Archives for the month of: December, 2012

One of the best features of working at OUP is having constant access on your office computer to The Oxford English Dictionary. There are also now some rather good foreign language dictionaries, as well as all of Oxford’s on-line monographic and text content. It’s amazing we ever get any work done! The OED is a huge project having a staff of its own which is larger than many publishing companies. Last week, one of these, Jesse Scheidlower (author of The F Word), published a piece in the New Yorker blog. One of the things he points out is the current on-going revision of the dictionary which is constantly being updated on-line. Recently OUP’s new President slightly incautiously said to reporters that he thought it unlikely that the next edition of the OED would ever be printed. It’s a mark of how integrated into our cultural life the OED is that this lead to a storm of journalistic comment, which I expect made him wish he’d kept his mouth shut. The same hoop-la can be seen each year when “The Word of the Year” is announced.

We are reprinting the current edition in China. It takes forever — there are 20 volumes, over 16,000 pages. When we first set up the files over there we had the printer scan the negatives from UK, and we all spent what seemed like weeks checking blues. We are still making corrections to the scans — and haven’t managed to get to press yet.

A few months ago I sent an email describing the manufacturing process for the Compact edition of the OED to a teacher in the Glasgow School of Art.

For as long as we can remember this book has been being printed in the USA, though the latest printing, this year, is being done in China.
Origination was done in Britain, as related on the copyright page of the book, but we think that even the first printing was done in America as that’s where the larger demand was. Printing was done by conventional sheet-fed litho (offset as we call it over here) at Rand McNally’s Taunton, Massachusetts plant. This plant was subsequently acquired by Quebecor, then World Color and ultimately Quad Graphics.  Print numbers are not entirely certain, but some quite large runs have been made: for instance the 2-volume edition was offered as a premium by Book-of-the-Month Club, which must have resulted in sizable printings.  Over the years print runs have been getting smaller and smaller, to the point where it has now become advantageous to print in China.
Printing at Taunton was on 30# “Bible” paper, 1010 ppi (pages per inch: my blog, Making Book gives instructions on converting to caliper).  30# means 30 pound basis weight — again see my blog post, which explains the concept and gives the conversion factor for gsm. Printing this book is in principle no harder than printing any other — after all an offset press can place a halftone dot with pretty decent precision, though I expect they would run it as less than maximum speed with a good deal of checking running sheets.  The China printer will be using a 45 gsm Bible paper. The Book-of-the-Month Club edition (which I have) came with a Bausch and Lomb magnifier, and this was what was in the earlier printings of the book.  We now use a domed magnifier which because of its shape draws in all available light, and provides a superior view. This magnifying glass was originally sourced by a man in Peekskill, New York, who got the glass from France and assembled the magnifier here. Later on he would get the glass from China, and with this latest printing the whole thing is being sourced in China: shipping back and forth is obviously not economical.
Binding has to have maximal reinforcements, is sewn, and is cased in with the pages flush at the foot of the case.  It is then inserted into a slip case, and placed into a cardboard box which also contains the magnifier and an Instruction booklet.  This box is then packed in a mailer carton with a good deal of padding to protect it in shipping. The cartons are shipped to us on pallets. The book is 2424 pages, 10″ x 14″ trim size, and weighs 17.74 lbs. One of the problems in getting a book like this done is finding a press that can print (economically) this large trim size on this light a paper.
As you are no doubt aware, offset printing in USA requires negative film which is right reading emulsion down, whereas most of the rest of the world goes the other way.  This meant that we could not send our US negatives over to Hong Kong and hope for a good result: with such small type (2pt after the reduction of the original pages) the distortion caused by contacting would have introduced a totally unacceptable blur.  This means that we had to have the negatives scanned. Scanning was done at 1800 dpi, and is still on-going as the Chinese printer works though the whole book, finding pages where the scanning has left feint type (particularly prevalent in italics apparently) which requires rescanning of some pages.  The Chinese printer is going to be printing with a process black rather than a PMS black as this provides better readability.
I hope this provides some of the information you need.  With these long term projects so much of what was done becomes lost in the mists of time.

