Archives for the month of: February, 2015

Quite a nice piece from The Scottish Book Trust. The author, Sasha de Buyl, starts off raving about the experience of reading on a tablet, then gradually enters one small objection after another which leads to her plumping for the p-book in the end. What she says about eye strain does strike me as true — though I have occasionally wondered if it is my aging eyes rather than the iPad which are causing the issue.

Here’s a piece by Naomi Baron on the OUP blog talking about her multi-year survey of students’ reading preferences. She has just published a new book with Oxford. UnknownOn the issue of concentration I have wondered whether the common response that concentrating on print is easier than concentrating on an e-book, is merely an artifact of training and conditioning. Even today we have all grown up using printed books in school, and having been made to concentrate on them; whereas iPad, iPhones etc. probably tend to be associated in our minds with entertainment. And this focus on printed books in education continues. Even the kids we are always being told spend “all their lives on their smart phones” use printed books at school. In New York City there’s a new business which has recently sprung up. You send a van to park outside a school and all the pupils pay you a fee to hold onto their phones during school hours because they aren’t allowed to take them inside. (This policy is now loosening up: individual schools can make their own rules on mobile phones.) Frankly if I am reading an interesting book on an iPad, I do not find I have any trouble concentrating. I think the survey data here may be subject to a tendency to give the expected answer. This interview with Professor Baron at The New Republic provides further detail.


Source: The Washington Post

The trope of “digital natives” (our latest euphemism for kids apparently) preferring print to e-book continues rampant. Here’s a story from The Washington Post as an example of the genre. Like several recent pieces it is also provoked by Professor Baron’s new book. That students don’t like e-books for study isn’t really surprising to me. We recently had an undergraduate staying with us for four years while attending the CUNY system: he didn’t ever buy an electronic book (I don’t think one was ever recommended). They did have some tests on-line, but all the students, he said, would buy the textbook in printed form, most often as used books sold by the college bookstore. This graphic from The Washington Post story provides dramatic confirmation that our student was not alone.

That this buying pattern is caused by concentration problems alone, I doubt. I think it possible that there are features of paper that just make studying easier: you can highlight* the book, write in annotations, explanations, translations and so on. The movement of your hand while you are reading does seem to intensify memory. I find the best way to learn a poem (except for singing it, if it has a melody) is to write it out longhand. Will we evolve to a point where the finger movements of typing on a keyboard to annotate our Kindle text will yield the same memory enhancement? Or is e-reading actually going to prove a passing fad? Neither, I suspect. I remain convinced we are going to live in a mixed e/p environment for many, many years.

*  Highlighting with a yellow magic marker is something US students all accept as utterly normal, but which one just doesn’t — or didn’t — encounter in UK. Yellow pages are American pages.

I am always being infuriated by these people who insist that our brains are becoming wired for shorter and shorter attention spans. These claims, often prefaced by the words “research shows . . .”, and advanced by people who should know better (academics), are putting the cart before the horse, mistaking result for cause. If these professors who claim that they can’t even read a journal article let alone a book without being distracted by their Facebook or Twitter feed are telling the truth, they should be fired! The internet enables us to read in snippets because that’s the way it tends to present its material. Continuous reading on Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or whatever is I suppose theoretically possible, but isn’t going to happen because that’s not what people put there. I have yet to see any thoroughgoing research, with a decent sample and effective controls, which proves that our attention span is being affected by the digital world. As we can’t actually detect brain changes resulting from reading, which people have been doing on and off for millennia, how likely is it that we can really detect effects caused by digital media which we’ve been sampling for less than 20 years? Short attention span is nothing more than self indulgence, and is furthermore only a transitory phenomenon: I am sure that those professors, faced with the need to read an extended argument, are in fact perfectly capable of doing so.

Here is a less academic example of the trope. I love New Tech City, now renamed Note to Self. I love Manoush Zamorodi. I hate this segment, broadcast on 17 September last year. It is self-evidently stupid to tell us one minute that we have as a species being reading for too short a time to have any permanent changes turn up in our brains, then to deplore that changes are taking place in our brains by all this bitty reading we are allegedly being forced into by our smart phones. Manoush has announced that changes in reading are going to be a focus of her program in the future. Please let’s get straight before we start: if we are talking about science, let’s talk about it in a scientific, rigorous way: people’s personal anecdotes are perhaps fun, but they are not scientific evidence.

