But ultimately the bullet has to be bitten. So you have to make the call: more digital or bigger offset. With machinery costing so much, mistakes are expensive. Be it noted that the random imposition of tariffs here and there doesn’t help in planning.

I think we should resist the temptation to over-interpret the news of this and other changes in the book manufacturing business. Sure plants have closed, but every case is bound to be different: there are all sorts of ways to go out of business. I don’t think these changes signal the beginning of the end of the book manufacturing business. There is no doubt a good deal of turmoil, and the ways book manufacturers used to know they could make money are no longer exactly applicable to modern market conditions. Adjustment is what’s going on, not armageddon.

To end on a more positive note, recall that Worzalla recently announced a $12.5 million expansion and is looking to hire 50 people. Book Business Magazine reported the news last month.

The New York Times has a piece, linked to via LitHub, entitled Want to write a cookbook? Don’t count the money just yet.

The article is focussed primarily on how poorly publishers are paying cookbook authors. The article quotes a couple of outraged writers: “‘This is all so unbelievable,’ one Twitter user replied. ‘No money is a joke. Who would do this for nothing!?’ Another wrote, ‘As a hopeful book-writer, I had to stop reading this tweet because it made me sick to my stomach.’”

Well, outraged writers — not being paid an advance against royalties is not the same thing as being asked to do a book “for nothing”. A 10% royalty, even a 5% royalty is not nothing. Without an advance, it’s true that you won’t be getting paid your royalties until later on, after the sales of the book have already taken place. Surely any “hopeful book-writer” must be aware that that’s generally how authors get paid. It really doesn’t help your argument to chum the waters with irrelevancy like this.

And there is of course an argument to be had about whether a cookbook writer should be better paid: specifically whether they should be given an advance against royalties. One would like to believe that all recipes had been thoroughly tested in a kitchen quite similar to one’s own, and of course they almost always have been, though recipes from chefs will no doubt have been tested in a professional kitchen. But it’s usually the author who’ll be doing the testing, NOT the publisher. So providing a bit of an advance to cover time and ingredients might seem a reasonable idea. Of course some authors, the more established and successful, do get an advance, but beginners, it seems are less fortunate. There are three broad categories of cookbook author, the celebrity, the restauranteur or chef, and the home cook with hopes. Even for restaurant chefs everything isn’t all plain sailing as this piece from Grub Street illustrates. However at the end of the day the selling of a cookbook manuscript is a business transaction, and if publishers are not paying much for cookbooks, that has to be because of supply and demand. Just too many home cooks want to write a cookbook, and this bids down the price. If publishers can sign up enough cookbook authors by offering miserly terms, business logic dictates that cookbook authors will get miserly terms. If publishers had to pay more, they’d either exit the business of cookbook publishing or pay more.

Given the fact that you can find how to cook anything by a quick Google or DuckDuckGo search, it is a source of surprise to me that cookbook publishing continues to flourish. “A spokesman for NPD BookScan said sales of print cookbooks grew 24 percent in 2018 over the previous year, compared with 6 percent growth in 2016.” This has to represent gift-giving doesn’t it? Nobody, surely, needs another cookbook, but they do make handsome, thoughtful gifts, showing how cultured are the lives of both giver and recipient. And they’re cheap too — compared to a meal in a restaurant run by the author of the book.

This is obviously bad news for all you proto-authors sitting at home hoping to liquidize your cooking prowess. Probably your best bet is to start a blog and ask for donations or carry advertising. People are meant to be able to do quite well at this. But surely the cookbook publishing business has moved into advanced maturity.

Publishers Weekly asks if publishing hasn’t become too top-heavy, by which they mean too dependent on an ever smaller number of huge selling books. (Link via The Passive Voice.)

One might hope that Publishers Weekly would be aware that publishing doesn’t just mean publishing by huge trade houses. To claim as they do (or as they allow their contributor Rachel Deahl to claim) that “Book publishing has long been a hits-driven business” is clearly to ignore the vast majority of book publishing. To appear to be describing John Wiley, Pearson, Springer, New Directions, New York Review Books, Harvard University Press, The American Chemical Society, etc., etc. as hits-driven businesses is patent nonsense, and not what we should look for in “the organ of the book trade”.* (Not of course that any one of these companies wouldn’t be ecstatic to have a bestseller. They just aren’t in business to generate them.)

from Publishers Weekly. The labelling of this picture is somewhat confusing. The numbers shown refer to sales ranking, not sales numbers. Thus the first line shows the top 100 sellers whose sales have increased by 23% in 2018 as compared with 2017.

