Archives for the month of: April, 2013

When I was young there were bookshops everywhere. The town I was born in (11,000 inhabitants) had three bookshops; none as splendid as the one in this video. One was a real general bookshop — I still own the first book I ever bought for myself there. There was another substantial bookshop which was part of a small printing company/stationer, and the third was really more of a newsagent, selling popular books. We also had a bookstall at the railway station of course. The little village nearby had a decent bookshop too. Most people in Britain had easy access to a bookshop, and many did make use of them. Now the species seems to be endangered.

This charming video was delivered to me by Shelf Awareness:

Abraham Associates sales rep John Mesjak’s My3Books blog featured a video tour of Oxford University Press USA’s distribution center in Cary, N.C. “This video from one of my client publishers… will show you the tall racks with multiple levels of pallets, as well as the smaller shelves with individual piles of books. 4.5 million books in stock at any given time! That is a lot of books. And they mounted a camera on a box on the conveyor belt! Awesome!” Mesjak wrote. (From Shelf Awareness 12 April)

Self publishing continues to get coverage in the industry press. It looks rather like the new normal — see this Guardian article for instance. Maybe publishers are becoming more and more like service companies, offering this or that service to authors. HarperCollins, Penguin and now Simon & Schuster were early into the game. Now even  Barnes & Noble  are doing it, through their Nook Press, as reported by Publishers Weekly. This all feels like a return to eighteenth-century publishing arrangements — though I’m not sure I’d want to have to justify that assertion with any real evidence.

GalleyCat brings a round-up of video tutorials giving aspiring self publishers instruction on various aspects of the job. Last November they also provided this useful guide to the costs involved in self publishing.

Here’s word from Publishing Perspectives on April 10, about Smashwords becoming an international self publishing platform. The international angle has presented problems for the self published. Kerry Wilkinson, a hugely successful self publisher, ultimately signed with a publisher because of the time he feared foreign rights might take up. Also this week Publishing Perspectives did a post on maximizing rights income for self publishers.

Publishing Perspectives of April 18th carrries an account of a self publishing session at the London Book Fair.

This pastime may be in its last days as libraries become more and more electronic. Let’s by all means save print so people can write comments inside their books — I doubt whether annotations on an ebook can be saved to the library copy. I’ve never really liked annotating books, though I am quite happy when I come across a paved French or German book from my youth. Paving is what we called writing the English word above the foreign word to facilitate subsequent reading. Here’s a richly defaced library book.


I regard the making of annotations in a library book is a form of exhibitionism. Making marginal comments in your own copy (not something I ever do — the furthest I’ll go is to pencil something on the back endpaper or a handy blank page back there) is obviously acceptable — after all it’s yours in a way which we are beginning to realize an ebook rarely is. Maybe we have to forgive the absent-minded professors among us, even if they may sometimes be more self regarding than absent minded. And of course years later these annotations may become valuable — after all the notes of genius make for permanent harmonies. But marking up a library book is beyond selfish: even if you do hope to borrow the book again in a few years to reread it, what of all the intervening readers who have been forced to stop and study your lucubrations? I occasionally dip into the second hand market and can report that highlighting in yellow marker does not unfit a book for scanning into digital form. The scanner can see through yellow, but of course will faithfully reproduce those ball-point pen markings, as you can verify form looking at Google Books, fertile ground for a study of markings in library books. There you will also encounter the often prolific library identification stamps. And I really hate meeting those dotted underlines in a Kindle text which tell me that some other reader has highlighted that passage. What do I care what some other reader thought, I scream, as I plough on. Is this what social readers crave?

Joe Orton was done for defacing library books: he got six months. His activity was motivated more by cultural politics than the expediency which drives the paver. The TLS of 19 December 2011 had an account under the heading Textual harassment.

