Archives for the month of: December, 2014

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Here’s a nice post from Cabbieblog about what he describes as the oldest bookshop in Britain. Hatchard’s (now owned by Waterstone’s) opened in Piccadilly in 1796. imagesHowever Southeran’s of Sackville Street clearly state over their door that they were established in 1761 (although this was in York, not London). The Moravian Bookshop in Bethlehem, PA opened in 1745, and lays claim to being the oldest bookstore in the world. This claim is also made by the imagesBertrand Bookstore in Lisbon, Portugal, which has been open since 1732. However I do think Cambridge University Press may in fact be the correct claimant; their bookshop now being located in the premises of what once was Bowes & Bowes.Unknown The CUP Bookshop site at 1, Trinity Street, Cambridge has a claim to be the oldest bookshop site in the country, books having been sold there since 1581. The key term in the Bertrand Bookstore’s claim is perhaps the words “continuously operating” which Guinness World Records includes in their description. The Cambridge site has housed several different bookselling businesses. Just goes to show it’s rash to make claims unhedged about with qualification: Hatchard’s may be the oldest-continuously-operating-at-the-same-location-under-one-company-name bookshop in Britain.

Cabbieblog makes one think of the London cab driver who periodically comes on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, discussing his recommended books — but his name is Will Grozier, whereas Cabbieblog is written by “Gibson Square”. If they are not one and the same, this might suggest that London cabs may have an unexpected mobile literary salon aspect to them. Next time you are in a London cab maybe you should try to get the conversation round to books.

Here’s a video of the author’s speech upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014. She gets applauded when she says “Right now I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge a customer. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwah. And I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.”

Good strong stuff. Now of course trade publishing is driven by profit (but is happy to publish quality too). What Ms Le Guin calls “responsible book publishing” also needs profit, but is driven by other forces, forces of which she approves. But her plaint glosses over the fact that the authors who are producing that market commodity which is the staple of trade publishing are also benefitting financially from the enterprise, some rather well. And why not? It seems to me to be a perfectly sane and reasonable choice to write money-making trash rather than art for posterity. Not as noble, perhaps, but certainly rewarding in this life, which is surely all we get. I don’t think that it is any more virtuous to chose to be a struggling artist rather than a wealthy bestseller-writer, though we do tend to judge that way. There is however absolutely no reason to believe that either type of writing is going to go away any time soon. There will always be people who write because they have to, because they need to communicate something important; just as there will always be people who write because they want to make as much money as they can. Lucky the author, like Ms Le Guin, who gets to do both. There is no essential conflict between the two strands, except perhaps when we get to the ultimate customer. But at that point the art-writer, while no doubt disappointed, will have to acknowledge that the customers’ dollars were never their primary target. Such “art” books may become harder and harder for the big houses to publish. That just means they’ll be published by other smaller houses, (some of whom may in turn aspire to be big).

I had not known that Ursula K. Le Guin was the daughter of Alfred and Theodora Kroeber. Ms. Le Guin’s website may be found here.

A recent comment asked why perfect binding was so named. I responded that I’d always assumed that it was an ironic usage — but that’s obviously an unlikely explanation. I was just reading Book Makers: British Publishing in the Twentieth Century by Iain Stevenson (British Library, 2010) where I came across a footnote on page 155: “‘Perfect’ binding is not named for its quality but for its (American) inventor, a Mr Perfect. Adapted for long print runs, it involves the ends of the book sections being sliced off [he’s referring to the fold], and the resulting loose pages then being glued into a card case. The glue dries out over time, whereupon loose pages fall out and the spines tend to crack as the book is read. It was an early example of planned obsolescence. Since most paperbacks are also printed on high-acid wood pulp paper, which yellows and becomes brittle on exposure to the atmosphere, they tend to have a considerably shorter life than hardbacks printed on alkaline papers. In recent years, technical improvements such as better quality glues and ‘slot’ binding have made paperback quality better, and in general better paper is now used, in part to meet environmental requirements. Some have observed that production standards for hardbacks have in their turn declined, with unsewn bindings and poorer quality paper than hitherto.”

There’s quite a lot that could be unpacked in there, but in general it does do as a description of the process. The fascinating bit is the reference to “a Mr Perfect”. Mr Perfect strikes me though as a suspiciously vague designation; couldn’t we be given a first name? Still as the reference comes from the Professor of Publishing at University College London, I guess we can place some weight on it. However, all the references to Mr Perfect which I have been able to find lead us back to Book Makers as a source. Is this circularity suspicious? If you ask Google, Mr Perfect appears to be American wrestler, Curt Hennig, though there are a couple of other fighter-claimants of the sobriquet. There’s no evidence of activity by any of them in the world of book-binding!