If the article were only to admit it was talking about trade publishing, there’d be no problem. So, the big trade houses are being forced into larger and larger bets on a small number of potential bestselling books. What a surprise: that’s the rationale of trade publishing. One might think that upping sales by 23% was a matter for celebration not concern, even if, as one comment admits, the sales bump is largely due to there being a need for a lot of political books in this divided age. That trade houses are short of resources which they might spare on mid-list titles shouldn’t amaze. All their funds, and not unimportantly at this time, all their capacity at the printers, is being diverted onto these big bestsellers. Big trade houses have been moaning for years about their loss of mid-list. I suspect this is just so much sentimental hypocrisy: your career prospects as an editor at a trade house are unlikely to be enhanced by your constantly proposing books which may sell 5,000 copies.

Nevertheless I fear that the trade houses have actually got plenty of mid-list — it’s just unintentional mid-list — books they assumed would sell in mass quantities but tanked. Of course this is bad mid-list — you printed 50,000 and sold 7,500 — not good mid-list, a book you budgeted for 10,000 sales and of which you only printed 7,500. Lots of companies which members of the commentariat are incapable of perceiving through their Big-Five-tinted glasses, are doing books like this every day. These books may not yield big money, but they do make money, and though they cannot support a vast establishment housed in a swish mid-town skyscraper, they can support a decent business.

It’s not the mid-list that’s in trouble, it’s trade publishing.

__________________

* Geographical license. This is in fact how The Bookseller, the UK equivalent of Publishers Weekly describes itself.

The Digital Reader sends us a link to Booksby.ai, a site whose name precisely describes its product. Books written by artificial intelligence programs may not strike you as obvious Booker-winner material, but maybe we have to give them a chance before dismissing them. Because I have no intention of ordering (and reading) one of these, discretion demands that I therefore keep an open mind as to whether this is a positive development or nor.

If you check their website it all looks a bit confusing — the whole book description; text, cover, blurbs, reviews, reviewers, catalog copy etc. seems to be close to gobbledygook. The “authors” might be said to have a greater share of the artificial than of intelligence. Can we eventually hope for an element of machine learning in order to tighten things up? Suspending judgement again, perhaps all I have to say that the copy is difficult. But where they give you a button which says “Buy a printed copy from Amazon” that seems to be absolutely what happens. Hell of the Cyr, for example, does have a “Look Inside” feature at Amazon and you can sample the contents which charmingly begin with Chapter 29. A sample of the text: “‘And now, Mark,’ said Mr. Henderson, with a smell between his soul. ‘Shoot a little place to make occasion. Washington has and jewels the nights, so I want to make Everest do no time.”* Amazon, who of course live by powerful algorithm, don’t require that the copy make any sense: it could just as well be all Greek to them.

I guess Booksby.ai’s business model could work. If you have access to some sort of text generation program, you can give it parameters and let it rip, upload the results to Amazon, and sit back awaiting orders. There is some charge to get the file set up for print-on-demand production, but other than that you’re probably not looking at a huge pile of other costs. So if someone lays down $11.69 for Hell of the Cyr most of that is clear profit — after you’ve sold enough copies to amortize the POD set-up fee. I’d bet that number is greater than 10 though.

If you really are “Tired of books written by authors” this may be the place for you. Seems to me reading addicts would have to be pretty seriously addicted to need this fix.

______________________

* The Booksby.ai site tells us everything is machine generated, yet they are claiming copyright. Hell of the Cyr is labelled “Copyright © 2018 Bomander Halmond”, the alleged author, who is presumably a machine. Copyright law generally believes that there needs to be a human involved for a work to be copyrightable. Poor old Naruto the macaque was not allowed copyright in the selfie he took. There is an element of creativity involved in giving the ai software the parameters it uses to generate its text, but whether this amounts to copyrightable work remains to be tested. This piece from Plagiarism Today, forwarded by The Passive Voice, contains a discussion of the issues of copyright and artificial intelligence.

See also Copyright for robots

That I don’t hold with the honours system is of course neither here nor there — nobody’s thinking of honouring me. Shelf Awareness brings us the news that Margaret Atwood did accept the Companion of Honour honour. They link to this CBC story.

Perhaps the most exciting news here is that the royal family actually has a Twitter account. Everybody’s doing it now.

Shelf Awareness tells us “Earlier this month, Atwood was a co-winner of the Booker Prize for her novel The Testaments. She later announced that she would be donating her Booker winnings to Indspire to support education of Indigenous students.”

Ms Atwood is standing tall these days. I suppose that dais gives real meaning to the epithet “Highness”.

Library of America has just brought out a volume of Herman Melville’s poetry in this the 200th anniversary year of his birth. The volume brings together the four books of poetry published in Melville’s lifetime, his uncollected poems, and the poems from two projected volumes of poetry and prose left unfinished at his death.

