Archives for the month of: August, 2014

Of course it’s not really translation, except in the loosest sense — translation into a different medium, I suppose. Sort of like making a novel based on Macbeth (I read one less than wonderful example not long ago), or a film version of The Great Gatsby. Of course it’s obviously part of the challenge, but LEGO isn’t the most flexible of media, is it? This link will take you to the website featuring the translation of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest into LEGO scenes. The Guardian blog breaks this important story.


This wedding scene from Game of Thrones speaks to me more. I like the square puddles of blood. The link is in the Guardian blog post. Clever I guess, but I don’t think it’s going to displace the e-book.

Oxford’s university press was at one time set up in the newly-built Sheldonian Theatre, a most inconvenient location. When the university needed it for its real ceremonial function, all the printing equipment had to be moved out of the way. Not altogether inappropriate to put the presses in there: somewhere in this painting on the ceiling “Truth descending on the arts and sciences to expel ignorance from the university” 1668-9, by Robert Streater, printing is memorialized in the shape of a lady holding a typecase and a forme near some printed sheets drying. (I’m having to take the word of Professor Ian Gadd and Adam Smyth on this, as I can’t detect her in this picture.) Ever since, of course, we have seen the mission of all university presses as expelling ignorance from the university, and as many other places as they can reach.

(c) Sheldonian Theatre; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This information comes from a podcast available from iTunes, #3 of which is about the history of OUP.

Of course book publishers conduct their own lobbying in Washington (and some states) through the AAP. One wonders whether the scale can match Amazon’s efforts, described in this story from Shelf Awareness on 7 August 2014.

Politico: Amazon Bringing Hardball Tactics to Capital

In a report called “In Amazon’s Shopping Cart: D.C. Influence,” Politico wrote that “the e-commerce giant increasingly is shipping [its] hardball tactics to Washington, where it is fighting agencies and wooing regulators more than ever before.”

Politico said that Amazon “this year has boosted its political machine, hiring a crop of new lobbyists and writing bigger checks to members of Congress. It recently retained a powerhouse firm in Washington, D.C., to lobby the Federal Aviation Administration on delivery drones and has flexed its muscle to win a key government technology contract. Bezos, meanwhile, raised his Beltway profile through his personal purchase of the Washington Post in 2013.”

Politico continued: “Amazon recently acquired new office space near the Capitol following a slew of hires, including Steve Hartell, a Cisco aide tapped to direct Amazon’s congressional affairs operation. Hartell joins the company’s growing roster of outside lobbyists, including former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John Breaux (D-La.).”

Politico cited Amazon’s hardball tactics in securing a $600 million CIA cloud contract; lobbying the FAA to approve drone operations, and battling the FTC publicly over letting kids charge items in its app store. It didn’t mention Amazon’s help in getting the Justice Department interested in collusion among some publishers over e-book pricing.

Amazon’s direct political donations are still relatively low, Politico said, and it hasn’t been as involved in broader tech issues, such as surveillance reform, as companies like Apple and Google.


Publishing Perspectives brings us this thorough review by Kevin Di Camillo of a documentary about the state of the (trade) publishing industry. It’ll cost you $35 (plus sales tax) to buy it. Here is the trailer, which together with the review probably tells you enough.

In a comment following the review, Sandy Thatcher makes the point I keep stressing — there’s more than one kind of publishing, and this film (naturally, ‘cos that’s what the public sees when it thinks of “publishing”) focusses only on the trade publishing business. It needs always to be emphasized that the situation in academic, professional, college etc.etc. publishing is entirely different. I’m not so sure that the digital surge doesn’t represent a wonderful opportunity for academic publishing, to the same extent that it’s probably a death-knell for trade publishing. Reaching niche markets is so much easier nowadays — and with some academic and reference books we used almost to feel we could list all of the potential buyers by name before we committed the book to print. E-books and Print-on-demand pretty much take the gamble out of academic publishing.



From, via The Digital Reader of 11 August.

I think this is what lies at the heart of the current Amazon/Hachette battle. Amazon says e-books should cost $9.99; Hachette says pricing is their decision.