An unusual form of official “defacement” is reported in the TLS article on the meeting of Dickens and Dostoevsky mentioned in my previous post on Sock puppetry. In 1988 the editor of History took the “extraordinary step of sending the journal’s subscribers a supplementary article by Howard Nenner, a professor at Smith College, which was printed on gummed pages. Subscribers were instructed to paste the article in over another article in the June issue of History. That contribution, ‘Conservative Ideology in Britain in the 1790s’, by Trevor McGovern, ‘so plagiarized a work by A. D. Harvey that it should have been ascribed to him’. Dr Speck [the editor] apologized to subscribers for his lack of vigilance and thanked Professor Nenner for allowing his article to be published in this ‘unorthodox’ manner. (This unique method of dissemination has had unexpected consequences in the digital age. Nenner’s contribution has no place in the Wiley digital library for History, where McGovern’s article continues to be available. Some libraries, including Swarthmore College’s, never gummed in the pages. Others, including those at Princeton and the University of Virginia, followed the journal’s suggestion, with the result that McGovern’s contribution was rendered inaccessible to anyone interested in the history of the journal itself.)

Sock puppet reviews is the charming name for artificial reviews posted on-line (e.g. on in a log-rolling effort to get the sales of your perhaps less than brilliant book up into the double or even triple figures. These tend to be paid for by authors in an effort to make their books seem more popular. Writers have always taken in each other’s laundry: if you review me (well), I’ll review you (well). Never of course an explicit contract, but certainly an implied one in many cases. When review media were thinner on the ground this game was only playable by a few — those who were reviewers for the print review media. Now with Amazon and the likes it becomes a game open to any and all. If you Google “paid book reviews” you will find several businesses willing to review your book for a fee. This New York Times article gives an account of one such operation. It’s amazing how much authors will pay, and how little the business has to pay people to actually write the reviews! Amazon doesn’t like these sock puppet reviews as you can see, and as this piece from Techdirt tells.

Here’s another account from a British perspective, from The Bookseller blog Futurebook:
“Amazon has retrospectively deleted a number of reviews from its website that it deems fall foul of its revised guidelines. This has irked writer/reviewers such as the ever vociferous Joe Konrath, who describes it as a major fail on Amazon’s part, but blames the company’s actions on those authors who put their names to the ‘No Sock Puppets Here Please’ letter. Amazon’s new guidelines prohibit authors and publishers from posting reviews against products where there is a conflict of interest, either because of a direct financial interest (i.e the publisher of the book), or where there is a ‘directly competing product’ (i.e. a crime author reviewing a fellow crime-writer’s book). This at least is the theory, it is not clear how Amazon is policing it. On Konrath’s blog there is plenty of argument over unintended consequences, but the truth is that the move shows how precarious a world dominated by Amazon really is, a detail that seems lost on some. Amazon can shift this landscape with a tweak of its computer code. And it doesn’t always get this right. As Lee Child notes in the comments section on Konrath’s blog: ‘So what has happened here is that a problem was perceived (much more likely via the NYT than anywhere else) and Amazon tried to solve it via robotic automation, and failed to hit the spot. They’ll try a few more times, and eventually they’ll get it a little closer to right.'”

Self published authors puffing their friends’ books on Amazon is one thing. But here’s a report of someone hacking into the website of an academic publisher and faking peer reviews. This strikes at the basis of the trust which underlies the publication of academic books and articles: we publishing staff can’t possibly be expected to understand some of the research papers and book manuscripts we pass gate-watcher judgement on. We have to trust our trusted advisors. Well maybe we now have to deal with them the old-fashioned way, by mail and by telephone.

In the TLS of 10 April 2013, Eric Naiman has written a long and fascinating piece which exposes a web of fictitious reviews, publications, academics, all brought to light by some checking into the planted story (repeated in several recent biographies of Dickens, though in some cases later withdrawn) that in 1862 Dostoevsky on a visit to London, had a meeting and a revealing conversation with Dickens. Naiman set out to discover the source of this canard, but along the way his detective work lead him to a number of scholars who share a readiness to quote one another as well as their putative creator, in a circularity that makes the head spin. Made-up reviews, written by made-up people, and sometimes even published in made-up publications is sock puppetry of a higher order. Naiman writes: “There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.”

