Between $325 million and $375 million-worth of work is subcontracted each year by the Government Printing Office to a network of commercial printers around the country. The GPO attended the recent PRINTING United Expo in Las Vegas partly to shore up their partner base. Like lots of businesses printing has had a hard time over the past couple of years, and without outside help the GPO would find it hard to get through the workload imposed by our government operations. From that meeting Printing Impressions has an interview with GPO Director Hugh Halpern which you can find at this link.

The GPO has been updating its technology in recent years, and now runs a digital operation which at last can link smoothly to systems running in Congressional offices, Federal Agencies and the White House.

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society has issued its annual survey on author incomes, and as reported by The Society of Authors, reveals that median earnings for UK authors have declined by 60% since 2006. “In 2006, median author earnings were £12,330. In 2022, the median has fallen to £7,000, a drop of 33.2% based on reported figures, or 60.2% when adjusted for inflation.” I assume, without knowing anything about the numbers, that a similar situation prevails in America.

Numbers like this are hard to interpret*. Many, presumably the vast majority of authors are making virtually nothing from their writing, and are probably perfectly content for this to be the case. They probably never expected to make any money from their books, and are unsurprised when this turns out to be true. Others, however, look on their writing careers as a sort of job choice, so the fact that their income goes down is of existential importance. In 2006 40% of authors reported earning all their income from their writing. In 2022 the percentage had dropped to 19%.

Now there are of course different types of contract that an author and publisher can negotiate, but the most common form is a royalty agreement whereby the author gets paid a percentage of the sale of every copy of their book. Advances against royalties do no more than change the timing of such payments (and guarantee the author against the risk of failure to reach a certain sales quantity), but these are becoming rarer, and in any case don’t affect total earnings. To the extent that an advance will take income you might have made in year two and moves it to year one, the reduction in advances will negatively impact the earnings of successful authors. They are however irrelevant to the mass of authors at the bottom of the sales pyramid. Royalty income, as a percentage of the price of each copy, is clearly dependent on sales. A 10% royalty on a retail price of £20 gets you £2; sell a million copies and you’ve got £2,000,000. Sell 500 and you’ve got £1,000.

ALCS doesn’t reveal any income details, but they are not, as far as I can see, complaining about reductions in royalty percentages. In other words, income reductions are due to sales reductions. It may look bad that while publishers are experiencing a banner year, authors’ income continues to plunge. But what this has to mean — and by “has to mean” I am effectively saying “is mathematically certain” — is that book sales are now being made over a larger number of titles than previously, so that each author makes less off their writing, while the overall pool of authors makes more. This is entirely consistent with reports of the unexpected popularity of back-list during the pandemic. So a bigger royalty pot is being shared by more writers. However if you’ve had a pay cut it’s no comfort to know that wages for the whole company have increased!

The Society of Authors warns that these “findings raise serious questions about the future of writing as a profession”. But surely there has never been a time when the profession was able to support more than a few members in any condition better than penury. Grub Street has always been tough work environment.

Any thought that such a crisis in author earnings might have a negative impact on the course of literary history should of course be resisted. But one cannot deny that someone like D. H. Lawrence was able to make enough to live on by his writing, and it is no doubt harder to do so today. But that, I do believe, is mainly due to the increase in the number of active authors diluting the pot. To some extent society has recognized the problem and is dealing with it through grants and subsidies.

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* Recognize that such a drop in the median income could be caused solely by a large reduction in the earnings of a single top author. — I’m not suggesting it is, but mathematics is mathematics, and the mean is the mean, not the average.