There are three possible owners of a book: the author, the publisher, the reader*. In the past, because it was difficult and expensive to get a book printed, ownership of the stock was clearly part of the publisher’s job. The author owned the copyright, which was leased (or occasionally sold) to the publisher in return for a royalty, often including an advance payment against anticipated royalty earnings. When the book went out of print (when the owner/publisher decided not to reprint any more) the rights might revert to the author. Similar arrangements still hold in the world of e-books, though the relationship has really changed. Contracts will perhaps change to catch up with reality.

In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Hugh Howey said “There is so much room to grow the culture of reading so that everyone reaps the benefits. Right now, I have aligned myself with Amazon, because their customer-centric philosophy has done more to encourage reading and drive this industry forward than any other single company on the planet. Many think I’m overstating the case to suggest this, or that I sound like a shill. I’m a lifelong reader, bookseller, critic, writer, and publisher. If there’s a company out there that is doing more to get people reading, I’m open to hearing who has as an alternative for me to support. Publishers who refuse to compete, who collude to raise prices on customers, who offer lockstep and dismal digital royalty rates? The media, who seems to care more about the health of middlemen than what’s best for readers and writers? The Authors Guild, who advocates for large corporations and the top 1% of writers? Independent bookstores, who blacklist my books and the works of those who publish with Amazon imprints? If anyone can name a company working harder than Amazon to get more books in the hands of happy readers, please let me know what company that is. Because I’ll abandon my support of Amazon in an instant and throw my puny little weight behind whoever it is. All I care about is books being read. I’m a shill for whoever makes that their prime directive.”

Now of course it is true that Amazon’s negotiating stance does enable them to say they are on the side of cheap e-books, and we have no reason to believe that they are not sincere in their belief that lower prices are “better” for readers. I don’t doubt their analyses showing that more dollars are raised by selling more books at $9.99 than fewer at $14.99 — though of course I do question the assumption that price is the only thing that makes someone buy a book. It’s only simple arithmetic once you accept their premiss. But the issue is who has the right to decide this sort of question. In the olden days of print, there was obviously no question about that: the publisher fixed the retail price of a book, and booksellers would sell it at that price, or (more recently) at a discount off that price. (See “Net Book Agreement”.) We all seem still to get along fine with that arrangement with print books — the publisher prints $29.95 on the book cover and the retailer offers it at some discounted price and the customer is happy to have gotten a bargain. But because they are not physical objects, e-books seem to be different.

But should publishers have the right to “fix” the retail price? Given that the publisher has to make the investment in getting the book produced (less for an e-book, it’s true, but still there) they do need to be able to guarantee that they sell at a price sufficient to cover their costs, their payments to the author, and their justifiable profit. Amazon is a retailer. They may be absolutely right that their customers would prefer to pay $9.99 for this book but of course they do not have full insight into the economics of that individual title. How does this work with clothing or shoes? Or music or newspapers? Clothing tends to be sold at what in book terms would be the discounted price. The manufacturer sells at the price they agree to and the retailer marks up that price — if the item doesn’t sell at the marked-up price you’ll find it on the sale table at a “discount”. Of course e-books don’t have any physical reality, so the sale table isn’t an issue (though believe it or not, I know of publishers who will accept a return of an e-book). It’s The New York Times that decides to charge $5 for their Sunday edition — your corner newstand is not going to try to attract your business by offering it for $4.50, and the NYT are the ones who determine what a subscription will cost you. The music business is notorious for losing control over pricing with disastrous consequences. Publishers do “own” their books, despite what Hugh Howey and other “indie authors” scream. They need to be able to determine the price they will sell them at. If authors think that publishers charge too much, then the self-publishing route is open to them. You don’t notice Hugh Howey arguing that Amazon should be able to fix the price of his own books — even if they do have opinions about that.


* (A retailer could be said to own the book at the point between publisher and reader: but so many books in bookstores are there on virtual consignment, since they can always be returned. Amazon has it is true made some agreements with publishers making their books non-returnable; these terms are agreed to in return for additional discount — but by and large books in a bookstore are there till they sell, or if they don’t till they are returned. Payment terms are such that many books end up being returned before the invoice covering their “sale” to the bookstore comes due.)

