But ik am oold, me list not pley for age,
Gras tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage;
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers 
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers, 
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree. 
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten kan we nat be rype;
We hoppen alwey whil the world wol pype.

Here, in the Prologue to The Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer rhymes open-ers (the medlar) with worse, Think of that name for the Irish or Scottish Gaelic language, Erse. Well, maybe you need to be from Scotland to get the full flavor of this fruit’s name, since that is indeed how we pronounce “ass”, anglice “arse”.

BBC Future has an extensive story about the medlar, formerly given that purgative moniker.

As Will Bonsall tells us at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, the medlar “is a typical pome, with an apple-like core containing five or more hard seeds, each about the size of a large corn kernel. With large and persistent sepals, it reminds me of a rosehip crossed with a crab apple.”

The fruit, which needs to rot before it can be enjoyed, has fallen out of favor: it’s a tough sell for a supermarket or a fruiterer to say “Don’t eat these till they are rotten”. The word used for this rotting process, to blet was imported in 1835 from the French where blet, slightly disappointingly, means simply over-ripe. General opinion, including the Oxford English Dictionary, seems to be that the name originates in the physical shape of the fruit. This looks rather unlikely to my common-sensical eye. I’d bet the fruit’s naming relates to the fact that if you eat it before it is properly rotted you’ll get violent diarrhoea. On the other hand, the OED does give as one seventeenth-century slang meaning for the medlar “The female genitals. Also: a prostitute; a disreputable woman.” Shakespeare is quoted twice. So there’s one in the common-sensical eye for me. I guess demand for euphemisms is well established.

The medlar has been used as a metaphor for the transience of beauty, in a sort of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” sort of way: Women are like medlars, no sooner ripe but rotten”, writes Thomas Dekker in The Honest Whore. Chaucer’s reeve has it the other way — old men are no use until they are rotten, by which time it’s no doubt too late.

I can’t think why medlar is a word I know. Maybe it’s because the Government encouraged us during World War II to go out and forage for medlars. The tree is grown in English gardens for its seasonally changing colors. I would like to try a medlar, despite the alleged opinion of some medieval writer that “the medlar is not . . . worth a turd until it’s ripe, and then it tastes like shit”.

The Passive Voice is written by a lawyer, so advice about contracts is right in his wheelhouse. Here’s Part 1 of “The Nine Worst Features in Your Publishing Contract”, dealing with the life of the contract, and Part 2 about sales performance standards. There may be future installments — he says his revisit will focus on the most toxic contract provisions, and here he’s dealt with but two.

Do bear in mind that if you care — if you are seriously thinking about making money off your writing — you have to have a lawyer look at your contract before you sign it. But of course bear in mind that lawyers exist to find things wrong in such situations, and you may get into a bit of a tangle which might result in trivial benefit to you, but lots of bad feelings on the other side of the table.

For myself, I wouldn’t be too concerned about lots of the legal things The Passive Voice routinely worries about, but then I’m not someone whose job description would ever be author. (And in my experience the publisher was fundamentally “on the author’s side”.) The contract lasts for the life of the copyright (which as we know is a long time)? So what? If the book’s not selling the copyright is virtually valueless anyway, and almost any publisher will be happy to revert the rights to you. You just need to ask. In my own case I didn’t even have to ask — they as good as said here it is, take it, we don’t need it anymore. (Nor of course did I.) Still, if you are writing a Hunt for Red October, and want to make bigger and bigger bucks off the movie franchise and novel sequels, then caution about being legally assured of being able to get your rights back might be a good idea. If your book is likely to be worth next to nothing in say ten years, then nobody loses anything by such a clause. If on the other hand if the book is still worth lots of money in ten years, the main loser, if no such clause exists, is likely to be you. A book like Hunt for Red October was no doubt worth a good deal more ten years after first publication than it was back in the early days. If your work might follow such a trajectory — caveat scriptor.

