There’s trooble at t’ mill.* This Publishers Weekly piece Big Trouble in Ink Production warns us of scarcity added on top of price increases in ink. Green-ness and tariffi-ness are impacting supplies of materials from China. First it’s paper, then press capacity, now ink too! We manufacturing people are having to work for our supper.

Just because it’s so nice, let me refer you to this video on making ink.


* Allegedly this is what they’d say in South Yorkshire during the industrial revolution.† As I went to school in Yorkshire this was a catchphrase we often repeated to one another. Hey, we were kids. One Sunday morning on our way to chapel we saw that there was indeed trouble at the mill. Rawthey Mill, about half a mile away across the fields was indubitably on fire. Well, what’s a red-blooded schoolboy to do: one’s duty to God by turning up at chapel, or off to fire-fighting duty? Are you joking? Es war getan fast eh’ gedacht as Goethe puts it, and off we raced to save the day. The fire was in the mill proper, but our efforts focussed on the adjoining residence which, although not burning, was certainly at risk. We emptied it in a trice, taking everything outside and placing it all at a safe distance away in the open field neatly situated between the cow pats. I can remember crouching on hands and knees under the grand piano along with Balls Ballingall and straining upward while our coadjutants unscrewed the legs so we could get the thing out into the field too. We probably didn’t need to take up the fitted carpets, and we certainly didn’t need to rip the sconce lights out of the wall, but we were on a roll. Soon there was nothing left indoors to remove except the wallpaper on the walls — and we considered it! By this time the fire brigade had got the mill fire under control — so it now being lunch time we left everything in the field and went back to eat.

I was surprised when the owner expressed his intense gratitude to us eager fire-fighter boys, and presented the school with a clock which now hangs on the front of the Busk Holme rugby pavilion. I never did find out how long it took to put everything back, or who did it. Luckily it was a beautiful day.


† Not so fast. The origin of this phrase is cloudy. It certainly didn’t originate with Monty Python’s Flying Circus as many speculate, since John Cleese et al were also schoolboys at the time of the Rawthey Mill fire, but it may not go back that much farther. My muscular fire-fighting took place in the late nineteen fifties. The earliest quote the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with is merely 1967, where they have it being used in John Winton’s H. M. S. Leviathan. Mr Winton’s (Lieutenant Commander John Pratt, actually) books appear to be out of print: they include the straightforwardly entitled We Joined the Navy. There are lots of them: 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction. He obviously made good use of the long watches at sea.

The expression “There’s trooble at t’ mill” shouts music hall to me, but I cannot find that anyone has made a record of the line. If you know, please tell the Oxford English Dictionary folks at this link.


No doubt this piece, Self-publishing in 2017, from Publishers Weekly infuriated the indie-booster crowd. What makes that mouthpiece of the traditional publishing industry think it has any right to talk about us super-virtuous, totally un-self-interested indie authors? Such condescension! I rather agree that PW probably shouldn’t be trying to cover self publishing. It’s just a different business, and much too hard to get your arms around to allow of any sensible general coverage. PW does appear to have moved on; they now have a site, BookLife, devoted to helping self publishers. They even offer “free reviews”. Traditional publishers are fully cognizant of the existence of self publishing. Some keep their eyes open for individual publications in that area, but by and large the influence of the one business on the other is negligible. They coexist.

But the 2017 article actually seems to be fairly even-handed, pointing out that times were likely to be hard for self publishers, just as they looked like they would be for traditional publishers. (Sales for traditional publishers in 2017 turned out to be not that bad: they were just a bit down. Who knows what self publishing sales may have been?) At any time, this book or that book from one or the other strand of publishing may become a big seller, but overall sales are likely to remain fairly close to “normal” annual totals. Surely we cannot imagine that there’s likely to be a sudden increase in the percentage of the population interested in reading books. We work in a fairly mature business: expansion is liable to be pretty much limited to demographic growth. Still we can’t stop trying. Joel Friedlander is quoted as saying “Authors are starting to understand that the world of book publishing is much bigger than e-books and print on demand,” predicting that self-published authors will be exploring other formats beyond ebook and print. The fact that this seems to amount to audio isn’t amazing: one can see an individual author funding an audio book, while a movie might be beyond reach even of the biggest of the big five.

My sneaking suspicion is that the apparent fragmentation of the book publishing industry is pretty much played out. We have three different bits of it, and the divisions look like they may become permanent.

