Here’s an Atlas Obscura video about Book Town Hay-on-Wye.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

I did a couple of posts about book towns a while back. Anyone interested can find them via the index.

“Every man his own printer” J. R. Holcomb & Co. of Mallet Creek, Ohio boasts. You can, with care and attention, read in the ad their description of how transfer process worked. (Does their drawing feature one or two gentlemen?)

Hectographic printing is a process involving the transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad, and thence to paper. We’ve all got a digital printer/copier sitting under our desks nowadays, or have access to a Xerox machine in the office, so such finicky duplication techniques are no longer necessary. Does anyone still use carbon paper either? Carbon paper was good for one or at a pinch two copies: if you wanted more — hectograph to the rescue?

The process was also called jellygraph, and under this name is alluded to by P. G. Wodehouse in The Pothunters (1902). His characters use the process to print a school newspaper. “This jelly business makes one beastly sticky. I think we’ll keep to print in future” they opine. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) George Orwell refers to a socialist paper produced on a jellygraph. Obviously the duplication technique was quite familiar to readers a hundred years ago. I’m not aware of ever having heard of jellygraph when I was growing up. Maybe none of my living kin had worked in an office (which perhaps strangely seems to have been true) or the small town in which I lived found no need for duplication of documents, but even when the Xerox machine was introduced I don’t recall anyone saying “Thank goodness. We won’t have to use that damn jellygraph any more”. That would only have been in the early sixties, before I became an office-worker myself though. I do however remember the mimeograph in it’s purple pride.

To operate the hectograph, you would use a special aniline ink to write your message, or to draw your picture onto a sheet of paper which you’d then lay on the gelatin pad which would take up the inky image, now reversed. The inks could come in the form of pencils or pens, as a type of carbon paper, or even as a typewriter ribbon. Various colors were available but most popular was purple, allegedly because it gave the best contrast, though it was the color of the first aniline dye invented, so may have been the default choice. After the image had been transferred from your master sheet to the gelatin, you’d place a blank sheet of paper onto it, apply gentle pressure, and a reproduction of the original would be transferred to that paper, now once again right-reading. Twenty or so copies could be made, though careful use could get up to 50 or more progressively paler and paler impressions before the ink on the gelatin pad was exhausted. Ironically the name hectograph originated with the Greek hekaton, meaning a hundred, but this was clearly an act of aspirational nomenclature. It was tricky to avoid touching the gelatin while putting sheets of paper onto it which would damage the surface and potentially the image. Sticky fingers were as Wodehouse tells us an occupational hazard.

The hectograph/Hektograf process was invented possibly in Germany in the 1870s, though aniline dyes were first developed by William Perkin in England in 1856. (Allegedly he found “mauveine” by accident while trying to discover a cure for malaria.) The one-page system marketed by Holcombs was soon upgraded by the introduction of the Schapirograph which operated from a continuous roll of paper coated with gelatin, glue and glycerin. This improvement was introduced about 1880 and continued to be marketed till the early 1920s. As their ad tells us the Schapirograph claimed to be able to make 150 copies in only a few minutes. Also simple enough to be operated by a child!

It’s reassuring that almost any old technology seems to be revived these days by hobbyists. Almost inevitably the hectograph has recently been revived and updated for use in the art world. Wikipedia discloses to us that temporary tattoos are actually hectographs.

Interesting to note that Holcombs spell facsimile as two words hyphenated. In fact the term originally began life as two words, unhyphenated. It began to pick up the hyphen around the start of the nineteenth century, and became one word around the turn of the twentieth century. Wikipedia tells us that the Holcomb advertisement dates from the nineteenth century — the online consensus seems to be that it dates from 1876, though I can’t find any real evidence for this: $4.50 for a pad of letter size masters may help date the ad.

 

There follows the complete text of A. C. Grayling’s essay “Reading” from his book Meditations for the Humanist.

Reading

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!   THOREAU

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medications to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred to a bibliotherapist — yes: bibliotherapist — who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them laugh or by distracting them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask, What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one of the chief resources of life? Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalisation of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability of people to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should rather be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance — very easy to give, it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian,’ which is excellent advice) — on how to find any required book or kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if the reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, and entertainment leaving no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for anything more, reading has to be an activity, not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world a little differently as a result. ‘We find little in a book but what we put there,’ Joseph Joubert said. ‘But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.’

