Archives for the month of: April, 2016


As you can see from this patent drawing of the first typewriter, just next to the A key there’s a vertical ellipsis. What this was for is (almost certainly) elucidated by Keith Houston’s Shady Characters blog post. He has sussed out that it’s all to do with Morse code, transcription of which was a big use for the Type-Writing Machine.

Those of us in production who have bitched about authors who randomly use lower case “L” instead of 1 will note that Mr Sholes invited this trouble — though he wanted you to use Cap “I” as his machine ignored lower case.

Small Press Life posts this intriguing advertisement from 1901.

librarian-wantedAs the ad says, despite Andrew Carnegie’s gifts establishing public libraries around the country, many towns found themselves unable to fund a building to house a library. The Parmelee Company aimed to fill this void. “The Parmelee Library wishes to extend the service until there is a Parmelee New Book Home Delivery Station organized in every city and village in the United States. The adaptability of the system to the needs of even the greatest cities having the best of public library facilities, as well to the community with inferior public service, is shown through the registered circulation in Boston and Chicago since November of last year of over 25,000 volumes of the popular new books.” They advertise for “Ladies of the highest social standing” who will sign up their well-connected friends, receive a weekly shipment from Parmelee, and distribute the books to the customers, who will have selected books and magazines from a 250 page catalog, “itself a work of typographical excellence”. Customers are allowed to keep the books for “as long as desired. No fines. No red tape”, which sounds like a risky offer for a circulating library. As examples of their comprehensive, up-to-date collections they boast of having copies of Bertha Runkle: The Helmet of Navarre, Winston Churchill: The Crisis, Frank Norris: The Octopus, George Barr McCutcheon: Graustark, and Harold McGrath: The Puppet Crown. These were all bestsellers of 1901 which almost nobody today has heard of. They are all available for $0.00 at Amazon.

The H. Parmelee Company is featured at the Lucile Project. This piece makes the history of the company clearer. It evolved out of the traveling library business. In this system a collection of 50 or so books was sent to a town, being housed often in the post office. The books would stay there for about three months before being packed up and sent on elsewhere. The illustration shown at the Lucile Project site presumably dates from this stage in the company’s evolution. At this time apparently members were required to replenish stock by purchasing a new book for the library collection each year, and were fined for keeping a book too long. The company’s 1901/1902 attempt to move upmarket with “ladies of the highest social standing” appears to have failed. They went out of business in 1902 and the company was declared bankrupt in 1903. According to Library History Buff Blog they subsequently transmogrified into the Plymouth Libraries.

See also Circulating libraries.

You could write a book (you, not me) about what it is in the French and the German national character that makes them regard book prices as something that should be regulated, while the British and the Americans see such an idea as a dastardly attack their liberties. Publishing Perspectives gets the ball rolling with interviews with a couple of European publishers. A second item looks at a wider selection of countries. I’m not convinced that their tag line “The French and German attitudes toward book prices originate in their long-standing cultural view on the importance of books as a bastion of culture” really explains anything. Most Anglo-Saxons could, if provoked, be expected to come up with a similar opinion. Yet there does seem to be greater state concern for the book trade in Europe.

In one way, the response to all this can be as simple as — well, autres pays, autres moeurs. They speak German, so why shouldn’t they like lots of braised meats, sausages and beer? And Resale Price Maintenance on their books too? The rate of literacy tells us nothing: A year ago Wikipedia‘s list of countries by literacy rate showed all four countries at a 99% literacy rate — a rate which seems way too high to me, but shows that they are all in the same sort of position. (Interestingly Wikipedia now doesn’t quote any rates for these countries, saying UNESCO numbers weren’t reported in 2015! Maybe this is a prelude to more realistic data in the future.)

