Archives for the month of: October, 2013

photo copyThe drop curtain at The Roundabout Theater‘s current production of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (well worth seeing) carries a reproduction of a page from an official government document describing the procedure for bringing a Petition of Right. My interest focuses on the marginal annotation pictured, which shows a usage which we no longer see — “etc.” written “&c.”

When you look at the script ligature for et,150px-Etlig.svg you can see how it would evolve into the ampersand. Though we are happy to use ampersands nowadays I doubt if too many people go the whole hog any more and write et cetera as &c. But it is a good idea I think: it looks a lot more interesting than etc.

Wikipedia has a pretty good article on ampersand which makes no bones about the derivation. “The word ampersand is a corruption of the phrase ‘and (&) per se and’, meaning ‘and (the symbol &) intrinsically (is the word) and’.                           Traditionally, in English-speaking schools when reciting the alphabet, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself (‘A’, ‘I’, and, at one point, ‘O’) was preceded by the Latin expression per se (‘by itself’). Also, it was common practice to add at the end of the alphabet the ‘&’ sign as if it were the 27th letter, pronounced and. As a result, the recitation of the alphabet would end in ‘X, Y, Z, and per se and’. This last phrase was routinely slurred to ‘ampersand’ and the term had entered common English usage by 1837. However, in contrast to the 26 letters, the ampersand does not represent a speech sound, although other characters that were dropped from the English alphabet, such as the Old English thorn, did.                                                                                     Through popular etymology, it has been falsely claimed that André-Marie Ampère used the symbol in his widely read publications, and that people began calling the new shape ‘Ampère’s and’.”

This explanation seems almost too neat to be true — I find Ampère hard to resist — but it is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary which gives 1837 as its first recorded occurrence. Although I was in a Scottish primary school learning my alphabet many years ago I regret that we did not ever have to chant per se.

The ampersand has tended to be a bit of a playground for the type designer. This link to Adobe shows some very elegant examples — Mr Janson’s is my favorite

See also my post on Colophon.


The BBC tells us that one in ten Icelanders will get a book published. If everyone’s doing it, why wouldn’t you join in?

The other thing we know about Iceland is that it has already established a national genetic database. Perhaps putting these two pieces together will enable us to discover a gene for authorship.

These three graphics come from an article in New Republic, 8 October, by Evan Hughes.



McSweeney’s Issue 42, Multiples, explores translation — printing different versions of twelve stories. Its subtitle 12 stories in 18 languages by 61 authors tells what’s going on. Each translation is a version of the one preceding it, so that in some cases you find a sort of Chinese whispers slippage going on so that Kafka’s “Das Tier in der Synagoge” (The animal in the synagogue) after five versions turns into “The animal in the church” via “The creature in our shul”. Not perhaps an earth shattering transformation in this instance.  But the point is that translation is only ever a version — there’s no “right” translation. There are better and worse attempts, but no exact duplicate exists in any other language. Purists may maintain that there’s no point in reading Pushkin if you don’t read him in Russian — and probably not much point if you weren’t born to the language either. But that of course gets us nowhere. Nabokov and Edmund Wilson had a celebrated fight over Nabokov’s determinedly literal translation of Eugene Onegin, which in the end only goes to show us that, as in so much else, one man’s meat will always remain another man’s poison.

In a way what the purist seems really to want is for the translator to create a work which would have the same effect on an English-speaking audience as Eugene Onegin has on Russians. But that would of course just be a different work, one inspired perhaps by Pushkin. Here’s a link from Publishing Perspectives of 16 September about translating poetry, which would allow the (sensitive) translator to alter the original in order to fit it for the target language. Poetry provides the acid test — the extreme maybe illustrated in The Times Literary Supplement 6 September 2013 review of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB, 2013). Marjorie Perloff tells us that Vvedensky declared that bessmyslitsa (meaninglessness) lies at the core of his poetry. It must be hard to work with that, but she quotes the editor of the volume as saying “We opted not to transpose the poetic forms literally but to gesture in their direction and to strive to approximate their effects”.  Maybe that’s what you have to do. A gesture, suggesting to the reader what reading the original is like. Perloff approved.