With the dictionary now constantly undergoing revision, as a digital entity, printing in the future will in fact be easier than it has been in the past. Of course by the time the new edition is complete, conditions could well have changed, but looking at it today it would seem to a quite probable that a printing might in fact be justified.

There now seems to be a consensus that, despite the growing popularity of e-books, the printed book as we know it will continue to be available for ever and ever. I don’t deny that there are reasons to prefer ink-on-paper, and I am sure that books will indeed be printed in the future.

But what I can’t accept is the casual assumption that this means that those among us who prefer printed books will be able to carry on just as before. We won’t. Printed books will become luxury items, and will return to costing a fortune, just as they did before Gutenberg’s revolution started the process of turning them into mass objects. Today’s book manufacturing industry has become an amazingly efficient operation. This has been done by investment in equipment and by specialization. When I started in publishing you tended to chose your printer based on the availability of a particular typeface there — in letterpress days typesetting and printing lived together. Binding was often done elsewhere. The trim size you decided on would only be affected to a rather limited degree by the presses owned by the printer. You’d make it work, and buy paper to fit. Over the years printers, having got rid of the typesetting bit, have specialized in particular strands of book work: some are efficient for 7″ x 10″ books, others for 6-1/8″ x 9-1/4″. Gradually their equipment, ever faster and slicker, comes to mandate that they can only do this or that size of book (or range of sizes). They compete with other printers on price, a consequence of efficiency, and make good money only when the plant is full and humming, fully utilizing their fiendishly expensive machines. To take advantage of the attractive pricing publishers have reduced the variety of sizes of books they publish — nowadays books tend mostly to be 3 or 4 sizes: we just can’t “afford” to print an odd sized volume. Books are historically cheap to make.

As e-books capture part of the market for books, the number of print books will become smaller and smaller. You can’t expect a big book manufacturer to wait around for the 5 or 6 reprints you do this quarter — they need volume to amortize their immense equipment investment. Without volume, many book manufacturing plants will close. Now of course, as stipulated, there will always be demand for printed books. However without the big printers who keep prices down by printing millions of volumes, the print business will become smaller, and being smaller, more expensive. This could lead to a printing renaissance — letterpress equipment (if you can find any) is excellent for short runs — and if the book has to be expensive, you can see wanting to make it beautiful too. The cynic in me however keeps whispering that the future will be e-books and POD (print-on-demand).

Norman Woodland, co-inventor of the bar code, just died, in Englewood, New Jersey which you can see from the windows of our apartment. Here’s Steve van Dulken’s post on the British Library Patent Search Blog from 14 December. His link to the BBC obituary doesn’t seem to work, so here’s another. There’s an entry in Wikipedia of course.

How the bar code was invented and developed

It has been announced that Norman Woodand, co-inventor of the bar code, has died. There is a BBC obituary with interesting facts about him and the invention. Bernard Silver, the other inventor, died in 1963. This post adds further information to the BBC story.

In 1948 Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, overheard a conversation between a faculty member and a food store chain executive. The executive wanted the Institute to develop a system which would quickly and accurately capture product data at the check-out counter.

His friend Woodland first suggested ultraviolet light sensitive ink, but that did not work. Then he suggested adapting Morse Code – dots and dashes – by drawing them down to form thin and thick lines to represent binary information (zeroes and ones). The sand story, as told in the obituary (and new to me), came about when he was staying at his grandfather’s apartment in Florida.

Similarly the DeForest movie sound system, that used a sensitive tube to detect the projector light shining through the side of the film, was adapted. Light was converted into numbers rather than into sound. The patent advocates a shape like an archery target rather than our modern linear design, so that it could be scanned from any direction (both covered both formats). Its title was Classifying apparatus and method and it was filed for in 1949. Below is the main drawing.