We tend not think of Melville as a poet, but he clearly wrote a lot of it: the LoA volume runs to 1000 pages. LitHub a bit harshly dismisses him as a “failed poet”. But that may be putting the emphasis in the wrong place: he was an equal opportunity failure: at the time of his death he could be regarded as a failed novelist too. The only books of his that anyone remembered were Typee and Omoo, his accounts of South Sea-faring. His obituary in The New York Times described him as “absolutely forgotten”: but he did get the obituary.

That Melville was an attentive reader is evidenced by these survivals from his personal library. Hyperallergic reports on the sale of two books of translations from Greek and Latin poetry from Melville’s book collection, annotated throughout by the owner. The books are Juvenal and Persius: The Satires, and Euripides: The Tragedies, Volume III. The two volumes come from a 37-volume set, The Classical Library, published by Harper and Brothers. The sale of this set to Melville is recorded in the publisher’s archive as having taken place on 19 March 1849. The Swann Galleries website doesn’t disclose how much Melville paid for the set in 1849 but the two surviving volumes sold for a mere $106,250.

The illustrated opening from the Juvenal/Persius volume, with its reference to Marlborough and Swift tips us off to the fact that this is one of those “imitations” rather than a straight translation. What is presented here under the running head Satire X is in fact Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated”, which Harper and Brothers included as a supplement to the Juvenal translations.

Intriguingly NYR Daily, The New York Review of Books blog, informs us that as a young man Melville found work as a pinsetter at a bowling alley in Honolulu where he had gone there after deserting his whaling ship in the Marquesas. We are told that Melville was (almost certainly) a proficient performer at the game; maybe pinsetters got to practice at down times. Apparently the 1840s were boom years for bowling. “The original game of nine-pins attracted so many gamblers that it was banned. And so, according to an unverified bit of historical lore (found, for example in the 1911 Britannica), ten-pins was invented to circumvent the prohibition.” Maybe the rumbling ball and the click clack of the tumbling pins instilled poetic meter in the young Herman’s mind.

As I reported earlier, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have been conducting a survey of monograph use. The results are reported on at The Scholarly Kitchen, where there’s also a link to the principals’ own report on their research. The Foreword to the study explains its genesis in the need to resolve conflicting views of the monograph: “For many years, we’ve heard that the days of the monograph are numbered, that it is inaccessible and old-fashioned, that the world has moved on. And yet, we see ever more monographs submitted to publishers and a growing online usage of monograph materials.”

The outcome, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that monographs remain important in the humanities, less so in the sciences. It was always difficult to get scientists to write books surveying a topic. They tend to be focussed on results which get communicated in journal articles.

Wulf and Anderson conduct a to-and-fro discussion of the report, leading one of them (Anderson) to speculate whether “perhaps some monographs should be written, but should not be published, or at least not published in the traditional way.” Maybe I am just showing my ignorance, when I react to this by thinking “But isn’t this exactly what has been happening for ever?” Lots of monographs get written but not published: we call them unpublished PhD theses, and a copy of each is deposited in a library where the odd, highly-motivated researcher can track them down and consult them.

The discussants focus on the fact that fewer books are being taken out from our academic libraries: but this doesn’t have to mean that researchers are ignoring books. In the olden days in order to find out what was in a monograph you had to sit down and look through it. Now you can sample it online, and rule it out before you ever have to visit the library and look at the actual object. Doesn’t mean you’re not using the book just as much as you ever did. Doesn’t even have to mean your not using the physical copy as much: it just means you don’t end up taking off the shelves those books you don’t need to take off the shelves.

So we can assume, I guess, that in the face of this research CUP and OUP will be continuing publishing monographs. In a way of course that was never in doubt. As long as people write these things there will be a need to publish some of them. The real problem is how to make them affordable, or at least not utterly unaffordable. The number of copies of a monograph that can be sold has come crashing down. In my youth 2, or 3,000 was not unheard of. Now print runs of 2, or 300 can be met. I. really don’t think this is because “people don’t buy books any more” — I think it’s absolutely because with the subdivision of disciplines into ever more and more specialized streams, there are just fewer researchers involved in each topic, so that the audience is perforce smaller. What this means is that the retail price of the monograph has to go up: those fixed (plant) costs have to be amortized over the quantity sold, and thus price has to give. This all tends to get a bit circular: higher prices mean fewer buyers; fewer buyers mean higher prices. Still at any given time there is a sort of temporary equilibrium.

Now I’m sure Jeff Bezos likes to read books as much as the next guy, but whether he wants to remain in the book business is something I’m less confident about. I should emphasize that I am inventing this theory out of whole cloth: I have seen no indications and have no knowledge of any idea that he’s thinking of abandoning the book business. I just doubt that there’s very much thinking about the book business going on inside his head nowadays.