My friend Jeremy Mynott recently published an edition and translation of Thucydides, the Introduction to which has a fascinating discussion of the inherent problems of translating any classical text, including examples taken from Biblical translation. Thucydides’ style is quirky — even in its day his work was regarded as being “difficult”. If the translator smoothes out complexities he’s open to charges of distortion, but if he leaves in the convoluted bits, others will accuse him of failing to make the original clear. To what extent does the translator have to feel bound to reproduce the stylistic peculiarities of the original, a problem which is especially acute in a case where word order is much more flexible in the original language than in the target? A more down-to-earth problem is how to translate terms which don’t exist in the target language, or if they exist at all, appear in a form which carries a very different freight of meaning. Many translators “throw in the towel” and just transliterate words like demos and polis. Jeremy’s sensible solution is to translate and then use glossary and footnotes to point out linguistic difficulties.

The problem is not just historical. Abdulaziz Sachedina writes in preface to his book Islam and the Challenges of Human Rights (OUP, 2009) — “In 2004 I was overseeing the Persian translation of my book The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (2001) in Iran when I had a rare opportunity to experience the difficulty of translating and conveying Western political culture into an Iranian Islamic one. The translation of my book into Persian posed severe conceptual and cultural problems. The idea of democratic pluralism not only reflected Western influences in my rendering of Islamic-Arabic idiom into English; it also underscored the importance of taking contextual historical perspective seriously in efforts to transmit ideas from one culture into another. Writing in English, I had assumed the inclusiveness and universality of secular political language that dealt with human dignity and human agency, not realizing that for my Persian readers I could not rely solely on usages and political nuances in English.” He expands on the problem in a footnote: “For traditionalist Muslim scholars, the term pluralism, in its Persian and Arabic (takthur-gara’i, or ta’addudiya, respectively) rendering, which smacked of Western liberalism, was more problematic than democracy. Pluralism suggested “decentralized truth-claim” which led to belief in the relativity of the exclusive claim of Islamic revelation, rendering it one among many claims of truth. For Muslim seminarians, for whom pluralism, whether religious or moral, was unacceptable as part of their exclusive claim to the truth of Islam, the critical question was: How can there be many truths when the only truth was what Islam had proclaimed? Moreover, how can one maintain that final revelation from God for Muslims is relative to other similar truth claims maintained for instance, by Jews and Christians?”

An interesting, if unfortunately titled book, is David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

My recent post Translation — the business, is related. This link to the 27 September Publishing Perspectives story on Ann Morgan’s year of reading one book from every nation might more appropriately have gone there. In an interesting aside she says that of all the 197 books she read, on only one of them was the translator credited on the spine. Another relevant Publishing Perspectives story by Vanina Marsot is about a (almost certainly) untranslatable book — of course given the point of the book, commenting on the French language for English-speaking readers, a translation might be irrelevant and beside the point.

Shelf Awareness brings us this report from the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Amazon, Goodreads on International Expansion

grandinetti100813Bookselling worldwide is “fundamentally changing,” said Russ Grandinetti, v-p of Kindle content at Amazon, at yesterday’s Publishers Launch conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

In 2012 in the U.S., 42% of all consumer purchases of print and digital books were made online; a year from now, more than half of all purchases of all types of books will be made online, Grandinetti said. He predicted that in two years, the U.K., which has closely followed the U.S. in digital trends, will also reach that level, and in three years “the rest of Europe” will follow.

Grandinetti urged publishers to rethink how they approach marketing, saying, “The time is not far off where a publisher doing an author business plan who doesn’t think of online first is doing a disservice to the author.” Traditionally, he continued, publishers have kept in mind “physical” bookselling and how to get customers in bookstores to take a book to the checkout counter. Now, the challenge is much different, he said, and conjured up an image of someone at home at 8:30 on a Tuesday night with two hours before going to bed. How does that person find your book, he asked. “The set of skills for that are obviously quite different.”

Without divulging unit or dollar sales figures, Grandinetti showed charts of the gradual growth of sales of print books by Amazon in the U.S. and U.K. with abrupt jumps in e-books after they were introduced–and in a matter of several years, surpassing print book sales. While it’s still early in other markets, he emphasized repeatedly that the trends lines in other countries where Amazon operates, including Germany, France and Japan, resemble those in the U.S. and U.K., and “there is little that makes us think things will be different.” The key elements of book digitization, customer service, customer receptiveness and people online are all in place in those markets.

He also emphasized that Amazon’s growth in Germany, which has fixed book prices, has taken place without the widespread discounting that helped Amazon establish itself as a formidable book retailer in the U.S. and U.K.