Original bar code patent drawing

The concept was not feasible until computer power and cheap reliable machines based on lasers became available in the late 1960s. The now standard bar appearance is used, as the target design meant that the ink tended to “bleed”, making accurate reading difficult. The common usage of uniform barcodes had to be agreed by manufacturers in what is now the Universal Product Code, or UPC, and must have been a huge effort, as lots of items had to have codes printed on them before any scanning actually happened.

A bar of Wrigley’s® chewing gum was the first to be scanned, in an Ohio store in 1974.

 When we first did ISBNs on books, we didn’t really know what we were doing. They just seemed like annoying arrays of digits, and we no doubt often got them wrong, having no real idea what “check digit” meant for instance. For years we just printed the ISBN on the back of the jacket, and often stamped it on the back of the case of a hardback. Now the idea of a book without a bar code or ISBN is unthinkable — sooner no title than no number! Many an email received at work comes headed with only ISBN.

One of the unavoidable rituals of your third year was a visit to the University Careers Service, which in the early sixties was located in a large house in Chaucer Road.  As an arts student I was clearly a more difficult problem than engineers, lawyers and chemists. They had me go to two interviews before giving up on me. I told an advertising company that I thought advertising cigarettes was immoral, which effectively ended my promising PR career. Can’t remember who the other interview was with — but after that, when I broke down under Careers Service third degree and opined (having a girlfriend who worked for Wm. Heinemann) that I thought I’d like to work in publishing, I found I had stumbled onto the royal road to disengagement. “Oh, you’ll never be able to get a job in publishing” they gasped. “If that’s what you’ve decided on, then there’s really nothing we can do for you.” Which was fine by me, as I’d never thought about employment, and was having too much fun to start now. When I later told my tutor, the delightfully named Gus Caesar, that after graduating I thought I’d go to Paris and think about writing, he guffawed and said he thought I’d be all right in the long run.

In the fullness of time I came down and had to confront the need to do something.  I flirted with that mainstay of my home town, the wool trade — knitwear or tweeds.  I even went to Glasgow to check out a postgraduate course in that industry. I then rather drifted down to London where I stayed with a friend on the outskirts and later in a flat in Earl’s Court, and did supply teaching in Middlesex.  Supply teaching (substitute teaching in USA) seemed ridiculously well paid, although somewhat frustrating in that you were rarely allowed to “teach” anything; you were there to keep them quiet.  At this I wasn’t very good. I remember an irate teacher rushing up from the floor below because he’d seen the chair my pupils has tossed out of the window floating past his. The most memorable point in my teaching career was witnessing, along with the entire school body, the punishment of a bully. We all formed a circle while the biggest boy in the school beat the bejeezus out of the offender. They wore boxing gloves, so nobody should get hurt, and no doubt Queensbury rules applied.

Eventually I was able to get a job. Having claimed publishing as my destination I thought I should make an effort to make this true. It wasn’t all that easy. I can remember interviewing at Cassels, Longmans, Thames & Hudson and Penguin. I assume there were others, but I can’t, I apologize, remember them. I sent lots of keen letters with my skimpy curriculum vitae (what you call resumé) to all sorts of people. The first job offer I got came with a salary of £300 a year. Now in those days the pound was worth more than now, and many a working man would be making that sort of money. However rent on a flat in London would easily run you that sort of amount, so clearly these were starvation wages. The job was evidently intended for someone living at home with their parents. After months of non-success I was directed, via my family connections to the Polish diaspora in London, to Miss Kvercic at Dillon’s University Bookshop — an exceptionally well connected bookseller. She barked “Go to Cambridge”. I had assumed University Presses were out of my (intellectual) range, never having been an exceptional student, but I went, interviewed for the Publicity job they had, and failed to get it. In rejecting me they did however say “Don’t let this decision stand in the way of your applying for any other jobs we may have”.  I didn’t — and on April Fool’s Day 1965 I put on my suit and turned up at Bentley House.


For an account of what happened there please see “A nightingale sang in Euston Square“.

