Archives for the month of: June, 2014

Taylor and Francis, the publishers of the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation have managed to antagonize many in the academic community by insisting that the authors of an article about Open Access revise the piece to remove the names of all the publishers mentioned in the article. The article, “Publisher, be damned! From price gouging to the open road” is as a result freely available at T&F’s website. (Click on the title link above, then chose either “View full text”, or “Download text”.) The article does indeed suppress publisher names, but they often become clear via the references.

This controversy is of course not new. The website The Cost of Knowledge has signed up more than 14,000 mathematicians pledged not to cooperate with Elsevier.

Clearly there are layers of wickedness in all this, ranging from commercial academic publishers, through university presses, to learned societies. That a commercial publisher should seek to maximize profits shouldn’t surprise: they in effect have a fiduciary obligation to do so. Learned societies no doubt seek to cover their costs, and university presses’ aims are broadly similar, though they do secretly love journals hoping that they can use the revenues to subsidize their monograph publishing, or at the very least to provide cash in January which enables them to pay out royalties in April.

The application of APCs (Article Processing Charges) seems sly: if you can’t make money by selling a subscription, make it by charging fees to get the article into the journal. Of course there are costs involved in origination, and the authors’ calculations are doubtless too low. But it does look like the charges being levied may be being calculated to provide the “decent” profit margin we have become used to.

The Bookseller reported on the controversy in a 9 June post. The original news was in Times Higher Education.

heristoreI remember it as a confusing place. In the olden days one was perhaps less liable to chafe under the restrictions placed on customers. We were British, with stiff upper lips, and didn’t appear think that we had any right to convenience (indeed in post-war Britain, convenience might have been a dirty word). It was immense, a warren of small rooms, with the books mostly arranged by publisher. Martyn Ould of The Old School Press, writing on the SHARP listserv, describes the process of making a purchase in those days: “You would select your book from the publisher’s rack (you had previously researched that), find an assistant, present the book to them, and be given a chit. You then hunted out the cash desk on the top floor and joined the queue – possibly the cashier was out to lunch. Credit cards not allowed of course, and you had probably forgotten to carry your cheque book. Start again the next day. If you had an acceptable means to pay, your chit was receipted by the cashier on the other side of the tiny window, and you went back to the department concerned, and hunted out an assistant who looked for the book you had bought.”

From the same source, Nicholas Weir-Williams recalls “My first day in publishing, the sales manager took me to Foyles. He had to go in person every Monday. They wouldn’t mail orders – the orders were in a pigeonhole by publisher. The books also were displayed by publisher not by subject. The rep was expected to do a physical stock count once a week and recommend the necessary order. It was quite a performance.” The trade, especially in London, used to be like this. 

Foyles opened a new store on 7 June, just along Charing Cross Road from the old one. They went to some lengths to consult people in the book trade, and customers, on what features their new store should include. Here’s their own history of the business. Publishing Perspectives gives 107 reasons to love the place.


Probably ought to be A Song of Ice and Fire in numbers of course. You’ll have to sit through an ad — sorry.

“Unlike most publishers, university presses provide a vital, high-demand service to authors and a marginal, low-demand one to most readers. This has always been the case, but for at least a century the problem was obscured by the inefficiencies of an analog, print-based information environment.” Thus Rick Anderson in his Scholarly Kitchen piece of 19 May. The comments are pretty interesting including one from Rebecca Seger at OUP pointing out that usage of e-book databased scholarship makes the circulation numbers cited by Anderson look very anemic. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that discussion, university presses do exist to publish specialized work, and specialized work can never (or very rarely) reach best-seller status.

This article from the Chicago Tribune last June provides a good overview of the American University Press world, and the issues it is facing. If there’s an implication that university presses are dragging their heels about “going digital”, this should be denied. “Going digital” isn’t just a matter of finger-snapping decision making. Sure, you can decide to do all your new books in a digital workflow, enabling you at the end of the process to have an HTML file which can be processed to create a printed book, an EPUB file, and a database file, and although there are costs, most university presses have bitten the bullet and gone some way down this sort of road.