The Passive Voice‘s advice that you insist on a clause stating an end date for the contract might well be worth following. Many contracts do have a reversion clause specifying that once the book goes “out of print”, rights can revert to the author.  But now that we have invented POD, a publisher can keep a book “in print” for ever. This is great for many academic books — demand was small anyway and now it can keep on being filled even though there are no books sitting in the warehouse. But the further we get from the academic monograph, the more thought the author might need to give to this situation.

LitHub links to this Washington Post story about how independent bookstores have fared during the pandemic. Overall the answer has to be better than feared, I think. US bookstore sales were down about a third over the year before. The threat however isn’t just the loss of a third of your sales — the bigger risk is that customers may have become accustomed to getting their books by other means. We all could assume Amazon would prosper in such a world, but who’d have forecast that Target and Walmart would have become major book outlets?

Kerbside pickup, mailing books to buyers, and other dodges helped to preserve a significant portion of the market. After reopening things seem to be looking up a bit. James Daunt gave an upbeat report on Barnes & Noble’s progress at the IPBA conference: Publishers Weekly has the story. Of course it was only a week ago, on April 12th, that British bookshops were allowed to reopen at all — who knows what shaking out there may yet be? Early reactions are not discouraging.

One thing publishers have noticed (and remember that many/most publishers did rather well in 2020) is that sales of new books suffered while older books, backlist, picked up hugely. For example Amazon’s bestselling book for 2020 was a novel published in 2018: Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. Wannabe blockbuster books which were published in 2020 have no doubt missed their chance. The New York Times writes about the phenomenon and attributes the backlist surge to readers seeking the solace of the familiar. My bet is that this reliance on the old familiar had more to do with Amazon’s recommendation system — those messages where if you look for X they’ll tell you that people who liked X also loved Y. To get into this virtuous cycle of recommendation and counter-recommendation you have to sell a lot of copies. In a world where older books are the ones with the sales, it becomes harder and harder for a new book to break into this back-scratching circle. Maybe in this thought lies some encouragement for the bricks-and-mortar bookstore: in order to launch a moonshot we need lots of people to buy lots of copies in lots of bookstore outlets.

Are we all getting more scam calls during the pandemic, or is it that while we are sitting at home all the time it just feels like we are getting more of them? One of the craziest ones is the person who introduces himself as Jason from Amazon customer service and tells me that my order for something worth $576.85 has just gone to shipping. Wouldn’t anyone who’s dealing with Amazon just look at their order history rather than give Jace their credit card number in order to cancel the shipment? I guess you only have to hook one or two, and optimism is obviously a prerequisite of working this beat. I now recognize the voice of my trouble-prone “grandson” who calls periodically to ask for help to get out of this or that bind.

I never thought of pretending to be the winner of a literary prize and sending an email to collect the prize money! This has however apparently happened to the organizers of the Folio Prize. Publishers Lunch of 14 April alerts us to the news: “UK literary prizes report incidents of scammers trying to claim award money. In one case, the Folio Prize admits to having paid £30,000 via PayPal to someone posing as the actual winner, Valeria Luiselli. Executive director Minna Fry tells the Bookseller, ‘The lost funds were absorbed by cost savings elsewhere within the charity’,* and Luiselli received her full award. Other UK prizes report to the magazine fending off similar malicious attempts. The Baillie Gifford Prize, The Forward Prizes for Poetry, and the Society of Authors were all asked by suspicious emails to send prize money through PayPal.”

So I guess seekers of literary fame and fortune will now just got to buckle down and write a good book.


*One wonders if that corresponds to the annual salary of the person who carried the can!

The 24th of April fast approaches. Get out and celebrate by buying lots of books. More details can be found at IndieBound’s website.

