Archives for the month of: May, 2014
Elizabeth Eisenstein

Elizabeth Eisenstein

One of the most significant books I got to work on in my time was Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. This 2-volume work was typeset in Cambridge, at the University Press, and printed and bound in in 1979 in America, at Halliday Lithograph Corporation. In those days the U.S. copyright laws mandated that, in order to retain copyright, books by American authors had to be printed in America. When a one-volume abridgment was published, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, in 1983, I was lucky enough to be the designer, as well as to shepherd it through the press. I confess the design doesn’t hold up anywhere near as well as the U.K. design of the 2-volume work. This one we typeset in America as well as printing it here. Both books are still available, though in paperback only: the big book as a 1-volume tome, and the second in a revised (redesigned) 2nd edition. Sentimentalist that I am I rather think that books of this nature, about the history of making books, should be published in hardback. Paperback (or Kindle, and both works are available both ways) just seem to casual. I do recommend reading the book (one or other, or both), though.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, now in her nineties, is interviewed here — click on the Listen button below the copy — on the 24 May, 2014 broadcast of Library Café, a Vassar College radio program hosted by Thomas Hill. She sounds great, and has a detailed discussion focussed on her most recent book Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West (UPenn, 2011).

Check out the older podcasts: there are some interesting interviewees.

The Bookseller reproduced this address by the CEO of Cambridge University Press on 14 May, under the headline “Different strokes”.

Far too much discussion of scholarly communication is bedevilled by generalised assertions about “what students want”, “what researchers need”, “what librarians require’”, “what governments determine”, when in practice the world is pretty diverse.

For librarians, the latest Ithaka Library Survey has rammed home that what they want is not at all uniform: what drives young and committed life scientists studying at Stanford or Cambridge isn’t necessarily what drives all researchers under all circumstances.

One obvious area of divergence is take-up of digital. Print has remained important for longer than many had expected, and not just in territories such as Japan, where both institutional and cultural frameworks have slowed digital adoption. It’s striking that most academics find journal articles digitally but tend to read hard copies of those longer than half a dozen pages. It is commonplace that the more influence a university’s faculty has over acquisition policy, the slower the take-up of digital books in the university’s library.

I’m sure generational shift has started to change that, and that lack of digital availability means invisibility to the consumer. But at Cambridge University Press we aren’t at all unusual in still having the majority of our global academic book sales in hard-copy form, despite the rapid growth of digital. There was a big feature in the Times Higher Education Supplement in March on “Publishing Your First Book”, in which various senior academics were canvassed for their dos and don’ts: what struck me was the resolute assumption by everyone that this “first book” would be a printed artefact first and foremost. Digital availability wasn’t mentioned by a single respondent. That’s changing, but there’s some way to go.

That flags another divergence between humanities and sciences and the differing fortunes of long-form research books. For many arts and social science scholars, it is the research article or book itself where the value lies, as opposed to the applications or replications to which that research might be put (which lies behind the dominant science perspective).

Schizophrenic views

Incidentally, no fewer than half of the members of the History faculty of Cambridge University enjoy the services of a literary agent, primarily engaged in selling the fruits of their research and their content (the two being one and the same). This divide has been at the heart of much of the recent debate between historians and life scientists. It also informs the frankly schizophrenic views of many universities about Patent Law (of which universities are generally warm and protective supporters) and Copyright Law (against which some universities rail, as restrictive, expensive and protectionist).

What’s clearly endangered is the long-form scientific research book, whether in print or online. The incentives for scientists to write long-form content are clearly in decline. Pressure on scientists to produce more frequent outputs is one cause. Another is the need to get work out rapidly because of global competition. The English language is now pretty dominant in advanced scientific communication (though not at all in arts and social sciences). That may also discourage some non-native Anglophone scientists from writing 300-page monographs. It is quite possible that within the next five to 10 years, long-form science research publication—outside the arenas of textbooks and popular science—may be a tiny fraction of what it is today.

There are more general questions about the future of academic books. We’re taking part in several Open Access (OA) experiments, but I don’t yet see signs of culture and practice changing much.

