Archives for the month of: April, 2011

What’s going on?

Do we need to brace for worse?

Are ebooks taking over the world?

Of course something’s happening. We’ve been rabbiting on about the future of the book for most of this century. The discussion habitually mixes up the book as physical object, and the book as the content of that object, but the survival of the second doesn’t depend on the survival of the first.

The most positive angle I’ve heard on the book as container was offered by the keynote speaker at this month’s Interquest conference in New York City.  Bob Young, founder of Lulu and Red Hat, asked us to think of the printed book as just another platform for the content. It’s a platform that has its advantages and its drawbacks, just like any other one. Its big advantage is its archivability. I have several books bought by my father about 80 years ago, and, unsurprisingly, I can still access their content. Do you really expect to be able to read the book you just downloaded to your Kindle or iPhone on that device in 2090? The one platform is not better than any other: it’s just different.

A certain amount of the conversation within our industry is not so much about the survival of the book, as about the survival of our jobs making those books. To put it mildly, book manufacturing controller is not a job category that is expanding. The economics of the business in the future are of course hard to predict, but it is probably unlikely that expenditures on design, copyediting, proofreading, composition etc. are going to increase. People in these jobs don’t have to panic, but they should probably consider the probability that they are going to need to make a career change at some point in their working lives (unless like me they have already put in over four decades in the game). Currently ebooks sell for less than printed books (usually) but of course they cost less to “make” though not to create. Publishers’ revenues are thus liable to decrease, as will their manufacturing and warehousing costs. No doubt ways will be found to shrink plant costs further. I expect people will figure out how to make a decent living off publishing electronic books. But it will be very different. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you do what you do very well, that means what you do is of vital importance. Everybody has to be ready to adapt to new conditions, and new conditions are hurtling towards us. Notice that the printers you deal with are getting into digital printing as fast as they can. I suspect offset is in roughly the same position today as letterpress was when I started in publishing — doomed but still widespread. One of the advantages of digital print technology is the ability to print very short runs, even down to ones and twos, all potentially automatically reordered not by a human, but by the computer.

This link from Shelf Awareness, April 29th, 2011 talks about changes in the way we read ebooks as against printed books.  I do notice that I read The Economist differently on my iPod Touch than I do in the hard copy edition. The short items in “The World This Week” section look much more inviting on the iPod, where they more than fill the screen.  On the printed page they tend to me to look too insubstantial to bother with. I am also less likely to skip when reading on the iPod, where the temptation to look at the last paragraph and leave it at that just isn’t there on the screen. I read books both on the iPod Touch and in hard copy, often switching from one to the other as I go. I find neither mode “better”.  If the book’s good in the printed version, it also seems to be good in the electronic version.

Once upon a time publishing was a pretty low-key literary pursuit. Most people went into publishing for idealistic reasons, because they wanted to promote literature, not because they wanted to get rich. There have always been more aggressive, profit-motivated publishers, but in general the character of the business was less about money than about culture. It was a narrow-margin business, and people who really wanted to make money would be likely to have looked elsewhere. When I started working in publishing, it was a labor-intensive business. Although companies were comparatively small and book prices were low, most companies did fine. There was, it’s true, a post-war boom in publishing, and it often seemed that anything could be sold to libraries. Efficiencies didn’t seem important: as long as you didn’t actually lose money you could keep on publishing important books, and what more could an idealist want? Salaries were not high — they are notoriously hard to measure, but when I started it was believed that the differential between the top salary and the bottom salary was a factor of about 7. Quite a difference from today.

In the seventies or late sixties “business” woke up to the possibility that real money might be made from books. After all if you had a bestseller it could return huge sums in comparison with the origination cost and the reprint cost, and creating bestsellers couldn’t really be that hard, could it? You just needed to hire good people who could sign up the best authors, and sit back and wait for the tills to start ringing. This led to an orgy of mergers and acquisitions as almost all the general publishing companies were consolidated into a few giant corporations. Big corporations need to keep expanding in order to succeed — and acquisitions were a fast way to expand, as we found out that expanding the number of bestsellers wasn’t as easy as imagined. Soon after bookselling followed suit with expansion and consolidation, driven finally by the invention of and on-line retailing.

Bookselling had been even more genteel than publishing. Publishers fixed the discount at which booksellers could buy books, and thus had a lot of influence over the margin a bookstore could make. Bookstores tended to be library-like book-lined rooms tended by book-lovers whose motivation was once again not monetary. The small town where I grew up had two bookshops which closed before I reached adulthood: after years of having none, it has recently gotten a second-hand bookshop. With the development of chain bookstores, booksellers became more powerful and were able to negotiate higher discounts, special promotional payments and of course an ever-expanding stream of returns.