For the competitive, from April 17th till April 24th, Independent Bookstore Day will choose a random winner from posts about your local independent bookstore on Instagram, or Twitter. Include #BookstoreShoutOut and/or #IndieBookstoreDay. “Winners will receive an Independent Bookstores of the Unites States map from Pop-Chart, a 2021 IBD tote bag, and credit for free audiobooks courtesy of Libro.fm.”

LitHub has published a piece by Robert Frank entitled On the Behavioral Economy of the Book World, originally published in The Author.

Mr Frank’s focus on the ebook is perhaps understandable. Of course it is possible that the physical book will disappear and all books become digital objects. Personally I doubt this, but I have to recognize that I won’t be around to find out the final verdict — because I do think that printed books will continue to be sold for the rest of my life. The proportion of print to digital sales seems settled at around 80%:20% even in the face of the pandemic, and any impending big change in the ratio would seem to me to have demanded an increase in the ebook proportion over recent years.

Now in a world consisting only of tradey ebooks Mr Frank’s analysis makes some sense. The article starts with an analysis of what makes a bestseller — the answer is “the winner-take-all-market” something about which Mr Frank has published a book, and actually just seems but one analytical layer away from the usual explanation of success in publishing, which is — pure luck.

Mr Frank, a “senior special writer” at The Wall Street Journal, where he writes a weekly column and daily blog called “The Wealth Report”, goes into a riff on economic theory. “In the markets described in economics textbooks, producers expand output until the additional cost of the last unit produced is equal to what the last buyer is willing to pay for it. . . . That description doesn’t apply at all to publishing in the digital age. Once a text has been created, the marginal cost of distributing it to an additional reader is essentially zero. To allocate it efficiently, its price should therefore also be zero. But although the marginal cost of distributing existing text is zero, there are likely to have been substantial fixed costs of producing that text in the first place. And since a commercial publisher’s first goal is to remain solvent, books and other texts cannot be given away.” He then alludes to the economist-style belief that competition among publishers of similar ebooks might/should bring down prices. Even now, fourteen years after the introduction of the Kindle, there are vanishingly few (if any) books from traditional publishers which are available only as ebooks, and thus all this discussion ignores the existence of the vast majority of a publisher’s stock-in-trade, the printed book. Further trouble with this anaylsis (leaving aside one’s dyspeptic views on economic theory’s inability to describe anything not equally theoretical) is that books are not commodities — every book is unique, so price cutting ends up being the business equivalent of self-cutting. Sure, maybe such price-lowering effects might theoretically begin to be seen in genre publishing, the nearest books get to commodity status, and that this is indeed the case might be a large part of the explanation of why self-published ebooks are less expensive than ebooks from traditional publishers.

Mr Frank speculates that books are being pushed towards a subscription pricing model. You get into these sorts of waters by a category mistake over what publishing is. Now one might perfectly logically argue that the genre fiction market is ripe for a switch-over to subscriptions, but beware of overlooking the vast majority of books published: all those non-genre-fiction volumes. Subscription pricing can, and has for years worked in its book club manifestation, but this can really only happen at the trade end of the business. Can you really imagine an individual signing up with say Cambridge University Press to receive a copy of every book they publish in linguistics? Lots of libraries do still do this sort of thing, (we call them standing order plans) but individuals are unlikely to want everything — unless, to complete the circle, everything is of a consistent quality such as say romance novels. Perhaps Mr Frank envisages a subscription of the sort that would allow you to select any six books a year: nice, but in what meaningful way is this better than the status quo where you notice one at a time the six books in your academic subject area which you want when they are announced or reviewed, and respond by going out and buying them individually?

