Archives for the month of: March, 2016

I know I have belabored this poor old horse before, but here from Digital Book World is another speculation on whether e-books have changed the way we read. Daniel Berkowitz assures us “It’s clear that reading does not hold the overall importance in today’s society that it did for previous generations” and in one way this may be true, but it’s certainly not the way he means.

Today many, many more people are reading than ever did in the past. The kind of reading material is what has changed: less novels and newspapers; more e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts. So much of what we read now isn’t read for its cultural significance, but for its communicative function. This is the only (trivial) sense in which he’s right. What he really means though is that people are just reading and valuing less “good books” than in the past. Some rather stultifying research could be done on this subject, but naturally I, like all commentators, find it more fun just to speculate. So, I’d bet that there was probably more “serious” reading going on nowadays than in the past. My first, and probably strongest, argument is the demographic one: there are just more people. Secondly, more of these more people are getting a university education. In the olden days books were too expensive for all but the wealthy: now the classics can be had for free. In the olden days, most workers were too tired when they got home to read, even by candle-light.

Of course maybe that’s not what Mr Berkowitz is claiming. Maybe he’s focussing on cultural significance. Possibly Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt say, considered literature a sacred trust, a matter of life or death, and wrote about the subject in important ways. We read them and admire the “importance” reading had for them. Then there’s Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson: obviously engaging seriously with important literature. We cannot have the advantage today of reading just the “great critics” of the modern world because we don’t know who they are. But we can perhaps assume that there are some of them out there just waiting for the passage of time to confirm their elevated status. God knows there must be more critical prose being written now than ever before. We may snobbishly think that any book review written in a blog cannot be serious; but there are immense numbers of such places and immense volumes of writing about the immense number of books being published (many, many more than at any other time in history). It just seems inherently unlikely to me that it’s all rubbish. Just as in Coleridge’s or Emerson’s day most writing about literature was dull and forgettable (and has duly been forgotten), so no doubt is most of today’s writing. But until it’s been winnowed we can’t tell how much good grain there is there among the chaff. Human nature being a fairly constant thing, I would guess that we can assume the proportion is pretty much as it was in the past.

Mr Berkowitz also tells us “Not as many people read as before, and for many people who do in fact read, they have neither the desire nor the time to read something lengthy, or to waste any time reading a book they may ultimately put down unfinished.” But just look at Jellybooks’ numbers (previous post): lots of people, many of them seemingly eager to put down a book unfinished. At Linked In, David Sable tells us that 28% of Americans admit they didn’t read a book in the past year. This of course means (or at least implies) that something like 72% of them did. And 72% of 320,000,000 is actually a rather large number. The population of America has doubled since World War II — that’s a whole lot of reading. And by some law of averages some of that reading will be serious, important, and sustained.

The New York Times writes up Jellybooks’ analysis of how people read books : how far do they get, how often do they give up. We recognize that Amazon knows all this sort of stuff, but they of course are notorious for playing their cards close to their corporate chest, so we are unlikely any time soon to find out what conclusions their data might yield. In the meantime we have to make do with this kind of partial information. Just because the sample is fairly small isn’t of course a reason to disregard it.

Jellybooks’ research appears to be based on giving you free copies of e-books derived from the digital proofs which publishers often now supply in place of galleys, ARCs, Advanced Reading Copies. By accepting the book, you agree to have your reading activity tracked. I’m always a bit leery about giving away the product free of charge (except in the case of classroom adoption texts). OK, in music or whatever, getting one sample free may well motivate you to buy other songs, but a book is just a more substantial thing. Sure you can want to buy the next book from an author you’ve liked, but that all takes a bit longer than buying another track from an album. I imagine the publishers involved are carefully monitoring the data that are receiving from Jellybooks to ensure that they are getting sufficient value.

Brad Bigelow’s mission is to save neglected and forgotten books from oblivion. His blog, Neglected Books, beavers away at this. His reading and range are truly impressive. This New Yorker piece tells his story.

Heaven knows this is an immense task — or to look from the other end of the telescope — a real easy gig. There are just so many good books which we have never heard of, which were written by excellent writers whose names have slipped below the recognition threshold. The Classics series at New York Review Books is based upon this premise. They bring back into print books of quality which have gradually become ignored over the years. Most of these come back to some success and acclaim, but a few, like the famous case of Stoner, are finally getting the bestseller success which their quality merits. I am just reading a Library of America volume, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. I’m on the third, and have to say that the novels are really good. There’s a second volume covering the 50s. How did we ever let these excellent books slip into the abyss? And I should be ashamed to admit I have never heard of the four authors represented in this volume, Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. No doubt they wrote other great stuff too. (NYRB Classics did reissue Hughes’ The Expendable Man in 2012.)