Reading does not automatically make people wiser or better. When it has that effect it is because readers have done the work themselves, quarrying the materials from their response to the printed page. But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor, scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivate others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, and even to sympathise with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behaviour towards others, it is also the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in the Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled up with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall. The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed at comfortable intervals, among them an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

The scene is wonderfully expressive of everything to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavours — even the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the keys thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary for books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling-point for the postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

Philosophical Hall, Strahof Library (clearly not Professor Grayling’s photograph)   © 2011 David Coleman

·   ·   ·   •  •  •   ·   ·   ·

A library is like a hive storing honey, part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Vergil’s Georgics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time — gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archaeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey over 2,000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that there was something at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action speaks of great wealth, and great love.

The honey story is of course a good one, but its connection with reading is a bit tenuous. The library as a sticky series of honey pots? Maybe we can think of the ideas in books sticking to their readers — in order to remember you have to read actively, as Professor Grayling says. But the activity doesn’t end when you close the book; you also have to reflect on what you’ve read after the event — licking your sticky fingers? Memories are formed by periodic reexamination of an event, an exercise which reinforces the synaptic pathways in the brain, thus foregrounding that particular item.

One might nigglingly object that “exudate” is an overly fancy word to describe either honey or books. It’s also an inaccurate term in both contexts. Nevertheless Professor Grayling writes well and clearly. His latest book, The History of Philosophy (Penguin Press, November 2019) is an inspiring eagle-flight over the world’s philosophies. My philosophy-student granddaughter reports that it is a rich quarry.

For a rational, liberal, secular-humanist like me Professor Grayling’s heart is in the right place — right (or really left) on his sleeve. “Faith”, one of his brief chapters, includes this rousing sentence “Religious belief, meanwhile, whatever it might do in comforting the fearful in the dark, has always and everywhere brought war, intolerance and persecution with it, and has distorted human nature into false and artificial shapes.” I find myself growing more and more intolerant of intolerance.

“Reading” is reprinted without any permission at all: let’s just say that it’s for criticism and review!

I did a piece on bibliotherapy a few years ago.

We continue to hurtle down Open Access Avenue, determined to make the results of scholarly research available free of charge. Maybe I’m just an old dinosaur, but am I alone in marveling at the twist we’ve managed to get our knickers into with this OA business? We started out with the wonderful idea that access to government-sponsored research should be made available free of charge. Then, we slowed down and thought about things; which made us have to accept the fact that yes indeed there are costs involved in publishing a journal article. No problem: let’s just get additional funding from grant-giving bodies so that the authors can cover these costs. Unfortunately it ends up not being that straightforward. Here’s a discussion at The Scholarly Kitchen about payments for peer reviewing articles and payments for publication: the two unavoidable cost elements in scholarly publication. The problem being of course that paying to have your article assessed feels fine up till the moment the decision is made to reject it.

Tim Vines is proposing a middle way: “An alternative is to give authors a choice of how they pay for their article:

  1. Pay a submission fee to cover peer review, with an additional publication fee if their article is accepted, or
  2. Submit for free, but pay a (much higher) APC if their article is accepted.”

My problem here is with the absence of the 3rd choice — the old-fashioned one of free submission and free publication, with a nasty publisher selling the journal to subscribers (and of course making obscene profits by so doing). Undeniably there is a strong argument to be made that research paid for out of public funds (and research not paid for out of public funds, but conducted by academics who are paid out of public funds) ought to be available free of charge to the taxpayers who paid to create it. I annoyed bosses for years by pointing this out as a potential problem. But . . .

Might it not be that an imperfect system (which I acknowledge that profits at the level being made by Elsevier etc. suggest that we do indeed have) is no worse than any alternative? I suspect that most people are not too upset about the profit levels on journals coming from a university press or a scientific society: it’s the big independent traditional publishers that objections focus on. Parenthetically we might factor into the discussion the glaring differences between scientific research and publication in the humanities — not too many government bodies are providing funding for research into close readings of “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird”, yet humanities journals are in danger of getting caught up in the Open Access flood too.