My 2010 post “This is my book” may be relevant here.

The Net Book Agreement, dating from 1900, was a price-fixing deal between British publishers and booksellers to protect the wide range of publications stocked in shops. It was a resale price maintenance agreement which allowed the publishers to set the “Net price” of a book. This prevented booksellers offering discounts on “net” price books. The idea behind it was, in crude terms, that left to themselves booksellers would cut their own throats by offering competitive discounts — the benevolent publishers would save them from this suicidal move by setting a price which would be universally honoured. Earlier this year The Bookseller blog opined “Since the end of the Net Book Agreement in the 1990s, supermarkets have done as much as anyone to devalue books and drive independent booksellers to the wall”.

Here’s a 1994 report of the Agreement’s imminent collapse.

This report, from dates from 2011:

RPM – Book Sales in the UK 

Established on 1st January 1900, the Net Book Agreement (NBA) was a voluntary publishers’ agreement which allowed them to set a minimum or net price in bookshops and other retail outlets. Discounting of net titles was only allowed under certain schemes (e.g. book clubs, library and school supply) administered by the Publishers Association (PA). In the event of a breach, in most cases, the PA acted on behalf of the publisher to enforce compliance.

In August 1994, the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading announced that the 1962 decision in favour of the NBA would be reviewed by the Restrictive Practices Court (RPC). In September 1995, several major publishers withdrew from the NBA and the PA Council decided that it could no longer defend the NBA in Court, therefore to all intents and purposes, it no longer operated. In September 1996, the BA Council agreed that the Booksellers Association (BA) should play no part in the RPC case, even to the extent of registering an interest. The BA Council also confirmed that the BA was neutral as to RPM. In March 1997, the RPC stated that the NBA was no longer in the public interest and it was declared to be illegal.

In 1962, the RPC believed that the abrogation of the NBA would produce the following:

• The number of stockholding bookshops would be reduced

• The stocks held by bookshops would be less extensive and less varied

• Although certain titles would be cheaper, the price of most books would be higher

• Fewer titles of literary and scholarly value would be published

The number of stockholding bookshops has decreased, but the number of outlets devoted to books has grown enormously. Supermarkets and other non-traditional outlets have increased their sales and range of books and the ending of RPM has also enabled internet bookselling to become established and take a large market share. Certain sectors have been affected, especially high street bookshops, newsagents and the specialist library supply market.

The new book superstores; internet retailers and next day delivery from wholesalers; widespread use of EPoS/e-commerce and print on demand (POD) have all extended stock range enormously. However, increased competition has probably made bookselling a far riskier sector.

Discounting has been widespread, though chiefly focused on bestsellers from the major publishers. By some measures, book prices have risen at above the level of inflation but the actual average selling price has gone down. Consumer spending on books has increased, though wider economic downturns have had their effect.

The number of new titles published has continued to grow year on year. POD and digitisation (e-books) are enabling almost anyone to become a publisher and are also preventing books from going out of print.

Given the important changes in the bookselling and publishing arena and the global market for English language books, it is extremely difficult to assess what changes in the market can be attributed to the ending of RPM in the UK.


Most of the publications about the Net Book Agreement in the UK are now out of print but may be obtainable from libraries. There may also be past articles in the press.

The Net Book Agreement: Benefits, How it works, the terms The Publishers Association,

National Heritage Committee: Fourth Report – The Net Book Agreement The Stationery Office 1995 – ISBN 0 10 238395 2,

Business Impacts of the Demise of the Net Book Agreement Rob Newmarch – Vista Computer Services 1995 – ISBN 0 9525566 4 2,

The Effects of the Abandonment of the Net Book Agreement Dr Frank Fishwick & Sharon Fitzsimons – The Cranfield School of Management Book Trust 1998 – ISBN 0 85353 474 8,

Two sides of the same coin Dr Frank Fishwick – The Bookseller, 23 February 2001,

An evaluation of the impact upon productivity of ending resale price maintenance on books Office of Fair Trading 2008 – OFT981,

The NBA – a short history Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore – The Bookseller, 20 February 2009,