I do suspect however that there is a connection between RPM and the number of bookshops. Any American who visits Europe remarks on the number of bookshops. Britain looks a bit more like America in this respect.* Do French and German book buyers each buy more books per year than their British and American counterparts, or are there just more of them per capita? One suspects the answer is yes to both questions, but some evidence would be nice. Is it just easier to keep a bookstore open there than in the English-speaking world? And if it is easier to keep a bookstore going, why is that? Nowadays in America we are approaching the state where a bookstore is viable only when it has owned for many years the building in which it is located. Business demands the highest return possible, so real estate companies will always end up pricing their retail locations out of the reach of small independent retailers. I don’t suppose all the dozens of bookshops within a stone’s throw of the Stefanskirche in Vienna are owner-occupiers; but there they are. Do European landlords cut bookstores deals? One doubts it, however much the consensus may be that book culture is an important national asset. Though the French government does keep trying to restrict Amazon’s ability to compete with the local book trade, I think the difference really resides in the existence of Resale Price Maintenance for books.

When we had RPM in Britain, up till 1995, the Net Book Agreement, as it was called, was always justified as being a measure designed to keep bookshops viable. We didn’t refer to independent bookstores back then — there was no other kind. And it is true that when the Net Book Agreement was in force there were many more bookshops in Britain than there are now. Of course there have been other forces at work too: we had just come through the Thatcher revolution which seemed to many observers a technique for killing off any business that was not a profit maximizer. But discounting, which is what this is all about, will naturally be easier for a large organization to sustain than a small one. The basic justification for discounting is that it increases volume, and by doing so brings in more money — less on each individual sale, but more in aggregate because of the vastly larger number of copies sold. The book shop I remember from my childhood in Galashiels could have discounted all its books without ever being able to increase volume to the level needed: there just weren’t enough people in the town who’d read a book even if you gave it to them for free. Is it better for the book lovers of Galashiels that they now have to travel the 32 miles to Edinburgh, or buy on-line? Sure, they get each book they buy for less (or perhaps not, after you count the cost of getting there) but I have to believe that the total experience is one of loss. It’s a loss which Europeans seem determined to avoid.


* I wonder if this perception is real, though. Jim Campbell in his NB column in the Times Literary Supplement of 11 March 2016 reports on “The London Bookshop Map” which has been being published since 2011. That year it showed 87 bookshops, the following edition 96, and this year 116. Of course some of this may be just better information gathering, but 116 book shops seems like an impressive number. Maybe the perceptual difference is simply that more European bookshops are able to locate in city centers (where they get seen by those American visitors) whereas in London they are spread about the outlying areas.

old transferIn the good old, bad old days, before computers were omnipresent, designers used to spend hours rubbing away at transfer sheets of letters. Letraset was the brand leader but we are really talking about dry transfer type. The Letraset company still exists and continues to sell its transfer sheets. It was founded in 1959, at which point mechanical artists (I mean people creating mechanicals for printing, not guys drawing car engines) heaved a sigh of relief. They no longer had to send out to a jobbing typesetter to get type set for their mechanicals; they could just pick up a sheet of Letraset from their local art supply store and apply it directly to their boards.

The sheet carrying the transfer type had a bit of tack to it, so it wouldn’t slip about, and came with a protective backing sheet of tissue paper. As you can see from the picture there was a dashed alignment guidance system below every letter. Like the guy in the picture, most people didn’t really use this. We weren’t “setting” Letraset for long paragraphs of type: just for the title and author on a book jacket, say. You’d rub off the letter using a pencil, or a special rubbing tool, lift away the carrier sheet and burnish the letter by placing the tissue paper backing sheet over the line of type and rubbing a smooth-sided object back and forth over it until the letters were well and truly bonded to the board. Although they wouldn’t just fall off the letters remained fragile — you could easily damage them by failing to pay attention, and of course mechanicals were always themselves protected by a covering layer of thin paper.