This picture of that head is the lead-in for The Atlantic‘s fascinating article, by Frankin Foer, about Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology·Innovation·Publishing.) Books are just there in the picture, tucked away in the occipital lobe. My belief in the likelihood of his giving up on books is based on the vast array of other businesses, much more profitable businesses, that he’s involved in. “At any moment, [Amazon’s] website has more than 600 million items for sale and more than 3 million vendors selling them. With its history of past purchases, it has collected the world’s most comprehensive catalog of consumer desire, which allows it to anticipate both individual and collective needs. With its logistics business—and its growing network of trucks and planes—it has an understanding of the flow of goods around the world.” And then there’s cloud computing, and space exploration, and groceries, and movies and television too.

Of course just because they don’t make him a fortune is no reason for Mr Bezos to abandon books, They do after all provide another avenue to ever more Prime membership dollars. Maybe his company is now so huge that it’s hard to spend the few minutes thinking about the narrow margins available on books, and consider doing anything about it. And there’s that old sentimental pull: without books the behemoth would never have gotten off the ground. And I suppose book buyers also buy sneakers. As he says of their Hollywood activities “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.” Shoes, note, not books.

Might one envisage Mr Bezos making his book business over to the book publishing community? Unlikely perhaps but when political pressure is applied on the monopoly front, much dodging and weaving can be anticipated. As Richard Hershberger comments at last week’s Ch-ch-changes? post something like the abebooks system run by Amazon might be a good way for publishers to get into on-line sales. The cost of building that infrastructure just seems prohibitive to me, even if the initiative could be mounted without illegal collusion. Could we accept it as a gift?

To us Amazon is a huge presence in the book business.* To the overlord surveying his domain books must be almost invisible.

_______________________

* And they do publishing too.

In his NB column in The Times Literary Supplement of 18 October JC riffs on the Edible Book Festival which took place in March this year. “The spirit of the event is whimsical and joyous” says Morbid Books winner of the first prize.  “The idea” JC tells us “was to come up with a visual food pun. One exhibit was a chocolate eclair broken in two: ‘The End of the Eclair’. Another was an alcoholic drink wrapped in a long twist of lime peel: ‘Ginfinite Zest’. A deep-sea diver peering at a pile of vegetables: ‘20,000 Leeks under the Sea’. Morbid’s entry was more, let us say, edgy. Picture a white dinner plate, with two noodles arranged in the form of a swastika. On a card, the title: ‘Chow Mein Kampf’.”

These and one other entry can be seen at the Morbid Books website, which also gives an account of reactions to this prize-winning pun. As JC reports, because of their edgy entry, Morbid were disinvited from an independent publishers’ fair organized by another publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe (a name which should surely prohibit them from objecting to any kind of pun) who claimed that the noodles represented “political imagery and symbolism [which] made us uncomfortable”. They felt that Morbid’s presence at their fair would have “the potential to make other stallholders and members of the public uncomfortable”. “We had to take into account the policies of our university partners who will play host to the fair.”

In some ways the biggest surprise for me in all this is not that sanctimonious publishers and academics sometimes go off the rails and try to suppress free speech which one had always imagined they were in the business of promoting, but that there are apparently lots of Edible Book Festivals all around the world. Wikipedia has a relatively sparse entry on the topic which informs us they usually take place around April 1st.

In a quaint juxtaposition, in the same TLS issue we find Jacques Testard, publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions telling us, in connection with his decision to seek out a Polish author to publish after Brexit, “I felt I had a duty as a publisher to fight against a difficult cultural climate, that we needed more Polish voices, and an insight into Polish culture in Britain.” The result: they published Flights by Nobel prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk. This admirable openness is perhaps a bit undercut by Morbid Books’ note “Fitzcarraldo Editions showed their emotional maturity when its publicist cried, ‘Holy shit’. . . ‘Seeing a swastika in a “comedy” context is not only deeply unfunny, it’s cruel and hurtful.’ Who was hurt, she does not or cannot say, because nobody was harmed in the making of this edible book pun.”

In yet another coincidental note about opinion suppression in the same issue of the TLS, we are reminded that as a result of his 2006 grave-side oratory in support of Slobodan Milosevic, Peter Handke (a Nobel winner on the same day as Ms Tokarczuk) had the award of that year’s Heine Prize revoked. The piece on Handke is sober and balanced, and suspects that he’ll probably be being read in the future, just like other laureates whose politics have been disapproved of: Hamsun, Céline, Pound.

I suppose we will get past this urge to monitor the opinions and speech of others whenever we don’t agree. I attribute it all to the existence of social media. In a world in which any opinion can be instantly “published” so too can any objection to that opinion. I expect that we’ll all calm down in a few years and learn to ignore this stuff. Give tolerance a chance.