Discount dash Tom Tivnan – The Bookseller, 20 February 2009,

Was it all worth while? It seems hard to say that we are worse off today, in terms of book-supply, than we were in 1994. Many more books are published, and more books are finding their way into the hands of readers. There was a charm to the old-fashioned world of stockholding bookshops which is rarer today than it was back then. The bookshops of my childhood in Galashiels and Melrose are gone, but shops like Village Books in Dulwich still provide the same sort of service — just not to inhabitants of the Scottish Borders! Antiquarian bookshops are mainly where you hang out now for that serendipity feeling. On the continent things are done quite differently. We stayed in Vienna recently and there were at least eight proper bookshops within 1/4 of a mile of our hotel.

I haven’t gone on for a while about the need for book production workers to retrain. There’s a risk of overstating the obvious. But things are NOT going to be staying as they are. Expertise in buying book manufacturing services from a defined set of suppliers is not a skill which is going to be increasingly in demand. Here’s an interesting piece from LinkedIn, “We are heading for a jobless future . . .”.

I rather like the idea of everyone getting to work a 10-hour week, though I doubt if we will be willing to settle for that. Everyone will want as much pay (as many hours) for themselves as they can get, and the devil take the hindmost. It will take an immense shift in public perception to get away from the attitude that having a job is measure of your worth in the world. Theoretically one might hope for a world where robots do the work; the companies they work for pay the taxes; and from that revenue the government pays everyone a living wage. And we all loll about reading our Kindles. No doubt that sounds too socialistic even to be considered! But more and more work is being done by robots. The Economist of 16 August even had an article about an AI, robotic, psychotherapist: the researchers found that people were more willing to open up to a machine than they were to a real live person. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not just bookshops but the entire universe of bricks-and-mortar retailing that is about to disappear. Lots of people already buy their shoes from Zappos — all that’s really needed is a pre-paid return mechanism. It doesn’t take too much to imagine a world in which a 3-D scan of your body can digitally be dressed in some garment available for on-line purchase. Groceries are on their way to being ordered for us by our smart refrigerators: though the possibility of sorcerer’s apprentice-like glitches open up thoughts of a delightful world of excess in, say, the yoghurt department. Monitoring your medical condition is about to be automated. Only old folks like me still use road maps.

As a minimum, all book people need to be able to understand e-books and how to put them together. If you don’t, make sure you find out. It doesn’t help that many publishing companies are setting up separate workflows, separate departments, for e-books. It’s not up to your employer to ensure that you have the knowledge that will enable you to keep working into the next decade: they just want you to be good at doing what you are doing today. So take responsibility — of course we don’t know what tomorrow brings, but doing something is better than doing nothing.

Harvard’s Houghton Library has established that one of its books is bound in human skin. The book contains a note from the binder detailing and justifying the binding’s origin. Harvard’s blogs contain details of the book and a discussion of the testing. They say “While books bound in human skin are now objects of fascination and revulsion, the practice was once somewhat common. Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice blog brings us a little history of anthropodermic bibliopegy. (This includes a note about a Harvard Law Library book which, as the link above tells us, has  since been proven to be bound in sheepskin, despite the claim in the back of the book.) The Wikipedia entry on anthropodermic bibliopegy is quite informative. This BBC News Magazine post mentions other examples including this notebook made from the skin of William Burke (of Burke and Hare fame), and a book on virginity in the Wellcome collection with a note in the back about its binding by the same Ludovic Bouland who bound the Harvard book!

I think we all reflexively think this sort of thing is revolting at least in part because of the stories about WWII excesses. If you can clear your mind of the revulsion factor, I suppose you could see a way in which someone might find this a somewhat touching way of memorializing a friend — is it really wildly different than keeping locks of hair, which I think we also find a bit creepy nowadays? (Cf. “Relics”) Of course we don’t know what we don’t know, but it seems a little odd to me that this form of commemoration was mostly focussed on the criminals not the benefactors of humanity. Maybe that’s just a result of availability. I bet someone has at least wished they could bind an author’s works in this way. In this context my earlier post “DNA ink” is relevant.


[From The Onion]