Not sure I’m willing to dismiss the Amazon problem as virtual graffiti — not sure whether virtual graffiti is something I’d want to encourage anyway, even if I had a clear idea what it was. As long as you’re not having to pay a lot for a self published ebook, I guess the amount of harm done by being mislead into buying it by made-up reviews isn’t huge in the scheme of things. But it’s still wrong. Personally I don’t make buying decisions based on what people I’ve never heard of have said about a book, but I have looked at Amazon reviews (even written one or two). To the extent that they can tell you something factual, they are useful. If Mr Bing Liu is right (see the NY Times article) and fully 1/3 of on-line reviews are not genuine, we should consult on-line reviews with “caveat emptor” ringing in our ears.

Authors may often think they could do a better job that their publishers, but they should resist the temptation to invest and try to affect policy. A certain distance between the creative and the business side of a book should be maintained. Many people working in publishing become writers, but the unwritten rule that employees should not submit their manuscripts to their employers, is a wise one. Of course there will be exceptions: Sir Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing was published with great success by George Allen and Unwin the company he founded — but one might reasonably expect that author to be able to write well on that topic, and anyway how can you say no to the boss? T. S. Eliot was a director of Faber and Faber, and he seems to have come out of it OK. I wonder if he had a colleague act as editor of his own poetry. Of course he didn’t decide to work at a publishing company because his books were selling lots of copies, and he hoped to cash in. This unfortunately would be the case of Mark Twain.

Twain’s early books were published on subscription. This was quite a common method of publication in the nineteenth century. Salesmen went from door to door taking orders, and you could chose from various binding options, from plain to very elaborate. After a while Twain decided that he hadn’t been making enough from his very successful books. He founded the publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Co. in 1884, and the first book they published, in 1885, was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This made enough money for the company to fund publication of Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, which also did well despite the huge royalty payments due to Grant’s widow. Subsequent publications were unfortunately not as successful. Twain’s main preoccupation during the early 1890s was money. He produced a flurry of books, some grossly padded out, attempting to shore up his finances. In 1894 the bank foreclosed on a loan forcing the Charles L. Webster & Co. into bankruptcy. As two-thirds owner, Twain was hard hit. But he might have weathered the storm if it had not been for his wild enthusiasm for the Paige typesetting machine. He bought half the company from the machine’s inventor James Paige in 1886. At the height of its development, the Paige machine had over 18,000 separate parts, and was designed (with the help of one operator at the keyboard) to set over 8000 ems an hour. It could never be made to work reliably, spending most of its time in bits being repaired. Before the Paige Compositor could ever be got going properly the Linotype machine had swept the market. By the time he had to declare bankruptcy in 1894, Twain had spent between $200,000 and $300,000 on an overambitious machine which never worked properly.

Paige Compositor

Paige Compositor

Sir Water Scott is another author brought low by his involvement in publishing (and printing). His friend James Ballantyne had established a press in Kelso in 1796, and was involved in the printing of Scott’s early works, the 3-volume The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and The Lay of the Last Minstrel. In 1809 Scott persuaded James and his brother to move their press up to Edinburgh, and invested in the company. By 1813 the firm was in financial difficulties, and from this date onward Scott’s writing was largely directed at making money to shore up his investment in the company. The first of the Waverley novels, Waverley, was published in 1814: Scott had pulled out from his bottom drawer a manuscript he had started to work on in 1805, but then abandoned. Seeking to make more money he entered into partnership with Archibald Constable in a publishing company named Constable. Almost every bill received by the publishing company was settled by discounting future earnings from Scott’s writing. Eventually the house of cards collapsed.  Constables went under in the financial and banking crisis of 1825-1826 , bringing down the Ballantyne’s printing company too. Rather than declare himself a bankrupt, Scott placed his income and Abbotsford, his house, in a trust belonging to his and the Ballantynes’ creditors and  spent the rest of his life furiously writing in order to pay off the debt. When he died in 1832 he had not succeeded, but of course his books continued selling after his death, and the debt was eventually discharged in full.

