The Passive Voice links to a Wired piece about Elon Musk’s aims to provide us with little computer inserts for our brains.

However creepy this might seem on first acquaintance, it is I think inevitable — if humanity can manage to survive the next fifty years — that some kind of brain-enhancement will take place. The idea of having lots of information in deep storage, freeing our grey matter for the more immediate stuff, just sounds sense. No different in essence than walking around with a pocket dictionary or a calculator. And of course, in a sense slightly more concrete than just metaphorical, many of us already carry such brain extensions around with us in the shape of smart phones.

Here from Massive Science is a piece about putting letters into blind people’s brains. (Link via Passive Voice.) This is reminiscent of those experiments in the opposite direction enabling paralyzed people to move a cursor on their computer by brain waves. There are obviously drawbacks to the technique, but some subjects could accurately name nearly 90 percent of the letters they were shown at a rate of 85 shapes per minute. This is slow compared to most readers, but we tend to read words anyway not individual letters, so comparison is hard. Still compared to zero, it’s very encouraging.

And MIT reports on the development of a confetti-sized chip mimicking the brain’s action. (Link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) This might seem the last step in the process — but of course we have to bear in mind (where else?) that we still only have a fairly rudimentary understanding of how the brain actually works: things will only get better as we find out more.

I’ve held forth on this sort of thing quite often (I apologize if it’s too often). See for example  Direct to brain streaming and Brain upload.

The University Library looming over the rather more handsome, early morning sunlit Wren Library in Trinity College. To the right of the Wren building can be seen a little bit of The Backs, that part of the Cam up and down which you punt.

The University’s original library was in the Old Schools, next to the Senate House. In the nineteen thirties moving had become essential. On the site of a former military hospital across the Cam, up went this red brick monument to industrialized learning. One wonders if the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, in opening the library in 1934 really did refer to it as “this magnificent erection”, but its tower does stick up as a landmark visible as you come over the hills at the edge of the fenland.

Well, it had to happen: you can’t just keep taking in books and expect them all to fit in a building dating from 1934. I would imagine they never throw a book away; but they do seem have a mere 9,000,000 volumes. Cambridge University Library is one of the UK’s six deposit libraries, and thus receives a copy of every book published in Britain in order to validate copyright in the book. This has been going on since 1710, so there are quite a few books involved.

The University Library now has a Library Storage Facility in Ely, just 15 miles to the north.

The library’s website has a show of the new place which opened in May 2018. It’s just taken in its one-millionth book. Cute how they arrange for the millionth book taken in, just like the first one, to be books written by Cambridge graduates.  “Built to store more than four million items, the self-regulating facility has a capacity equal to 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools [sounds like the books may get wet?] with shelving that measures 65 miles – the distance from Cambridge to London. The facility is now 25 per cent full.” Interesting to reflect that 4,000,000 books placed side by side would stretch from Cambridge to London. Never a dull moment on your journey. “Of making many books there is no end: and much study is a weariness of the flesh”, so I suppose there are wise heads considering what to do after 2030 when they expect to fill the LSF up as well. Stack ’em up along the road to Norwich?

Here Book Riot gives us a listing of the top ten largest libraries in the world. (Link via The Digital Reader.)


Kathy Sandler brings us links to a bunch of virtual museum tours at Technology • Innovation • Publishing.

The Met Museum.

Musée du Louvre.

Musée d’Orsay.

Vatican Museum.

Uffizi Gallery.

Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

British Museum.

Chateau de Versailles.

Van Gogh Museum.

National Gallery London.

Guggenheim Bilbao.

Getty Museum.

National Parks.

You’ll see that we have to thank Google for most of these.