Journal publishers have found it worth their while to go along with Open Access: after all what does it matter whether you get your money by selling subscriptions or by collecting Article Processing Charges, just as long as you get your money. Well, I guess it really does matter in that you can no doubt make more profit off subscriptions than off APCs, but some’s better than none, and no publisher would wish to stand too publicly against the tide of opinion in favor of free access to state-sponsored science.

But rather than pushing for free journals, how about some way of limiting the amount of profit that can be made off a journal which is publishing publicly-financed material? No idea what this might be, and of course I do realize that any Congress is likely to resist legislation restricting the hallowed power of the free market. It’s often/usually a mistake to think that the way to solve a problem is to invent a new system: I think it’s almost always more efficient to amend the current system than to come up with a whole new way of doing things. Would it not be possible for the publishers themselves to do something about journal pricing to take account of public access? Of course the trend of government involvement in libraries is to cut, cut, cut, but some funding to offset journal costs might be justified. (This would only be a matter of redirecting the funds. If they are currently being make part of the research grant, sending them elsewhere wouldn’t amount to any increase in cost.) For publishers, even if the level of profit on journals were to be less, their existence would still be an immense benefit. You send out renewal notices around Thanksgiving and in return get a huge cash infusion for journal issues you’ll not have to provide until later in the year. That’s worth a bundle. The cash used to come in handily in time to pay royalties on our books at the end of the first quarter.

Still, it’s probably too late to go back to the status quo ante. Once you’ve passed the turning to the road less taken it’s very difficult to turn round and go back.

______________________

* It stands for Article Processing Charges.

Aquatint is a type of etching. Whereas in a regular etching process a solid layer of waxy resist is scratched with a sharp tool to expose the metal of the plate beneath so that it can be etched out in an acid bath, in aquatint the area to be bitten is covered with a powdered granular resin which is adhered to the metal plate by the application of heat. When the plate is put into the acid bath the resin particles protect the metal (printing white) while the areas between the grains are etched away and will thus form irregular pits ready to receive ink.

Here’s a close up of an aquatint coating from csun.edu. A device called a dusting box was developed in order to apply the resin in an even coating across the plate. An infinite variety of tones can be achieved in aquatint by treating different areas in acid baths of differing strengths and for different exposure times. After processing, the granular resin is removed and the plate can be touched up by scraping and burnishing. While it’s possible to make an aquatint picture just from various shaded areas, the plate will usually have some sort of outline and linear detail provided by conventional etching or by engraving. Aquatint is capable of producing smooth tones with such a fine detail that the unaided eye cannot see the grain.

The name aquatint is derived ultimately from Latin, though only thought up and applied to this intaglio process in 18th century Britain, (aqua tincta = dyed water). It was thus called because of its supposed ability to mimic a watercolor painting. Due to an idea of Jan van de Velde IV around 1650, the technique didn’t catch on commercially for a while, reaching a peak by about 1750 and lasting through to the mid-nineteenth century when it began to lose ground to photography and lithography. There are of course still artists using the process.

Here’s a detail of an aquatint from a book Picturesque Groups for the Embellishment of Landscape (9¼” x 11½”, London, 1845). The full plate shows three groups of workers and is entitled Masonry. This is the middle group. The plate was made around 1823 by W. H. Pyne, and contains six different levels of aquatint exposure as well as an etched outline. The plate-maker would first do the lightest tone (shortest duration) acid bath, then paint over these areas with resist and expose again for the second lightest tone, and so on till all was done.

Below we can see a detail of the back wheel of the cart, showing two different levels of bite. In the dark shade at the bottom you can make out needle work done after the aquatint bite in order to darken the shadow.

You can click on these images to enlarge them. Masonry comes from Richard Benson’s invaluable The Printed Picture. I recommend examining the group with the cart: this is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

It’s probably a bit perverse to regret the development of more direct routes to the printing of such amazing technical masterpieces — photography, lithography, and photo gravure — and of course hardly anyone could afford to buy a book like Picturesque Groups nowadays if we did produce it this way. But still nostalgia tugs. It seems almost impossible that such work could be produced just by humans and hunks of metal.