Can we be on our way back to the “good old days” of low turnover, low profitability, and satisfied survival? I’ve always thought that the attempt to make publishing more profitable was fundamentally misguided. Every book, a tiny item in the world marketplace, is a unique project requiring individual ingenuity to create and develop. Books just don’t lend themselves to commoditization and mass production. The best thing that could happen to us might be for the money guys to sour on the whole business, sell out, break up the conglomerates, allow some companies to close and others to shrink, and let a smaller industry get back to muddling along with the occasional best seller to perk up the otherwise uneventful scene. Whether the product gets sold as a print-on-demand book, an ebook or as part of a subscription to an online collection is ultimately much less important that that ideas keep getting into the hands of those who want to know about them. Are the current changes in the world of bookselling perhaps a harbinger of such a transformation?

Here’s a video on how to design an optical illusion cover, pointed out by GalleyCat.

Shelf Awareness for Tuesday April 26th, 2011 reports:

“A moment of silence, please, to mark the end of an era. Godrej and Boyce, the last company in the world still manufacturing typewriters, has shut down its production plant in Mumbai, India, with just a few hundred machines left in stock. The Daily Mail reported that even though ‘typewriters became obsolete years ago in the west, they were still common in India — until recently. Demand for the machines has sunk in the last ten years as consumers switch to computers.'”

How are all those typewriter enthusiasts now going to be able to get their machines repaired? Probably a few traditionalists will be able to get by by cannibalizing old typewriters for a few years. My neighbor at work, Bette Thresher, tells me that she goes round garage sales buying golf balls* for her IBM Selectric. I never had a relationship with a typewriter. When I was at school and university in Britain we were not allowed to use typewriters for our weekly essays — in contrast to the American experience — so I never learned to type until we got computers at work, which was probably in the late eighties or maybe early nineties — so recent, so revolutionary, and so forgotten! I still hunt and peck, but some frequently-used sentences roll off the keyboard at a speed which impresses me, if not perhaps my neighbors. Most of my colleagues have never worked in a typewriter environment, and know nothing of the charms of carbon paper and onion skin for multiple copies — yes, we didn’t have Xerox copiers either. Let us also memorialize the Typing Pool, a sizable department where high-speed typists banged out letters, memos, contracts etc. from dawn till dusk.

Posts below which include something about the typewriter are Upper & Lower Case and Disintermediation.

* the golf ball is the removable set of characters used to create the image.  Older typewriters had one set of characters only (traditionally Courier), but the golf ball enabled Selectric owners to have access to multiple fonts.

This fascinating account of the effects of competitive automatic algorithmic pricing was pointed out by Shelf Awareness on 25 April, 2011.  Maybe we all need to time our book purchases now, just as we have learned to do with airfares.

Now that Judge Denny Chin has rejected the settlement that we all had hoped would be the end of this story, where do we stand? Presumably the parties will get together to try and patch things up. Judge Chin did sign-post the direction they need to go in, so maybe it’ll work. The idea behind Google Books is a noble one, even if it stands to make an already rich company even richer. The idea that we could all access at any time all the books ever published sounds too good to be true.  Maybe it is.

It doesn’t upset me that Google stands to have a competitive advantage over the likes of Amazon and Microsoft in this area.  It was after all they who went ahead and digitized all that stuff.  Nobody said Amazon wasn’t allowed to do the same. Microsoft did actually start in on the task, but abandoned the effort fairly quickly. No doubt they figured out that that commercial advantage wasn’t really going to amount to a lot (of money) so the game wasn’t worth the candle. Of course if they can get some payback from the courts why wouldn’t they accept that?

In its 28 April issue The New York Review of Books has a good article by Robert Darnton. Of course he is really keener on a National Digital Library, but that suffers from the problem that what we have in front of us is not that, and does represent a huge amount of expenditure. We couldn’t realistically afford to buy Google out in the current political climate in Washington, so the compromise of fixing up the deal before us is probably the closest we’ll get to that ideal.

The main provisions of the Settlement were 1. Google would be authorized to scan, index, and make non-display use of all the books they had scanned from libraries around the world. (Though foreign books were one of the hurdles at which the settlement fell.) 2. The way access to these books would be provided was defined, including Preview (supported by advertising), Online consumer access, Institutional subscription, Public access service, Print-on-demand, Digital download. 3. Access for In Print books would not be allowed. 4. Access would be by default available for all Out of Print books. 5. The Book Rights Registry was established as an independent, non-profit organization to identify and locate rightsholders, and to distribute ultimate revenues to them. Michael Healy is its Executive Director Designate. Rightsholders would receive notification of the settlement and would control their own level of participation — the amount displayed (which could be zero) and the price charged for it.

Under the settlement just rejected there was a deadline of 31 March 2011 for claiming as your own, books which had been scanned.  Publishers and/or authors had to go to and register as the “owner” of a book and be set up to receive payments for usage.  The deadline for withdrawing books altogether was 9 March 2012. I wonder if publishers with thousands of titles in the database ever got round to registering. I did: one minimum opus didn’t represent a mountain of work. Of course, no doubt the dealline will have to be extended under any new agreement.

One of the controversial issues has always been”orphan works”. These are books no longer in print whose copyright owner has not been identified. It represents a huge number of works, and the assumption on which the settlement worked was that rightsholders of such works would be assumed to have opted in.  Monies earned for these works would be held for 10 years during which time it was hoped the owner would be identified.  If after 10 years no rightsholder had been found the monies would be distributed to charities. The rights of these unfound rightsholders were deemed by Judge Chin to have been infringed. If we don’t know who they are how can we assume they would want to opt in?

