Archives for the month of: April, 2016

The Digital Reader sends a link to An American Editor‘s post What one fool can do, which reports on a little bit of research into editing practice.

The lightning strike which brings Thomas Wolfe’s manuscript to Max Perkins, or Harper Lee’s to Tay Hohoff has perhaps a probability only slightly higher than the author’s actually being struck by lightning. Genius editors, like genius geniuses are thin on the ground. Most editors are pretty good at their jobs, but nowadays that job is mainly acquiring books, and the skills which go into judging what raw manuscript will appeal to a wide public are definitely impressive. Less and less does the job call for detailed work on the manuscript, and thus less and less is the ability to do so a requirement for the job. When I was an editor, we were told that we were expected to have read every word of every manuscript that went into production, or to have good reasons why we hadn’t. Not only was this a long time ago, when standards were stricter and through-put less (as well as being in academic publishing), but the second clause actually allowed for a lot of wiggle room. “I had to get the book out in time for Michaelmas adoptions” might well have been acceptable. Nevertheless acquiring editors back then were expected to do more work on their manuscripts than they are called on to do these days. Nowadays you might be more likely to suggest that this manuscript looks like it needs a text edit, rather than doing that yourself. This is a pity of course — perhaps even more for the editors than for authors — but we live in hard times.

Disagreement with editors is one of the commonly cited reasons for deciding to self-publish. Obviously editors are fallible, though professionals will tend to look to correct the same sorts of flaws — see the results of the testing reported in the “What one fool” link above. If you are going to get into “rewriting” the book, it’s obviously important to communicate with the author. Initially a list of suggested changes, followed by copies of changes, and ultimately, if you’re both “on the same page” a look at the complete reworked manuscript. Once upon a time I was caught out on this. The book was a translation of a French classic anthropology text. As these are both subjects on which I was at least formally educated, I took a swipe at improving the translation; something that was clearly needed. I did let the author know, and sent him samples. Now no editor has only one manuscript to work on, and as time went by my superiors suggested it might be a good idea to finish the work and get the book into production. Which I did promptly. I discovered years later that the author had written to the very boss who’d told me to get it finished, complaining about the unevenness of the editing of his book. The editing of the first half was excellent, but the quality fell off disastrously towards the end. I rather think that if I’d done nothing he’d probably have been happier. Even though what I’d done was an improvement, I guess it made him look sloppy in the eyes of his colleagues. Looking like a bad writer, but at least a consistently bad writer, would no doubt have been less damaging in the eyes of the academic world than being thought a careless one.


This is one of these ideas that when you hear about it you can’t believe it hasn’t been around for years. Touchable ink, developed by J. Walter Thomson in Bangkok is an ink-jet ink which sits on the paper creating, as it were, instant embossing. The Digital Reader has the story.

This sounds great, and if it can be used in a regular digital print engine (even one which has to be only slightly modified) one could easily see it making books for the blind available more cheaply than can currently be done by Braille printers. One could even imagine its being set up as a dedicated manufacturing line in a large print-on-demand facility so that books for the blind could finally be available on a one-off basis. If however it has to be done on something like a 3D printer, the economics could be problematic: at least we already have a large installed base of digital printers in the book manufacturing industry.

Obviously this has to be different from the thermographic printing which I have had on my business card for years. Wikipedia describes this older process: the second paragraph, Thermography as raised print process is the place to look. It all sounds a bit complicated, which is obviously a cost barrier. I wonder if it’s hard to control with small type detail: probably.

Digital Book World, editorializing on Cambria Herbert’s open letter to Barnes and Noble calling for them to sell self-published books, says “What this all comes down to is respect. The self-publishing community is a passionate one, believing its authors have just as much of a right to publish a book as do authors who have traditional publishers. Moreover, many of them believe their mode of publishing is the right one. At the end of the day, they just want to be treated as authors, not self-published authors. ”

Well, OK. But unfortunately being an author of any kind doesn’t entitle you to have your book available for sale in every (or any) Barnes & Noble bookstore. God knows there are plenty of non-self-published authors whose books are not available there (though they can it’s true probably be special ordered as apparently can #Nerd — but that can’t really be the beef, as anyone can easily “special order” any book, traditionally published or self-published, for themselves on-line). As DBW says it’s all about respect.

