Archives for the month of: November, 2014

You don’t want to interrupt Julian Smith: he’s reading a book.

This was brought to my attention by a retweet from The Scottish Book Trust of the following remix. No doubt the bagpipes at the end inspired Graeme High School in Falkirk to compile their less intimidating version.

220px-BlurbingAs Wikipedia reminds us “A blurb is a short summary or promotional piece accompanying a creative work”. The word was allegedly invented by American humorist Gelett Burgess who devised a young lady named Belinda Blurb pictured here on the back of the jacket of his book, shouting praise for it. The date of invention shifts under our feet. Wikipedia says 1907, but the book on which the invention was allegedly instantiated was published in 1906. Are You a Bromide? The Sulphitic Theory Expounded and Exemplified According to the Most Recent Researches into the Psychology of Boredom Including Many Well-Known Bromidioms Now in Use — the title and subtitle probably give fair warning of a heavily hilarious read, though not much is at risk if you go for the free Kindle edition, a purchase which Amazon encouragingly assures you will save you $9.99. But be warned — as the picture shows “This book is the proud purple penultimate!!”. (I may wait for the ultimate.) Whether the book was published in 1906 or 1907 is perhaps less significant than the obvious fact that at the top it declares “All the other publishers commit them [blurbs]. Why shouldn’t we?” So it might seem that the etymological sleuth needs to look further back than 1906 in order to find the true origin of the word. Or maybe all those other publishers did what they did without having a handy word for it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its earliest quotation 1914, though its coy etymology does refer to the jacket pictured above. However they seem not to have seen it — that “drawing” looks more like a photo to me: “Said to have been originated in 1907 by Gelett Burgess in a comic book jacket embellished with a drawing of a pulchritudinous young lady whom he facetiously dubbed Miss Blinda Blurb [sic.]*. (D.A.) See Mencken Amer. Lang. Suppl. I. 329.” I don’t know what D.A. might mean in this etymological note: it’s not listed in the OED list of abbreviations — I was thinking it might mean “doubtful attribution” but maybe it’s Dictionary of Americanisms. That “Said to” at the start does make the ladder of reference since then slightly rickety.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language gives us the Gelett Burgess 1907 story, and notes another, less enduring neologism of his: “gubble” — to indulge in meaningless conversation. The OED does have gubble, but defined as meaning make a noise like “gub”. It’s earliest quotation is from H. F. Day in 1904 Like molasses gubblin’ out of a bung-hole.”

In the olden days we would use the word “blurb” to mean the flap copy which we ourselves wrote for the book jacket. More recently it has moved towards “endorsement by another author/personality”. The OED doesn’t make any mention of “blurb” as a verb, and I think this attaches more to the modern meaning of endorsement than to flap copy. You might get Best-Selling-Author X to blurb a book, while you’d never describe an editorial assistant as blurbing the book when he/she was writing the flap copy. Here’s A. J. Jacobs (he who read straight through the Encyclopaedia Britannica) discussing his blurbing proclivities. (If the OED needs a printed reference, here’s blurb being used as a verb almost to excess.) Matt Galloway looks more generally at blurbs and cover design at The Awl’s Publishing School. All of his contributors treat “blurb” only in the celebrity endorsement sense. Indeed he claims never to use the word, preferring to say “endorsement”.


* What a thrill to be able to say sic to the world’s greatest reference book. But see the picture. With commendable loyalty The Oxford Companion to the Book follows the OED lead on Blinda, and also ignores the celebrity endorsement aspect of the word. Maybe this is another of these US/UK differences. I wonder if we still use blurb to mean flap copy in UK.

This photo was tweeted by Banksy yesterday. No idea where it is. Click your way through his website.


I don’t like to dog ear my books, nor do I write in them — well, except for paving them (writing in the translation of a foreign word) when I was a student. I recently paved my copy of Martin Amis’ latest, The Zone of Interest, in pencil, so that my granddaughter could read it without stumbling over the German words he sprays about. But to mark my place I just hate turning down the corner of the page: it’s so permanent. Not sure why I should feel bad about rediscovering points in a book where I had stopped — maybe it is getting too close to social reading, though here the group would only be me-now and me-then. But what’s wrong with a book mark, a scrap of paper, a used envelope, a Metrocard? Still this inhibition is perhaps a little odd: after all the book is mine and if I read it again in the future maybe I would be interested to see what struck me enough to annotate the page when I read it before. But I don’t really believe that: I think I prefer to come at it fresh (or as fresh as memory permits) every time. Just as I hate to be shown those irritating highlights other readers have made in the Kindle file. (Yes I know you can turn that off, and I have.)