It seems pretty certain that book events, even when they do return to those back rooms in bookshops, will in future retain an on-line element. Once you’ve hammered out the way to do an on-line event, it would be a waste of that research (time and money) never to do it again. It just makes so much sense to be able to have a speaker who’s based in another country without needing to make them fly here, and also to increase the size of your audience by allowing people across the country or even world to participate. I “attended” an evening event recently where the organizer, an employee of a New York City bookstore, was in Colorado, the author was in Kolkata, and the discussant was in upstate New York. It all went swimmingly and if we hadn’t got to see the dawn in Bengal we wouldn’t really have known that they weren’t all in the same location.

Sure, as a bookseller, you have to face the probability that your remote audience is unlikely to be buying a copy of the book from you, but having your name in front of people is never a bad thing. And in reality, only a minority of attendees at a live book event ever actually did buy a book! The fact that on-line book events have been so well attended suggests to me that getting the book signed by the author is only a secondary motivation for most people. The bookstore could of course use signing as an incentive for on-line sales, if the author is on hand and not on the other side of the globe. The simple ability to sell a book to a remote customer is something lots of bookstores have successfully developed during this shut-down: silly to allow that skill to wither away.

Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing links to an Electric Lit piece entitled It’s Time to Radically Rethink Online Book Events. The talking heads we are used seeing in such book events are obviously not taking full advantage of the potential of the medium. Whether a reading with a pet or a quiz involving assertions about the book under discussion will do the trick is less important than that someone should be thinking. Having mastered the basics of on-line meetings it would be irresponsible for bookstores and publishers just to give up on them (or thinking about how to do them more effectively) once it becomes acceptable to host an indoor meeting of many people.

One minimal change which occurs to me might be to show the page of the book on half of the screen while the author or whoever is reading extracts. We are readers after all, not by and large listeners. The use of supporting video content might be nice too, if only publishers and booksellers had video content available to them. Maybe our changing world will result in more such material being created. The present practice of having the compere read out questions submitted to them by the audience should probably remain: although something like Zoom might allow us all to see the questioner asking their question, it is always hard at “live” events to keep questioners to the point and to avoid their veering off on individual hobby-horses. I personally would not be upset by a more direct encouragement to order a copy of the book from the bookstore organizing the event. Make it easier and more will do it.

See also Virtuality.

A rather annoying video from Vimeo:

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

I’m struggling to understand what message this video is meant to convey. Paper is everywhere? Everything’s made of paper? Even people? I suppose the organizers hearts are  in the right place, even if also made of cellulose fiber. I became aware of this organization, Love Paper, North America through their half-page ad in The Economist. Can’t be cheap: well, actually, maybe it isn’t too expensive. They refer in their website to “the generous donation of advertising space by sustainability-conscious newspaper and magazine publishers”, so maybe their ad was in fact free.

But how many readers will have bothered to think about this ad? Because I’m interested in paper, I did of course. But there can’t be many other Economist readers who did more than turn the page. I suppose you have to do this is a kind of industry promotion effort — we even do general book promotions from time to time.

If you go to the Love Paper, North America site you’ll learn such inspiring facts as “U.S. forest area has been increasing by over 1,200 NFL football fields every day!” Too bad nobody’s allowed to play on them during this pandemic.

Via Lit Hub comes this Lapham’s Quarterly timeline showing How Books Became Cheap:

You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

For more on individual topics please see: Wallpaper; Casting type; Aldus Manutius; Dwarsliggers; Stereotype; Origins of book cloth; Hardcover parts; Why do paperbacks cost less than hardbacks?; The mechanization of typesetting.

See also Printing history timeline.


There’s no question that book publishing has fared a lot better under the Coronavirus crisis than anyone had the right to expect. Not quite as well as Amazon, who battened down the hatches in expectation of huge losses but ended up making a record quarterly profit of $5.2 billion as The New York Times told us a couple of days ago. (Access probably requires a subscription.) Poor old Jeff Bezos — there seems to be nothing he can do to stop all that ugly winning. I hope the money provides him with a little comfort in the face of the all-too-human propensity to hate most those whom we see as most prominently successful. Admit it: you have to agree that his on-line retail idea was great and his timing even greater.