The final area of divergence to highlight is around OA journals. Rick Anderson, a librarian at the University of Utah, gave a recent thoughtful address to the Smithsonian on OA. He was trying to bring some cool and dispassionate sanity to what remains all too often an area of messianic claim and counter-claim. One thing Rick is surely right to emphasise is that OA publication is at present a minority activity. One abiding reason is that for many tenured faculty in established institutions, the current system isn’t broken sufficiently to provoke them to the personal inconvenience of changing their own publication practices. It is very striking—and entirely understandable—how much of the advocacy pressure for OA has come from those who feel themselves disenfranchised by the current system, and from those who feel that the current system only speaks to, is only accessible to, those within the ranks of the resource-privileged. The latter perception matters a lot more, it’s self-evident, to some faculty members than to others.

There is also marked variation in the take up of OA by subject. Within science journals, life sciences are clearly leading the way, driven by funders’ requirements, but certain areas have barely moved—chemistry, for example. And in subjects driven by individual endeavour rather than large grant-funded teams—such as humanities, history and my own field of mathematics—peer-reviewed OA remains a very small proportion of published articles.

Finally, it’s striking who OA payments are going to. One of the first major analyses of OA funding was published by the Wellcome Trust a few weeks ago. Four publishers accounted for more than half of Wellcome’s total funding for article processing charges in 2012/13. It’s possible gold OA will lead more to market consolidation rather than disruption. Nonetheless, the tide of governmental and funder sentiment—particularly in the UK—is flowing in one direction only. The challenges this poses are considerable, especially in book-based disciplines in the arts and social sciences.

Peter Phillips is chief executive of CUP. This is an edited extract of his address to the 16th Fiesole Collection Development Retreat

Anyone who is an editor for long enough will accumulate a list of books they rejected which went on to success elsewhere. Sometimes you are just wrong; sometimes the book doesn’t fit; sometimes the timing is wrong. At Cambridge we used quietly to acknowledge the rejection in the late 1870s of The Philological Society’s proposal for a new comprehensive English Dictionary. This was quite possibly the right decision, at least in the short and medium term. The Syndics saved their money; the Delegates hazarded theirs — and the return was a long time coming. The Oxford English Dictionary may not have made Oxford University Press much if any money till the invention of the internet and the need for on-line dictionaries. Prestige of course is a different matter.

Here’s a list from io9 of fairly famous sci-fi books which suffered rejection by publishers. These books, from io9 too, were rejected by their authors (disowned) after publication. Stephen King is on both lists.

One example: a rather parodic effort by Arthur Fifield, addressed to Gertrude Stein in 1912, turning down The Making of Americans. I wonder how she took it.stein

If we are really living through a long-term (if perhaps slower than feared) decline in print as against e-books, we are also going to see effects in the supply chain for books. Here’s Bob Sacks’ comment on a Dead Tree Edition piece about proposed price increases in the struggling graphic paper market.

I have been predicting the survival of print, and my steady position for the past decade has been that printing will be/must be a luxury item and that means paper will be, too. For everyone’s survival both print and paper need to cost more. That is the brutal honesty of the situation. Print is no longer the commodity that it once was, and as the numbers continue to decrease, the scarcity of the product is on the increase. 
     There was a time when newsstands were plentiful and all participants in the process – retailer, publisher, printer and paper maker – were rolling in success. It was almost like printing money. Those days are gone, and each component of the supply chain is striving to understand what happened and how they could have gone from riches to rags in a decade.”

This seems dead-on to me. I’ve been moaning on for some time about the long-term effects of the rise of digital on the book manufacturing industry, and obviously paper is a big part of that picture. It’s not so much that we will decide to stop printing books, it’s more that by printing fewer and fewer as e-books take a larger share of the market, the sources of cheap printing will disappear — so we’ll no longer be able to afford to print the short runs we have become used to. “Printing” will remain, but either as POD or de-luxe editions, with similar unit cost implications in both cases. While printed books will still be available, their prices will be sharply higher than they are today. It’s tough to see a large sustainable business built on this model.

We had drinkable books, so inevitably we now have edible ones too. Here, courtesy of Book Patrol, is La Bibla de Churrasco.

They also posted about a lasagna book.

The trouble with these books is of course that you end up consuming them, so you can’t really, as Tramontina claims, put them on your shelves. One might think the e-book applications may be tough to implement, though a Cambridge (UK) company called Dovetailed has just announced 3-D printed fruit — so we may live in hope. This story from 3-D Print was delivered by Slashdot. The Dovetailed website has a video showing a rasp being printed, and consumed with apparent gusto.