  1. There’s the self-published individual author
  2. Theres’s the indie publisher, gathering together and providing resources for several self-published authors, and then
  3. There’s the traditional publishing industry — which of course itself can be broken down into many different categories by size, organization, format and specialization.

None of this should be taken as disparaging the sensitive souls who cheer on the self-publishing community. It is great that anyone can self-publish a book (I’ve done it myself, and I know half-a-dozen ex-colleagues and friends who have also done so via the print-only route) and I wish every success to those who do it. There are however inevitably certain problems with the fact that anyone and everyone can publish — notably the resultant vast selection of material available and the difficulty of discovering and judging which bits you might actually like. This doesn’t have to mean that self-published material is worse than traditional published, just that the tools for making the judgement are not fully developed, and may actually be beyond man’s devising.

I would foresee a world in which category 1. above, self-publishing by individual authors, would end up being subdivided into

  1. Materials published almost as a pre-publication proof: bread thrown on the waters in the hope of hooking a traditional publisher
  2. Some genre fictions, though one could imagine say romance publishing ending up dominated by the indie publishing model — if it isn’t already
  3. Fan fiction, minority fiction or non-fiction — almost by definition community audiences which know where to find what they want
  4. Books published by authors who have built large social media followings
  5. Self-published materials directed at members of a club or society
  6. Family histories, photo albums etc., by intention private.

I wonder if the rate of self publishing might begin to slow down as all the pent-up projects have been brought out in a surge at the beginning. This is hard to judge as there really aren’t reliable industry statistics, but wouldn’t it be similar to what we saw with ebooks? After all the backlist had been dealt with sales stabilized — yes, yes, I know you can interpret these numbers in all sorts of different ways.

The world might be said to divide into two camps: those like Honorée Corder who believe that everyone should write a book, and those who believe that there are just some people who can’t or shouldn’t. For myself I really can’t see why everyone should have to make such a choice. I’m perfectly happy if you never write a book. But at the same time I can’t really see any reason why you shouldn’t do so. I may not like what you write, but I will “defend to the death” your right to do it — and also my right not to have to read the results!

I fear that the world is also divided into two different camps: those who read books, and those who don’t. Maybe we can hope for a slight increase in the proportion belonging to the first group as education continues to spread, but I really don’t imagine that we are going to see any sharp increase in book reading. We are lucky to be living in a world where we all have access to a vastly larger number of books than any previous generation has enjoyed. Though at the end, does it really matter that there were a few million books you didn’t manage to get round to reading while you were capable of doing so rather than just a few thousand?

Trinity College Library in Cambridge explain in their blog the differences between marbled paper, trickle paper, silhouette paper, surface color paper, and sprinkle paper. “Trickle papers are made when coloured or uncoloured liquid has been purposely dropped or sprinkled and allowed to trickle downwards, leaving traces on the paper surface. Other — less usual or outdated — terms are dribbled paper, drizzle paper or trickle marble. In the Dryden Album, there are three variations of trickle paper. These papers are too old to be European — western trickle papers were very popular in the 19th century — so it is very likely that they are of Turkish origin.”  You can see how you could do this, but I can’t find any information online about what liquids might work best. The word trickle seems to have been taken over by the software industry, as so often seems to happen with old jargon nowadays.


The examples Trinity shows us all come from The Dryden Album, a collection of Greek and Turkish costume illustrations dating from the 17th century. An account of the origin and content of the Album may be found at an earlier post, by William Kynan-Wilson. The entire volume may be examined here.

Modern examples of trickle paper can be seen and purchased at the Susanne Krause section of Dirk Lange Handmarmorpapier, a German website. Ms Krause it is who provided Trinity College Library with the information in their post. She is co-author of a tri-lingual (German, English, Dutch) book with Julia Rinck, Decorated Paper–A Guide Book (Stuttgart, Hauswedell 2016) which may tell you how to do these things. Amazon Germany offers it for 129€.

See also Marbled papers, and Making marbled papers.

Ever seen queues like this to get into a bookshop? No wonder they don’t allow buses.

Unfortunately, when you eventually get there, this bookshop, in the middle of the Taconic State Parkway, turns out to be holding a little less inventory than you might have hoped. There’s actually a rather good Taste New York food shop up the road a bit, similarly placed between north and south carriageways.