On the media is a pretty sensible radio program, but they took leave of their senses on a recent weekend (11-12 Nov 22) when they did a program on libraries. It began well, with an interview of the next head of the Library Association, but came off the rails when it moved on to The Internet Archive, where they allowed the plausible founder of that institution to pull thick wool over their eyes (and the ears of their listeners). The ongoing law suit against The Internet Archive is not directed at tightening controls on public library lending of ebooks: it’s directed at theft of copyright properties. If there is a free version of a copyrighted ebook available out there on the internet which anyone can access at any time, then we can all figure out that this is going to have a negative impact on authors’ earning power. If the book is Oliver Twist which is already in the public domain this is just fine, and no publisher or author is going to have any problem with it. When it’s the latest Stephen King, Mr King (and yes his publishers) are likely to find the situation less acceptable: after all we live in a nation where copyright law governs this sort of thing and however “noble” The Internet Archive claims its intentions to be in bringing reading to the people, the unfortunate problem is that they are just not allowed to do that by freely using someone else’s property. The radio program claims that “The outcome of Hachette v. Internet Archive could upend digital lending, as we know it, everywhere.”

This is rubbish. Public libraries do beef about the terms on which publishers license the lending of ebooks, but these terms are not anything like those enjoyed by The Internet Archive — which amount basically to saying “My motivation is good, therefore I can do whatever I want for free whether you, the owner, agree or not”. Sort of like someone saying “All these poor people need a place to live. You have a big house, so we’re moving this family into your second floor, and you’ve got no say in the matter.”

Nate Hoffelder’s weekly links include this one to ArtNews telling us about a lawsuit in which a photographer is suing a tattoo artist for using his photo of Miles Davis as a tattoo.

The journey from photo to tattoo

The tattooist, Kat Von D, argues that the use is transformational, thus fair, and that there are bodily integrity and personal expression rights supporting her use of the photo. “Von D insists that her version is transformative of the original image. She created the tattoo by tracing Sedlik’s photograph on a lightbox and affixing the image to her client’s arm using a thermal copy machine and tattoo transfer fluid, before inking the design by hand.” Romano Law gives a balanced discussion of the issues. A jury will have to decide who’s right. To me it seems obvious that a tattoo cannot take the place of a photograph or damage demand for it — quite the opposite if anything. Still the law moves in mysterious ways.

Plagiarism Today reports on the verdict in another case which is concerned with the opposite direction of copying — here the tattooist sued a game company for reproducing her tattoo characters in their game. She won but “the jury opted not to award Alexander a share of the profits. Instead, they awarded her actual damages, totaling just $3,750 for the five tattoos at issue.” Not sure whether this has any relevance in the Miles Davis case.

This odd corner of the copyright world reminds me of my reproduction concerns in the case of the Gentileschi St Catherine picture, printed from a digital copy owned by The National Gallery in London. Obviously Gentileschi’s not protected by copyright, but if we were dealing with a modern work, would that make a difference? Surely it would, and here I’d want to believe that a freehand copy painted by a copy-artist would be more protected as fair use, whereas a print from a digital file would be a clear infringement. Would the hand-written copy of the Gutenberg Bible I speculated about (if we were dealing with a copyright work) not also be a copyright infringement? Presumably copying it out without any attempt to make your version look like the original, say for example by typing it including all its typos and following its page layout, would not be something copyright law would pay any attention to in the case of a Bible*, but for any other copyright work it would be a clear infringement as soon as you tried to sell it. The extreme case of copying here would of course be Xeroxing the book, which I think we all realize is not a good thing to do.

When I reported seven years ago on Tim Youd’s performance art, retyping novels, I didn’t consider the copyright position at all — I guess until he tries to sell the product it remains OK, as a copy made for his own personal use.

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* Though the Authorized Version of the Bible does remain in copyright in England, where it is covered by Crown copyright, and is published under license.

The publishing industry in New York accounts for 94,300 total jobs, $10.8 billion in total wages $33.5 billion in total output. In their Economic Impact Study, New York City Publishing Industry, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment divides the business into four groups — publishing (including books, newspapers, magazines and internet); talent; print production; distribution and consumption.

Publishers Weekly brings us a story about the Study. “In a report designed to measure the economic impact of NYC’s various publishing segments, the first-of-its-kind study found that the number of book publishing jobs dipped 1.7% between 2010 and 2020, while bookselling jobs tumbled 37.1%. The average book publishing salary was $119,000, compared to a $39,000 wage for booksellers.”