For those of you who weren’t working back at the turn of the century, the millennium bug was a panic that swept though all businesses in the last few months of 1999 as we woke up to the (almost unbelievable) fact that computer companies had been making all those PCs — the desk-top computers we had invested millions of dollars in — on the apparent expectation that the world would come to an end at midnight on 31 December 1999. Dates were stored in two-digit form, on the naïve assumption that years always begin with the digits 1 and 9. Carefree individuals might say What the hey; after all there’s no likelihood of confusion for years to come. The date . . 00 would obviously mean 2000 — after all computers weren’t invented in 1900. But the trouble came with databases and such like collections of information: when you sorted by year, 2000 would appear at the top, not as it should at the bottom. Wikipedia describes the Y2K problem exhaustively. In the end IT departments all knuckled down and with scads of overtime devised various solutions which would work for the company they were employed by.

Inevitably many publishers brought out books which told you what to do to circumvent the issue, and how to cure it. I have no idea whether these did anyone any good; they certainly sold.

The whole thing was a bit of a disappointment in the Schadenfreude department. After wildly celebrating a very special New Year’s, we all came in to work and found our computers working fine. No crashing Armageddons. Rapidly of course computer manufacturers and software developers started storing year dates as four digits. Strangely enough we found it quite a burden to have to do four key-strokes for every year rather than the two we were used to. But this, like the memory of the bug itself, quickly got submerged by discussion of how we should refer to the decade, “the noughts” or whatever. Did that ever really get resolved? Maybe we have to leave these decisions to future historians, though here’s the courageous OUP blog engaging with the subject back in 2007.

(Some of us were upset to find that actually the new millennium didn’t begin for another 12 months: I guess you can’t expect to find folk wisdom around for things that happen once in a thousand years.)

305Douglas Adams is quoted by The Passive Voice on 4 April: “Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”

As aphorisms go it’s OK I guess, but Adams is pretending we can only entertain one kind of love, which just isn’t true. People who collect china no doubt manage to take nourishment. Some may even enjoy it. To them a plate of lamb chops may say something different (more?) than it does to you or me. Just because a soup tureen is made for soup doesn’t mean it can’t be used to hold stew, pot pourri or even unpaid bills.

It used to be that “lovers of print” meant those bibliophiles who would study the vehicle with scant regard for its cargo. Obviously an extreme form of dilettantism — some collectors do indeed resist the temptation of ever opening their volumes so as not to decrease their value; but as manias go it’s surely a rather harmless one. But such lovers of print — actually more lovers of bindings — are rare. Just because you collect books doesn’t need to mean that you don’t like reading books — even if that ends up being other books than the ones you collect. And it certainly doesn’t have mean that you don’t value the content.

Adams’ words come from a 2001 BBC broadcast “The hitchhiker’s guide to the future”. As this was six years before the introduction of the Kindle, he was obviously well into forecasting mode. It’s hard to remember what we all thought back then about what came to be known as e-books. Probably not a lot. Of course the idea had been around: they feature in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, published in the early 1950s, and in a recent post I suggested that William Morris was predicting e-books in 1893. So if we’d spent any time thinking about the idea, I guess we could have managed to have a coherent discussion. But in 2001 offset looked eternal, and anyone who suggested it was doomed would have been greeted as a joker. But obviously there were some brave souls who risked ridicule and made the suggestion. They would of course have been duly laughed at.

Whatever. As I keep pointing out it’s not either or, it’s both and. Many a lover of print can be found reading an e-book. Some are agnostic as to which is preferable. But who cares? If we’d been told in 2001 that every “classic” of English literature would be available free in a decade or so’s time, I suspect that even the most ardent paper and print promoter might have been excited. Just because we relish a well typeset and printed volume with good paper, generous margins and a sturdy binding does not mean that when we sit down to table we dine off Crown Derby with no food on it.

AnecdotesjpgSpence’s Anecdotes was apparently published twice on the same day in 1820 by different publishers under different titles. My Sentimental Library recounts the story. Joseph Spence (1699-1768) was Professor of Poetry, and Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford. Just why his literary reminiscences should have been is such demand is somewhat mysterious.