Much too prosaically, the queue was simply the result of a rear-ending a little further up the road.

It was only when I read Michael Black’s Learning to be a publisher: Cambridge University Press 1951-1987 — Personal Reminiscences, that I woke up to the possibility that I may have been regarded as a potential subversive when I took a job in Cambridge after having worked in the Press’ London office for four years. Michael (who was my boss when I took the job of Assistant Editor in 1969) describes the polite power struggle between London and Cambridge which was going on, way over my head, in my early years at the Press. Prior 1949 CUP’s sales in the USA had been carried out by the Macmillan Company. As sales was a function of Bentley House, the Press’s London office and warehouse, this deal was a deal between London and Macmillan. When the Press opened its own sales operation in New York, the assumption in London was no doubt that this branch was a branch of Bentley House, not of the Pitt Building or the Press as a whole. It is perhaps an indication that I was indeed basically untrustworthy that such was (and kind of remains) my own view. The office had been set up with ex-Macmillan employees, and the most excellent Arthur Hustwitt had been transferred over from Bentley House as Bible Manager. This issue had eventually become salient because of the desire to instal editors in New York. Editors were Pitt Building, not Bentley House.

When I made the move from London to Cambridge Michael Black had just fallen victim to glandular fever and was out of the office for about six weeks. I was thus occupying the editorial chief’s chair without any training. Now, of course, one of my constant themes is that training wasn’t really something publishers felt the need for back then. They’d just hire smart youngsters and let them rip: if they really were smart, they’d figure it out. There was the phone, and maybe once or twice I did drive out to Cottenham to visit the convalescent editor-in-chief. But of course, there’s nothing really to the day-to-day operation of an editorial office. Authors ask questions; you answer if you can, or get advice if you can’t. Manuscripts arrive; you send them out to a referee for a report. It’s not like six weeks is enough time to affect editorial policy even if such had been part of my subversive brief from the London Manager, Colin Eccleshare.

Like Gaul, the job of an editor is divided into three main parts. First, and what people mostly think of when they hear the word editor, is deciding what kinds of books we should be doing, identifying authors who might do these books, and persuading them to get down to it. This function also includes coping with the not insignificant number of typescripts offered up on spec by their authors, some of which have to be tactfully deflected as not fitting in with your editorial strategy. The second part of the job is shepherding the book through the editing and production process — basically arranging with others to turn a stack of typescript into a book. This phase includes decisions on pricing and print number, as well as editing the text in so far as this is needed, and visualizing what the finished object should look like. The third function of an editor is “selling” the book to the rest of the company, principally sales and marketing. When the boss surfaced after his six weeks at home he settled a couple of subject areas on me, anthropology and archaeology, in which I had some minor academic qualifications. These subjects were mine to guide forward: I would set the acquisitions strategy and execute the plan. I also got a few series in his subject areas too on which I rode herd. He’d also kick over the odd miscellaneous manuscript for me to sort out. It was the greatest job. I used to giggle at the thought I was actually being paid to read books on all sorts of subjects.

In academic publishing the series figures larger than the outsider might think. Any editor can only cope with so many manuscripts a year, and once you get to this limit there is no way you can do more. But if you set up a series you get to increase your output by “employing” an academic to be series editor. Although it might look like a fairly unrewarding task, many academics are eager to do this, partly for those altruistic motives that thrive in academia having to do with advancing the subject, but also because they can get to promote a particular line within the subject, and become closely involved with other movers and shakers in the subject. It may also act as a source of patronage — a route by which you can encourage your ex-research students. The Press editor has to persuade management (in our case the Press Syndicate*) that a series of this sort is a good idea, so a Syndicate paper has to be generated and discussed at the fortnightly Syndicate meeting, and the pre-Syndicate meeting where any half-baked proposals will be weeded out. In those days every book we published went through a full presentation and discussion at a Syndicate meeting; now the increase in number of books means this is no longer the case. The Syndicate paper for a new series will include details on the type of books planned, their “angle”, the format, proposed extent, target price as well of course as an academic justification of the importance of providing a series of books of this sort. Just as a paper proposing a single volume will be accompanied by two or three anonymized referee’s reports, so will a series proposal come with endorsements of the plan from a variety of authorities. Chances are the editor of the series will get a fee for each book, though in lots of cases they will get a share of the royalty, but that will tend to mean the authors get less. Once you start getting in typescripts from your series editor they will basically be ready to go into copyediting and production. I was lucky enough to team up with some of the leading lights in anthropology who already had series on the go at the Press, and to make contact with one of the leading younger lights in new approaches to archaeology, and persuade him to become a series editor. Several important books were published in this series, though the editor died tragically young.