There’s been a certain amount of unsurprising reaction to the Dalkey Archives recent job posting. Here’s the Shelf Awareness story.

Employment Opportunity: Total Commitment Required

Dalkey Archive Press has created a social media stir with a detailed “Open Positions” listing on its website that is described as the beginning of a “process of succession from the founder and current publisher, John O’Brien, to a publishing house that will be directed by two-three people along with support staff.”


Citing a recent decision to make London the publisher’s base of European operations, Dalkey Archive said it plans to develop staff there, and during the transition a “pool of candidates for positions will be primarily derived from unpaid interns in the first phase of this process, although one or two people may be appointed with short-term paid contracts.”

Dalkey Archive founder John O’Brien photo: L.A. Times

The job requirements are, to put it mildly, stringent. For example, Dalkey Archive requires that potential candidates be “determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen,” are “willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards,” will do “whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed” and–in the renounce-all-personal-life category, “do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.).”


It’s not really too amazing that a publisher would prefer that their staff were totally dedicated to literature, reluctant to take time off, in love with literature and the business of books to the extent that they eschewed all personal life, it’s just surprising to see it so openly solicited. I especially like this bit from the ad:   “Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.” Obviously I’m not applying. The only phone calls I get these days are from my wife — I probably get one of these per day, and I did “discover” this Shelf Awareness story while at work. I often wonder why the company bothers to maintain phone service now that everything is done by email.

Mr O’Brien has tried to minimize the damage: in an interview with Irish Times, he explained: “The advertisement was a modest proposal. Serious and not-serious at one and the same time.” Of course, we all know what Swift’s modest proposal entailed. It’s easy to try an hide behind a joke — and while one is hard pressed to claim that these sorts of work practices are to be encouraged, there’s a world of difference between thinking such things and formally articulating them.

It has ever been thus (perhaps mostly under the surface). When I was first trying to get into publishing in London in 1964, the first job offer I got came with a salary of £300. That’s £300 per annum. I said that while that might cover my rent, it would mean I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat, and that as I’d become used by that age to eating, I really didn’t think I could do it. Of course I’m sure they got someone to whom not being paid a living wage was no barrier — and for all I know that person is now running the company. Still in spite of these barriers we all continue to be happy to serve. Today I conducted a tiny survey among my colleagues (don’t tell Mr O’Brien). In response to the question “Why did you decide to work in book publishing” I got 10 “I/my parents loved books”, 6 “random chance/it was the first job I got”, 3 “I was working in a related industry”, and 1 “My girlfriend worked in publishing” (that was me). One said it was “money/power” which kind of tells it all — obviously a joke, because nobody seeking power and or money would plump for this plump, mature business.

Nowadays more and more of the functions which we used to think of as core to the book publishing enterprise are being outsourced. Freelance workers have ever been a part of the publishing picture, but they are becoming more and more common. There’s much to be said for the freelance life — you set your own pace, and work in your own surroundings. Your earnings are of course utterly uncertain, and you have to go out and “sell” yourself to keep the work flowing in. The big objection used to be that you didn’t get benefits — but dare we hope that Obamacare marks the end of that problem. As a freelancer you don’t get a pension, but of course fewer and fewer of us do now anyway. Freelancers are of course one step up from the unpaid or lowly-paid intern, now so conspicuous in our business. Some publishers have been exposed for exploiting unpaid internships — thankfully I’ve never worked for a company which stooped to such extremes.

John B. Thompson, a professor of sociology at Cambridge has written about publishing before  — am I right in thinking that I remember that he along with Tony Giddens was involved in setting up Polity Press in Cambridge in 1984? It may be a reflection of the soundness of his work (or my lack of critical faculty) that as I read Merchants of Culture:The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, 2nd edition, I kept saying “I know, I know”. The book is about trade publishing about which I really don’t know anything much, except what I’ve picked up over the years as an outsider looking on.

