Archives for the month of: June, 2015

From Shelf Awareness, 2 January, 2015:

rushdie_010215Several people who were in the industry in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie because of The Satanic Verses, recalled that scary time, when bookstores that continued to carry the book were threatened–and Cody’s Books, Berkeley, Calif., and a nearby Waldenbooks were targets of firebombs. (The matter came up recently in connection with the threats by North Korea against Sony Pictures’ The Interview and Rachel Maddow’s erroneous reporting that indies had stopped selling The Satanic Verses in 1989.)

Fern Jaffe, who owned Paperbacks Plus, Bronx, N.Y., wrote: “In February, 1989, my local newspaper wrote an editorial about the wonderful community independent bookstore Paperbacks Plus that continued to sell The Satanic Verses before and after the big guys took it off the shelf. The editorial came out on a Wednesday, maybe on February 25, and on the next day (3:00 a.m.-ish) the newspaper office was firebombed. Life changed for me that day. I had to change my phone number — too many crazy scary phone calls. I had my car watched by the FBI. I had packages checked for bombs. I was warned about acid in my face. Years later when Random House hosted Rushdie’s first public appearance, I was invited to meet him. When told that I was the bookseller from Paperbacks Plus, he stood up from his desk seat and embraced me. I was a bookseller then and even today in my retirement heart I am still that bookseller.”

Mary McCarthy of Cokesbury, who was then a commission rep with Abraham-Welch, remembered the atmosphere at the ABA Show (now BEA) in 1989: “Random House had all the Penguin reps register at the hotel as Random House reps (early détente?). Peter Mayer from Penguin was under serious threat and was very brave. One of the translators [Hitoshi Igarashi in Japan] was murdered–so some of the craziness was very real.

“A security officer came up to me and asked why all these nutty people were running up to him and wanted to pet his security dog and why did they keep calling the dog Carl? I took him over to the Green Tiger booth and explained about Good Dog Carl.

“Several booksellers and publishers had to intercede for the actors dressed up in crazy costumes as we all went through the security scanning process. The security guards did not understand that the Bridge Publications/Scientology guys always had folks dress up as soldiers with grenades, Native Americans with knives, cowboys with guns (all fake)–and that they weren’t some kind of terrorists.

“I remember mostly laughing about the threats–but I also remember being nervous standing in the Penguin booth for too long.”

Frightening times for Rushdie, and now that he’s surfaced, although not entirely forgiven I think, he is obviously keen to support freedom of expression. One would have been surprised if he had not supported PEN’s gesture of support to Charlie Hebdo. The Guardian‘s Bookmarks reports on the squabble consequent on PEN’s award.

Just imagine — 100 years ago, well maybe it’s fairer to say 200, everything used in printing had to be made by hand. Every piece of type had to be created as a physical object. This video shows a brass plate being engraved by hand. All your “engraved invitations” would once upon a time have been produced like this — but with the engraver doing everything in reverse, so that when you looked at the final plate it would be a mirror image of the final printed piece.

A die sinker’s end product would tend to be different from that of a punchcutter, who’d be making type for printing, but the skills were similar and no doubt transferrable. Wikipedia’s entry on punchcutting gives a clear picture of the process, and my recent post on the subject included video evidence. J. J. Baddeley’s story, from Spitalfields Life gives a nice rags to riches account of the career of a Victorian die sinker. Baddeleys are still in business.

Our terminology in this area tends to elide different processes. We (in USA) now think of a die as the “brass”, the spine stamping die made for case making. But we also carry in the front of our minds the “die” used in for instance a die-cut cover — one where say a circle is cut out of the cover allowing the printed image below to show though. Most of Baddeleys’ product would be of this kind, and as you can see from the second link, they did a bit of vertical integration when they started using their own dies to cut out and assemble envelopes. These might be decorated by the sort of die we think of in case-making, and several examples are shown in these links to Spitalfields Life.

For a related business see the videos attached to my earlier post Engraving a halftone block.

Thanks to Valerie Fairbrass (appropriate name to be linked to a story on dies and brasses) via SHARP listserv for this link to the J. J. Baddeley story. Maybe it’s a bit odd that we still refer to brasses in the UK though stamping dies are no longer made of brass.


Schumpeter in The Economist tells us somewhat cynically in their issue of 14 February, “The secret of such lists, the most prominent of which are those in the New York Times, is that they do not measure total sales, but their velocity. Books that fly off the shelves in their first week make the lists, and that in turn boosts their subsequent sales. Pre-orders of books all count toward the first week’s sales figures, so canny authors try to get people to buy copies in advance of publication. Eric Ries, a lecturer on entrepreneurship and innovation, went on a “pre-book” book tour to drum up interest before his work, ‘The Lean Startup’, even had a firm name, and started selling it online more than a year in advance of its publication. It worked. The book’s cover is now able to boast ‘the New York Times bestseller’ above the title.