After a while the lot fell on me to write the minutes for the Syndicate meetings. As I also wrote the minutes for the ASTMS trade union’s Publishing Branch in London, I knew that he who writes the minutes controls the agenda! (That’s a joke, at least as far as the Press Syndicate is concerned.) I had to sit next to the Chairman, Sir Frank Lee, and after his death, Lord Todd, and record the decisions made and, if relevant, any significant discussion and reservation: this latter often conveyed in a whisper by the Chairman. After the meeting I’d then repair to the Secretary to the Syndicate’s office where I’d transcribe my notes into the large volume containing all previous minutes, which lived there under lock and key.

Editors would come up with ideas for new books by reading academic journals, by writing letters (nowadays no doubt emails), making phone calls, by responding to enquiries from academics, by attending scholarly conferences, and by visiting university departments to beat the bushes, and perhaps most importantly by keeping their ears open when talking to academics around town. No doubt social media of all types would feature in this list in today’s world. On a day-to-day basis you’ll be in touch with lots of academics, if only in the effort to get people to report on the manuscripts which you’ve just received. One of the job requirements for an editor at an academic publisher is the ability to conduct a sensible-sounding conversation with experts on a wide range of subjects, about many of which you may be completely ignorant. (Hint: if you’ve got nothing to say about a particular point, say nothing. Silence is preferable to stupidity.) If anyone’s working on anything that sounds like it might be good, discuss it, express interest, and, if things are sufficiently advanced, ask to have a look at a draft. Take advice, either on the draft, or on the general idea. Follow up and wait. Eventually something will/may happen. Patience is a virtue. I worked on one book which was delivered fifty years after the contract had been signed.

I’d like to say I was involved with all sorts of wonderful and important authors, and while it’s true of course that all authors are wonderful and interesting they are often wonderful in a fairly restricted, academic way. Minorly notable events in my editorial career included going down to my old stamping ground in Bentley House to discuss corrections, or whether they’d rise to the status a new edition, with Enoch Powell, an eminent Conservative politician, who had published a thoroughly respectable edition of Herodotus Book VIII in 1939 in The Pitt Press series. As a second edition came out in 1970 I guess I agreed that the amount of correction did indeed rise to new edition status. The politician presented a sorry sight: he was pasty faced in a rumpled suit and suffered from bad breath — no doubt both costive symptoms arising from overwork in Westminster, now perhaps interrupted as a result of his “rivers of blood” speech, giving him time to think of Greek literature again.

My other somewhat notable encounter was with Laura Riding Jackson, erstwhile muse of Robert Graves. She came to Cambridge in a flurry of colorful clothing of many and varied flapping and billowing designs, wanting to us publish her husband, Schuyler B. Jackson’s poems. It was quite easy to resist her siren song as we had not published any new poetry, apart from the odd university Seatonian Prize poem for aeons. (Though it had been me who’d done the recent shepherding through the Press of a couple of poetry anthologies for school use, which no doubt explains why the lot fell where it did when Ms Jackson came a-calling).

There were of course many other authors all eminent in their way. Deserving of mention most insistently is Professor G. L. S. Shackle, an economist, who’d take the time after each of his books came out to come down from Liverpool to the Pitt Building and personally thank every individual who had worked on his latest volume. Such a gesture, pretty much unique, registered in the mind.

I should perhaps confess that I always felt a bit awkward in my role as a university press editor. This was in no way because of the wonderful and supportive academics I dealt with. The trouble was more with a few of one’s colleagues. There was an air of contrived intellectuality about the office with a constant put-down always floating around. Gotcha was a favorite mode of conversation. Some university press editors come to regard themselves as academics who have settled for a business career, rather than what they really are (or ought to be), publishing people who happen to deal with a bunch of professors. My undergraduate life at university had been strenuously non-intellectual; always centered around rugger, with a bit of rowing in the summer. Although I was a cocky little chap, I was quite aware that I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. When Miss Kvercic of Dillon’s suggested back at the start that I apply for a job at Cambridge University Press, my immediate thought was the utterly ludicrous “But I’m not clever enough for them”. But I do insist I’m not the dullest knife either. You can’t live with these people for all these years and not become perfectly able to cope with them on their own terms, but nobody would ever have accused me of being an intellectual. In the Pitt Building we used all to have tea every afternoon in the Oriel Room, and I recall one conversation which I think rather sums up my attitude to the work environment. Over his tea and Chelsea bun, a young editor was leading a discussion of the recently released film, Blow-Up. They were all debating the significance of the fact that when the tennis game took place there was no sound of ball hitting racquet. Clearly this meant something important. This intellectual crux of the movie I hadn’t noticed: what stuck in my mind about Blow-Up was that it represented the first time one had seen on a cinema screen a glimpse of pubic hair. No wonder they shipped me off to the fleshpots of New York soon after.