It all seems to be a matter of the author’s fatally delaying delivery of the manuscript to his publisher. After his death Spence’s executors decided that the “time had not yet arrived when the anecdotes could be safely published” even though there was a contract with the bookseller James Dodsley. The manuscript, or a part of it, was given to the Duke of Newcastle, an ex-pupil of the author’s, and eventually some editing was started on it by Edmund Malone (of Shakespeare fame) for John Murray. Dr Johnson was given access to the manuscript for use in the writing of his Lives of the Poets. After Malone’s death further desultory work was done on the editing, but not much came of this until S. W. Singer’s announcement that his edition was about to be published. At this point Murray rushed out the material they had, managing to publish simultaneously.

There do appear to have been differences in the content as well as the title. The edition edited by Samuel Welles Singer contains more material than that done by Malone. The Literary Gazette reviewed them both and was dismissive of the rag-bag quality of Murray’s book.

We live in a world of mergers and acquisitions. Even if you work for an ancient university press you will find change going on around you as companies, imprints, and subject lists are traded back and forth. Are you working for Howell Book House, Macmillan·USA, Simon & Schuster, Viacom? Any of the above could have been the correct answer in 1999. So how to refer to a publishing company with any historical accuracy? Nicholas Weir-Williams answers a SHARP query about how to figure beginning and end dates for publishing companies thus:

“My view — and I speak as a publisher, not as a book historian, is to think of this all as a family tree. Houghton Mifflin, for example, seems to me an extant publisher, one that married/merged in with what was left of Harcourt Brace (Jovanovich) — but both companies persist in the new generation. Macmillan still exist — though they are part of the Holtzbrinck empire, they are clearly still a recognizable entity within that conglomerate, and could yet be sold off, bought back, and continue to publish as Macmillan.

Whereas Cassell is much trickier – I worked there at what I would consider its demise. After many foolish purchases and bankruptcy in the late 90s, it emerged more or less intact and merged with the New York publisher Continuum: but sold off the Cassell name itself to Sterling as a trade imprint. The corporate entity that was Cassell remained under the Continuum name, now absorbed into Bloomsbury. The famous Cassell dictionaries had remained with the (US) Macmillan group (which traded internationally as Cassell Collier Macmillan), and had long since ceased to have anything to do with the legal entity of Cassell. Does the company still exist? Does the use of a tradename by another company constitute continued life for a publisher? I would probably argue that Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan live, and that Cassell died, as a publisher.

So you could take the view that if you can still buy a new book with the imprint Cassell on it, it lives; or that if the contract the author has for that book does not bear the publishing name of Cassell, it is dead. I don’t know if there is a scholarly answer to that. Or even take the view that while a book remains in copyright, royalties remain due to the author/estate from whichever legal entity owns that contract (which in the Cassell case could, to my knowledge, be one of at least three completely different companies) and you would have to chart each of those three ‘children’ to tell the proper story of Cassell. And good luck with that, by the way.”

Publishing folk think the imprint names are much more significant than do members of the public. Say “Knopf” to a publishing person and they’ll instantly conjure up in their mind’s eye an image of the sorts of books we are talking about, as well as an implicit nod to the fact that we are now discussing Penguin Random House. But for most people this entanglement of imprints isn’t really much of a problem. Whatever is printed on the book is the right answer — if indeed for them the question ever arises. Does it make any difference that a Knopf book, a Viking book and a Ballantine book now come from the same stable? Not to the reader. To anyone who talks about publishing though it is significant. You make an assertion about publisher X and it instantly becomes false when X is bought by Y. Publishers generally opt to submerge acquired imprints into their own marque, though there are obviously lots of exceptions. If Webster’s New World Dictionaries are helped by their reputation out there, Macmillan·USA would have been crazy to have started publishing them as Macmillan Dictionaries. So the imprint name survives. The dictionaries have moved on to Pearson, IDG, Hungry Minds, Wiley, and now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Of course Webster’s New World Dictionaries need to be distinguished from Merriam-Webster’s Webster’s Dictionaries and PRH’s Webster’s Abridged Dictionaries.