I may be wasting my time writing this post! A search of Google for “Dog earing books” yields 1,840,000 hits for the utterly ridiculous “Dogs eating books” — who knew this was such a serious problem? Though now that I think of it, I did once have a dog who gnawed the spines off books on low-lying shelves. But as she gnawed anything, I didn’t realize I was observing a widespread canine literary antipathy. When one eventually gets there the Wikipedia entry turns out to be remarkably po-faced.

Erica Baum, a poet/photographer has a whole book called Dog Ear (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011)dog ear erica baum made up of pictures of words from facing pages dog-eared to make up a sort of found poem. Whether one reads them with all the horizontal lines first then all the vertical ones, or horizontal, round the corner to vertical, back to horizontal and so on, some of them do occasionally yield some sort of meaning. The “corpse” one is a good example down to the fascinating last word “grelp”. Not sure I’m altogether on-board with this sort of conceptual poetry — the most I can say for it is “Interesting”. Here’s a link to a review of the book from Seattle-pi.



Those pronouncements coming from the bibliorati often overlook the obvious. As this post from Melville House (via Book Business) points out, despite regular claims to the contrary, translations sell plenty well: it’s just that we tend to ignore them when thinking about the question. Notorious as the best selling book of all time, the Bible, is of course a translation — actually recently a plethora of translations. While there are still a few sturdy souls who can enjoy the originals, all Greek and Latin literature is available to us only in translation. In fact almost everything written before Chaucer (some might even say Shakespeare) now has to be read in translation by the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Are there translations which sell better than their originals? The Bible obviously, but that’s probably an exception to any rule you’d like to make. The classics (Greek and Roman I mean) no doubt. But more modern stuff? There are a lot of people in Russia of course, but I wonder about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Doctor Zhivago was the top selling book in the USA in 1958 and second in 1959, while Solzhenitsyn’s August, 1914 was #2 on the year’s bestseller list in 1972. All Quiet on the Western Front was the top selling US book of 1929. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson topped the list in 2010. How about Simenon? Probably more sold in English than in French I’d bet. Tove Jansson — almost certainly; how many Swedes or Finns are there to enjoy the Moomins? There are probably more sales in English than German of Kafka’s works: Carolin Duttlinger certainly suggests as much in her review of Michelle Woods’ Kafka Translated in the Times Literary Supplement of 22-29 August 2014. How about Hans Christian Anderson? Ismail Kadare? Sándor Márai? All you really need to do in this game is pick a translation you’ve heard of from a language with a smallish number of native speakers, and Bob’s your uncle.

Here’s a link to Publishing Perspectives in which a German Book Office spokesman ruminates on the sorts of books which go well into the American market.

In an excellent New York Times Book Review Bookend piece (16 November 2014) about the way the French value their books and culture so much more than we do, Daniel Mendelsohn, a really smart classics-based cultural critic, adds his voice to those twitting Americans for our insularity when it comes to publishing translations. In USA a shockingly low percentage of our publications are translated, merely 3%, he tells us, while in France fully 14% of books published (in 2008) were translations. But 14% of the books published in France represents 5,866 titles, while 3% of those published in the USA comes to 8,760 books. My publication numbers are from 2011 it’s true, but I doubt that the proportions have changed radically over those 3 years. We in the English-speaking world don’t have any reason to be embarrassed about our international awareness: we have plenty of translations to turn to — and it appears that plenty of us are doing so. Nor does this mean the French need to do anything about the “shocking” situation that they publish almost 3,000 fewer translations annually than we do: no cultural significance can be given to the number or percentage of translations anyone deals with. They are just numbers.

I have held forth on this topic of proportions before, in June last year.