For a writer immortality is a tricky career choice. You can write the best you can; you can even succeed in that aim; the reviewers and the public can love it; and you can drop from view ten years later. Why? Or perhaps one would better ask of those who are remembered: why do we count their works as worthwhile? Some of course are just better. Obviously we remember a Shakespeare, a Goethe, a Tolstoy. It’s the second rankers where the immortality thing is more puzzling. There’s nothing wrong with Wilkie Collins, but is he really that much better than Fergus Hume? We remember Graham Greene but appear to have forgotten Angus Wilson. Luck obviously comes into the picture. Notoriously there’s a dip in a writer’s reputation after the temporary boost given by his/her death. Some never seem to clamber out of the ditch. It might be something to do with your publisher’s policy: do they reprint you or not? Robert Penn Warren still seems to be pretty widely in print, but I don’t think we hear his name much any more. I wonder if the print-on-demand and e-book phenomena mean that authors’ reputations will persist longer, now that their books will be available for ever. Of course “Most neglected writers have been neglected for perfectly understandable reasons – usually because they are obscure, difficult or just plain boring.” as Mr Bigelow tells us, quoting Kate Saunder from The New Statesman, August 28, 1998.

In the New Yorker piece (link above) Edwin Frank of NYRB is quoted as speculating that our interest in neglected books nowadays is due to anxiety around a perception of the decay of book culture. I suspect it’s simpler than that: we can now expect to have access to everything, either as a physical book through print-on-demand, or more importantly digitally as an e-book. Free books from Project Gutenberg would seem to me to explain a whole lot of esoteric interest. In other words the book culture which could be said to be in decline is the gate-keeper-controlled exclusive version that really doesn’t exist any longer. Now that we can get pretty much whatever we want, we are finding that there really is someone out there who does want much that our betters used to think we weren’t interested in.

Mr Bigelow is on a neglected women writers jag now. The trouble with all this sort of thing is that if you read all the blog posts you’ll not have any time left to read the books. It doesn’t look like he has covered Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and from the other volume (in addition to Patricia Highsmith who’s not “neglected”), Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, and Dolores Hitchens. But I can’t be sure: he’s covered so many there’s not enough time to find the answer.

We tend to think of self publishing as a recent phenomenon, but if you were in Oxford in June 2014 you might have gone to this presentation on Self-publishing in 18th-century Paris and London. Naturally things were not exactly the same in those days. You might want to argue that it all looks rather like the subscription publishing I wrote about previously. The current explosion of self publishing results from the invention of the e-book, though of course lots of writers still get their books printed, either through services like Lulu, Blurb, or Amazon’s CreateSpace, or still in many cases by contracting with a regular printer. But digital is the big difference-maker, and many commentators keep weighing in on the “to do, or not to do” question as if it was important in some real way.

Why is it that the question “to self-publish or not?” stirs up such emotion? What does it matter to you that this person decides to publish their book by themselves, and that person goes to Simon & Schuster? You might as well try to get an emotion-choked debate going on the folly of choosing a publisher with fewer than 206 employees, or a publisher with more than two “r”s in their name, or a publisher more than half of whose employees have blond hair. Now if anyone wants passionately to be published by blonds and blondes only, they are perfectly free to go ahead and seek out a solution to their mania. I can’t see why anyone else has any need to complain. Some people will favor self publishing; others won’t. Some people find controlling the entire publishing and marketing process by themselves empowering and gratifying. To others it’s a bore. End of story — surely.

The current flurry of nonsense is provoked by Ros Barber who writes in The Guardian an utterly rational explanation of why a (serious) literary writer shouldn’t touch self-publishing with a barge pole. Ed Renehan at Medium reacts in an emotionally-charged manner to what he sees as the snobbery and elitism of Ms. Barber’s post. Mr Renehan maintains “In the end, the publishing imprint is not the brand. The author is the brand.” One could possibly agree with that I guess (though Penguin was certainly a strong brand for me in my youth), but it’s hard to work out what it has to do with choosing to publish on your own or to go with an established house. For those keen to follow up even more reactions to the piece, here’s a round-up from The Digital Reader. After all this spilt ink all we can really conclude is that we’d be surprised if Mr Renehan didn’t self-publish his next book with his own indie imprint New Street Communications, and similarly surprised if Ms Barber were to self-publish her fiction (though she does apparently self-publish non-fiction). This certainly makes a huge difference to the world!