To me this comes close to wanting to have your cake and eat it too. If you disdain the publishing business surely it ill behooves you to bitch that you don’t have full access to the distribution chains that the book business has built up over the years. Any retailer is free to deal with whatever suppliers it wants to. B & N doesn’t sell books published by Amazon; and why should they have to? If Amazon wants to eat the booksellers’ lunch by retailing books, why should B & N support them by facilitating their efforts to become pukka publishers too? Amazon is allowed to take down the Hachette buy-buttons as a negotiating ploy, and B & N’s allowed not to stock books by any publisher they chose not to stock. We may not like this, but we can’t do anything about it except voice out complaint. Neither B & N nor Amazon, is a public utility, regulated by the state to the benefit of the public. What they sell is what they choose to sell. Now if I was B & N, I would probably decide not to carry self-published titles for a couple of reasons: 1. the difficulty of assessing which of the millions of offerings might be of interest to my customers; and 2. a fear that if one such book did become a big seller I might find it hard to replenish stock. Traditional publishing has evolved methods of eliminating those problems: publishers reps call on B & N and tell their buyers which titles will sell well, and publishers have sales and distribution systems which bookstores know they can rely on.

DBW says “I’d like to see Barnes & Noble create some sort of mechanism for finding indie books that are worth putting on its shelves. The books without question exist, and the retailer is doing its customers a disservice and losing potential money by not doing so. This could be as simple as creating a position within the company in which the person’s role is to research self-published books.” That’s just fine and dandy, but a person employed to research self-published books has to be paid. Then, if they identify a book which they’d like to stock they have to find the author and negotiate terms. One of the reasons these guys hate publishers is that they think they should get 70% of their book’s price from the publisher. Welcome to the real world, self-publisher. B & N isn’t going to stock your book in return for 30% of the retail price, even if they do manage to locate you and to trust that you actually do have cartons of inventory just waiting for their order. And they certainly cannot afford to indulge in negotiations with each and every indie out there: they have enough problems of their own without adding thousands of discrete negotiations to the overload. Sure there are exceptional indie books, and one might like to see some of them in bookstores: and as Cambria Herbert indicates this can indeed happen even at a Barnes & Noble branch. But even if your books are great, and your approach to the book trade is professional, business-like and efficient, at the end of the day you cannot force anyone to sell your wares. Self publishers opted for the independent line: unfortunately this means they have to be independent.

Shelf Awareness of 26 April, 2016 brings this news: “The American Writers Museum, the first in the United States to focus exclusively on American writers, ‘past and present,’ will open in March 2017 in downtown Chicago, Ill. Located at 180 North Michigan Avenue, the museum expects to draw up to 120,000 visitors each year and is working with more than 50 authors’ homes and museums around the country to build its exhibitions. Among the planned attractions are re-creations of writers’ homes and fictional locales (including Tara, Cannery Row and the House of Seven Gables), interactive exhibits about writers’ lives and methodologies (including ‘travels’ with Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck, for example), and ample space for film screenings, talks, readings and presentations. The museum aims to hold exhibitions on a range of subjects.”

Their website is here. They list affiliation with museums memorializing the following writers: Louisa May Alcott. The Beats, William Cullen Bryant, Pearl S. Buck, Truman Capote and Harper Lee, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Alex Haley, Joel Chandler Harris, Ernest Hemingway, Washington Irving, Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Francis Parkinson Keyes, Jack London. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Mitchell, John Muir, Flannery O’Connor, Eugene O’Neill, O. Henry (William Sidney Porter), Edgar Allan Poe, James Whitcomb Riley, Will Rogers, Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gene Stratton-Porter, James Thurber, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Noah Webster, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Thomas Wolfe. Who knew there were so many? We should have old turning up at all of these: obviously much wiser to wait till 2017 and visit Chicago!

Those among us seeking a shortcut to literary immortality can purchase naming rights to various bits of the museum and its exhibitions. The Cookie Jar Readers Hall is unfortunately already gone, but you can still get in on a couple of galleries.

In the early days of letterpress printing dampening the sheet was a regular way of improving the impression. When the paper is dampened however, it will expand. With one-color printing the difference in expansion of one sheet as against another wasn’t a problem anyone would notice. But multicolor printing was always complicated by this propensity of paper to absorb moisture and swell unpredictably. Keeping all your images in a multicolor job in perfect register was a nightmare. How could you ensure that the moisture in the sheet today was exactly the same as yesterday? This remains a problem, though we have addressed it now by making climate-controlled pressrooms. This minimizes the difficulty but doesn’t completely get rid of it.