The headline “Tor explains why novellas are the future of publishing” (from io9 via The Passive Voice) is a classic example of cart-before-horseishness. The novella has always been a problematical format for traditional publishers: it’s too short to look worth its price, but you can’t mark the price down because it quickly becomes not worth the work of selling it. (Here’s a Guardian piece from a couple of years ago which gets this point right.) So the e-book format is perfect for the novella. Not only does an e-book of War and Peace “look” identical to an e-book of Death in Venice when you are shopping for it, price variability in the e-book market is so extensive that we customers don’t yet have any intuitive belief about what different kinds of book should cost. So Tor is absolutely right to be doing this, but they shouldn’t deceive themselves that they are doing it because of changes to their customers’ reading habits.

We are programmed, aren’t we, to attribute bookstore closings to some aspect of the decline of the book or reading. But I don’t think this is always the right reaction. Bookstores in specialized areas seem to be doing OK, and among these niches one would have thought that Christian books would have been one of the safer areas (in the USA at least). Nevertheless Ink, Bits, & Pixels brings us a story about the impending bankruptcy of Family Christian Stores, the largest Christian book selling chain in America with 270 branches. A commentator is quoted as saying “They shot themselves in the foot so many small ways over so long a time”, a charming image. I see them sitting there with a BB gun (air gun, in UK) aimed at their corporate toes.

Reading the piece we can see that financial problems resulting from a debt burden assumed at the start of their ownership have lead to a progressive diminution of the range of materials stocked. Surely deciding to cut back on your Bible offerings cannot be a wise move: yes, they cost a lot to inventory — but surely that’s sort of why you’re there in the first place. Once you start down that slope, it’s probably very hard to stop the slide. It appears that they do offer books for sale on-line, which I think is a sine-qua-non for bookstore survival these days. Competing with Amazon is of course not easy, but you’d have thought that a motivated group like FCS’s customer-base would have been reachable. It sounds as if they want to do a deal with their church, and stick publishers and other suppliers with most of that debt. Whatever the legality, this doesn’t strike one as an outstanding example of Christian charity.

The Daily Telegraph has raised this hoary chestnut once more. Why do we rise to the bait I wonder? The Passive Voice brings us a link to the story.

Toby Young writes “I envy William Hague. Not the £2.5 million country house he’s just bought in Wales, although that would be nice. Rather, the fact that he plans to spend his retirement writing books. These days, you need a substantial private income – or a public sector pension – to be a full-time writer. Last year, a survey of 2,500 professional authors found that their median income in 2013 was £11,000. That’s a drop of 29 per cent since 2005 and significantly below the minimum salary required to achieve a decent standard of living. The writing game is notoriously lopsided, in which a small handful of bestselling authors earn a fortune and the vast majority live on scraps, but it’s got worse in the past decade. ‘You’ve always been able to comfortably house the British literary writers who can earn all their living from books in a single room,’ says the author Will Self, whose own royalties have tailed off in recent years. ‘That room used to be a reception one, now it’s a back bedroom.’” Even if it’s true that authors are earning less now than they did in the past, I’m not sure why that’s a reason for general complaint, though I can see the problem for the individuals concerned. 2,500 isn’t a vast sample, and one or two fluctuations at the extremes will tend to influence the picture quite dramatically. The explanation for the change may be no more than something like J.K.Rowling’s not having published a Harry Potter book recently.

This chart is from Digital BookWorld‘s 2015 report on authors’ earnings. I’ts a bit hard to read this, but it looks like 50% of traditionally published authors earn less than $3,000.


We all know that there are successful authors, some wildly successful, and also many not so successful ones. Most writers didn’t make “author” their career choice because they expected to make as much money as if they’d opted for financial analyst, oil executive, lawyer, doctor, politician, or even, for heaven’s sake, engine driver. They did it so they could say what it was they felt compelled to say. Now we of course have no beef with their bringing home big bacon, but let’s not spend too much time going on about how iniquitous it is if they end up, as most do, making relatively little money at their chosen craft. We should spend more time worrying whether they are getting satisfaction from their writing. Grub Street has always been a tough place to earn a living. Why does Mr Self think things should have changed?


Tejas Desai is happy at his decision to publish two of his books himself. He tells us about it at Publishing Perspectives. He’s obviously confident in the quality of his books, and one hopes that his sales measure up. As the books have been out for a while I guess it’s safe to assume they do, even if their current sales ranking is quite a large number.

If you plan to follow Mr Desai’s lead, here, from Spirit Authors, is a list of ten things you’ll need to take care of: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, & Part 5. Jane Friedman provides more concise advice on how to self-publish your book.