According to perfect binding was invented in 1895 but wasn’t much used in bookwork till 1931 when German publisher Albatross Books pioneered the paperback. The Oxford English Dictionary gives an earlier date, with their first quotation coming from American Bookbinder in 1893 (or is it 1886?) “Mr. Crawford is the inventor of what is known as the ‘perfect library binding’.” Mr Crawford? Was he aka Mr Perfect? The Oxford Companion to the Book is tight-lipped on the subject: its entry for “perfect binding” reads in full: “A term commonly used for modern unsewn bookbindings whose structure depends on glue to hold the leaves together.” Perhaps only in Oxford is a process invented in 1895 describable as “modern”. Perfect binding is understandably beneath the notice of Joseph Blumenthal’s The Printed Book in America. Everyone’s look-up-of-last-resort, Pocket Pal, is brief on binding in general and wastes no time speculating on the origins of perfect binding.

Unless there’s some ancient bookbinder out there who can set us right, we shall have to go forward on the assumption that Professor Stevenson’s explanation is correct, though the OED is troubling. Does anyone have any other source for Mr Perfect?

[I wrote about perfect binding a couple of years ago.]

Len Edgerly invited me to do a second audio interview on his weekly podcast show, The Kindle Chronicles. We did the interview on 16 December, just before I left for Christmas in Britain. The interview can be found at this link to the show. (As it says at the top, the interview begins 21.05 minutes into the program. Every week Len provides news of Amazon and the Kindle, tech tips, and some pointers to interesting content for the Kindle.)

I recently posted about “Libraries as publishers”, now comes the suggestion that libraries act as booksellers. Publishing Perspectives sets the ball rolling on 2 December with a piece by Deborah Emin publisher of Sullivan Street Press. She instances the Borough of Queens in New York City (now Lonely Planet’s #1 tourist destination in USA) where there are apparently only three bookshops serving the immense area with approximately 2.3 million inhabitants. She refers to The Center for an Urban Future’s recent report, Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries which is available at this link as a PDF download, though the introduction is available there already. Whether or not stimulated by this report NYPL recently had people complete a survey about their usage of the library and its branches, so they are obviously alive to the issues. Capital needs are unsurprisingly immense, and library systems everywhere are a favorites for local administrations to short-change.

Actually the New York Public Library already has a gift shop in the main Stephen A. Schwarzman Building where they sell books as well as other stuff, so a structure exists on which Ms Emin’s wish could be based. Of course to some extent branch libraries have always acted on an intermittent basis as second-hand bookstores, taking in donations of books from their customers and selling off deaccessioned volumes as they are weeded out from their collections. I wonder if it might not be more acceptable to the pro-business lobby to allow local booksellers to set up satellite outlets within local library branches, if the library was reluctant. The Library does maintain relationships with booksellers. The event I attended recently at the main library had books for sale by 192 Books. Another in Brooklyn had sales handled by Community Bookstore. Of course there would need to be staffing for any satellite shops which might be a difficulty, though I suppose a deal could be worked out where library staff tended the bookstore periodically. Whether there would be enough sales volume to fund the operation is the basic problem, but anything which made the usage of the space available at many branch libraries would help the system. Obviously the details would be where this sort of idea rises or falls, but this does seem to me to be the best proposal yet for some sort of government subsidization of the book industry. Having said that, I think we in USA are probably still a long way from accepting that the book industry deserves to have any kind of government subsidy.

Like Mr Hellman on Go to Hellman I don’t find discovering books a problem, but it is an issue which gets a lot of attention from the commentariat. Ensuring that your book can be discovered has always been difficult. Before on-line retailing came along there were three ways publishers could do this. 1) get reviews, 2) make sure copies were on display in every bookshop, and 3) advertisements (though nobody really thought this had much effect. It was often done mainly to placate the author.) Of course the ultimate aim was to get the book talked about. Just going out in the street and button-holing passersby might have been an option, though in so far as this was ever done, it was usually accompanied by a give-away.