In 2014 Eoin Purcell’s blog published a thoughtful piece entitled “Why traditional publishers should surrender to self publishing”. It’s all rational and responsible in tone, but it is based on the proposition that the “war between self publishing and publishing, [is] over and authors (who are the major self publishers and hence the foot-soldiers, commanders and field marshals of self publishing’s forces) have won it.” I can assure Mr Purcell that nobody in publishing has ever thought they were in such a war. If the slightest hint of battle had ever arisen, we would never have considered self publishers the enemy. We spent all our time finding books, getting out the books we were about to publish, trying to get people to buy them, and making sure the older ones remained available. We might feel some pique that this or that competing publisher had beaten us to this or that book signing, but self publishing wasn’t a perceived threat. (I do realize that this will only be regarded by the indie promoters as further evidence of the stupidity of traditional publishing. They aren’t however any more likely to be correct in all their assumptions than I am.) A more genuine threat than authors opting for self publishing is their failure to complete this manuscript, their failure to deliver that manuscript on time, or even the failure ever to start writing the manuscript. We acknowledge the existence of hundreds of other publishing houses and recognize that authors can always decide to publish elsewhere or even do it themselves. God knows there are enough books out there for all of us.

Mike Shatzkin naturally has sensible things to say about all this. When an author should self-publish. . . is a thorough and sensible survey of the whole issue. Digital Book World proves that marketing is the secret sauce: if you can and want to do it, self publish; if you don’t, don’t. For those addicted to compromise, a sort of half-way house, agent assisted publishing, is well described in this 2013 post by Melissa Foster on the Jane Friedman blog. A different sort of half-way house, the in and out kind, apparently called hybrid, is discussed by Porter Anderson at Thought Catalog.

Give it all a rest folks: there are lots of ways to publish, and one kind doesn’t have to kill off the others for them all to run merrily along.


Les presses universitaires de France is opening a bookstore with no inventory — just an Espresso machine which will print your book for you. Shelf Awareness brings us the news, linking to this Associated Press story. “Bookstore general manager Frederic Meriot told the AP that he needs to sell about 15 books daily to break even, and had sold 60 on opening day.”

In this Monday, March 14, 2016 photo, French client Zeina Ganadry checks the listing to choose the biography of Montaigne from Stefan Zweig to be print on the Expresso Book Machine at the PUF bookstore in Paris. To many Parisians, the letters PUF have always been associated with the intellectual heart of the French capital. So when the 95-year-old venerable publishing house specializing in human and social sciences was forced to close its historic bookstore on the Place de La Sorbonne in 1999, it left a big void in the heart of many students and researchers. But Les Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) is back in town, just a stone's throw from their previous location in the Quartier Latin neighborhood. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

In this Monday, March 14, 2016 photo, French client Zeina Ganadry checks the listing to choose the biography of Montaigne from Stefan Zweig to be print on the Espresso Book Machine at the PUF bookstore in Paris. To many Parisians, the letters PUF have always been associated with the intellectual heart of the French capital. So when the 95-year-old venerable publishing house specializing in human and social sciences was forced to close its historic bookstore on the Place de La Sorbonne in 1999, it left a big void in the heart of many students and researchers. But Les Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) is back in town, just a stone’s throw from their previous location in the Quartier Latin neighborhood. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

I’ve never been privy to the economics of retail, but doesn’t 15 books a day seem rather low for a store in the center of Paris? Of course they’ll make money from the café they have for customers to use while awaiting their books. It will be fascinating to see how this fares. Good luck to them.

Hugh Howie and the self-publishing community have attempted (succeeded, I guess) in taking over the term “indie publisher”. They want it to mean a self-publisher who may publish more than just his/her own books.

We older observers still think of an independent publisher as being a “traditional” publishing company which is not part of a conglomerate or owned by venture capitalists or bankers. Faber & Faber is an excellent example. Here’s a link to a Publishing Perspectives interview with Toby Faber, formerly Managing Director, who addressed the UK Independent Publishers Guild’s spring conference on 3 March. (Yes, indie-pushers, they even have an organization. There’s also an Independent Book Publishers Association in USA.) One of the things about independent publishers is that some of them will ultimately grow into the sort of behemoth so reviled by the indie publisher crowd. Bennet Cerf didn’t sit down and decide to set up an international publishing giant. He published a few good books, then a few more; and one thing lead to another, and then suddenly, there’s PRH!

One of the interesting points Mr. Faber makes is that the key quality needed by the growing independent publisher (or really any publisher) is luck or good judgement in hiring people. Hire interesting editors and you’ll get to publish interesting books. Publish interesting books, and with luck, you’ll get to publish successful books.

Photo: Roadside America

Illinois. Photo: Roadside America


New York. Photo:

You’d want the earth to open up and swallow you if you’d worked in any editorial capacity at Knopf on The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America.  Woodstock is possibly the most famous town in the area, but the authors seem to have mixed it up with Woodstock, Illinois, and have published all sorts of details about the Illinois burg as if it were in New York’s green and pleasant land. The Digital Reader, having examined the files of The Woodstock Independent (a much-used source in the book, but unfortunately from the wrong state) exposes the devastating facts.