I guess one has to accept these figures, does one, but an average salary of $119,000 sounds high for book publishing. Given everyone’s eagerness to misuse numbers, especially percentages, I wonder if this might be more like the mean rather than the average. On the other hand, perhaps it’s “total remuneration” — salary + benefits. However, the report stubbornly refers to “wages” so maybe our colleagues are doing better than we think! Clearly however fellow N-Y-Citizens will be better off looking for a job in publishing than in bookselling even though it may be a bit harder to get one.

Book publishing, which is to a surprisingly large extent still being done from home, came through the pandemic with a lot less damage than the retail end of the business. If the story isn’t actually over for bricks-and-mortar bookstores (and I think it isn’t) these numbers show that there’s going to be a more vigorous recovery in the bookstore business.

It’s vaguely impressive that this notice was felt to be required at performances of Aeschylus’s Persians, this year’s “Cambridge Greek Play”. After all the play is being performed in the original Greek.

Photo: © R. J. Mynott

Should the sign have been written in Greek? Well, there were actually supertitles, so the trigger warnings were not just for those fluent in the classics — who might be expected to know ahead of time what issues the play covers. The Arts Theatre website has a whole discussion of this sort of thing, which they insist are “Content warnings” not “Trigger warnings”. It is obviously true that there are some physical things which can trigger a bad reaction in lots of people; one cannot deny that or minimize the potential harm. But is posting a warning upfront the right way to go about the issue of difficult content? Maybe, but the list could get long. And isn’t there a bit of caveat emptor which maybe should come into account here? Should you be surprised to meet “historical misogynistic ideology” when attending an old play? Surely it’s unreasonable to expect fifth-century BC Greeks to have the same views as 21st century Britains, and aren’t you going to the play at least in part in order to appreciate these differences?

Content warnings seem like a step down the road that leads to deplatforming. Hateful speech may best be countered by more effective speech tending in the opposite direction, but loud bangs are not “argued against” by more loud bangs. I suspect that going to the theatre, unless it’s no more than the pantomime, should be an experience which ought to have an effect which might be covered by the descriptor triggering. You want to shake people out of their complacency, though traumatizing victims of any of the types of physical violence listed in The Arts Theatre’s list should be nobody’s aim. But if you’re going to see a classical play, or a classic play, I expect that you should expect and hope that you’re going to be shocked to some extent. By all means warn me about loud noises, strobe lights, explosions and gunfire too — perhaps even about smoking on stage — though I’m never sure whether this happens because the theatre fears I may hold rabidly anti-smoking views, or because the fake smoke smells so odd, But let me quietly deal with all sorts of symbolism and tricky content on my own.

How long must we wait before we find out that we have to include trigger warnings on book covers? Not too long I bet. Some of these warnings might need to occupy quite a lot of space: just look at what’s covered in the Arts Theatre’s list. “Stop in the name of love, before you read this book. Think it o-over”!

Come to think of it, threats of “descriptive violence and phallic symbols” might actually move a whole lot of books.

Sorry; I was looking the other way last Friday, seeing black only, so I missed out on recommending local action. Turns out it was Plaid Friday. Plaid Friday is an initiative of the American Local Business Alliance, which asks that on the day after Thanksgiving you put on checked clothing and go and buy stuff in a local store. Really!? As they tell us “Plaid Friday was created by Kerri Johnson in Oakland, CA, [in 2009] to bring back the time when shopping for friends and family was a pleasurable leisurely activity. Now it is celebrated throughout the nation as part of the Shop Indie Local Campaign.” As Shelf Awareness tells us several bookshops participated this year.

I find plaid to be an odd word. It’s much more popular in America than it is in Scotland, though every American will assure you it’s a Scottish word. And it is too. But in Scotland it’s pronounced differently, to rhyme with “maid” not “sad”, and has a different meaning. A plaid in Scotland is that long bit of cloth worn over the shoulder by a kilted person, mostly nowadays in a pipe band, not the pattern itself which we persist in referring to as tartan. Indeed a plain unpatterned plaid would still count as a plaid.