Grandinetti said, too, that the growth of e-books around the world has resulted in non-English-speaking markets being the “single-largest” area for expansion for English-language publishers. So far this year, sales of English-language titles in non-English-speaking markets have surpassed last year’s levels. Conversely, sales of foreign-language titles in English-speaking countries are growing and represent an opportunity for foreign publishers.

digital10813He suggested that publishers should be less concerned about piracy and more concerned about “missed opportunities” resulting from not having their titles digitized and not settling rights ownership around the world. He noted that of the top 1,000 authors in some European counties, a strikingly few have even one book digitized. These include 53% of the top 1,000 authors in Italy and 46% in Spain.

Grandinetti stressed that the book world needs to make books attractive “relative to other entertainment choices,” but his example–counter to his mention of growing in Germany without the ability to discount–implied that pricing was the key way to expand. Again he mentioned a reader at 8:30 on a Tuesday evening–in this case having the choice of playing Angry Birds, watching a movie or reading. He then showed a slide of the French title Un Avion Sans Elle by Michel Bussi, whose digital version is priced at 15.99 euros (about US$21.75), much higher than printed copies (a paperback edition goes for 9.90 euros), and suggested that such a price would lead the reader to “probably pick Angry Birds.” His conclusion: “Books need to be an attractive alternative or we’ll miss out.”

Getting people’s attention is key, he continued. Citing Kindle’s Daily Deal, he said, it’s important “to get customers to think about us every day.”

Grandinetti also said it was “shocking and sad how poor quality control is from so many publishers.” If many digital books went out as printed books, publishers would “call the trucks back” because of the many mistakes involving spelling, formatting, tables of content and indexes as well as navigation. “And if you don’t know that the last is,” he said, “you should.”

otis_chandler-032813Otis Chandler, CEO and co-founder of Goodreads, didn’t directly address the company’s purchase in March by Amazon, although he said that the Goodreads’ plans to expand internationally will be helped by Amazon’s “deep databases.” As of now, Goodreads is an all-English language site, but its goal is to have a catalogue that includes every book in every language ever published. As it is, Goodreads has been doubling in size in many English-language countries outside the U.S.

goodreads100813This fall, Chandler said, Goodreads will be built into Kindle Paperwhite reading devices and Fire tablets. He called this “a dream” he’d long had: integration with “the world’s largest platform” in a way that allows readers to interact with friends and other about books they’re reading without having to put down their books.

He predicted that Goodreads “will invent some cool new things in the next few years.” If done right, he continued, “we will match and surpass the experience of going into a well-curated bookstore and walking out with three or four books.” — John Mutter, Shelf Awareness Pro October 9, 2013

The same issue of Shelf Awareness brings us another instance of the anti-Amazonism we all love to hear about — an interview by super-agent Andrew Wylie in The New Republic during which he says “I believe that Amazon has its print publishing business so that their behavior as a distributor of digital content can be misperceived by the Department of Justice and the publishing industry in a way that is convenient for Amazon’s bottom line.” Well, maybe. It’s always hard to resist a good conspiracy theory. And of course taking care of your bottom line is kind of what it’s all about, isn’t it?

I was exiled to the colonies in 1974.

I hadn’t done anything really wrong — in fact it was almost the opposite — I was tipped for a promotion, but was blackballed because of my union activities (can this really be true, or am I embroidering history?). As a result my colleague who’d been holding down our frontier outpost in American production for the previous couple of years, was repatriated to fill this important vacancy — so important that in the end it never actually came to pass — while I was smuggled out of the country to less politically sensitive New York.

I had had only a couple of dealings with our New York office prior to Jack Shulman’s coming to Cambridge to vet me. I had met once with FRM, the patrician manager of the New York Office (by 1974 retired). Our meeting was over the question of whether or not we should publish the new edition of The Cambridge History of Literature in paperback or not. They (rather sensibly I believe) wanted to publish only in hardback to maximize revenue, and bring out a paperback later. We wanted to do it in paperback right away with a smaller hardback edition, for reasons I can no longer recall, but which were obviously pressing enough that I believe I believed them at the time, and spent the hour stone-walling the eminent gentleman in a plucky night-watchman innings.

My other exposure to the New York office had been meeting a group of their editors at a party in my boss’ garden. A couple of them later became colleagues, but the undoubted star (retrospectively) was the young editor, who shortly thereafter went on the lam having been revealed as a bomber, or more accurately actually, a bomber’s moll. Hey kids — remember the Vietnam war? I chatted with her under a blossoming apple tree, little suspecting that here was a real radical.