Let us bear in mind the rather important fact that not all publishing is trade publishing, and that not all trade publishing is genre publishing: in all respects except for media attention the branches of publishing Mr Frank focusses on are minority pursuits: many more books are published that are not trade books than those that are. And consider that not all books are written in order to make money for their authors. The poet in the garret may be a cliché, but it’s not a fantasy. Many (most?) books are written for reasons having nothing to do with bank accounts. I dare say the authors of Leucocyte Typing VII had no expectation of earning actual money when they wrote their contributions. Of course every now and then an academic author will find their book selling well, and as academic books tend to be quite expensive, the royalty income they realize may be larger than you might think — after all 10% of a lot is more than 10% of a little — but by and large the academic who goes in for book making in order to become rich is a disappointed academic. The winner-take-all economy may have some application in this market, but winning will be measured in reputation, maybe tenure, but not bucks.

We recently received a booklet from Sephora which includes thirteen transparent, Band-Aid-shaped labels with a strip of a tacky (no value judgement in this usage) perfume sample under them. Peel back the label and the scents are released. I wondered who printed this, and how.

No way to be sure, but Sixth Scents is a New York company offering a variety of methods of getting scent samples to your customers. The first method, ClearBurst, looks like the one Sephora used. As Sixth Scents puts it “ClearBurst labels are a patented, scent sampling device that delivers encapsulated oils held between two layers of film substrate. When the consumer peels back the top ply, it ruptures the microcapsules delivering an accurate rendition of your scent. ClearBurst labels can be sampled multiple times as the encapsulation heals itself when the ply is resealed. Unopened, the scent has a shelf life of at least one year. There is no pre-scent until the label is opened.” The system seems to be working fine, but there’s a fading risk in something, like a book, which would have a longer shelf life than an advertising piece. In fact after week, some of the Sephora perfume samples have become rather faint. Presumably the perfume sample is printed like a spot varnish. I wonder how hard it is to mix the perfume-carrying “ink”.

The most familiar smell-printing technique is no doubt scratch-and-sniff, where scent particles are carried in a varnish printed onto the page. Scratching releases the scent — which obviously will wear out over time. As far as I am aware this never caught on in a big way for book work, though there are of course quite a few children’s books which have used scratch-and-sniff technology. The sense of smell is a much more powerful sense than we acknowledge. It was “our” first sense, and perhaps for that reason, operates almost entirely autonomously. As a consequence we have never managed/bothered to develop a vocabulary specifying this or that smell: we describe smells almost entirely by simile. Maybe our devaluing of smell-data is what explains our/my reaction to the idea that such smell patches might have a place in a novel. Years ago people spoke about “smell-o-rama” in cinemas. Apparently it was only used once for a 1960 movie called Scent of Mystery. There’s a surprisingly full and informative entry about Smell-O-Vision at Wikipedia. As far as I’m aware nobody has proposed such a thing for adult book use. Is this an innovation just waiting to happen?

The Digital Reader thinks this guy is complaining too much.

I agree, but for a slightly different reason. What the aggrieved author, James Mayhew, an apparently prolific children’s book author in Britain, is claiming isn’t quite fair. Some publishing contracts will pay a royalty based upon the retail price, but most allow for a royalty as a percentage of net receipts. If your contract says you’ll get say 10% of the receipts for your book, then clearly if the book is sold (by the publisher, true) at a heavily discounted price, you’ll be getting less than if they gave away less discount. But most contracts also contain a clause saying that no royalty or a reduced royalty will be paid on sales made at greater than x% discount — so on really cheap deals like hurts or remainders, not to mention freebies like review copies the author won’t be getting any royalty.

But this, I think, isn’t as monstrous as it might appear at first sight. A royalty isn’t payable until a book is sold (and effectively of course also for several months thereafter) but the number of books sold will always be different from the number of books printed. Publishers, being of necessity optimists, will always tend to think all their ducklings are going to turn into swans, in other words that their books will do better than they in fact do, and will therefore tend to print more than they really ought. So, is the author being deprived of royalties on those 9,065 books stuck in the warehouse without any one ordering them for months/years? Sure if the books sold the author would get 9,065 times the normal royalty payment — but they are never going to sell. The publisher needs to liberate the capital tied up in these 9,065 dead volumes, and also stop paying for storing them: from their perspective almost any sale is better than no sale! Not sure how this qualifies as deprivation of income.

