Archives for the month of: January, 2015

Joe Konrath and Scott Turow appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on 15 January, previewing the debate that evening at Merkin Hall, sponsored by Intelligence Squared. Those who didn’t make it to the debate (like me — they sold out) can eventually listen to it as a podcast by the look of things. This link will enable you to listen to the Brian Lehrer show.

In the afternoon there was a session at Digital Book World, also in NYC, entitled “Should/Can Amazon be Constrained?” Thanks to Len Edgerly of The Kindle Chronicles for his liveblog posts from the conference. As Barry Eisler says “I was struck by the title of this panel. I thought, Wouldn’t a more interesting question be why won’t New York compete? And what could New York do to compete if it wanted to? If you hired a sports coach and instead of talking about players and plays, he wanted to talk about how we could get the league to constrain the other teams because they’re too good, you would fire that coach. The coach is asking the wrong questions, ones that will produce a losing team. I’m sure Amazon is not asking, Should New York be constrained?” He’s right, but I think Eisler is guilty, as are so many, of setting up this straw man, New York publishing. There’s no “New York publishing” in that sense: it’s just a lot of companies all working away to maximize their own profit — collusion is illegal; there’s no cartel other than in the minds of the indie author commentariat. Also his question glides past the implication in the DBW session title that Amazon is doing something wrong. Are they? I really doubt it. They have a huge position in the book market, and as a result they can push publishers about (within limits) and they do. But that’s not illegal. So I rather agree with him that Amazon neither could or should be restrained: they’ve done nothing but become “too” successful at what they do. But he doesn’t do his case any good by exaggerating the power of that mythical beast “New York publishing”.

Some of the same energetic straw-man-bashing is heard on the Brian Lehrer show, and no doubt in the evening’s debate at Merkin Hall. If we have good arguments we don’t help them by over-claiming as we utter them.

I think almost everyone agrees that Amazon is indeed the reader’s friend*. Being able to buy more books, often for less money, can’t be bad for readers. Let conspiracy theorists, or maybe they are just “realists”, the polite word for cynics, believe that Amazon is selling books for less than they pay for them merely so they can lull you into a false sense of security before zapping the prices way up after they have gained control of the entire market. Such rhetoric should not sway us till we see some concrete evidence that it is indeed happening. It isn’t, and I doubt if it ever will.

* Stop press: the motion “Is Amazon the reader’s friend” lost at yesterday evening’s debate. But on-line voting on the Intelligence squared website is heavily in the other direction (72% for the motion.) Click on the Cast Your Vote tab to see how this evolves.

On 30 December Mark Zuckerberg posted

“I’m crowdsourcing ideas for my next year’s personal challenge. For background, every year I take on a challenge to broaden my perspective and learn something about the world beyond my work at Facebook. In past years, some of my challenges have been:

  • Learning to speak Mandarin
  • Meeting one new person who doesn’t work at Facebook every day
  • Writing a thank you note each day to someone who made the world better
  • Being a vegetarian (or only eating meat if I killed the animal myself)
  • Wearing a tie every day

At our last town hall Q&A, someone asked me what my challenge will be for the new year and I said I’d love ideas from our community. I have an idea of what my next challenge might be, but I’m open to more ideas before the new year officially begins. So share your ideas here!”

The winning suggestion this year appears to have been to start a Facebook book club, called A Year of Books. The first selection is Moises Naim: The End of Power. Zuckerberg apparently got 81,000 members in two days. Not that “being a member” implies anything like “wanting to read a book”. You become a member by liking the post or by asking to follow. The “likes” are over 250,000 now. Still, even if MZ doesn’t turn out to have the clout of Oprah, or Richard & Judy, some books will be sold. The paperback went out of stock at Amazon on the first day, though the book was still available in the Kindle edition. One of the advantages of the e-book is of course that it can (in theory) never go out of stock. The book appears now to be available once more. Maybe in future Mr Zuckerberg will share the upcoming choice with the publisher in time for restocking to take place.

Here are links to stories about the book club from GigaomTechCrunchThe New York Times, and The Atlantic.

I do wonder how wearing a tie enabled Mr Zuckerberg to learn anything about the world beyond his work at Facebook. I suppose it might be said to have broadened his perspective.

Later: Doesn’t seem to be going that well. This post from The Digital Reader suggests that there are structural problems in Facebook’s algorithms which render the sort of interchange you’d need for a book club difficult to achieve. I must say that having “signed up” myself I have not received any notification from the club (other than a post saying the next book is going to be Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I did read a while back). Of course I am willing to admit that this may be my own unfamiliarity with the ways of Facebook.