Golden Goose Publishing brings us the poems of Donald J. Trump, compiled from presidential tweets — literary productions which surely secure the place of our first gentleman (!) as our first poet. As the publisher describes the work:

“Combining the measured contentiousness of Thoreau, the terse poignancy of Hemingway, and the incisive social commentary of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison, Donald J. Trump has emerged as one of the leading poets of his generation. Together with contemporaries such as Rupi Kaur and Haruki Murakami, Trump has helped bring about a revolution in twenty-first-century literary expression. Considered one of the most inventive poets in a digital world, Trump masterfully uses technology and the written word to reflect and shape the hearts and minds of his culture.

His words, at times inspirational, often fractious, always display a brilliant creative mind for linguistic inventiveness. His work continues to challenge the boundaries of what language is — as well as what it is capable of. 

This collection sheds light on the depth of his creative genius as well as the breadth of his mastery of a wide range of topics and his ability to deftly communicate across the emotional spectrum. We, the collectors of this volume, humbly present this collection of works in hope that it may move you, enlighten you, inspire you, and — above all — that you will appreciate the poetical genius of our time, Donald J. Trump.”

$39 (+ freight) required to obtain your own a copy.

We owe knowledge of this important addition to our nation’s literary heritage to Book Patrol. (A search of Amazon reveals that there are a couple of other publishers who have already had the same idea.)

In a related creative adaptation of presidential tweets, we acknowledge President Supervillain (@PresVillain on Twitter) a melding of the president’s actual words into pre-exisitng comic book artwork: e.g.:

Now publishing a selection of someone’s tweets rearranged into verse form might seem to raise a question of copyright. Are Golden Goose laying themselves open to a law suit from our tippy-topmost litigator over copyright infringement? Government communications are not copyrighted, but of course many (most/all? I don’t study this) of the author’s tweets are coming from his personal account. While the consensus seems to be that tweets are not copyrightable, the opinion rests on their brevity and specific subject matter, which it seems to me might not be directly relevant here. WIPO Magazine has a short description of the situation. The trouble of course is that new technologies come up with new ways of creating content, some of which cannot of necessity be covered by copyright law, having been no more than a gleam in someone’s eye when the law was complied. A revision of copyright law will obviously address this, and lots of other, issues.

One might argue that President Supervillain gets by on the basis of parody, an exemption to the need for permission under our current copyright law. Maybe Golden Goose can argue the same. The trouble, as ever, with copyright law exemptions is that you’ll never know whether you are right or not until you’ve been sued.

We’ll take good news wherever we find it! Whether or not there used to be more bookshops in Britain (there were actually about twice as many 25 years ago) the fact that there are now seven more UK independent bookstores than last year, and that this is the third successive year of increase, has to count as good news. Publishing Perspectives brings us a story, as also does The Guardian.

So what’s the situation in the USA? Last week brought us news of the marshal’s locking up Book Culture‘s Columbus Avenue store (they have four, this one, one in Long Island City, plus the original two near Columbia University) basically because of non-payment of rent. This is a complicated story involving accusations of fund raising for disguised purposes. Gothamist has a full and frank account. Although some of Book Culture’s troubles appear to be down to mismanagement, it remains true that things do remain tight for bookstores in general. However as this Statista graph shows, numbers continue to increase.

Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. 2009-2019    Image: Statista

One hesitates to suggest that these developments might have more to do with economic recovery than with a growing love of reading. But of course it is true that 2008/2009 wrecked a widespread devastation, and the book business wasn’t exempt. Now the problems seem to be more focussed on rising rents. (Rent on the impounded Book Culture store is reportedly almost $38,000 a month — a lot of books need to be sold to cover that nut.) Like other small businesses independent bookstores are being squeezed out of city centers. Legislators of the world unite — rent control for small “essential” businesses too please.

However a small increase in the number of bookstores is better news for book people than a decrease. Steady as she goes; fingers crossed.