Thompson identifies three huge transformative influences affecting trade publishing in the past 20 years — the growth of literary agency; the growth of the book selling chains; and the conglomeration of publishing companies. The combined effect of these three influences he demonstrates to be entirely baleful, leading to desperate over-publishing, and an almost suicidal race to the bottom as panicky editors seek to signup instant books to fill the gap in the turnover demanded by their corporate owners. Publishers (or trade publishers) are shown to be whiplashed between ever more powerful agents demanding more money for their authors, and ever more powerful book selling chains, demanding higher discounts. Discounts he identifies as the main problem in Britain, where best-selling books cannot get to that status without the help of the supermarkets. In America he sees the larger and larger author advances as the bigger problem.

He quotes one former CEO of a large corporation “The agony and the ecstasy of the book publisher starts out with high returns in the first part of the year, disappointing sales and postponed publication dates and then sheer absolute terror as he or she contemplates the financial results based on what is actually known at that point.” Where’s the ecstasy?

Who should read this engrossing book? In some ways the obvious candidates, people working in publishing, for literary agents, or for the bookselling chains probably already know what Thompson describes. It’s great that he does describe it, as the world of trade publishing is ever-changing. He has described one ground change, and no doubt others will follow, so for posterity it’s good to have this description of the reality of the first decade of the 21st century. Students in publishing courses must be reading it. Aspiring authors would do well to read it, though it may put them off their planned career-path. But of course, change is constant, and optimism has to be a big part of the authorial make up, so the (to me) awful warning to authors carried by Chapter 10 may just glide past them. Things are changing faster and faster. Let’s hope this book doesn’t turn into a work of history.

I did read this on my iPad. As a Kindle book it cost me $9.99. This may make me part of the problem.

Here’s a time-lapse video showing the development of printing in 15th century Europe, based on the number of books in the Harvard University library.

Obvious how insignificant England was, and Spain, though it begins to come on strong later in the century. Eastern Europe is a relative blank. The main axis is from Italy north through Germany into the Netherlands.  It’s a project of the metaLab at Harvard, reported in The Atlantic .

Everyone starts feeling itchy when bedbugs are mentioned. The New York Times today brings us a report of a new twist. People who read in bed are sometimes inadvertently returning their bedbugs to the library along with their books. The article describes the ways libraries are trying to meet the challenge.

Here’s a bug-sniffing dog helping out in Wichita, Kansas.


The TLS of 2 November 2012 brings us this story.


“Glass chalices, containing the ashes of, in this case, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. These items form part of an ongoing installation, Diabolus in Vitro, for which Antonio Riello, an Italian artist, is methodically burning books, inspired, if that is the right word, by the experience of having grown up surrounded by his mother’s collection of around 5,000 volumes. Riello began the project in 2010, choosing his favorite books to burn and commissioning Venetian glassmakers to create reliquaries for the remains. A selection of 100 chalices is on view at Salon Vert in London, and a panel discussion, ‘How does the despicable act of book burning, a bonfire from the dark pages of history, translate in today’s world?’, is to be held at the gallery on November 20.”

Maybe 5,000 books is a lot for a little boy to be surrounded by, but the urge to burn them seems an inappropriate response. Dr. Irving Finkel describes it, at the November 20 discussion reviewed at, as “a barbaric, scandalous, and altogether unacceptable practice”. Sounds like he single-handedly created an exciting evening. I confess I’d have been in his corner.

I did a post about Book burning about a year ago.

On 29 April last year I posted an obituary. Clearly reports of the death of the typewriter were premature. They have been being manufactured in Britain since then. On 21 November 2012 The Guardian reports in their Shortcuts blog the closing of the last British factory making typewriters, in Wrexham. Learning from past indiscretion, I hesitate to say this is the end — who knows what’s going on in, say, Kazakhstan — but still it’s sad.

Discussion goes on about the difference of writing your book by hand (pen/pencil) or by computer. I suppose that the typewriter fell in the middle — whatever that means. It is my personal, thus utterly unscientific, observation that when authors got computers, the length of books went up by about 15%: adding stuff was easy; deleting unnecessary.