Photo: Daina Beth Solomon

This traffic sign in Los Angeles gives good advice to those stuck in LA traffic. LA Weekly tells the story (tweeted by Peter Ginna, Dr Syntax). Their “explanation” is a bit underwhelming. Basically we have no idea how whoever did it did it.

Tennyson-page-16JG720x450Thomas Cobden-Sanderson set up the Doves Bindery (named after a nearby pub in Hammersmith) in 1893. They bound many of the Kelmscott Press books.  In 1900-1 he joined with Emery Walker to expand, founding the Doves Press. Walker and Cobden-Sanderson created a new typeface based on the designs of Nicholas Jensen’s 15th century Venetian Roman. This was commissioned in 1899 from punch-cutter Edward Prince, and was cut from drawings by Percy Tiffin in 16 point size only. This was the only font the Doves Press used, making for a handsome page, embellished occasionally by initials and flourishes by calligraphers Edward Johnston and Graily Hewitt. The partnership was dissolved acrimoniously in 1908-9, and it was eventually agreed that Cobden-Sanderson could keep on using the type, which would in the end be inherited by whichever of them lived longer.

However this arrangement clearly didn’t sit well with Cobden-Sanderson, and he began in 1913 tossing the types into the river off the western side of Hammersmith Bridge. Determined that nobody but his Doves Press should ever use the types, he finally got through this ultimate dissing in 1917. His Great War was clearly waged against Emery Walker!

Robert Green, a type designer, has spent years reconstructing the typeface, and the fruits of his labor are now available at Asked if Cobden-Sanderson might be turning in his grave at this news, Green replied “I think he’d admire my tenacity. Just so long as he doesn’t haunt me.”

This link takes you to’s site describing a revival of the Doves typeface. Typespec also has an account with photos of the recovery of some of the type from the Thames. The Sunday Times Magazine of 17 January 2015 carries a story about this, though in order to read it you need to be a subscriber. This Economist story, already a year old, tells why the type ended up in the river. Here’s a link to The Cheltenham Museum page on the Doves Press, which has a flickr gallery of photos of the Press’s work. Robert Green’s blog, 7th Seal (which he references in this Typophile comment) appears to have been taken down.

teen-booksWhat motivates teenagers to purchase books? Nielsen’s chart tells us. Digital Book World speculates on why teen book buyers are less common than older age groups. The answer has always seemed simple and straightforward to me: they usually don’t have a credit card, and their parents are reluctant to set up an account for them for fear that they’ll purchase anything and everything. No credit card: no account. No account: no purchase, even of free e-books.

The full Nielsen report is here. The Passive Voice brings us this digest of the Publishing Perspectives story, plus a link to it.


The Bodley Head was set up in 1887 as an antiquarian book-selling partnership between John Lane and Elkin Matthews. In 1884 they began publishing books including The Yellow Book series, which featured Aubrey Beardsley’s artwork. Penguin Books was originally set up as an imprint of The Bodley Head in 1935. Allen Lane, creator of the Penguin brand was born with the name Williams. “As a quid pro quo for [Allen Lanes’s] being employed by his uncle John Lane at the Bodley Head in 1919, he, his brothers, his sister and his parents had to agree to take the cognomen of his benefactor.” (Stevenson: Book Makers, 2010)

The company takes its name from the bust of Sir Thomas Bodley which stood above the front door of their first offices. Sir Thomas is perhaps better recognized as the founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Since 1987 The Bodley Head has been an imprint of Random House.

Weird-Readings-In-Public8__300BoredPanda has some amusing photos at this link. You are invited to add to the list if you have any similarly appropriate pictures.

Carel-Fabritius-The-Goldfinch-1654The Daily Telegraph reports that 56% of readers failed to make it all the way through their download of The Goldfinch. I am teetering on the edge of joining them. The problem is nothing to do with the e-book format: it has to do with the problem that the book starts off strongly, very strongly, and then seems to drift off into the sands of Las Vegas, and then the garbage bins of NYC.

Well, maybe it’s going too far to say it has nothing to do with the e-book format: I suspect that it’s easier to give up on an e-book than it is on a hard copy book. The unfinished p-book sits there and reproaches you, while the e-book just fades into the ether allowing another to take its place. In spite of this I have succeeded in abandoning quite a few p-books in my time, and have remained obdurate in the face of their presence on the shelf. However all this talk about not finishing e-books is simply an artifact of the fact that with e-books we can actually know these things. With a print book there’s no magic that can signal from page 235 of The Goldfinch “Nobody has read me beyond this point”, while Kobo (in the Telegraph‘s example) or Amazon etc. know all this sort of thing, including how quickly we read, how much we looked up, how often we put the book down, and so on. Maybe if we’d been able to tell how many readers abandoned a book unfinished before the advent of e-books, authors could have been getting (even more) depressed for centuries already.