On the other hand: be prepared for disappointment. According to “What happens when (virtually) no one buys your book” from Medium, the average US book is now selling 250 copies a year, and 3000 life-time. (From where I used to sit in my working life, these numbers look gratifyingly large. I guess it all depends on perspective.) As Christopher Pierznik concludes “The cycle continues. Because while you want your stuff to be read and enjoyed and appreciated (and monetized), that’s not the reason you first started. The first time you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, it wasn’t to crack the bestseller list. It was because you had a passion and a feeling and you wanted to express it through the written word and you didn’t care if anyone read it, because you weren’t doing it for them, you were doing it for you.”

In light of what I say in my previous post, “Procrustean publishing”, self-publishing looks like the ultimate in small publishing. The only problem is of course that it’ll involve you in a lot of work!

We like to try to keep up with the times, but we all end up doing what we always do. Here’s Harry Bingham recounting his publishing history on Jane Freidman’s blog. His thought was that to establish his new mystery series the ideal publishing sequence would have been e-book, paperback then (maybe) hardback. But publishers can’t do that, and we seem unable to break out of the mould. “Random House wasn’t set up to work like that. There were e-only imprints (Alibi) and there were hardback imprints (Delacorte). There wasn’t, and isn’t, an imprint able simply to publish a title in whatever was most natural to that author and that book.” As insiders we all understand how this comes about: but it really is maladaptive.

I do think that by its nature book publishing wants to be a small-scale business. In the last quarter of the 20th century the entrepreneurial spirit stalking the world got publishing into its grasp too, and people started trying to make more money from books. It looks so easy from the outside: you just need to publish all the bestsellers. Of course we all know this is impossible: you can’t forecast a bestseller; they happen. Some projects look more likely to succeed than others, but that doesn’t mean they will or that other less-likely candidates won’t outstrip them. Companies tried to increase their profit by increasing their output, and the quickest way to do that was to buy other companies and add all their “bestsellers” to your own. Unfortunately this meant you also added all their duds to your own. Scale makes sense in steel manufacture: for books it’s a nonsense. Every book is unique, and will behave in unique and unpredictable ways. Large companies have to have structures, and having structure are unable to improvise. Harry Bingham may be wrong about the desirability of publishing his books firstly as e-books, but his argument does seem to me to make sense. Only a small company, publishing a few books a year, will be able to avoid the rigidity which makes such an improvisation impossible to most of us. At Random House Mr Bingham’s book wasn’t on the Alibi budget, and why would his editor even dream of giving it to them. After all we all have numbers to make, as individuals, and as part of an imprint, long before we get to the overall health of the umbrella of Penguin-Random House. If you’ve spent the time getting this book on board, you’d be insane just to give it away to anyone else. With a small company — ten books a year? — this wouldn’t be an issue.

A short film (11½ minutes long) shared by Shelf Awareness.

I recently respond to an e-mailed comment about publishing dangerous books by saying that I thought it was probably right to publish, but that one did need to take into account the risk one might be exposing innocent employees to by doing so. I’m glad I don’t have to make these decisions.  Is OUP perhaps going a bit too far by banning allusions to pork and sausages in children’s books (via Publishing Perspectives)? Changing pork to beef probably wouldn’t really affect the narrative arc of the book, though I suppose beef might be problematic in the Indian market.

Simpleton that I am, when I read the headline on the story “OUP bans pork from children’s books” my mind leapt to their ethics policy which after a couple of nasty experiences around the world is now (appropriately) very strict on bribery and other malfeasance.

infinite-jest-project-corrie-baldauf-b-640x427Corrie Baldauf found reading this book a bit tough, so she kept track of colors using these Post-its. Whatever it takes I guess. It has its own kind of fascination, though I’m not altogether sure why keeping track of the allusions to color would help the reader stay focussed and get through the book. Book Patrol shows us her copy of Infinite Jest.

A few years ago there was an extravagant edition of the Bible which color coded words and sentences. My recollection is that it was more detailed than the one in this picture, hm-botbkwhere the color is simply a tint box behind a paragraph. I think the one I remember was printed with the actual words in different colors, which must have been a nightmare on press. Keeping register even if you only used spot colors would be tough: achieving it with process builds would surely be verging on the impossible. Apparently color coding your Bible by hand is something serious people do — there’s even a book about it.

kbthott70Obviously it’s too late for this post (which is partly why I delayed it: I don’t want to seem like a self-help site), but the biblio-Valentine seems fairly well established. About Blooks shows a couple among pictures of bookish Valentine’s cards.

Contrary to the assumption which most of us probably have, this is not however only a modern phenomenon. Medieval Books shows a couple of heart-shaped books among a bunch of odd-ball books from before the days of print. Here’s a link to other examples presented by Erik Kwakkel.