Woodstock, Illinois’ claim to fame is that it was the location used for the exterior shots in the movie Groundhog Day. That notwithstanding, it is of course rather unlikely that any poor editor working away lickety-split on their latest Knopf freelance job could be expected to realize that the descriptions were not of businesses or even streets in the right Woodstock. We all know that there’s no way anyone at a book publisher’s is going to go in for fact-checking, and call the local chamber of commerce. We just don’t have the budget for such things. No, we rely on the authors to get it right. To them the embarrassment appropriately belongs. Maybe the fact that one of them is a filmmaker might have sensitized him to the Groundhog Day connection.

The Prospero blog at The Economist takes off from a review of Iain Pears’ Arcadia, a novel which was first published as an app by Faber & Faber, who also do the hardback. Prospero quotes Tom Abba, “a scholar of digital narrative at the University of the West of England. ‘We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story’.” I wonder if “the reader” wants to be nudged. Surely the reader is happily reading in this golden age of plenty. Isn’t it the non-reader that we might want to tempt?

This commentary usually comes with a knee-jerk side-swipe at the publishing industry, and Prospero obliges: “Arcadia is all the more noteworthy for the fact that large publishers have largely given up experimenting in this realm. Most have turned away from costly innovations that have not paid off, like enhanced e-books, focusing instead on using digital tools to support the broader reading ecosystem.” Maybe the large (trade*) publishers’ error was ever to have taken up experimentation — in so far as they did. We supply what our customers want. We are a conservative business, not for ideological reasons, but because we just have to keep on serving up what our customs demand, and that’s more “more of the same thing” than it is “something different”. It’s the content that we deliver, not the medium in which the content is consumed. If an author writes a book which needs an app, so be it. But it’s up to the authors to drive innovation, not the publishers whose job is merely to link those authors with readers. Sure in the past we did deliver the physical package, but that was because no individual could afford to go to a printer and get them to print a single copy of a book for them. Technology has freed us from that burden (partly anyway) and we can now see the essence of what we do with greater clarity. And what we do does not include inventing different media interfaces.

James Patterson’s initiative, writing short works, under 150 pages, seems a better way to try and woo the reluctant reader.


* As usual in general media commentary on publishing this of course elides the bulk of the industry into the Big 5. Where it’s appropriate book publishers have of course vigorously embraced the new technology. Reference publishing and textbook publishing are two resounding counter examples. We’re not stupid. Where it’s appropriate we use digital technology; where it isn’t we don’t.

See also Digital writing.

Can this really be true? The frequency of occurrence of words in English text is governed by mathematical rule? We have grown accustomed to accepting that natural processes all dance to mathematical rules, but text too? Shady Characters takes us through the calculations, and attempts, not unsuccessfully, to extend the law to cover punctuation too.

As tells us “Zipf’s law arose out of an analysis of language by linguist George Kingsley Zipf, who theorised that given a large body of language (that is, a long book — or every word uttered by Plus employees during the day), the frequency of each word is close to inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. That is:

$ P_ n \propto 1/n^ a $ where a is close to 1. . . The jury remains out as to whether there is any significance in Zipf’s law — does it cast light on the way we structure language and how language evolved? Or is it simply a statistical artifact?”

No doubt philosophers have knocked this sort of thing on the head long ago, but it all makes me wonder if science’s obvious basis in mathematics is nothing more than a consequence of our brains’ fundamental inability to work in any way other than the mathematical. In other words, is “mathematics” nothing more than our word for the way our brains can think? Is it all nothing more than observer bias?

Joe Wikert asks whatever happened to innovation in the publishing industry. Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader takes him to task. There’s a sort of tone of reproach in both of their pieces that publishers have allowed innovation to be carried out by “outsiders”.

But I wonder why innovation should be such a shibboleth. Why should anyone in our business want to do things in a new way? We publishers facilitate the passage of content from author to reader. And the way we are doing so is working just fine, thank you very much. You can shout all you want about the need to expand the audience, but the reason more people don’t read books is not because they can’t get books in some whizz-bang way, it’s because they have no interest in reading a book. And just because lots of people don’t want to read a book is no reason why publishers should give up on books and seek out some sexier product. We’re called book publishers for a reason. We don’t especially care how the communication between author and reader happens, just as long as we make a buck off it. Inventing new ways to deliver content isn’t a thing anyone has to do. If customers want content in a new way, then, as soon as they discover this way I think you can rely on publishers jumping in to fill the need. If the public doesn’t yet realize it wants stuff in some imaginary new way, so what? No publisher should get in front of the wave: wait till they clamor for it, and then be ready to deliver. Maybe there are people sulking that they can’t get books delivered telepathically to their brain, but if so they need to shout a little louder. No publisher has any interest in going out and researching how such a feat might be achieved. It’s just not our job.