Chromolithography was a 19th century phenomenon. Alois Sennefelder, inventor of lithography, did allude to the printing of color by lithography in his 1818 Vollstaendiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey. In 1837 Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse, France was awarded a patent. Chromo-lithography was always an expensive process: as many as 20 or 25 different impressions (therefore stones) might be involved in a single print, and the process was never much used in book-work. The level of skill involved is almost unbelievable to us now. In hand-printed chromo-lithography the image is applied to a stone plate with a grease-based crayon or ink. The stone is coated with a gum arabic solution and weak nitric acid, and then inked with oil-based inks which flee the gum and adhere to the grease crayon areas. Pressure is applied across the sheet by a doctor blade made of leather or wood, and this transfers the inks to the paper. Repeat with the next color, preserving perfect alignment, register, until all colors have been added.

IMG_0387This enlargement of a reproduction of a side-panel of the 1432 Ghent altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck shows the process of chromolithography. (You should be able to zoom in to see greater detail.) We are used today to seeing a regular screen in our halftones, breaking colors down into dots which looked at together mimic the colors in the original. In this example the screen isn’t a real screen: it’s a collection of hand-drawn stippling, more intensive in areas of high detail, less so in simpler areas. The printer would draw up a number of  black and white outlines of the picture (the number corresponding to the number of colors of ink to be used in the chromolithograph — Richard Benson reports that he has failed to work out exactly how many colors were used in this reproduction, but he has identified at least eight though there were “perhaps many more”: The Printed Picture p. 64). The separation of colors would be at the judgement of the printer, not based on any standard method such as we have nowadays. The printers would decide what ink colors, and how many different ones they’d need to reproduce the picture, and then by eye, break each color out onto a separate sheet of paper, shade in solid areas, and add stippling to allow for color blends. The amount of stippling for instance in the face is greater than in the sleeve. The drawing and stippling had to be done at final size — they had no means of enlarging/reducing — and this means this detailed work is phenomenally skillful. The resultant drawing then had to be transferred onto the stone (in itself no simple task) using a greasy ink or crayon.


CbQu9OyUUAA_7OdMaybe not exactly mirrors. But I did like this.

This being the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I should perhaps add Hamlet’s pronouncement on acting “whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

UnknownDisappointingly the tale that the QWERTY keyboard arrangement was invented to slow typists down so that those long spider-like arms carrying the types wouldn’t get entangled turns out to be untrue. The Digital Reader alerts us to a Japanese research paper which debunks the attractive idea.

The real reason is more prosaic but much more credible. The machine was invented to transcribe Morse code transmissions, and the keyboard layout was dictated by the needs of that medium. They put letters together and moved them apart in order to make quite obvious the distinctions between different letters with similar Morse patterns. Slowing down the operator would definitely not have been a motive: you would want to have your receiver transcribing at the same rate as the sender, not slower. As far as I can tell the early machines with QWERTY keyboards didn’t have those long wiggly arms which would wobble their way up to the platen when you depressed a key, so  obviously the layout couldn’t have had anything to do with an as yet uninvented technology. (See the original patent drawing at my earlier post on vertical ellipsis.) As well as adjusting for Morse code confusion, a couple of layout tweaks were made, appropriately for a late-19th-century business story, for no “better” reason than to avoid patent infringement.

The old idea of forcing a slow-down is intuitively so attractive that it’ll no doubt take years for it to be debunked. Here’s expert Naomi Baron recently quoted in the New Scientist to the old, wrong effect: “If you look at the origin of the QWERTY keyboard, it had nothing to do with emotions,” she says. “It had to do with not getting the keys entangled with one another.” Well she is right about it having nothing to do with emotions. The New Scientist‘s focus is on the intriguing idea that the keyboard layout has influenced the way we use words. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but the evidence cited in their earlier article does seem at least not immediately nonsensical. But surely this has got to be nothing more than a coincidental effect. One wonders if Linotype operators with their ETAOIN SHRDLU keyboard would have had different emotional responses to the same words!

Joe Wikert complains about the general lack of indexing in e-books, pointing out that text search isn’t really the same thing in his Average Joe post. Now a month later, he comes up with some concrete suggestions.