Abbotsford and the Tweed

Abbotsford and the Tweed

Charles Dickens was closely involved in the running of Master Humphrey’s Clock and Household Words. He was however editor, and did not hazard his personal wealth on these periodicals. His childhood experience of his father’s imprisonment for debt in the Marshalsea probably protected him from financial speculation.

Samuel Richardson was a printer/publisher who late in life turned to writing novels, often credited with inventing the genre. However he appears not to have printed and sold his own books.

Benjamin Franklin became wealthy publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac as well as The Pennsylvania Gazette and this doesn’t appear to have hampered his prospects. But again he was printer first, author second.

I recently attended a panel discussion at which someone insisted that there was absolutely no question about it, you could tell in an instant whether a color piece had been printed by offset or digital, and that offset was obviously, to anyone who knew printing, markedly superior. It reminded me of the seventies in Cambridge where the same thing was being said about offset and letterpress (black & white admittedly) to offset’s disadvantage. You can of course feel the recessed impression on a letterpress page, so even a relative printing ignoramus like me can easily tell them apart, but other than that it’s difficult to discern a difference. Anyway whether letterpress is better than offset or not is kind of academic: how many books are printed by letterpress today?

My feeling about  these sorts of quality assertions is always that, in book manufacturing, the reaction of “someone who really knows printing” is ultimately irrelevant. We are not in business to win prizes for printing excellence; nice though it may be to get recognition for our efforts. What is important is whether the book is printed well enough that customers will be induced to (or at least will not refuse to) buy it because of “production values”. And I do believe that the customer, of course not “someone who knows printing”, is by and large ridiculously tolerant. This should not be taken to imply that bad printing is something we should encourage: given your druthers, you’d rather get a book that was printed excellently than one that was just printed well, but in some cases, a book which is printed rather poorly will do just fine for the intended market. Too much specialized knowledge can be a barrier to success. I remember one job, years ago, where I inherited a dispute with the cover printer over the 3rd or 4th press proof. My predecessor had been louping the proof and sending it back marked up with instructions like “- 2% cyan, + 1% magenta” etc. in bubbles all over it. The thing was still garbage. In my innocence I said as much and asked for a new original photo — end of problem.

So here is an article by Frank Romano in Book Business who confirms my impression that color digital printing can actually be pretty damn good. He refers to the new business of self-produced photo albums, facilitated by Lulu and Blurb and other similar sites. These books are all digitally printed on a good coated sheet, often in quantities in the single digits, and are beautiful (I make no endorsement of the design or content, just the printing). Thousands and thousands of these books are being printed now — wedding albums, recollections of a vacation, family reminiscences, sporting events and so on. They make some of the cheap offset reprints you used to find on the remainder tables look pretty sickly.

On Tuesday we met an old friend for dinner. The restaurant, a little Italian place, was excellent. We had a good bottle of Nero d’Avola (well two actually), and that was good too. We caught up on our recent activities, and that’s always fascinating: after all we all of us face more or less the same issues, working in book publishing. She had lost her editorial job when the publisher she worked for was shut down by “corporate”, and is now doing freelance work. A bit of this and a bit of that. Working on a proposal for a well known personality. Doing some e-books for a nontraditional book publishing operation.

Across the restaurant she noticed a famous academic, one of whose books she had worked on, extensively, not that long ago. He was at a large table spiritualizing and controvertializing with a group of colleagues from the nearby college where he teaches. By coincidence Linda had also published a book by this writer, but as a non-editor, her relationship was more distant, less personal. After we finished eating, our friend went over to say hello. It was all big hugs and “Surprise” “Surprise”, and “What are you up to now?”. She darted back to our table to collect one of her business cards. Who knows what may come of it.

With The Prince and the Pauper (1881) Mark Twain moved to a new publisher, James R. Osgood, where he could call on the services of Andrew Varick Stout Anthony, himself an engraver and artist. Previously Twain had hired and supervised the artists who illustrated his books, as well as dealing with details of production. Anthony hired three illustrators, Frank T. Merrill, John Harley, and L. S. Ipsen. Twain paid them himself.