But the big problem for university presses is not so much the going-forward, it’s the looking back. Trade houses have relatively shallow backlists: sure they’ll keep in print any book which continues to sell — though “sell” tends to mean different things to different people. (We used to pick up rights to quite a few academic paperbacks which Harper & Row, as they were at that time, was putting out of print because the sale had dropped below 4,000 copies a year. Heck 2,000 copies a year was a huge sale for a university press.) University press books are just designed to have longer lives than trade books, and the economics of the business are accordingly different. So a university press turns around to look at an immense tail of books produced before digital was ever dreamed of, all of them requiring conversion into some digital format if they are to become available as e-books or on-line. Now doing your digital “conversion” up front as part of the origination process does impose cost, but that cost is as nothing compared to the cost of going back and digitizing all of your backlist. OCR scanning exists, and no doubt improves over time, but most academic publishers who have grasped this nettle have found it most “efficient” to ship cartons of books to the Philippines, India, or some other location to have them rekeyboarded. This isn’t cheap, and a university press has to find the money to do it from somewhere. Add to that the fact that sales of these old books are not likely ever to be very large, quite possibly so small that the investment will never be recouped, and you will see the problem. The furthest many academic publishers have felt able to go with old books is to get them scanned as PDFs — an image file, not a text file — usable for making a POD version, but not for on-line text search. (You could of course sell a PDF as an “e-book”. It’s just not as flexible as an EPUB file, being a collection of pictures of pages.)

Joe Esposito writes in The Scholarly Kitchen, 8 April, about why university Presses would want to sell direct. I absolutely agree, and think this is the “way out” for the entire publishing industry. If big trade houses are unwilling to go this route, I believe they will ultimately wither and die. We have constantly in discussing the future of publishing, to keep in mind that what we really mean is the futures of several different types of publishing. Schoolbook and college textbook publishers may never want to go this route (until, if ever, textbooks go totally digital). But direct sales for an academic house or university press seem to me almost to be a “no-brainer”. It’s not true to say university press books don’t sell in Barnes and Noble — but they certainly don’t sell in the same quantities as trade books, making giving up the retail bookstore channel less of a wrench than it would be for trade publishers. Many university presses have large numbers of their older books available only as print-on-demand — well over 50% in some cases. This makes the problem of single-copy orders disappear. The fact that they’d not be giving a trade discount on direct sales gives the publishers some money to play with, so even paying shipping would not be an overwhelming issue, and of course in so far as sales are sales of e-books it would go away. There’s surely no ethical or business reason to be making your customers access these books via a third party, whether the corner bookstore, or Amazon.

In these terms it appears to me that university presses are well placed to move into the future with success. I suspect that in 25 years time publishers will all be small — rather like the scene when I started in this business in the mid sixties. Now that the need for capital to finance the printing of your first books has gone away, many more publishers (and not just self publishers) will be able to start up. Specialized books, whose sale is more restricted, and whose prices are accordingly higher, are ideally suited to this sort of environment. These are the books university presses publish.

54c77016-bb3f-4bae-8a5c-9f50403afef2We’re still seeing massive coverage of the negotiations between Amazon and Hachette. Unsurprisingly these appear to be tough, and the coverage is provoking a bit of retelling of war stories. Karen Christensen, co-founder of Berkshire Books, delivers (via the SSP group on LinkedIn) this account of their fraught relationship. (This devilish logo comes from a Seattle Times article referenced in her piece.) The trouble with her account, it seems to me, is that what she’s really complaining about is that Berkshire Books is making less money off the books they sell through Amazon. Now we can of course sympathize with this attitude — you don’t want to work for free — but she has obviously done the math and decided that it is all in all worthwhile to accede to Amazon’s discount demands because that way BERKSHIRE WILL SELL MORE BOOKS. Her Chinese contact would after all not have bought This Is China: The First 5,000 Years if it hadn’t been available on Amazon. She enlists Berkshire’s poor authors in an aside about royalties on sales at greater than 50%: but if your authors are not getting paid a royalty, this is not Amazon’s fault. Maybe your standard contract needs to be revised. Moses didn’t bring this clause down from the mountain — you can change it. And maybe altered market conditions demand that you should.

“Amazon is destroying competition and innovation because it is not letting the market determine winners and losers.” I know publishers are used to saying this sort of thing, but isn’t it actually the reverse? Isn’t Amazon creating competition and innovation? Or wouldn’t it be doing so if publishers were not so prone to lie supine on the floor drumming their heels on the carpet and sobbing “It’s not fair”. Of course it isn’t easy. It isn’t even pleasant; and many of us got into books in the beginning mainly because it was “pleasant”. But if everyone just accepted our claims to be disinterested benefactors of humanity, would we really do a better job? But wait a minute: Amazon’s dodgings and finaglings, while aiming to improve their margins, are all directed at lowering prices to their customers, which is exactly what makes them fairly safe from anti-trust prosecutions. Many in publishing have been heard to say things like “But just wait till they control the whole enchilada: then they’ll put the prices up.” Maybe. And if they do, then they will probably be open to an anti-trust suit from the Justice Department. Personally I don’t think they are dumb enough to contemplate any such thing.