Here’s The Guardian’s story which analyses the data a bit more. They report that romance constitutes the most-completed genre. Is it unduly patronizing to suggest that, as perhaps the least demanding genre, this outcome is not too amazing? People who read romances, I believe, read them for the story; and the story doesn’t end till the end is reached. Was I reading The Goldfinch for the story? Obviously yes to some extent, but I do insist that there should be more to it. Ms Tartt is surely trying to do more than tell a story. She is interested in the character of Theo Decker, and gives us lots of information about the antiques trade, New York society, especially in its druggy aspect, Russian gangsters etc.. My beef with her is that all that stuff isn’t overwhelmingly fascinating, and is thrown into the shade by the brilliant start. But I think I would have had just as much trouble finishing the book as a p-book (maybe more, as it is a large one) than I did on the Kindle app on my iPad. [Since starting this post I am proud to report that I did in fact complete the book a couple of days ago, so I won’t be joining that embarrassing statistic.]

Will publishers be able to draw conclusions from this sort of information, thus enabling them to make better books in future? Yes, in theory, though the skill set required is yet to evolve. Maybe the trend toward self publishing of fiction will beat the publishing industry to that point, in which case we can perhaps assume that the savvy indie author will end up being the one able to draw conclusions from this sort of information. My earlier post on “Crowdsourcing” shows some early initiatives in this direction.

(The photo of Fabritius’ painting comes from Alberti’s Window, which includes a review of the book, and interesting information about the painting.)

This silent film, made presumably between the two World Wars, shows the production of The Kent and Sussex Courier.

In a way the most striking things about it, as compared to today, are the number of men and the amount of heavy metal involved. After they have set the type (at frenetic speed) they make a flexible mould of the type and the images (they refer to it as the matrix) from which the curved printing plates are created in the foundry. These are mounted on rollers in the rotary letterpress machine they are using.

The trade counter entrance

The trade counter entrance

The trade counter was a wonderful place. I used to slip off there whenever I found a spare minute or two. They always had tea on the brew, and were notoriously hospitable. They had to have been selected for this trait as their job was to greet and entertain the representatives of London bookshops who’d come by to pick up books. Thus Hatchard’s might have a customer walk in at 10am looking for Sir Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades. If they didn’t have it in stock, they’d write up an order and ask the customer to come back in the afternoon. Then their messenger would get on his bike, his scooter, maybe his van (though parking was not that much easier in those days) and go round to Stephenson Way, the back entrance of Cambridge University Press’ London office, Bentley House on Euston Road. Through those doors they’d come up into a tiny room with two or three chairs, cut in half by a shiny wooden counter with a flap allowing the favored few through — to visit the nearby bathroom most likely. Otherwise the reps having handed in their order chits would sit chatting over a cup of tea while the books were looked out and a pro-forma invoice raised.

To be fair, my visits to the trade counter were not entirely skiving off — it was my job to deal with any trade problems. Thus if the book they wanted was out of stock, I’d be called to come down and explain this intolerable situation to them, so that I could be blamed when their customer came back that afternoon.

In those days many publishers still had their warehouses in London, though the exit to the cheaper provinces was already beginning. One might have assumed that WWII bombing might have pushed publishers’ warehouses out of town — at that time the industry was centered on Paternoster Row and other streets just north of St Paul’s Cathedral, and that area was devastated by bombing. The Cathedral miraculously survived. But the tendency during and after the war was to find other warehouse space within London. The exit got going later, in the sixties and seventies: partly economics and partly a decline in the carriage trade which had hitherto sustained a somewhat crustily conservative business model. Iain Stevenson in his Book Makers reports that Collins closed their trade counter in 1975. “Heinemann maintained their central London trade counter a little longer . . . Predictably the last publisher’s trade counter in central London was operated by John Murray from their cramped Dickensian warehouse in Clerkenwell.” Bentley House was closed and the warehouse and office staff moved to Cambridge in 1978. Presumably the trade counter closed at that time; though by then I was in the New York office, and so cannot be sure it hadn’t closed earlier.

I see from Google Street view that Bentley House is being rebuilt, so the university shield over that doorway has gone. There were also a couple of smaller shields framing the goods delivery bay entrance.