When Jack closed the deal at the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury, I naturally didn’t hesitate. In my private life I only knew two people who had ever been to America — a Galashiels businessman and his wife. The fare, one-way, was more than my annual salary — you just didn’t consider seeing America as an option until a few years later Freddy Laker broke the high-airfare barrier. Another indication of how the world has changed is that when they found the carving knife in my hand baggage (we’d forgotten to pack it) I wasn’t water boarded. They just took it from me and returned it when we landed. CUP must have really wanted someone from the UK over there, as they sent me via air, shipped a lot of stuff, and paid for my wife and two daughters to travel over on the Queen Mary. They promised me that if I didn’t like it in New York after a couple of years they’d ship us back and give me a job. But effectively that was a pretty meaningless guarantee — after all what’s not to like in New York? I was told that the cost of living in New York was higher than in Cambridge, and that consequently they planned to pay me seven times my previous salary — would that be OK? It was.

One thing I was blissfully unaware of was the maelstrom power-play into the middle of which I was being plunged. I was vaguely aware that the London office of CUP regarded the New York office as a subsidiary of theirs — after all it had been established to sell “their” Bibles to America, something it did with considerable success. I wasn’t aware of the counter tendency in Cambridge, where the view prevailed that New York was obviously a branch of the whole, not a branch of a branch, and Cambridge was of course the top of the whole tree. It was only when Michael Black semi-self-published his memoir Learning to be a Publisher in 2011 that this conflict impinged on my consciousness. Michael’s book is an excellent account of his career from 1951-1987: to me though his account of the New York branch controversy is the most exciting part. I wonder now if there was any element in my selection for transportation of this London/Cambridge power play. I may after all have been regarded as a nefarious London agent infiltrated into the innocent groves of academe.

When I arrived in the New York office in July 1974 one of the first things we did was take a tour of book manufacturing plants in New England.  In those days most book manufacturing was being done up there, though we did do a few books in Crawfordsville, Indiana (which we visited shortly thereafter).  For whatever reason it was I who had to rent the car in midtown. This was my first experience of driving on the wrong side of the road; of navigating a gigantic vehicle; and driving an automatic. After slight hesitation I took off — the secret is always to go a little faster than everyone else — and we set out for Colonial Press in Clinton, MA. It closed its doors a mere four years later. Next we visited Halliday Lithograph Corp. (also closed now), and finally the Murray Printing Company in Westford, MA, which lives on as part of Courier.

Returning to the office we confronted the need to do some work. I found there a manuscript I had sent over to New York for typesetting back in March. Up until 1974 we had only ever done printing in America (and not much of that): everything would be set in UK and sent over as repro to be shot by the offset printer in America. However as a result of the coal miners’ strike of 1974 Britain was put on short-time working — you weren’t allowed to turn the lights on — and thus as a clever dodge we thought of sending typesetting work overseas. We were actually already sending a little composition work to Malta and India, but USA seemed like a natural extension, especially with books which were going to be printed over there anyway. In those days the copyright law mandated that works by US authors would only be copyright in USA if they were printed there; the place of composition didn’t matter. So this book, by an American, was sent over the New York after copyediting and design. I had been the production controller for this book in Cambridge, and I still have the three Monotype matrices for special sorts which had already been made at the University Printing House before we took the job away from them. In my hippier days I’d wear them on a leathern thong around my neck, as a sort of sorts talking point. When I expostulated (politely of course) that the manuscript had been in New York for four months without action, my predecessor reassured me “Don’t worry. Things are done so fast over here, that they’ll never notice in Cambridge”, and of course he was right.

The British habit of understatement never cut much ice in America, though of course I personally was an adept of the style — less so now that back then, I fear. (I recall once shouting at some uninformed editorial assistant “Get out of my office, you impudent young pup” — words which hardly ever get said, and which probably should have been applied to me in my youth.) I can remember attending a meeting in 1975 or 1976 at which the editorial director, over from England, told his US editorial team not to do something. As a Brit of course he didn’t come out and say “Don’t ever do this” — he said things like “I don’t think I would recommend taking such a course of action”, “There are probably better ways of handling such a situation”, and “If you think it through you’d probably agree that such and such a course of action isn’t exactly ideal”. Walking out of the meeting I overheard one American editor saying to his boss “That’s great. He didn’t say we couldn’t do it”, and of course he didn’t, though a British audience would have felt that they had just been severely reprimanded for ever thinking of doing such a thing.