The question may be said to get a bit murkier when the publisher arranges for a special sale of the book. In such an event a special edition may be printed for a retailer or other business which is sold at a unit cost enabling the retailer to offer it exclusively at an attractive price. The customer takes all the books printed — there can be no question of returns as the books don’t look anything like the publisher’s edition. Waterstones’ Christmas book is an example of this sort of publishing, though many larger deals are done. Such bulk special sales will be covered by a clause in the contract other than the royalty clause. If there’s not a clause spelling out how such an edition can be printed and sold, then there can effectively be no such edition. The publisher really needs authorization to do it. (A bulk sale of the regular edition will be covered by the royalty clause in the contract, as “sales at less than x% discount.) So whatever the resulting remuneration to the author might be, it’s not much good complaining about a special edition sale after the event: the time for vigilance was at the moment the contract was signed — which was of course the burden of yesterday’s post.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells a cautionary tale of family greed and contractual casualness, all resulting from a novel that almost never saw the light of day. This she labels Part 1 — it’s Part 1 of a 3-part examination of licensing books for television or film. Because, novelist that she is, Ms Rusch adds some suspense by disguising the identity of the book she’s discussing until later in her piece, I will allow you the same discovery process by delaying my response for a few minutes. So don’t read my next paragraph yet: click on the link to her Part I above, and return after reading it. And don’t click on the internal links in her story — that’ll risk giving the game away prematurely.

. . .

. . .

Ms Rusch scolds us: “I know that Clancy’s New York publishers made a boatload more money than Clancy ever did. That’s due to traditional publishing contracts. The traditional publisher makes 80-90% on the book; the writer makes 10-20%. The movie studios made a boatload more than the publishers did. And other studios are poised to make even more money.” No doubt Ms Rusch’s assertion about maritime cargo is absolutely true, movie-makers’ boatloads are bigger than publishers’ boatloads which are bigger than authors’ boatloads.* But what it ignores in its best case analysis, is that Putnam’s larger percentage carries all the costs and all the risk of the book’s publishing, while the author’s percentage is guaranteed (if the book sells). Same goes for the movie makers too. Furthermore Putnam publishes more than one book, and they will have lost “boatloads more money” on a bunch of projects we never hear about. If they didn’t make out on one or two books, they’d go out of business.

Now I’m not crying out for sympathy for publishers who make bad bets, but I do think that the implication that this breakdown is somehow “wrong” is the problem with this sort of writing. I’m not sure where Ms Rusch is getting her information about publishing finances, beyond the jejune assumption that all the revenues apart from royalty represent income. The assertion that the traditional publisher makes 80-90% on their books is impossible to bring into alignment with any kind of reality. For starters the publisher gives the bookseller something around 50%, and has to pay something to get the book printed. You might as well complain that the printer only makes 5% while the publisher makes 95%. Once the book has become a bestseller the origination costs become pretty irrelevant having been amortized by the previous sales, and the publisher starts to make money. That’s the conventional reward for risk-taking. And of course when the publisher starts making money so too does the author.

Ms Rusch refers to Tom Clancy as a “Big Name author” in her Part 2, but of course he was a little name, even a no name author, at the time he signed that contract with Naval Institute Press. He may have had a bit of a Name in the insurance sales world, but an unknown author is, surprise, surprise, and unknown author. (By the way, Naval Institute Press doesn’t/didn’t habitually send copies of their books to the White House. Blind luck caused that copy to be sent along and then picked up by the president. If only publishers knew how to make blind luck work for them on a regular basis!)