* The Syndicate is the name which University of Cambridge gives to the management committees that run several of their non-school institutions. The Press Syndicate consists of a committee of 18 senior members of the university who volunteer their time to direct this university-owned business. In Cambridge the people thus overseeing the Press are called Syndics. In Oxford the analogous figure is called a Delegate, much less exciting nomenclature.

Lit Hub sets us this quiz based upon the Library of Congress Subject Categories which you may find listed on the imprints page of the book you are reading. It’ll be part of the CIP data. Whether CIP is included or not seems to depend on the publisher and I suspect also the age of the book — we appear to be less and less informative as time goes by; maybe because it’s easier than before to look this stuff up on the internet. But regardless, the subject categories will have been assigned.

Question 1 of the quiz provides these clues:

Social classes–Fiction.
Young women–Fiction.
Domestic fiction.
Love stories.

I failed. The answer is pretty obvious, but I felt it probably applied to a whole lot of books.

Seventy opportunities to have your ignorance rubbed in! Who could resist? The comments section shows (if they are telling the truth) that lots of people did a lot better than I did. I only managed a handful.

There are (at least) two sides to self publishing. Some self-published authors do it because they relish the process, while others do it almost reluctantly, frustrated by their inability to find a traditional publisher who’ll nurture their baby. Members of the second group are probably unlikely to be as successful as the first group — many of whom have managed to be wildly successful and have earned scads of money. (Be it said, yet again, self publishing does not mean second-rate publishing. It’s just a different way into the marketplace.)

In addition to the problem of getting their books into libraries, which I wrote about yesterday, one of the difficulties facing self publishers is attracting serious review attention. The number of print media book pages has declined sharply in the past ten years, and if large publishing companies are chafing at their inability to elbow all of their books into the review pages of noted publications, you can imagine the frustration facing the self publisher. Now, someone like Hugh Howey, who has established a huge following, will clearly suffer less than his frustrated peers. Print reviews of self-published books remain vanishingly rare: the key to success resides in social media. The most successful self-published authors have an audience which follows them on social media, and eagerly awaits news of their next offering. Jane Friedman provides a link to her 2015 report on social media use for the self published.

One extreme solution for those desperately seeking review coverage is just to buy it. I wrote about this under the title Sock puppetry a few years ago. For an account of how such endeavor can go awry please go to The Shed at Dulwich and view the amusing video there in which a paid reviewer takes things to their logical conclusion.

If you have a publisher you can blame them for whatever goes wrong — and this might just be one of the best reasons for some authors to go the traditional route.* If you’ve slaved to get reviewed, you can go wild if the resulting review isn’t as wildly enthusiastic as your own blurb would be, but realistically there’s not a lot you can do about it. Or is there? Here’s a cautionary tale from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (via The Passive Voice). The Digital Reader provides a roundup of the same saga.

See also Reviews of self-published books.


*Other reasons are discussed at Do we really need book publishers?

Libraries tend to be happy about the digital book because it potentially gets them away from their problem of finding space for all the new printed books which we keep throwing at them.* But of course the digital revolution has dragged along with it an overwhelmingly large selection of new books.

Self publishers have found it difficult to get their books made available in libraries. A friend did manage this by getting the ear of a friendly local librarian, so an ebook of his young-adult novel is now available for loan at his library. The key problem with self-published ebooks and libraries remains the discovery issue. Libraries have systems for acquisition, contract suppliers, standing orders, approval plans etc. — and however good your ebook may be, if they can’t purchase it in the way they normally purchase books then libraries are unlikely to be able to obtain it. They just can’t make one-off arrangements for every self-published book: there are just not enough hours in the day. Some additional justification for librarians’ choice to pay less attention to self-published ebooks may also provided the fact that they tend to be fairly inexpensive, so disappointed punters may be assumed to be willing and able to go out and buy a copy.

