Archives for the month of: December, 2013

Eric Lindner, author of Hospice Voices, writes the Soapbox column, headed “Sympathy for the Devil” in the Publishers Weekly issue of 16 December. It’s only available to subscribers, but if you are one, here’s the link.

He starts off “I know some People of the Book consider Mr. Bezos more Antichrist than Messiah, and Amazon more the river Styx than the (parted) Red Sea. But those folks aren’t paying attention to . . . where the greenbacks are going.”  Bezos is “passionate about books” and has “risked his very uncertain, hard-won fortune on it.” For this we should all be grateful.

Has Jeff Bezos imperiled independent bookselling? The harsh reality is that all businesses are subject to the challenges of the marketplace, and bookshops were under stress even before Amazon. Those that remain are the stronger for the challenge of Amazon. (No doubt the same argument could be made about publishing companies, though Mr. Lindner doesn’t take up that cudgel.) What about the quality of writing — hasn’t that suffered? — He denies the charge. Kindle he identifies as a godsend for people with poor vision, among who are many of his hospice patients.

“David Ricardo’s 19th-century theory remains valid today: economies turn on the optimal interplay of the three ‘factors of production’ — land, labor, and cash. As a businessman and a lawyer who’s spent lots of time juggling said factors,” Mr. Lindner writes “I know this: labor’s intellectual capital is the key. . . Thank goodness for Mr. Bezos’s intellectual capital.”

He concludes “So I, for one, wish to thank Mr. Bezos, and his river of books.” Shouldn’t we publishers join with him?

People continue to complain about the high price of journal subscriptions. The Economist has this article in the 14 December issue, which focusses more on the problems of restricted access and the impact of big journals’ prestige in hiring decisions. The longer we go on with open access journals, which seem to be pretty well established now, the more impressive it becomes that academic publishers are still able to sell subscriptions to these marquee journals.

What’s wrong with Science

BLUNT criticism is an essential part of science, for it is how bad ideas are winnowed from good ones. So when Randy Schekman, one of the 2013 crop of Nobel prize-winners (for physiology or medicine, in his case), decided to criticise the way scientific journals are run, he did not hold back.

Dr Schekman chose the week of the prizegiving (the medals and cheques were handed over on December 10th) to announce that the laboratory he runs at the University of California, Berkeley, will boycott what he describes as “luxury journals”. By that he meant those commonly regarded as the most prestigious, such as Cell, Nature and Science.

He levels two charges against such journals. The first is that, aware of their pre-eminence and keen to protect it, they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept—acting, as he put it in an interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, like “fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits…know[ing] scarcity stokes demand”. Their behaviour, he says, is more conducive to the selling of subscriptions than the publishing of the best research.

Second, he argues that science as a whole is being distorted by perverse incentives, especially the tyranny of the “impact factor”, a number that purports to measure how important a given journal is. Researchers who publish in journals with a high impact factor—like the three named above—can expect promotion, pay rises and professional accolades. Those that do not can expect obscurity or even the sack, a Darwinian system known among academics as “publish or perish”.

Dr Schekman may not be the most disinterested commentator. Besides his job at Berkeley, he also edits eLife, an open-access journal (in other words, one that does not charge its readers) with ambitions to compete with the top dogs, and which is bankrolled by a trio of wealthy science charities. But working scientists will tell you, perhaps after a few drinks, that he is far from alone in his views. Scarcity of space is meaningless in a world in which more and more research is distributed online. And many worry that the pressure to publish flashy research in glitzy journals encourages hype and faddishness, and rewards being first over being thorough. Jobbing scientists can be reluctant to speak up, fearful of the damage they might do to their careers by rocking the boat. But one of the many perks of being a Nobel laureate is that you no longer have to worry about such things.

Here is a silent film showing how books were made at Oxford University Press in 1925. I don’t suppose I ever met any of the many, many workers, but I certainly saw several similar machines still in operation in the early part of my career. I am sorry never to have seen the use of the natural oils from a workman’s hair playing a role in the manufacturing process though. The film is brought to us by The Scholarly Kitchen, courtesy of David Crotty, an editor at the Press in England.

I suggest not playing the sound track — its relentlessly chirpy music may drive you wild.

We don’t seem able to talk about Amazon in terms other than hyperbolic any more. This piece from The Guardian Book Blog, referencing a Harper’s review of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone, asks when publishers will wake up to the challenge of Amazon. Silly question. We are wide awake, screaming, and tearing our hair out. I begin to suspect that the end of the road may be something like an Amazon behemoth taking care of all the “publishing” and the retailing, with what we now think of as the publishing industry providing content, like a bunch of book packagers. Not such an awful prospect really, unless you happen work in a publishing department other than editorial and production editorial — or are in one of those types of publishing which are probably not susceptible to mass-ification: academic for example.

I was interviewed by Len Edgerly of The Kindle Chronicles. This link will take you to the audio file which is that time bar thing towards the bottom of the post. Click on the little arrow at the left, and it will play.

Mantel-photo-finalLen is a very good interviewer, and includes about 20 minutes of news mainly about Amazon and Kindle, before he begins his weekly interviews. I was flattered to get his invitation — recent interviewees include Otis Chandler, CEO of Goodreads and Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store.

Litographs of Cambridge, Mass. prints text on T-shirts laid out to create a picture evocative of the book. Be careful — don’t fall onto the railway tracks while reading someone’s Anna Karenina shirt. If you allow your cursor to hover over the full-size view of the shirt on their website, you will be able to read the text. Who keeps saying books are dead?