The pattern of book illustration back then involved much more text runaround than we are used to now. Here are some examplesPrince_and_PauperP118 Prince_and_PauperP297

One of the reasons we have stopped doing this is of course expense. But all that runaround caused problems for the compositors. Look at the lines in the middle of page 188 “Mind thy tongue thou”. Because “Mind thy” starts a paragraph the comp has been able to space the line by adjusting the para indent. The next line however has had to be spaced by extra word spacing and (typesetting anathema) letter spacing. In German Fraktur setting, letterspacing text is used to show emphasis, for which we now use italics. In English setting letterspacing should only be used in with caps or small caps, where one might add that that ought to mean “always”. But when left with such a narrow measure, and given the apparent rule that the text has to be justified both left and right, the comp really has no options. He can’t bring back “mad” nor can he hyphenate it. Given the rules he’s working with all he can do is hit the letterspacing bar.

Page 297 presents a slightly different problem. Faced with Hendon’s head and pointing arm the comp has to break the text into two columns which read across the illustration. It’s only four lines, so the reader can deal with it. That hyphen on the fourth line upsets me though. The rule forcing him to justify left and right is I think the root of the problem. By all means justify the left hand column at the left and the right hand one at the right, but allow them to be ragged at their inner margins. This would maintain the regular word spacing and help the reader stay with the text. The fourth line would be much more readable with this change.Prince_and_PauperP255

Page 255 is an extreme case: all those narrow-measure lines at the end of the knife are a mess. And there’s a gigantic river down the middle. Maybe it’s just because as a modern reader I am used to different conventions, but I think those loose lines are intolerable. It’s just wrong to make your readers put up with that amount of distortion. The aim of good typesetting is to have an even color across the page — no clumps of letters or splodges of white space. Clearly priorities were very different: of course nobody today expects their novels to be illustrated anyway, so it’s an entirely different group of publications we are talking about when we place art.

How did we get to this messy place? Who would decide on what was to be illustrated and how it was to lay out on the page? Obviously Twain would be the one who would decide what subjects would be illustrated, but I suspect the layout would be up to the artist. You can imagine the compositor cussing the artist, saying “Look what he expects me to do now”. I think we can see this in action on page 240, where the comp has apparently thrown up his hands — “Idiot! You really think I can fit text into that narrow a measure”. Prince_and_Pauper-P240

Presumably after getting the direction from the author the artist would come up with sketches, then finished drawings which would be engraved and proofed so the comp would be able to measure what it was he would have to leave space for. Photo engraving was just being developed in the 1880s so presumably the art would be engraved by hand and the finished engraving mounted on wood blocks to make it type high, so that after setting the art could be proofed in position. To a modern sensibility it is amazing that having spent all that time and care on getting the art this far, the publisher (and the author) would close their eyes to such typesetting. Still autre temps, autres moeurs.

I have to say that, typesetting apart, I really like the illustrations. This page from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) is just wonderful. A bit hard to read in the middle, but it almost doesn’t matter.Connecticut_YankeeP54

I did once sign up at Goodreads, but have never used the site — I guess I’m just not a social reader. Anyway I have too many books waiting to be read without someone suggesting hundreds more. This means I don’t really feel too exercised about the news that Amazon is buying Goodreads.

From all the hullaballoo this would appear to put me in a minority — a place where as an anti-social reader I am of course totally at ease. The announcement brought out the worst in everyone — the knee-jerk opposition to Amazon has been loud and shrill as usual. I suspect this resentment of Amazon really boils down to a jealousy that they are big and successful, bigger and more successful than the companies we work for, which Amazon will probably ultimately replace. I can remember when it was politically correct to deprecate Barnes and Noble — now we feel all protective towards them as suffering bricks-and-mortar retailers.

So I really have nothing to say about Amazon/Goodreads — and why would I when Porter Anderson has said it all so ably on What’s the Buzz at Publishing Perspectives. If you follow up all his links you’ll be in for an orgy of reading.

Addendum, 3 April: Here’s link to a piece detailing six alternatives to Goodreads.