Shelf Awareness for Tuesday April 12, 2011 tells us: “A 500-year-old book was discovered recently at an ‘Antiques Roadshow-style fundraiser’ in Sandy, Utah. KSTU-TV reported that the man who donated $2 to find out how much a book he had inherited was worth learned the answer is more than $100,000.

‘Usually at these kind of things you are mostly being polite to people and disappointing them,’ said appraiser Ken Sanders. ‘A gentleman walked in and said I’ve got a really important book here and I’m sitting there rolling my eyes and thinking, “yeah, sure you do.” And then he opens it up and it’s a Nuremberg Chronicle from 1494 . . . Outside of museums I’ve never seen one before in my life and I most assuredly didn’t expect to find this book in Sandy, Utah today.’ The owner said he wanted to sell the book to a museum or library.”

Click on the link and you’ll find a video of the TV news item which shows more of the book than the photo below.

In theory the web allows you to create a book on the fly, containing whatever material you want it to contain. This doesn’t mean you can get War and Peace without the historical interludes, though ultimately you probably will be able to (though why you’d want to I don’t know, since they are fascinating). Wikibooks sets out to provide such a service. Authors have to allow their books to be available. The aim is to provide narrowly targeted textbooks.

It is not simply a print-out of the whole of Wikipedia — which someone recently did and bound as a book.

It’s obviously possible for publishers to buy board for case making, or ink, or cloth, but I’ve not worked for any who do. Maybe some of the big boys do it. Paper is however often bought by publishers. Once that was the norm, but now it’s becoming less common.

If you decide to buy paper yourself, you immediately face the task of managing the inventory. The best pricing is available for carload quantities — the notional railroad car holds 40,000lbs of paper — and that’s the level at which you will get the lowest per pound price.  If you can’t buy in carload quantities it’s probably not worth buying your own paper. Let’s say you want a white sheet and a cream sheet, and you normally do books which are either 6-1/8″ x 9-1/4″ or 5-1/2″ x 8-1/4″.  So right away you need four different inventories of paper. Can you use a carload of each in a reasonable length of time?  Maybe your designers and editors want to have a bulking sheet for very short books — add two more varieties to your inventory by deciding that bulking will only be available on the cream sheet.  What about a high bulk sheet for very long books: let’s just add it on the 6-1/8″ x 9-1/4″ option in white only: so now you have seven lots you are going to inventory. Do you use more than one printer?  Does this mean you have to inventory seven different papers and two or three different plants? Maybe you can concentrate the thin books in one plant and the fat ones in another, so at least you don’t have to carry three of your papers in more than one plant. So let’s say there are three printers each with four different paper inventories, one of whom has your two bulking sheets and another of whom has your thin paper: that’s 15 different paper inventories you are going to manage.

Assuming your employer is willing to finance this outlay, you place your orders with a paper merchant, and sit back and wait to use up the various papers before ordering more.  To do this you have to create a system: in my time I’ve made a fairly sophisticated database system in FileMaker Pro — actually three linked databases — to handle this, but just as effective, and a lot simpler to create, is the time-tried card index system. For each paper you need to record purchases, allocations, and actual usage. These need to be recorded in lbs. and dollars.  This means that if you are using sheets you’ll need to do your M weight calculation (see Basis weight below). You’ll need to keep a running balance of both allocations and actual inventory — your allocations will go against the balance you have on hand, and will indicate when you need to reorder.  Your actual usage will tell a similar story, but as the actual usage will always be different from the allocation, it will be a record of your inventory value. Allocations will always be off — things happen, and the amount predicted to be used will differ from the amount actually used. When estimating how much paper they will need, printers allow for standard amounts of spoilage for each step in the manufacturing process, but these are estimates and actuality is going to be different.  Occasionally less paper than allocated will be used, but more often there will be extra spoilage. You have to carry the can for this spoilage, though if it really is excessive on a particular job, you may get your printer to credit you. But even negotiating such a charge is costing you time, which equals money. Whose fault is it if a forklift truck damages a roll? What if the roof leaks? What if the paper has been stored for too long? These inventory shrinkages need to be negotiated, and covered by some sort of insurance. The extras can add up.

Whether at the end of the year you are likely to have saved money by maintaining your own paper inventory is an open question.  You might, but then again it’s easy to see the initial savings in cost fritter away. I suspect that, unless you are working for a gigantic operation, the savings from running your own paper inventory are going to be small at best. Probably that’s why fewer people are doing it nowadays. Buying paper as needed from the printer makes a lot of sense (prescheduling becomes even more important).  There are still consignment programs in places (where the paper merchant maintains an inventory at the printing plant which publishers can draw on when they need it, buying the paper from the paper merchant, not the printer).

Keeping a paper inventory is actually a lot of fun, and in my mind that’s the single best reason for doing it. Good luck getting your employer to agree.