But does this really matter? As Mike Shatzkin tells us in his 2020 think-piece in 1990 there were probably something like 500,000 books in print, and we had a few bookstores that could stock 125,000 of them, almost a quarter of the total. People would, not unreasonably, be able to assume that there was a high probability of their locating the book they wanted at one of these large stores. (Naturally of course, they didn’t have that online alternative.) Now, he estimates we may have upwards of 15,000,000 titles available. Unsurprisingly the bookstore is probably no longer the likeliest place to find what you’re looking for! Accordingly bookshops now emphasize curation, service, local support, rather than the ability to fill all needs. The business is fundamentally changed from thirty years ago — it’s now more boutique than emporium. Prosperous times can keep boutiques afloat; let’s hope that the inevitable business downturn will not act like a hard frost on these tender shoots.

 

Russell Maret, a New York artist and designer, has had the idea of creating a new Monotype typeface, the first for 40 years. Monotype went out of business in 1992, so unsurprisingly their output of new designs for hot-metal typesetting has been somewhat interrupted. The typeface he is creating is called Hungry Dutch. (Mr Maret worked by adapting a 17th century font cut by Peter de Walpergen for Bishop Fell, and called his version Hungry Dutch: de Walpergen was Dutch, and the font was originally intended for a book called Hungry Bibliophiles.)  Mr Maret’s website provides an introduction to the development of the typeface, one feature of which is that it’s not as mechanically perfect as Stanley Morison’s Monotype updates of classic type designs tended to be. At first sight it might seem a little odd that “imperfect” alignment might be a desirable feature, but the point being made is that the possibility of perfection does not necessitate our striving to produce perfection. Psychological studies of reading are notoriously thin on the ground, and we don’t really know whether perfect alignment is a good thing or not. The fact that handwriting bobs about quite a bit might be argued to favor a slight irregularity.

The site Books on Books provides a gallery of illustrations of Hungry Dutch, one of which is shown below.

The Type Archive is at the center of this initiative. The Type Archive, housed at 100 Hackford Road, Stockwell, SW9, in a building whose floors had once been reinforced to accommodate a pair of elephants imported from India by The Daily Mirror, holds the National Typefounding Collection consisting (largely) of

  1. the typefounding materials of the Sheffield typefounders, Stephenson Blake, dating from 16th century
  2. the hot-metal archive and plant of the Monotype Corporation from 1897 onwards
  3. the woodletter pattern collection and plant of Robert DeLittle in York from 1888, and in Lambeth from 1996.

Given that The Type Archive holds so much Monotype material, and has associated with it so many experts — including Parminder Kumar Rajput, the only man left in the world qualified to operate all the Monotype machines needed to produce a typeface from scratch — it was the ideal place for the creation of a new hot metal Monotype typeface. (One hopes they are making videos of 71-year old Mr Rajput at work.) One preliminary step in the design process — transferring a drawing onto a metal pattern by means of a glass plate, wax and electrolysis — had been completely forgotten. A 3-D printing solution was invented to get round the loss.

Just when, if ever, Mr Maret expects Hungry Dutch to be completed is not clear. To some extent the exercise is a research exercise and as such doesn’t require a complete font ready for production. We always need to record old technologies. Thatching is undergoing a revival as is house construction using hand cut wooden beams. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Much of my information is gleaned from The Economist‘s Christmas special article about Hungry Dutch.

Photo: Center for the study of the public domain

Duke University School of Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain celebrates the beginning of another year of public domain conversions. So off you go, you can now start your retranslation of The Magic Mountain full of confidence that nobody’ll sue you — and you can keep humming “Rhapsody in blue” as you type no matter who overhears you.

As the Center’s website points out (see the links at the right hand side) the public domain is really valuable, but remains under threat. The threat of course comes mainly from corporations: see for example Mickey Mouse, as well as this Hyperallergic story about Getty Images suing a photographer for displaying one of her own photos on her website. She had made it, and 19,000 others of her photographs, freely available as public domain works, and the company grabbed them and started charging people for their use.* “But, because of term extensions, we’ve had to wait almost a century before copyrighted works enter the public domain (in 2020, works from 1924 are finally freely available). Under current copyright terms – life plus 70 years for natural authors, and 95 years from publication for works of corporate authorship – you’re unlikely to see any works created in your lifetime enter the public domain. This imposes great (and in many cases unnecessary) costs on creativity, on libraries and archives, on education and on scholarship. More broadly, it imposes costs on our collective culture. Even for the works that are still commercially available, the shrinking public domain increases costs to citizens and limits creative reuse. But at least those works are available. Unfortunately, much of our cultural heritage, perhaps the majority of the culture of the last 80 years, consists of the orphan works† . . . works that have no identifiable or locatable copyright holder. Though no one is benefiting from the copyright, they are nevertheless presumptively off limits.”