To be fair (or as the expression in England seems to be these days “to tell the truth”) The Oxford English Dictionary does list the patterned cloth definition as its original usage, dating their earliest example from 1510, though no kind of pattern was at first required. The meaning of “cloth worn over the shoulder” is an arrant neologism, first being noticed two years later, in 1512.

Getting the manuscripts and turning them into books was always the fun part. Persuading people to buy them is tough.

Chris McVeigh at @4fifty1 has a rant, entitled This is not a love song. He quotes a publishing marketing director who “was frustrated because she felt like she was consistently letting down the authors under her care. The sheer relentless weight of books coming through the pipeline had all but overwhelmed her and her staff some time ago — and from where she was standing things were only getting worse. We just don’t have the time to do anything properly, we’re just ticking boxes.”

But unfortunately boxes do need to be ticked: it may be boring but messages need to be sent to the relevant mailing lists, influencers need to be alerted, and review copies need to be sent to appropriate review media. These publications will insist on wanting to make up their own minds about whether or not they’ll send the book on to someone who might actually read it and review it. It’s a lot about horses and water and drinking — you can do all sorts of social media stuff but you can’t reach down the wires and force the punters to buy. At the end of the day, all a publisher can really do is let people know that this book exists, ensure it’s out there in places where they might find it, and keep their fingers crossed. I suspect most readers are fairly adept at discounting publishers’ claims of excellence: what makes the book sell is something else. Where the idea comes from that this is a book I need to buy varies wildly, but is summed up as “word-of-mouth”. You hear about the book, and having heard about it you think it sounds like something you might buy. Eventually maybe it ends up as something you have bought.

This Publishing Perspectives piece asks whether we can replicate “word-of-mouth” by using the Internet. “Every marketing expert loves — and wants — business through word-of-mouth, but nobody has figured out the perfect way to automate and digitalize this vital tool.” Well, of course, if you run a business aimed at automating “word-of-mouth” clearly you’ll think of it as a tool. However I fear word-of-mouth is not a “tool” representing a means to an end — it is the end itself. What marketing aims to create is word-of-mouth. The assumption, and the probability, is that that talk will indeed translate into sales — but what the publisher’s marketers are trying to gin up is not directly the sale, but the awareness which will provoke people out there into thinking “I might should buy that book”. Clearly, I guess, the more eyeballs you can hit with the fact, the more effective the distribution of that fact may be.

Mike Shatzkin claims Open Road’s automated online marketing operation is unique. OK, maybe it is unique, but is it working? Hard to tell from the outside — probably from the inside too when all’s said and done. We don’t see Open Road at the top of bestseller lists all the time, but how can we judge whether Open Road books are not in fact selling better than they would have done without this digital marketing help? They probably are, but not even Open Road can know for certain. These are not scientific experiments which can be rerun: so we just stumble along and tick all those boxes.

Here David Gaughran gives the self-publisher advice on how to do email marketing. At the coalface too, from Inside Higher Education, Joanne W. Golann lets us know what an author can do to publicize their own academic book. I am always tempted to insist that there’s a platonic perfect number out there which represents the sales number of any given book. In most cases in academic publishing this is a fairly low number and letting millions more know about is almost a waste of time. No amount of TikTok activity and word-of-mouthing is going to provoke anyone to buy Leucocyte Typing VII I fear — unless they were going to buy it anyway. Still getting the word out to fifty more buyers for such a book is a more rewarding feeling than trying to alert millions.

Via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing comes a link to The Guardian‘s report on TikTok’s plans to sell books direct to customers. Coming as this does in the same week as Amazon’s announcement of layoffs in its book division, this story must encourage speculations into Amazon’s possible abandonment of the book business. Publishers Weekly weighs the evidence.