In an acquisition when inventory is acquired there will generally be a transition period. You just acquired a bunch of books with Publisher X’s logo on the spine, title page etc. Much cheaper to continue selling these books as they are, and make the imprint change-over when the book comes up for reprint. Is the customer buying an Oceana book because it says so on the title page; or really and Oxford University Press book, because it was they who sold it? Of course the new bosses will probably stop publishing new books under that old imprint name unless, as above, they see some commercial value in preserving the imprint name.

Macmillan·USA is in itself an example of this movement of imprint/company names. Macmillan was founded in Britain by two Scottish brothers in 1843. It set up an American division in 1869, which it sold off in 1896, allowing the new company to trade as Macmillan Company: I guess they assumed they were washing their hands of the American market for ever. The US company prospered and grew, and when UK Macmillan decided to re-enter the US market in 1954, it did so as St Martin’s Press. In 1989 the US Macmillan Company was acquired by Robert Maxwell (born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch and nicknamed by Private Eye, the bouncing Czech, though Harold Wilson is credited with the original invention). Maxwell notoriously took the company into bankruptcy, apparently falling off his yacht in mid-ocean “with the pension fund in his back pocket” — though he was actually naked at the time. Remnants of the company were acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1994, trading as Macmillan·USA, and they sold it on to Pearson in 1998. Pearson dismembered the remnant further, sending bits of it to IDG/Hungry Minds and Wiley, and retaining some of it in their Gale reference imprint. Gone with the Wind, Macmillan’s most successful trade title, remains with Scribner which had been acquired by Macmillan in 1984 — the trade portion of Scribner was not sold on by Simon & Schuster, though the reference list did end up at Gale.

In 2001 Pearson ended a century’s confusion by selling the Macmillan name to the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group who by then owned Macmillan UK. (One grandfathered-in exception is the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill schoolbook list.) Holtzbrink/Macmillan’s US imprints now include Farrar Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt & Company, W.H. Freeman and Worth Publishers, Palgrave Macmillan, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Picador, Roaring Brook Press, St. Martin’s Press, Tor Books, and Bedford Freeman & Worth Publishing Group. If you are looking to do academic research into publishing, don’t touch Macmillan if you want to retain your sanity.

See also Imprints from last year.

The Bookseller, via The Digital Reader, reports on stern words by Nick Kent, managing director of Peter Owen Publishers. He claims “I do think the library service has completely betrayed the publishing trade in Great Britain”.

Surely no publisher can really blame their customers for not buying their product. Everyone has a budget, and customers have to make choices among all available products they might buy — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Maybe Peter Owen isn’t publishing books which are important enough for libraries to buy. It so ill behooves a publisher to make a complaint like this that I want to believe that Mr Kent didn’t really mean it, and was quoted out of context. We all know that in the heat of debate words can come out of our mouths in a sequence which doesn’t really reflect what we believe. However his quoted words do go on, on theme, for long enough for this to seem an unlikely excuse.

We are all aware of the funding reductions faced by libraries, particularly severe in the UK right now, as attested by The Guardian and The Bookseller. I don’t think anyone, including Mr Kent, should be under any illusion that government funding to libraries comes trailing an implication that part of these funds are intended to support the book publishing industry. If the current UK government’s austerity policies contained an exception for independent publishing, I think we’d all know about it.

Maybe once upon a time it was possible for publishers to budget for a sale of about 1,000 copies to libraries, but that was a nice temporary freak, not some built-in right, even if it did last for 30 years or so. Things are harder now. I don’t believe publishers will stop publishing books: people will keep on writing them, and many of them will want some assistance in getting them out. Publishing companies have gotten used to making good money. It is harder now, and will continue to get harder. Books that just wash their faces financially may well be the new normal. With so many books out there now, and all of them potentially immortal, it just becomes necessary to make the books we do publish as excellent as possible. The second-rate or just OK cannot slide by as it may have done in the past.

The Digital Reader sends us this video.

Of course the narrator’s assumption that the audience to whom this is addressed would understand every word in any sample discourse directed at them today, is at best questionable. We may be digital-ready, but last time I looked people were still using things called dictionaries.

In contrast, here’s Edwin Battistella forecasting some unexpected features of English in 2065.