During the early days of the pandemic Amazon deemphasized books in order to focus of life-saving goods. Despite this, and despite the initially almost complete shut-down of bookshops, books were still bought, and in decently large quantity; quantities large enough that many publishers have enjoyed a better first half than last year’s. The Passive Voice sends a link to a Jane Friedman story about publishing’s resilience.

Ms Friedman’s little throw away comment about Barnes & Noble’s sales being down about 20% as against last year disguises the fact that their stores have been shut for most of the last quarter, and have been taking advantage of the downtime to change the direction of the stores under the new leadership of James Daunt: better look; better selection; less centralized stocking decision-making. Now their stores are reopening and they have been ordering vigorously from publishers. Let’s hope the new look goes well. If B&N sees sales growth, they too may have to regard as fortunate the timing of the pandemic.

The Passive Guy’s commentary on Ms Friedman’s post is unusually polite to the publishing industry: perhaps he was saving it all for the next post on his site. This is Mike Shatzkin’s latest about how publishers should all get their books printed digitally at Lightning Source and set them up as ebooks with Open Road. PG pronounces: “PG will lay out the problem with big publishers. They don’t really want to change.”

Now of course this is nonsense. Change is perpetual and ever occurring; though maybe it’s not the change you’d expect or wish for. There’s no requirement, legal, ethical, economic, financial, whatever, forcing publishers to conduct their businesses in the ways favored by Mike Shatzkin or the Passive Guy; and I happen to think the ways those two favor are excellent ways — I have often opined that anyone setting up a publishing company today should not indulge in the cost of a warehouse: just use print-on-demand, ebook, and downloadable audio. But that doesn’t mean that I consider Penguin Random House, or any other publisher you care to name (can name!) as nuts for not switching their operations to such a model. Indeed I’d more likely regard them as crazy if they did so. Just because there’s an apparently more efficient way of doing something doesn’t mean that all those doing that have to do it the same way; and especially if what they are doing isn’t exactly the same thing. My parents ran a little knitwear company, making hand-knitted sweaters and so on. Hand knitting doesn’t mean, as I thought as little boy, a bunch of ladies sitting around with clicking knitting needles and balls of wool: it means knitting on a knitting frame powered by hand, with fashioning (narrowing) done manually and the whole thing put together on a little hand-powered linking machine. Now by the time they were doing this almost a couple of centuries had gone by since textile mills had been mechanized — remember the Industrial Revolution? — but that didn’t prevent the manufacture of hand-knitted garments which would command a premium price in the market.

If book publishers choose to conduct their business in ways which ebook-boosters like the Passive Guy regard as suboptimal — so what? When Passive Guys plonks down his money to set up his own publishing operation he can do things in “the right way” (which is the way I’d do it too). But the business he’d be in is not the business trade publishers are in: you just can’t overnight become the sort of publisher that Michele Obama, James Patterson and so on turn to. What changes will occur in the world of trade publishing remain unknown: they are however almost certain not to conform to the print-on-demand/ebook model.

The trials and tribulations of Ghislaine Maxwell take me back to memories of her father’s even more colorful life. Starting out in publishing in London in the mid-sixties you couldn’t avoid knowing far too much, whether true or false, about the giant bugaboo figure Robert Maxwell. The thought that you might have to go work at Pergamon Press was enough to make all lazy boys (and girls) keep their noses to the grindstone. Pergamon were reputed to churn out masses of scientific publications at dizzying pace: and besides they were by then based in Oxford.

Robert Maxwell was born in 1923 as Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch to poor Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish parents in Slatinské Doly in eastern Czechoslovakia. The place is now in Ukraine, and is called Solotvyno — the name is derived from the words for salt mine, working in which Maxwell was clearly unwilling to contemplate. Early in the war he escaped from Hungary (which had just reclaimed Slatinské Doly) and in May 1940 he joined the Czechoslovak Army in Exile in Marseille. Most of his family died in Auschwitz. Using by this time the name Ivan du Maurier he took part in protests against the leadership of the Czech Army, and was transferred along with 500 others to the British Army ending up after participating in the Normandy landings and drive across Europe as a sergeant in the North Staffordshire Regiment and recipient of the Military Cross for the storming of a machine-gun nest. In 1945 he was commissioned and ended up with the rank of captain. For two years following the end of the war he was attached to the Foreign Office and served in Berlin in the press section. He became a British citizen in 1946, two years later changing his name to Ian Robert Maxwell by deed poll.