Steven Colbert’s contribution to the debate has the somewhat redeeming feature that it’s meant to be funny.

Here on the other hand is a fascinating piece — word from inside. The writer used to work “for a little bookstore on the internet. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Begins with an A.” She makes a great point about single copy ordering — it’s almost calculated to bring a publisher’s warehouse to its knees (though we’ve made strides, some of us, in this area recently). Book warehouses are by-and-large set up to handle large carton-sized orders, not ones and twos. Is this another weapon being used by Amazon in its debate with Hachette? And if it is, is that in some way wicked. We have seen the changes coming: shipping carton lots to big bookstores is surely not the way things are going to be in the future. All publishers have to beef up their small order shipping systems: outside pressure is more of an opportunity than a problem.

Matt Blind’s Digital Reader piece, “A once-in-a century opportunity to reinvent publishing and books” is a must-read. Positive and uncomfortable (for all currently at the table), it suggests the way forward.

Passive Voice ( a valuable blog subtitled A lawyer’s thoughts on authors, self publishing and traditional publishing) gives us his take on the story too, with a link to The Atlantic‘s story by Jeremy Greenfield. The Passive Guy (David Vandagriff), was interviewed by Len Edgerly on the Kindle Chronicles podcast of 11 April.

Sorry about all this reading material. This story seems to have unloosed a flood. My head is spinning. Yet I hesitate to promise never to post on it again — it shows every sign of having legs. And after Hachette we will be moving on to the next in line of the Big Five.

Reports crop up from time to time of a book here or there bound in human skin. Sounds totally creepy to us nowadays, especially after World War II. But of course preserving relics of famous people, saints especially, has a long, and not unrespectable history. Publishing Cambridge provides a link to this post from The British Library English and Drama blog by Julian Walker which talks about the significance of touching things touched by famous authors. Clearly original manuscript is an obvious contender, but it goes further.

Hair of P. B. Shelley and Mary Shelley bound into a manuscript volume

Hair of P. B. Shelley and Mary Shelley bound into a manuscript volume

Locks of hair contained in brooches or necklace pendants were more of a thing a hundred years and more ago.  Maybe I come from an unemotional family, but I am not aware of a single instance where I have encountered a real relic of a family member — or actually anyone else. I suppose we have all heard of people who get their baby’s first bootees bronzed — and I’m willing to believe that such things exist. But the impulse seems totally alien to our modern sensibility, doesn’t it?

“Medieval relics were ‘created’ by laying cloths on the bones of saints – the cloths would have the same power as the bones.” I did not know this. I guess that means that taking your paperback edition of Frankenstein to the British Library and laying it on top of this manuscript volume, should endow it with some magical powers. Those who believe in the power of touching a relic should probably accept this too. For me Shelley’s or Mary Shelley’s works, even in modern edition form, are a sufficient relic of the authors. Their toe-nail clippings would not add anything to my experience. But collectors . . .

Here’s a review of Frankenstein, written by the author’s husband before publication, but not printed apparently until 14 years later. He liked it! (You can read this by clicking on the image. It can be accessed, as can more items from the Library by clicking on the links in Julian Walker’s piece.) The article following it, about raising a public subscription to secure Abbotsford for the use of Sir Walter Scott’s family, is actually more interesting to me.


PRH_logo_primary1-300x174Well — I do think this is pretty under-whelming. Random House had a strong logo. Penguin had a strong logo. Together they don’t amount to anything. The font used is ugly — those curly serifs, and the hook at the end of the stroke on the cap R — ugh. The lower case g is quite jolly, but is jolly what they want to say about themselves? The serifs on the lower case s are painful. As the Publishers Lunch story points out the Penguin orange does survive, in the stripes at either side.

All right — I agree it wasn’t ever going to be easy. No doubt lots of cunning ideas were ruled out en route to this bland committee-designed compromise. Markus Dohle, obviously trying to cover up his dismay says “the more I thought about it the more I realized that, it’s really fitting because we, as Penguin Random House, we are the merchants of words”. Knopf better get rid of that dog, or are they going to switch to picture books?