Amazon clearly still maintains a hugely dominant position in the book retail world. They are currently ordering vigorously for this Christmas season, and will no doubt be selling a pile of books for months (years?) to come. But one thing of which we can be confident is that their business is not directed by sentiment. If they see an opportunity to enhance their prospects by abandoning books, books will be abandoned. And bear in mind they have three strands to their bookselling business: the retail operation, the Kindle and ebooks, and Audible.com for audiobooks. They are also a publisher.

Rather straw-in-windish perhaps is Princeton University’s announcing their new ability to sell audio-and ebooks direct-to-consumer via Glassboxx. We may not be watching a huge amount of change in publishers’ readiness to sell direct, but trickles under the dam, around the dam, and through the dam can ultimately lead to the collapse of the dam and a transformational flood. Movement is surely in the direction of more publishers selling more stuff direct to customers, which might suggest an anticipatory repositioning to cope with a post-Amazon world. If you pooh-pooh that, consider also Bookshop.com, which is quite successfully providing an e-commerce solution for independent bookstores.

Not immediately relevant but nevertheless an issue to consider in developing your sympathies, Amazon has (like lots of other businesses) received copious subsidization from state and local governments for creating jobs around the country. Good Jobs First details the situation. (Thanks to Nate Hoffelder for the link.) Most of these jobs will no doubt continue to exist of course if Amazon does ever decide that it’s easier and more profitable to sell things other than books.

At The New Publishing Standard Mark Williams warns that we should be wary of Amazon’s doing to books what they just did to music — putting it all onto Amazon Prime. With their ownership of Audible.com Amazon has the ability to direct one stream at least of the book business into an unlimited subscription model. Now of course as long as you as a publisher or author are adequately rewarded for such usage, an unlimited subscription model can be a good thing.

The New York Times treats us to a discussion of the cover designs (if we can bypass the paywall) for Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry.

Much is made of the unexpectedness of the US jacket. Apparently the pink makes us expect a romance novel, which this is not. It’s the story of Elizabeth Zott, a (fictitious) 1950’s cooking show host who “educates her viewers in chemistry, self-worth and agency”. Barnes & Noble have made it their book of the year — Mr Daunt opines “The book has dominated the cover”. For myself, I don’t find the American cover that ditzy; in fact I rather like it. But maybe its pinkness does tend to make me assume it’s a book directed at a female audience — which for all I know it actually is. (The same could of course be said of the UK jacket with its red-dress photo.) The author is quoted “But as I’m fond of saying, the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism”. Ms Garmus “has received ‘hate mail’ from a few indignant readers who expected something different.” She is quoted as saying “They were like, ‘Your’e the worst romance novelist ever!'”

Ms Garmus, though I think she is talking here about plot and character rather than cover design, sagely concludes “I think you have to listen to your publisher . . . they have a lot of experience”. She does report that the paperback will however have a different cover design. Well even if we concede that the pink jacket may be a little off target, it’s many streets ahead of its British competitor — paradoxically the publisher, Doubleday, is the same on both sides of the Atlantic, so we are getting here a pure take on US/UK taste differences. Around the world however, opinion seems to have lined up with Great Britain rather than the United States. Only Portugal and to some extent Italy have gone along with the US approach.

Editions in Portuguese, French, Polish and Korean have gone with the British approach. Not sure why we have two Portuguese versions, with different titles too. Maybe one’s Brazilian and the other European. It’s remarkable how that little box containing “In” in a form meant to look like a chemical element label, has been preserved in these UK adaptations. Characteristically the French have realized that the title which is adequate for the rest of the world is just too silly for them. This is in harmony with their tag line telling us that our ability to change everything begins ere and now!

We round out this showcase with one more UK-based version, this one from Iceland, and three “let’s do something completely different” versions. This I can sympathize with: I think that woman in the red dress lugging the TV around is a rather disturbing image. Do you remember what a television set weighed back in the fifties and sixties? Of the three fresh approaches I think the Dutch one, which is presumably playing up the “chemie” bit, is just too dull which might also be said of the German lady aggressively confronting us on the street. The Estonian version ends up being weird enough to be rather arresting and effective though.