After the war Maxwell used his contacts in occupied Germany to go into business. We all imagined trunks-full of captured German and Eastern European scientific documents shipped to Britain, quickly translated and fed into the maw of the voracious monster which was the post-war library market seeking to reestablish itself after wartime depletion. He became the British and U.S. distributor for Springer Verlag. In 1951 he bought ¾ of Butterworth-Springer, and changed the name of the company to Pergamon Press which quickly grew into a major publishing house. From 1964 to 1970 he was the Labor Member of Parliament for Buckingham.

Success beyond the wildest dreams of a small town boy. But all along the way there always were financial maneuvers which often wouldn’t survive scrutiny. He lost control of Pergamon in 1969 amid takeover scandals involving misstated accounts but got it back in 1974 — he had to sell it to Elsevier in 1991. He moved into the newspaper game, and did end up acquiring the Mirror Group in 1984. Wheelings and dealings continued. In 1988 he acquired Macmillan Publishers (this is not the British Macmillan but the American one*).

When I was working there at the turn of the century, Macmillan • USA was still feeling the financial effects of Maxwell’s tender touch. We used to say he jumped off his yacht, Lady Ghislaine, in 1991 with the pension fund in his back pocket. This however cannot be true as he was naked at the time when he fell (some would say jumped) while apparently peeing into the Atlantic Ocean off the Canary Islands. That the pension funds for many companies had indeed disappeared was unfortunately all too true.

I hadn’t realized that he had been active in football (soccer to American readers) having saved Oxford United from bankruptcy, and guiding them into the First Division in 1985. They won the League Cup a year later.

The nickname, the bouncing Czech, which resulted in one of several lawsuits against Private Eye, was allegedly invented by Prime Minister Harold Wilson under whom Maxwell served as MP.


* The nomenclatural distinction/confusion between the two companies came to an end in 2001, when Holtzbrinck, owners of the UK Macmillan bought all rights to the name after the collapse and dispersal of the assets of the US company, latterly named Macmillan • USA.



Quad Graphics have reopened their book manufacturing operations, which is a relief; but they still seem to want to focus on the magazine and catalog business.

Early this month Publishers Weekly informed us of the sale of Quad’s Versailles, Kentucky plant to CJK Group, which to most of us means Sheridan Press. The plant will operate under the name Sheridan Kentucky. The CJK website’s map is already updated.

Expanding on the dots on the map (which you can click on to enlarge) CJK informs us that they have also acquired over the years Media Lithographics, Capital City Press, The Press of Ohio, D. B. Hess Company, United Litho Inc., BookCrafters, Dartmouth Printing Company, Dartmouth Journal Services, Braun-Brumfield Inc., The Sheridan Press, Dickinson Press, and Thomson Shore.

Many of these names are old staples of the university press (short run) book manufacturing market. Sheridan Press started out in 1915 and served this market, specializing in journal printing and distribution. This new acquisition will extend their range, and provide considerable new capacity. This is good news: any reduction in book manufacturing capacity at this time would cause great disruption. Publication of many books has been held back till the fall, which is going to be crazily busy.

Let the rejoicing be unrestrained. This is Paperback Book Day, I’ve just discovered. How can I have been so ignorant? The website Days of the year clarifies: “Paperback Book Day is observed as the anniversary of the date that the first Penguin paperbacks were published in England back in 1935.” They go on to encourage us by suggesting “The best way to celebrate Paperback Book Day is to curl up with your favorite paperback book”. So no hardbacks please.