People make work in America so simple. Say what you want and it’ll get done. In Britain it was always a negotiation. Send a UK printer a manuscript back in the seventies and when you called about it after four weeks, you’d be told “Oh yes I do have the manuscript. It’s in my in-box. We’ll be casting it off any day now, and will let you have an estimate shortly.” A couple of follow-up phone calls and you might actually receive the estimate. American book manufacturers take the line “Let’s get it though the plant as soon as possible, so we can get more work in.” The attitude (then) in the UK was rather — “Let’s keep this job in the plant as long as we can. Who knows where the next one may come from?” Of course it took another miners’ strike a decade later to change all this when Margaret Thatcher created her revolution — a transformational shock which marked the end of all trace of the Britain into which I was born.

“Faced with these changes, traditional publishers must innovate to survive. They must reduce their dependence on the traditional ‘one-to-many’ distribution models that have sustained them in the past and must develop new ‘one-to-one’ or perhaps ‘one-to-few’ models that deliver customized and personalized experiences for their readers. They must develop enduring relationships with their final customers and enhance their knowledge of the customer to guide higher-value product development and marketing capabilities. These changes, which require significant cultural shifts in the publishing enterprise, I would characterize as ‘fundamental’.”

It’s a long way from publishing Herman Melville’s Typee in 1846 to the giant company of today. Wiley is now more than 200 years old and is a model of how an academic publisher should confront the world. Innovation is on-going. By some strange quirk I happened to be present at the meeting in 1993 when Wiley committed themselves to doing print-on-demand: the first major publisher to set off down that route.

The words at the top of this post are from an interview of Wiley CEO Stephen M. Smith by Edward Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives.

Note that over 50% of Wiley’s revenues come from digital, and only 31% of world-wide revenues come from print books.

Flavorwire suggests we are in a golden age, listing 25 independent presses which support their view. I would add McSweeney’s and New York Review Books to their list, and note them as examples of what I alluded to in my last post —  making books with high production values — treating books as aesthetic as well as literary objects.

I do believe that as big businesses break apart, small businesses form out of the “ruins” when opportunities and unemployed staff abound — though maybe with Random House-Penguin just having gotten going it’s a little premature to be talking about big houses breaking up. There are, by the way, rumors of another large house moving out of New York City, firing all its staff and rehiring (selectively) at their new location. The e-book revolution may be the immediate driver, but there are of course multiple factors driving changes in the publishing business. I am no financial expert, but I do think we must by now have demonstrated the irrationality of trying to turn book publishing into an efficient, high-profit operation. Every (serious) book is unique, and presents its own peculiar editorial, design, production and marketing needs. Individuals buy books as a result of very individual needs. One or two categories of book can of course be commoditized, as the big conglomerates have always wanted to, but there just aren’t enough of them to sustain a business of the size needed for survival. Little books have to be added to the mix, and these are badly served by the best-seller-machines. Serious books require serious attention: you cannot set up a rigid system for dealing with them and just tell staff to follow the “Standard Practice Instructions” — what you really need are smart people who are able to work out for themselves what the difficulties are and come up with good solutions. Intelligent generalists, not well-drilled automatons. Sounds a lot like a small publishing company.

Jill Lepore’s piece, “The New Economy of Letters”, in The Chronicle of Higher Education Review of 6 September 2013 makes some good points, but ends with an over-optimistic call for university presses to step into the gap, pick up the slack, and publish those quality mid-list titles which are being squeezed by the system. This stretch is no doubt explainable by the fact that the piece is based upon her talk to The Association of American University Presses earlier this year. The problems with implementing it are not insurmountable, though they are large — university presses, departments of universities, exist to further the ends of their parent institutions, which basically means to promote research and higher education. To the extent that the sorts of serious, mid-list titles Professor Lepore is talking about fit with that mission, university presses are already publishing them. No doubt they could do a few more. Maybe the authors of these books would accept the royalty terms they were offered, and maybe a decent quantity could be sold to the trade, but universities do not have any remit to save publishing, save literature, or even save culture (except by their central mission of educating the youth). It will be difficult for university presses to change gear.

The central point of her article (to me at least) is that academics have tended to write for free (or for very little) and that this has directly impacted the quality of their prose and their attitude towards deadlines. To turn this inside out, one might say that the quality of the writing is in direct proportion to the size of the pay-off, which can be money or reputation based. The trope of the penniless, garret-bound poet writing away for posterity isn’t utterly fantastical. I doubt if a reduction in potential outlets for their more general writings is going to make academics any better at writing English than they are today, and any payment which a university press is going to be allowed to offer them is unlikely to change that situation. One might perhaps note that the foregoing should not be taken to mean that there are not today many well-written books by academics which are being well and successfully published by university presses and others, some even very large. Just don’t look for an increase in their proportion.