Lending of ebooks at American public libraries is reported to be increasing at about 30% a year according to Jessamyn West at Controversy within the business is continually being stirred up by one big traditional publisher after another tweaking their terms of supply. Obviously the basic problem is that unless some limits are placed on frequency of issue, an ebook sold to a library could potentially mean that, what with inter-library loan and unrestricted lending, no more copies would ever be sold to any libraries. No doubt everyone can accept that that’s not “fair” to the author and the publisher, but what is fair is far from obvious, and depends on which axe you are currently grinding. I believe that the twisting and dodging going on reflects not some dastardly plot by publishers, but rather the fact that this is still a relatively new market, and what the “correct” terms of trade should be is still evolving. Publishers do not see any benefit in preventing any sale of any of their books. They do, though, have an interest in avoiding sales which lose them money, either in the short term or over the long haul. If this was an easy balance, discussion would long be over.

Library lending of ebooks got off to a slow start. Publishers Weekly reported in its 30 November 2015 issue on a Book Industry Study Group investigation of Digital Content in Public Libraries. At that time only 25% of library patrons had borrowed an ebook in the previous year, and only 9% had checked out a digital audiobook. It’s not that library patrons were anti-ebook: 44% of them reported reading an ebook in the year before. Until you’ve done it, borrowing an ebook from the library might seem hard. But of course like almost everything once you’ve done it once it becomes simple. Lack of availability was reported as the main impediment but now, as CNN reports, there are more than 391,000,000 ebooks available in US public libraries — not sure just how this relates to the Google estimate that the total number of books ever published is just 130 million! I guess we have to assume lots of multiple copies, though more realistically perhaps we should conclude that when it comes to superlatives like this there’s no way to discover the real facts.

Here’s one guy who’s gotten over the library lending hurdle. An ode to library ebook lending apps comes from a dedicated e-reader.  (Link via The Digital Reader.) I have myself borrowed several ebooks from New York Public Library: it is easier than placing a reserve and then walking over to the local library once the p-book arrives. Maybe less health-giving though, and I do still prefer to read a p-book.


* See also Crewing mustie books and More mustie crewing

Via LitHub comes a meditation by Alexander Stern at Aeon on the meaning of words qua words. To my mind he’s treading soggy ground: figuring that the sound of words reflects their meaning seems a dicey proposition. One can perhaps imagine that words were first born in some sort of auditory relationship to the essence of the object or action described, but that’s surely all submerged in the mists of prehistory. Trying to mine this bit of the linguistic world sounds like a project along the lines of The Key to All Mythologies by Rev. Edward Casaubon. Maybe we can accept that words beginning in gl- — glisten, glint, glimmer, glow — sound like they might have something to do with light, but we are writing and thinking in English. What about, say, the Tagalog speaker?

Mr Stern claims “‘livre’ might mean book but it doesn’t mean it the way ‘book’ does.” He quotes Plato’s Cratylus as saying “Anyone who knows a thing’s name also knows the thing.” But Plato’s excuse would be that he was fixated on forms — would he have had one form for French book and another for English book? Naturally “the thing” as book inevitably carries a different load of meaning to an English speaker than it does to a French speaker. The resonance is probably even narrower: Scottish vs. English; or even a Scot who learned to read in Gullane vs. an otherwise located Scottish learner. As I wrote at Reading is good for you, to me the word “book” never fails to conjure up the image of David Livingstone, autodidacting away by candle light, accompanied by a special smell (no doubt the smell of the classroom in Gullane) dusty and comforting. When I think of livre, or even just “French book”, I tend to see the yellow jacketed Editions Garnier paperback of Madame Bovary which I bought in 1961 as a student in Grenoble. It came wrapped in an elegant if cheap second jacket advertising the bookstore. This has subsequently fragmented into acid-rich flakes annoyingly dusting my bookshelf — just this year actually. Of course I’d had French books before, but those I had at school were more English books in French than they were French books. No smell accompanies my Bovary memory. Maybe I should claim a madeleine/tisane combo. If I was a German would the word take me out into the beech woods?