National_Readathon_Day_logo_111014Shelf Awareness gives us notice that a National Readathon will take place on 24 January next year. We are all invited to read for 4 hours from noon till 4pm (it’s a Saturday). How this is going to raise money for the National Book Foundation to encourage literacy is presumably up to you. You are encouraged to take these steps:

  • Create your own Firstgiving Fundraising page to benefit The National Book Foundation.
  • Invite friends and family to donate to your effort.
  • Check back into this site to find a participating venue near you or encourage your local bookstore or library to host a reading party.
  • Join us for National Readathon Day on January 24th from 12noon-4pm and make #timetoread!

Those of you who are busy writing your novel for NaNoWriMo can perhaps prevail upon a neighbor to read it during the National Readathon.

We are all used to paying more for airline tickets, cinema tickets, or car rentals at some times and less at others. We come across price variability in the grocery store, where say avocados have been over-purchased and are being sold off cheap. These prices are fluctuating in response to demand. The ultimate example is the stock exchange. Elementary economics teaches that the more demand there is for a good, the higher the price; and the greater the supply as compared to demand, the lower the price will tend to fall. Except, that is, in book publishing, where we put a price on a new book at the outset and never (or almost never) change it.

The second-hand book market behaves differently though: the prices on the used book side of Amazon vary over time. The fluctuations can be quite significant: when at OUP we needed to buy a used book to set up the print-on-demand edition (having no inventory ourselves in the case of an OP book), I would check Amazon periodically, refusing to buy when the price looked crazily high. I often managed to save more than 50% by delaying my purchase. The books I was buying were mostly relatively old scientific monographs, and I have no idea whether the price fluctuations showed any patterning. Now I wish I’d made notes.

The Planet Money team reported on 7 November (an abbreviated version was broadcast on Morning Edition on 10 November) about a successful used-textbook reseller, who has plotted the price movements for college textbooks over time, and is using this information to double their money by selling when the prices rise to their annual peak — unamazingly at the beginning of the school year. They gather their information from a program which examines Amazon’s price for a wide rage of textbooks every day. Not every textbook displayed the same pattern, but armed with the sales pattern from last year, they can predict which books they should carry in order to guarantee success. This doesn’t strike anyone in the book business as particularly surprising: we all know when demand for college textbooks is high — we’ve had to sweat blood to get books into the warehouse in time often enough. I guess the magic ingredient in this story is the computer program trolling Amazon’s prices. I wonder if they were wise to share this secret with NPR’s audience. Won’t everyone want to build a similar app, which will jeopardize their market advantage?

Now that we live our schizophrenic lives simultaneously in the p-book market and the e-book market, publishers are discovering that variable pricing can be a potent weapon. In the olden days, when you had to print that quantity of books which you judged would sell in a given period of time, we were all driven by the unit cost. In order to get the book into the marketplace we had to print an edition, and if the cost of that was $58,000 and we printed 10,000 copies, then our unit cost would be $5.80. This number drove the whole business back then: it was the number at the base of your calculation of the retail price, and hence of the profitability of the company. The trouble with it was however that it wasn’t really a very solid number. If you print 10,000 for $58,000 but only sell 9,000 of them then your real unit cost was actually $6.44. But your price and your margin were based on the $5.80 number, so of course you didn’t do as well as budgeted.

Print-on-demand has freed publishers from this math, as has the e-book. If you don’t have to decide how many to print in the first instance, because you can always print a dozen more later on, then you don’t have to focus so hard on that first printing number. Of course you still have to fix a price for the book which will yield a return on the investment you have made in paying the author, getting the manuscript edited and licked into shape ready to be printed — but the rigid relationship of that price to your manufacturing cost has disappeared. The same is true of an e-book. Once again let’s stipulate that all up-front costs have to be recovered, but once an e-book is established and its first cost amortized, then an additional sale is that invaluable item, a sale with no marginal cost (or vanishingly small marginal cost). Thus the e-edition of a history book, published ten years ago, can be offered at a sharply discounted retail price, and this will result in a sales spike, which fascinatingly has a shadow effect with increased sales at the full price for a few days after the $2.99 or whatever discounted price has expired. Amazon facilitates this business with their Kindle Daily Deal program.