Getting your book talked about among the cognoscenti may actually be achievable via reviews, but the group is not a large one. Having your book prominently displayed in bookshops used to be a little easier in that there were fewer books and more bookstores, but it has always been a wasting asset. Prominent display of the next big book will be urgently required, shunting most of your previous titles to the spine-out display of morbidity. The window of opportunity when buzz can be created was always short, and unsurprisingly most books missed out. Occasionally one would hear of publishers announcing that they were going to publish fewer books, but publish them better. While in theory this is a perfectly decent global idea, it is unfortunately subject to the tragedy of the commons, in that no one publisher can put it into operation. If publisher A does fewer books they will not get more attention: they’ll just be drowned out by the ever-larger lists of all the other publishers.

That’s the first part of discoverability. When we discuss it though, I think we all have in our minds that delightful serendipity which brings you unexpectedly up against an older book which you’ve never heard of, but absolutely need to read. This happens, but I think it happens a little less often than the critics of Amazon imply. Obviously the more bookstores there are the more likely this sort of unexpected discovery is possible. Now with so many of our bookshops shut, we Mahattanites must wander Broadway on the upper Westside checking out the informal street-vendor book selections. Serendipity, at least for me, rarely strikes there.

On-line discoverability is a more difficult problem, one which starts with that brain-numbing word “metadata”. Clearly if you don’t describe your book correctly so that a computer can understand you, you have little chance of bringing it under the eye of someone conducting a computer search. And there’s just so much stuff available that one’s natural reaction is to throw one’s hands up in despair. Are we witnessing the death of the book market by over feeding? That I doubt. Just because you don’t end up finding everything you might like, doesn’t mean that what you did find is not satisfactory. We have after all never been able to find everything, and now that it at least seems theoretically possible to do so, this should not be allowed to lead us into despair.

Amazon tries at serendipity-creation though, primarily through the “People who bought this also bought this” and “New for you” listings. But of course that’s not really the same thing: what we want is the utterly unexpected, totally unrelated, but nevertheless perfect book. Mr Hellman’s post suggests interestingly that serendipitous discovery is not something Amazon would like to encourage. Keeping attention focused on the bestseller generates more business for them.  In any case their major efforts in discovery now seem to be more focused on Goodreads. Maybe in the end we will all be members of one or more little special-interest group will serve a book locating function, trading among themselves book recommendations.


Postcard printed á la poupée. From MetroPostcard

Postcard printed á la poupée. From MetropoPostcard

Á la poupée (with the doll) was a method of intaglio printing in which different colors of ink would be applied to one printing surface, using a wad of fabric, called a poupée. Registering different colors in intaglio printing was notoriously difficult as the paper had to be dampened before each impression, and would tend to shrink unevenly when it dried. Printing all the colors simultaneously obviously got past the registration problem but did mean that simple blocks of color had to be used. This example is actually quite elaborate.

Conceptually intaglio printing is the opposite of letterpress where the ink is on the raised image. With intaglio a copperplate is engraved so that the non-printing areas are left untouched. Ink is put into the grooves, and the whole plate is wiped off so that no ink remains on the non-printing, raised surface. With á la poupée care had to be taken in this doctoring phase so as not to smudge the colors by dragging traces of them across the non-printing surface being cleaned.

Gravure printing, and roto-gravure are intaglio processes. The ink is deposited in a series of engraved “dots” on the plates which have been created mechanically by photoengraving. Gravure has rarely been used for book work: it is ideally suited to high-quality color reproductions in long runs. A typical application would be for printing food can labels. A single gravure cylinder might cost $5,000. The song “Easter Parade” makes reference to “the rotogravures” — magazine supplements of the time were sometimes printed that way.

The MetropoPostcard Guide to Printing is a mine of information about printing methods used for the reproduction of artwork.

Seattle-Buys-BooksSeattle is the place where books are most enthusiastically supported, as this graphic shows: 68% above the national average. New York is 31% below average. In our defense I would like to point out that we are also 33% below the national average in our home alcohol purchasing (we’re probably all hanging out in bars that are too dark to read in).

This graphic was sent by Book Patrol, who give a link to the fascinating New York Times story which shows city rankings for all sorts of products.

Amazon/Kindle is notoriously customer-centered and will withdraw a book about which it gets complaints from customers. This one is crazy though — apparently one reader complained about the number of hyphens in Graeme Reynolds’s book Moonstruck, and it was instantly withdrawn. Amazon tells Mr Reynolds that until the hyphenation errors are corrected the book cannot be offered for sale again. The Digital Reader story can be found here.

The automatization of Amazon’s policing of their content is the real problem. I know it’s a big organization, but someone with a little nous has to look at some of this stuff. A similar problem was mentioned in my post Catch-22A.