Now, what he suggests is obviously an excellent idea. But, as we live in a world dominated by the marketplace, I wonder if anyone will ever believe that they can make money by providing the sort of hyperlinked index Mr Wikert proposes. A lousy index in a print book, or even no index at all, has probably never led to the loss of a sale — criticism of author and publisher to be sure, but if they want/need the information in the book most readers are just going to have to put up with it.

Mr Wikert is suggesting that we could have an automated sort of index generator built into our reading device, or software. I suspect the problem with this would be not the filling of the bath, but the regulating of the flow so that you didn’t get inundated by ever more recondite and (for your immediate needs) irrelevant information. Set a computer to parsing text, and it’ll parse till the cows come home.

I think the problem with indexing and e-books may just boil down to the nature of the beast. Just as a print book is better at propping up a table or keeping a door from closing, so it may be more suited to index-use. We use an index in a couple of ways. You are reading along, and you think “This guy mentioned James VI’s sleeping arrangements before. What was it he said?” So you go to the index and look up “James VI, favorites”; and Bob’s your uncle. Or you are researching a topic, and you look at “Parliament, financial control”. (Notoriously of course scholars use the index to check whether they are mentioned.) With a Wikert hyperlinked index you risk spending the rest of your life tracking down references if once you press the magic button.

As he points out, one of the strengths a human indexer brings to the table is an ability to index synonyms: thus not just “sleeping arrangements” but bed, bedroom, bed chamber, night companion, sheets, four-poster etc. etc. might all end up indexed under “sleeping arrangements”. But God save us from the retrieval of every such sort of cognate from the depths of the web. The main virtue of the human indexer is the ability to distinguish what is relevant from what is not, and to arrange the material into a logically coherent system which enables the reader better to access the information in the book. Computers are as eager to search for “the” as they are for “bedfellow” — be careful what you ask for.

With an e-book you are always a little uncertain just where you are. You don’t have that intuitive notion “I’m about a third of the way through” though of course there will no doubt be a little note telling you you are in fact at location 2018 out of 7981. Precision here is the enemy of intuition. I may often recall that the earlier discussion of one of James’s boyfriends was on a recto, in the top third of the page, and it was a while ago that I read it so I can conclude it must be back quite near the beginning. And I can often get there without bothering with the index — some of the things I might want to look back at wouldn’t be indexed anyway, e.g.misspellings. Thus even if it’s not in the index, we have ways of making the book talk. Such a facility is not offered by an e-book. Everyone says the distractions offered by the web are poisoning our reading capacity (something I don’t agree with) and trolling through an e-book in an attempt to find an earlier reference is a massive distraction. I even find clicking on a note call-out distracting: off you flash to a different, though superficially identical location. Maybe I’m just not used to the switch and would get better at it if I tried harder, but I suspect it may actually have something to do with the nature of the beast.

None of this should be surprising: e-books are obviously different from p-books. The fact that much of what’s available now is derived from a preexisting p-book is probably confusing us as to what’s possible and what’s not. Maybe we haven’t been at it long enough to have recognized that indexing may just be a p-book tool. For this reason, and the display of tables, mathematics, foreign languages especially in different scripts, as well as the nature of the use to which they are put, academic monographs may just work better in print.

One of the last things I tend to think about in our rapidly changing world is industry realignment through consolidation. I am always alive to the possibility of company merger and closure. We all have gotten used to desperately holding onto the belief that change is good. Variety being the spice of life, changing your job is obviously a good thing — in the long run: it’s just not something you want to experience in the short term.

Shelf Awareness of 19 April says “In a move that marks another major change this year in book wholesaling and distribution — less than three weeks ago, Ingram bought Perseus’s distribution business — Follett Corporation is buying Baker & Taylor, which primarily offers wholesaling services for books, video, music, digital products and more to libraries, schools and bookstores, and Bookmasters, the printer, distributor and wholesaler, from private equity company Castle Harlan. Castle Harlan bought B&T in 2006 and Bookmasters in 2013; the two have had a “strategic partnership” since 2013. Follett operates more than 1,250 college bookstores and 1,700 virtual stores, and provides education technology, services, print and digital content to schools and colleges.”