My step-father used to read Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz over and over again (it’s apparently a required activity for all Poles). He’d often read in the bath, like 7% of the respondents to this survey by Love Reading sent by Book Patrol. Occasionally he’d fall asleep while reading so we’d end up with a book, swollen and deformed, which was constantly having to be dried out.


Book Patrol has lots of odd stuff. This alphabet by Vladimir Klitschko is right up there. Love Reading, a book recommendation site, can be found here.


I can remember writing a memo sometime in the dying years of the last century (well before the Y2K worries — how many colleagues now even know what that means?) about format agnosticism. It was addressed to all departments and had the cutesy title “Pray tell, pray tell, what’s SGML?”. At its heart was a diagram a bit like this (conceptually if not in fact — I can’t remember exactly): Scan 6

We (primarily, but not exclusively, in academic and reference publishing) are really engaged in creating an ever-growing archive of content divided into chunks each of which started off as a “book” in the mind of an author, but along the road became another entry into the ever growing “Publisher X Archive”. If we create it as such we will be able to exploit it in a variety of formats, one of which for the foreseeable future remains a printed book. This is all pretty commonplace now, but it did take more than exhortation to change the thinking of a lot of people, and not just the old lags. We can still find corners of our business which harbor the belief that what we are engaged in is producing books (printed of course) with other applications recognized as valid and valuable of course, but nevertheless seen as secondary. Anyone in academic publishing who still really thinks that this is what we are doing every day should probably be thinking about an alternative career.

In general I do think that book publishing is making a better go of the digital transition than many other businesses. The music business made a fine job of the transfer from anaolg to digital (all those CDs) but came a bit unstuck on the on-line transition. Newspapers are struggling, and it was received wisdom that The New York Times was doing a better job than others. That may still be true — they do have a pretty good website, and have managed the paywall question successfully, but this recently leaked report, commented on by NPR’s On the Media shows that digital thinking is proving as hard to inculcate as it is in those corners of the book business alluded to above. The most telling problem is the adherence to the daily news cycle, with all content being readied for the evening, rather than for constant release during the day. Now I do know that content is released to the on-line paper during the day — so I guess this attitude of mind is not quite as universal as the radio story suggests. Listen to the On the Media story here. The Scribd version of the report, linked to above, omits a few pages. If you want the full report this link to Mashable will take you to it. These references were brought to me via SHARP.

We have of course no guarantee that book publishers will continue to negotiate the transition so well (or so fortunately). The current price negotiations between Amazon and Hachette hint at more bits of our lunch being grabbed by our major supplier. This Let’s Get Visible post by contrarian indie author David Gaughran gives a good, if partisan, picture of the situation. What will be the outcome of this struggle? I can’t believe that we have any choice but to meet the threat head-on — i.e. to start selling on-line ourselves.

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday did a piece the other day on the lack of diversity in the characters in children’s books. You can listen to it here.


Apparently only 1.3% of the characters in today’s kids’ books are African American. We have obviously come a long way from my childhood when unrepentantly racist characters abounded in the colonial-era books then current in Britain. I recall in particular Epaminondas (“You ain’t got the sense you was born with”) and Little Black Sambo. We are no doubt better off without these folks (though I’m slightly surprised to find them both featured at Amazon) — but it seems we omitted the other part of the correction, having failed to replace these caricatures with other, better role-models. First Book seems to be determined to do something about it, pledging to buy 10,000 copies of books by and about underrepresented groups.

This seems like a really good idea, even though many of the people who need it may not be able to read the text printed on the pages made from specially treated “filter-paper”.


The Huffington Post has the account. NPR did a story on it.

NeRD_Device_and_Case050814“The U.S. Navy will soon supply its submariners with a new e-reader — the Navy eReader Device, or NeRD. The NeRD, by Findaway, comes with a library of 300 titles, including fiction from Tom Clancy and James Patterson, as well as classics and naval history. The NeRD is designed to thwart security concerns raised by cameras, network connectivity and data transferability on regular e-readers and tablets.”

Story from Shelf Awareness, 9 May, 2014

Apparently Findaway World has supplied audiobooks to the military since 2007. Makes me think of Len Edgerly’s Ebooks for troops organization.