It took the Naval Institute Press quite a few years to get over the effects of this utterly exceptional success. The book had actually already sold about 20,000 copies (a huge number for a university-press-type publisher) before Reagan implied that he was actually reading a book by picking it up and waving it at reporters as he left the White House for a vacation. This presidential endorsement caused sales to take off. Huge sums of money flowed in to a publishing organization unaccustomed to such a phenomenon. The temptation for managers to think that such success actually has something do with their actions, and the feeling that greater participation in the financial rewards might be nice, are almost impossible to resist. I’ve pointed out before that publishers should deal with printers of like size — so too should they deal with books of like size: a smaller publisher needs non-bestsellers. The trouble here was that though they started off with a like-sized author, the book exploded into a wild success; a success of the sort that even a medium-sized trade house might have struggled to control.

Of course authors really should read, study and think about their contracts before signing them, but if you don’t care too much about money, flying blind may not be very problematic, particularly if, like most books, your’s doesn’t make much impact. The problem here is that someone who didn’t care about money at the outset quickly turned into someone who did care quite a lot, and the head of a family who also cared a lot once they became used to the gravy-train that the book and its sequels turned into. Now everyone is suing everyone else. The way everyone wants to be the only one to enjoy all of it has resulted in the Bleak-House-like consequence that nobody’s able to enjoy any of the money.

Moral: I guess — however hard it may be on your innate modesty, you, author, should always review the contract you sign with your publisher working on the assumption that the book will turn into the wildest of wild successes. The hard part may be avoiding internalizing that assumption, and thus courting devastation when the dumb-born book doesn’t make any bestseller lists.

Not that it has much to do with this cautionary tale, but for the sake of completeness, here’s a link to Ms Rusch’s Part 3. This represents an interesting discussion of the pitfalls of writing the screenplay adaptation for your own (or perhaps any) book. I suppose it’s possible that she’ll eventually do another Part or two, but for those you’re on your own!


*Movie makers’ accounting departments are, unsurprisingly, larger than publishers’ and are more skilled at being able to account for all their projects as making a loss. Thus the last money the publisher (and therefore the author) is likely to receive from the studio is the advance they get up front. A clause claiming you’ll get more when the film starts making profits refers to a moment which such accountants are expert at postponing indefinitely.

“Booksellers Against Trick Spines” was originally an April Fool’s gag, but the problem of trick spines might have some basis in reality. A trick spine is the name someone has given to book spines which don’t look anything like the front cover of the book. Brilliant Books gives a few examples. Some of these spines are indeed starkly different from the front cover art: One Long River Song has a yellow spine but hardly any yellow on the blue front; The Body Keeps Score ditto, with orange instead of yellow. One can see how this might make a spine-out book difficult to locate on the shelf: the memory of the book you have internalized is the front cover.

Well of course this is by no means cause for major concern, but I do think “good” design would tend to call for some relationship between the various panels making up a cover. After all a good design should stick in the mind, and become integrated with the overall idea of the book in question, facilitating picking it out in a crowd. Given that in most bookstore crowds the only bit of the book that’s going to be seen is the spine, that should argue for a bit of primacy being given to that portion of the design. And I don’t mean by this those annoying little boxed duplicates of the illustration on the front cover which became such a fashionable trick a few years back. I think the design of the whole cover should be one integrated whole.

The original joke, picked up in a Shelf Awareness update on recent April 1 “initiatives”, includes this logo for the supposed organization dedicated to countering the plague.

While booksellers driven batty by this problem might solve the issue by training and alphabetical ordering, perhaps we should also bear in mind the needs of the home library user with the seeker desperately trying to locate that blue cover while all that’s exposed to view is a yellow or orange strip. Almost makes you want to settle for a boring alphabetical arrangement for your books. I keep mine in serendipity-inducing randomness — constant inspection is needed to keep fixed in your mind where any individual book is to be found.

Might the trick spine be a problem, real or imaginary, which finds its origins in the increasing importance of online bookselling? All the design attention nowadays gets focussed on the need for a striking front cover, one which will be readily identifiable when reduced to the thumbnail size we are likely to encounter online, so that the spine and the back cover almost become afterthoughts.