As Wikipedia says a logo (properly logotype) is “commonly used by commercial enterprises, organizations and even individuals to aid and promote instant public recognition”. It is meant to express the identity of the company. Not too much to hang onto in this one.

My earlier post on Colophon has more about the use of logotypes.

One of the problems confronting ecologically aware (and maybe activist) book publishers is the tiny proportion of the world’s paper that is used for books (even the tiny proportion of paper used for printing which goes into books). However, every bit counts, and our smallness shouldn’t be allowed to be an argument for inaction.  Book Business brings us a story on Rainforest Action Network’s press release about their recent report “A new chapter for the publishing industry”. RAN has been working since 2010 to get publishers to avoid using paper incorporating fiber from endangered forests. The report gives a thorough roundup of progress, ending up with a review of paper policies at ten publishers (9 if you count Random House and Penguin as one). RAN is also lobbying the main pulp suppliers, and seems to be making some slight progress in getting them to modify their practices. (Industry practice in USA is admirably responsible.)

If you print books overseas you are going to use local paper sourcing. If you print in Indonesia, obviously the paper is going to contain fiber from Indonesian forests, which are among the world’s most endangered. The same is likely to be the case for books printed in China. More publishers are now insisting on their books containing no fibre from endangered forests, something which is obviously difficult to enforce. Some do fiber analysis on the books to check for marker fibers. Others rely on the assurances of their suppliers. Progress is being made, but we still have a long way to go.

Sumatran rain forest cleared for palm oil cultivation

Sumatran rain forest cleared for palm oil cultivation

Here’s a strange story from NPR’s The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR on 16 May

“In an unusually metaphysical copyright case, a German court has ruled that an American psychologist — and not Jesus Christ — is the author of a book that she said Christ dictated to her in a ‘waking dream.’ The late Helen Schucman said she was a vessel for the words of Christ in her book A Course in Miracles, and a German Christian group called the New Christian Endeavour Academy argued that they were therefore free to put text from the book up on their website without paying for it (Jesus, apparently, does not require payment.) The U.S.-based Foundation for Inner Peace, which owns the, uh, worldly rights to the book, sued. According to The Guardian, the New Christian Endeavour Academy ‘argued that Schucman had not considered herself the author of the work, and referred to a 2003 ruling by a New York court that it said had put the work into the public domain.’ The academy also said: ‘For many there is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth is the author of the course and that copyright law therefore doesn’t apply to his work.’ The German court, however, ruled that the rights go to the actual writer of the book, regardless of divine inspiration.”

Things are getting tough for those eternal authors — the US Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein just took her oath of office by swearing on an e-reader. Bible publishers must be panicking.

In an unrelated post, the Melville House blog brings us news of what might be seen as retribution.

The Guardian recently offered an explanation of their house style in the matter of capitalization of acronyms etc.

“Use all capitals if an abbreviation is pronounced as the individual letters (an initialism): BBC, CEO, US, VAT, etc; if it is an acronym (pronounced as a word) spell out with initial capital, e.g. Nasa, Nato, Unicef, unless it can be considered to have entered the language as an everyday word, such as awol, laser and, more recently, asbo, pin number and sim card. Note that pdf and plc are lowercase.”

In our world this would mean Bisac yet AAP, Bigny, yet BBGNY (its old name). Of course this is just their house style: nobody’s under any compulsion to follow it. I am certainly not going to update my list of industry acronyms. I now see that this is mistitled, as most of them actually seem to be  “initialisms”, not I confess a word I’d encountered before.

Hart’s rules (Oxford), rather agrees with The Guardian, suggesting that periods should be added “unless the shortened form consists of upper-case initials or is a recognized acronym pronounced as a single word: thus print BBC, HMS, OUP, PAYE, PLC, SDP, SPCK, TUC, WEA; Anzac, Aslib, Fiat, Naafi (or NAAFI).” The option for NAAFI is odd: maybe returning national servicemen were used to seeing it spelled out in all caps, though the “rule” would push in the other direction. I will eschew explanation of this very British list of acronyms.

Cambridge (always more willing to allow the exercise of the educated intellect) allows you to capitalize and punctuate or not as you think best in each work. Consistency and ease of understanding being the (unstated) overriding concerns.