Ruthless authors can go even further. The Times compiles its lists by tracking sales at a few thousand shops, wholesalers and online retailers. It is not hard for writers to find out which outlets feed their numbers into the rankings; indeed, there are firms that provide such information, for a fee. Wordsmiths can then route their book tours accordingly, and encourage buyers to place orders at these shops. Another way of working the system is to release a book in a quiet period– such as this month – when there is less competition for a place on the bestseller lists.  

It is easier than it used to be to get onto these lists. Last year the Times added 12 new bestseller categories, including travel, humour and spirituality. It has also expanded its main lists, to 20 books, which gives more authors a shot at making the charts. Shrewd authors have realised that ‘bestseller’ is a relative term: in some months and some categories they can make the bottom of the list by selling merely a few thousand copies.”

All those lists in the back of the New York Times Book Review seem just so much wasted paper to me. You can spend a lot of time reading them, and at the end you really don’t know anything much. I never bother looking at them. They’ve devalued the currency I think. Certainly this cynical video from Studio C would support this suspicion.

Link via Ink, Bits, & Pixels.

Ink, Bits, & Pixels brings us the news of AAP’s new statistical reporter, StatShot Annual. 2014 represents a recovery over 2013, but hardly over 2012 our recent high point. This graphic from Digital Book World shows interesting sales breakdowns by format.

The e-book share seems to be sticking nearer to 20% than to the 30% which we were talking about six months ago. Obviously the proportions will vary by type of book, but one wonders if this is a sign of things to come. As noted in an earlier post The Bookseller’s Future Book does present some interesting breakdown numbers extrapolated from Bloomsbury reporting. It seems highly likely that trade sales proportions would be different from those for academic/professional — but one could almost as easily argue in favor of digital favoring trade as against academic/professional rather than the opposite which seems to be what Bloomsbury is pointing to. To be sure many (all?) academic libraries are now subscribing to on-line databases of monograph content as well as journals, and one might anticipate digital representing a higher percentage of purchases in the sciences as against the humanities, but I can’t get away from the thought that print books will still needed in the academic world for a very long time to come. It remains true that though Bloomsbury reported strong growth in academic/professional digital sales, the do remain at only 12% of total sales for those groups. It’s easy to let the hype about growth numbers obscure the business reality of number of copies sold and dollars earned. The overhyping of the e-book threat was at least partly caused by allowing ourselves to confuse growth rates with total sales.

In general I think I am now less sure about digital, which I had thought would pretty much take over most categories of book publishing. Maybe people like printed book not just because they are old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, but because the codex format is actually the best way for such information/entertainment to be presented. The population continues to grow; literacy increases worldwide; more and more people can afford to buy a book of whichever format — maybe we won’t be getting rid of the p-book after all.

Still, it is of course very early in the history of this format change, so the numbers we look at are too shallow to bear much weight.


sb-024-bigSedbergh is England’s official book town: apparently the locals noticed that the title was unclaimed and up and grabbed it. They now claim eight bookshops in what is a tiny village. The biggest, Westwood Books moved to Sedbergh from Hay-on-Wye which I suspect most people would have assumed was England’s book town, but of course it’s in Wales! I wonder if the title brings any large benefits? I dare say it’s worth it, because making the claim cannot cost them much. Part of the job of being a book town appears to be hosting a book festival. One assumes that this brings many visitors to the town which is normally small, though inflated for half the year with four or five hundred pupils from the eponymous public school. Sedbergh Book Town’s own website starts with this information “Book towns were the brain‑child of book dealer and self-styled ‘King’ of Hay‑on‑Wye, Richard Booth. In 1961 Hay became the first ever book town, and there are now well over twenty of them around the world.”

UnknownFrance’s book town is Montolieu, just north of Carcassonne. It has 15 bookshops, houses several book-arts artisans and boasts a nice little museum with antique printing equipment on display. It is apparently not a member of The International Organization of Book Towns, which may be explained by its brochure in which it characterizes itself as Village du livre.

And here comes an Observer story about a threat to the Scottish book town, Wigtown in Galloway. I am not sure what effect constructing a wind farm in the hills overlooking the town would have on people’s book habits — maybe the wind would rip the pages out as they were reading them — but you can always count on (and I guess sympathize with) nimby-ism.

See also Book Towns.

This explanation from Andre Spicer at The Conversation (via Publishing Cambridge) tells you how to calculate your H-index score.

For most of us this is a somewhat arcane matter — academics however are always concerned to know (and have others know) just how important their research is. It used to be that an author was ranked by the number of citations to their research papers and books that there were. This potentially leads to the distortion that one paper frequently referenced can make a professor look influential beyond all reality. The H-index is a ranking based on numbers of papers referenced and number of times referenced. Thus Mr Spicer tells us his H score is 28 because 28 or his papers have been referenced at least 28 times.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt appears to have thought this through a bit more than I have. Her piece at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency sets out a couple of caveats about this service.