But we tend still never to alter the retail prices of our print books, even though POD technology offers us a viable method of printing a single copy in response to a sale. Of course the marginal cost of a POD book is far from zero, but it’s also (usually) well below the level at which profit is realized. Of course the logic of price variability would be that we should be increasing the price at times of high demand and lowering it when demand slackens off. Demand is at its highest, usually, when the book is first published. So maybe we should be thinking about lowering the retail price a couple of months after publication, maybe raising it before Christmas, then dropping it down again in the New Year. Publishing people will hoot you down on this argument — it’s just not possible. And anyway we print the price on the cover or jacket, and it’s expensive to sticker books. Maybe it’s not possible to keep changing the price, but I think it does bear some sort of thought. As a book ages it’s price should in principle come down: it’s just less useful, and of the universe of people who might buy it, many have already done so. We didn’t have the capability to lower the price in the past because we were captives of that unit cost thinking, and with each reprint, as you printed fewer and fewer your unit cost would even tend to go up, working in the opposite direction. A POD unit cost may look comparatively high, but it will remain constant, and as long as you leave a cushion, will permit you to lose a little off the margin, increasing the number of sales without losing your shirt. Think about the total dollars earned, not about the dollars earned against any one edition.

When printing from movable types first came into existence, text and any woodcut illustrations incorporated would be printed in black only. The customer would immediately send the sheets to a rubricator/illuminator so that the red initial letters as well as those multi-color illuminations could be added (by hand) in the gaps left by the printer before the book was bound. In the first video accompanying my post “Incunabula at Cambridge” you can catch a glimpse of a page where the blank space remains just that. After a while printers figured out that they could print a second color and save time and money. This was done in one of two ways. Either two originals were created, one incorporating all the type and such woodcuts as were to be printed in the one color, and a second with all the second-color type and illustration. This was obviously expensive, unless the use of the second color was fairly restricted. The alternative method was for the two colors to be printed from a single original using a frisket to mask off the bits not to be printed in the color being applied. (For frisket, see my post of 4 November.)

This piece from the site Wynken de Worde gives a description of how this two-color letterpress was done, including a fascinating side-light on a correction discovered after the printing of both black and red, and necessitating a third pass through the press.

Here’s a printed piece showing two woodcuts in use, one for red and one for black. Interestingly we can see that the block was cut into two pieces to allow for the insertion of a title between the two parts for a second job. Was the crown at the top there on the blue copy, just trimmed off? It may be a third woodcut. The detail shows a copy printed out of register.





N HISTORIATED INITIAL is an enlarged letter at the beginning of a paragraph or other section of text, which contains a picture of a person or story. SHARP member Paul Dijstelberge, from the Netherlands, has put together a gallery of 50,000 images on Flickr under this heading, so if you browse through them all you may become an expert. He is asking for volunteers to help arrange them in order and weed-out duplicates.

The etymology of “historiated” is a little opaque:  it seems to come from the 14th century Middle French historier to write (a history book or chronicle), and by extension “to decorate with depictions of historical events”.  Familiar early examples are from illuminated manuscripts, and in early printed books space was often left on the printed page so that historiated initials could be inserted by hand.

Ideally in print the text following should align with the top (or base align with the bottom) of the Initial Cap. The example from Barry Moser’s Moby Dick given in this post from The World’s Greatest Book is very elegant. Often the rest of the first word or phrase following is set in (letterspaced) caps or small caps.

nano_logo-aef44f162676a9d773edb93f995492f2National Novel Writing Month is upon us again. This is their mission statement “National Novel Writing Month organizes events where children and adults find the inspiration, encouragement, and structure they need to achieve their creative potential. Our programs are web-enabled challenges with vibrant real-world components, designed to foster self-expression while building community on local and global levels.Sign in and start writing your 50,000 word novel, which is meant to be completed by the end of November. Sorry not to have given you more notice! 

GalleyCat provides 110 tools for successful participation. Go there and spend the next couple of weeks following up the links they provide, and you’ll be too late to get started on this year’s novel. But maybe you’ll be so well motivated and trained that you can write it anyway, or have plenty of time to gear up for next year.

Many publishing people speak snootily of NaNoWriMo, but what harm can be done by lots of people taking a stab at novel writing? Of course we are not anticipating the Great American Novel to emerge — but who can object to non-writers being encouraged to write?