It’s almost too obvious to mention that onomatopoeic words sound like their meaning; “Pop” = pop etc. They are after all meant to. But Mr Stern wants to go further: he wants to show us that meaning is prefigured in sound. Yet for all his Wittgensteinian quotation he doesn’t seem able to get this theory off the ground. Probably because there’s no real there there. When Adam named the horse, did he call it horse, cheval, Pferd, equus, άλογο, סוּס, or even 马? They can’t all be essentially redolent of horsiness, can they? Does the fact that the animal was no doubt named before it evolved into what we’d recognise as a horse nowadays, suggest a surfeit here of sound and fury? The smell of the stable or more narrowly of a horse’s mane, will flood the mind of a German at the mention of Pferd, while the self-same effect will be generated across the border by the sound cheval. The association is learned, not inherent in the word.

Everyone who understands the book business would think, I’d assume, that this was a pretty open and shut case. Publishers have objected to the Captions feature which has been introduced by Audible, an audiobook company owned by Amazon. The Association of American Publishers has filed a lawsuit. The Audible Captions system is “designed to transcribe and display the text of narrated performances as an audiobook’s sound plays—much as you might see subtitles on a film, but with the text being machine-generated in real time”.* Publishing Perspectives, via Book Business Insight, has the story.

The way in which the text is generated by the audiobook is irrelevant. Just because it’s converted back into words from the audio stream spoken by Audible’s reader, it can’t slide past the fact that the work is copyright. Audible has obtained a license merely to create an audio version of the book. This can not be deemed to include the full text running as a subtitle track. If you want a book, buy a book. One might as well argue that a publisher who had acquired paperback rights to a book could legitimately rebind some of their paperbacks as hardbacks: after all they didn’t print a hardback they printed a paperback which then almost magically ended up in hard covers. Unfortunately for such arguments copyright in the work exists — it exists by virtue of the works existence in tangible form regardless of whether it’s been published or not — and that copyright is owned by the author not Audible. Audible have licensed one of the rights under that copyright: the right to make an audio version of the work — not the right to make an audio version accompanied by a full text version. They’d have as much justification in claiming that their license should permit them to make a movie version to accompany their narration as to say it permits them to reproduce the text in type form. Even if the back-transcription of the words spoken by Audible’s book reader should include the odd slip-up made along the way thus changing some words, this does not amount to a derivative work or create a new copyright. If you copied out a copyright work by hand, copyright in your manuscript version would still belong to the original author, even if you did make one or two spelling errors.

Audible has delayed the roll-out of their Captions, and anti-publishing commentary predictably deplores this: big business once again stomps on innovation. (Inconsistency rampant: how many publishing companies would you need to add together to add up to the size of Amazon?) Commentary tends to focus somewhat irrelevantly on the mistakes made by the music industry at the end of the last century when they set their faces against Napster-style streaming. The Passive Voice of course weighs in, willfully disingenuous in his innocent-sounding claim “Setting aside copyright arguments. . .”. But no; THIS IS ALL ABOUT COPYRIGHT. These commentariatchiks will wield their axes in any which way. Here they ignore the fact that it is the author whose income is being misappropriated while they heartily bash greedy “Big Publishing”. On another day they are of course quick to leap to the defense of poor authors who are always seen as being defrauded by rapacious publishers.

Be it noted that most companies are now taking a pretty hands-off stance toward potentially copyrighted music. After I have copied a music track (which as as purchaser of a CD is your legal right) onto my computer Apple won’t let me move it to iCloud, which decision seems to arise from an excess of caution as to whether this second copy might represent an infringement of copyright. (It’s also true they’d like to charge me for the privilege.) I can’t really see how transcribing an audio version would be less problematic than that.

It might indeed be a salable idea to include a subtitle track in audiobooks, in which case permission to do so should be sought from the author or their agent/publisher. As The Passive Voice suggests, such a version might be useful in language learning.

I wrote about audiobooks and Audible a few years back. (I see that back then audiobook was still two words.)


* Lest this subtitles comparison cloud the issue in one or two minds, I should point out that the subtitle track in a movie is not the text of the book on which the film may be based, but an entirely new text, derived mainly from the film script, to create which the movie company did indeed have a license. I’m not sure whether a subtitle text is subject to copyright in its own right, but I’d assume it was until I was told no. Who owns copyright in the film script? Would it not have to be the original author who gave the license to create it? Maybe exceptions may be negotiated in individual licenses?