I’m not so sure. I think the cost argument will be resolved pretty quickly via competitive services, so I’m not too worried about being bankrupted by having all the books in the world streamed into a receptor in my brain. Also, what I’m intent on is not some artificial receptor implant, but the real thing: world literature available in whatever area of your brain it is that world literature turns out to inhabit, permanently, and automatically translated on the fly. I am confident that neuroscientists are working feverishly to identify where in the brain this memory should be sited. Can we doubt that they will ultimately be successful?

The point about how we process this information is perhaps more significant. If everything is there simultaneously, how do we select which entry point we really want? Sounds like that might turn out to be the big problem. Still maybe if we can identify the world literature brain module we will also succeed in identifying the curation and indexing module too. Let’s live in hope.

Of course we should perhaps move beyond all this almost analog view of brain function, and accept that we have now reached the point of brain extension rather than brain development. Socrates was proved wrong (wasn’t he?) in his concerns that writing stuff down carried the risk of our not being able to remember anything, so we should stride bravely forward adding “memory” to our memory by the use of digital devices. That well-muscled iPhone adds so much functionality to your little brain. We’ve gotten used to never having to do sums — our calculators do them for us. I suggested recently that spelling was going down the same road. You now don’t need to be ignorant of anything: that brain extender in your pocket (which you also use to contact friends) enables you to remember everything and recall it at ease without the need to scratch your head. (Your flying fingers are too busy with the keyboard anyway.)

The iPhone is like a massive back-up hard drive for your brain. Maybe this is the way we should aim to handle that world literature download scenario. But stop: we already do. Our pockets are getting full; do we have to lug the Kindle around too? Maybe it is back to that receptor implant, but maybe it’ll be more like a tiny iWatch (Apple Watch really, rather prosaically), and doesn’t of course require implanting in the brain. Just within hailing distance.

We are all conned into an assumption that faster/bigger/more is better. Such is modern life. Everything that doesn’t accelerate, declines. I’ve been mulling over for years why it is that I know that companies have to expand or they’ll die. Die? Can’t they just exist? Who made us all accept that bigger is beautiful? I do really believe that publishing as a business aspires to the stasis model: continual expansion is just not compatible with quality book publishing. Where is E. F. Schumacher when we (still) need him?

So with reading. There’s so much bumff out there telling us that we have to read faster to keep up with what’s being published. Who are you kidding? Keep up? You’ve never been able to keep up: too much is published any one minute for anyone to read one millionth of it. And so what? You read what you read, and maybe you should read it to enjoy it, not to add another notch to your reading pistol-butt. Here from Ink, Bits, & Pixels is news of a club in Wellington, New Zealand: “Once a week, members of a Wellington, New Zealand, book club arrive at a cafe, grab a drink and shut off their cellphones. Then they sink into cozy chairs and read in silence for an hour.  The point of the club isn’t to talk about literature, but to get away from pinging electronic devices and read, uninterrupted. The group calls itself the Slow Reading Club, and it is at the forefront of a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading.” That’s all fine of course, but are there really people who a) want to do this, and b) can’t do this unless they get this sort of help? I can see there would be all sorts of people who just wouldn’t want to spend an hour reading a book — we all know way too many of them. But of those who do, I just cannot believe that the only way for them to achieve this is to turn up at that cafe. If a then not b. Of course I’ve no beef with them getting together: it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour; they just shouldn’t fall victim to the delusion that that’s the only way they can read.

And the idea that authors should accommodate these imagined digitally-damaged minds by writing shorter pieces is equally nonsensical. Write short pieces by all means, but do it because what you are writing is best expressed within a few words, not because you have fooled yourself into thinking there’s nobody out there who can read more than 140 characters at a time or whatever it is these short-attention-span evangelists have persuaded themselves is the problem today. Ink, Bits, & Pixels, unsurprisingly has a sensible take on this too.

I’m sure the robot got really charged up when the audience applauded during this test of a robot picker for Amazon, shown to us by It did manage the thin paperback book, at about 8½ minutes into the slow-moving video, but somewhat precariously as their picture at the top of their post shows. To jeopardize the jobs of human pickers not only will the robots have to improve accuracy, they’ll have to pick up speed too. Quartz tells us Amazon is now hiring 6,000 additional human workers, so things look safe for us humans for the time being.

Still in a world where robots can dance like this, who can doubt that they’ll manage eventually.

an01465494_544pxPrinted on 195 wood blocks, measuring 4 x 3 meters, and weighing half a tonne, this immense print was moved last year by The British Museum. Reading their account one wonders a) how on earth it got there in the first place, and b) whether it wouldn’t have been wiser just to leave it alone.

Nothing really to do with books — but I’ve been storing this one for ages, because it’s just so amazing that that many wood blocks were cut with that much detail to encompass such an area.