Now this move of book manufacturing into the wholesale distribution system has been underway for a long time. I remember visiting Lightning Source during the last century. It was an embryonic structure: something like 1½ machines in a disused loading bay at the back of the already gigantic Ingram distribution center. The immense, and super-slick operation which it now is was merely a gleam in the eye. Now book distributors have many options when it comes to filling an order for a book (see also Amazon and POD) one of which is printing it themselves. Of course some bookstores have similar options with their Espresso Book Machine on the floor.

This realignment in the business has been actively under way ever since I started out in 1965. In the old days there were paper merchants, printers (who also set type), binderies, publishers, book shops. Then we got typesetters, paper merchants (though more and more paper is being sourced by printers on behalf of publishers), printer-binders, publishers, warehouse service operations, wholesalers (earlier wholesalers tended to be more magazine distributors, gradually growing into the book business via mass-market paperbacks), and book shops. Then we began to see freelance copyediting companies (and individuals of course) who would also do proof reading and indexing. These editorial services began to drift into typesetting which is now more a text processing than a typesetting business. Design has always been freelance-friendly. Whereas in the past sales used always to be part of what a publisher did, we now have independent sales forces and companies (often large publishing companies) offering sales and distribution services to small publishers. At the other end of the pipe we also have literary agents providing editorial services, and of course self publishers doing the whole thing. The functions that the core publishing business has to be in charge of in order still to be defined as a publishing company may amount to little more today than list selection, and there are many many instances of freelance list-building editors whose essential function is to increase the publishing company’s output without increasing its staff overhead.

So is book printing doomed to move entirely into the wholesale distribution space? I don’t really think so — but then why shouldn’t I be wrong. One could see much short-run manufacturing going that way. And the lower the demand, perhaps, the nearer to the customer is the manufacture likely to move. In a mature Espresso business (if we ever get there) the decision of a bookseller to print the book on their Espresso machine would depend on the cost of shipping a copy of the book from the publisher or their wholesaler plus the “cost” of the time that would take. If they decided to order from a wholesaler, the wholesaler would go through a similar cascade of sourcing options. As long as publishers print books and store them in warehouses, book printers are liable to continue to have work. As I have suggested before, my worry is that there may come a choke point where overall demand is insufficient to support a healthy book manufacturing industry, and it may melt away without any of us actually wishing for that result.

In the meantime consolidation marches on. It’s no one’s job to think through the long-term, industry-wide consequences.

Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey © 2004 Matthew Trump

Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey © 2004 Matthew Trump

Paterson, New Jersey was one of America’s original factory towns. William Carlos Williams, who was born and died in nearby Rutherford, memorializes the town in his long poem  Paterson. The town is anthropomorphized,

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls,
its spent waters forming the outline of his back.
. . .
Twice a month Paterson receives
communications from the Pope and Jacques Barzun
(Isocrates). His works
have been done into French
and Portuguese.
. . .
Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to read and write.
Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter —


James Patterson, who was also born not too far from Paterson, in Newburgh, New York, is, like the nineteenth century factories of Paterson, prolifically productive. Fifteen books a year is almost unbelievable. His work methods are fascinating — it’s a sort of factory system. The Telegraph did a piece in 2014 about his team-work. He uses about twenty other authors to write up books based upon an outline he provides. He edits and “corrects” drafts, and acknowledges the co-author on the book. We may react to this with disapproval: how could an author do something like that. But why shouldn’t an author do something like that? Mr Patterson is quite definitely in the entertainment business. Nobody complains for instance that Martin Scorsese doesn’t write the movies he directs or design the costumes, do the makeup, and build the sets: movies are a collaborative business. Why shouldn’t books be too? (We publishing people might be tempted to claim that they always are.) We are all used to the idea of ghost-written celebrity autobiographies after all. Surely nobody can really have objections to some authors using such streamlined production methods; even if they were writing poetry say. Why shouldn’t T. S. Eliot get a co-author in on The Wasteland for instance? Oops. He did didn’t he?

Mr Patterson is well known for his benevolence towards independent bookstores and other initiatives in defense of the book business. Now he plans to convert the vast world of non-readers into avid book buyers by giving them what he believes they want: short books which can be quickly read and loved. Here’s The New York Times story about the proposal. The 150pp max. books will be published by Little Brown. Some will be written by Patterson, some by his factory system and others selected by him. Thank you Mr Patterson. Every little thing helps, and I suspect that your name is more likely to bring in new readers than most. And I dare say there’s a royalty in there somewhere.