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain website has links to  a decade of previous years’ announcements of the works crossing the public domain finishing line.

__________________

* Now of course in a way this sort of behavior is not too different from publishers printing up copies of the Mueller Report and charging people for them. Or even selling reprints of Wuthering Heights. There’s an argument about convenience, which Getty Images might well make, though to my non-legal mind it does seem relevant that the “author” is alive, and wants the work to be available free of charge. However such sentimentality is not recognized by the law as a legal claim: Ms Highsmith’s suit was dismissed on the grounds that having signed away her copyright she had no grounds for bringing suit. Seems she has take her own picture down or pay the $120 fee. Is this really justice?

† See also Orphanage.

As Chris Meadows points out in his TeleRead post Is Macmillan justified in windowing new-release library ebooks?, lots of products are windowed. You can’t buy your own copy of a movie until it has been shown in movie theaters for months, and closer to home, the cheaper paperback edition of a book is not usually published until about a year after the hardback has come out.

So why is everyone so bent out of shape about Macmillan’s policy of restricting libraries to a single copy of their ebooks (and audiobooks, which nobody seems to bother bitching about) for the first eight weeks of their existence? Well, obviously, if you believe that people have a right to read books free of charge by borrowing them from the library, this might lead you to distress at a restriction of supply. But as far as I know there is no right to get a book from a library. Beyond the deposit requirements in copyright law, I don’t think there’s any legislation covering this. Indeed, objectors should bear in mind that far from having any obligation to provide books to libraries, publishers actually have to sit around waiting till the library places an order for their book and buys the thing. With print books the issue is utterly uncontentious. If the library has huge demand for any book, they buy another copy. With ebooks the problem is that if people could “buy” an unrestricted copy there would then be a strong potential that the publisher (thus the author) never sold another copy. The reason for this windowing of library ebooks is that the publisher hopes that some people will want to buy their own copy as soon as the initial publicity bang bursts rather than sitting on the library’s waiting list till the free copy becomes available. Surely this is not an unreasonable wish. The reaction is enough to make you think that Macmillan was poisoning pets, or bashing babies.

As Mr Meadows says “And as nice as it is to read a new-release ebook for free, nobody’s entitled to it.” All members of the commentariat of digital boosters overlook the simple fact that just because they want something this is not a sufficient reason why that something has to be provided to them. It’s almost as if they are drunk with their enthusiasm for the undoubtedly handy and convenient medium of the ebook, and look on it as so self-evidently great that they want to force everyone to feel the same way. Publishers who resist their drive towards free instantly-available ebooks are consequently criticized as greedy Luddite profit maximizers whose only motivation is to thwart the utterly reasonable wishes of all the sensible people in the world who want it now and want it free.

Mr Meadows speculates on whether concerns about piracy might lie behind Macmillan’s windowing policy. But if the first library reader of an ebook decides to post a pirated edition online, their impulse isn’t going to be affected by whether there are more library customers reading the same file. Piracy is an obvious problem with ebooks — and especially in a world where significant numbers of readers believe that they should be available free anyway. Of course it’s also a problem with print books, especially now that scanning a book can be done so cheaply. Just what publishing is going to do about this is perhaps one of the issues for this decade.

For the hundredth time: publishing is a business; businesses exist to make profits; if they are prevented from making profits businesses will cease to produce the product in question. Grow up guys: free isn’t an option. It’s never going to happen. If the odd highly benevolent self-publisher wants to make books available for nothing, fair enough — enjoy it while you can. But just accept that traditional publishers will never do this — apart from anything else, if they did they’d be sued by the authors whose property they were giving away.

In the meantime the stumbling towards an ideal system of library supply, just like terms of supply in any other distribution channel, will continue.