Archives for the month of: May, 2016

CjvIFiHXEAEHQ3hErik Kwakkel shows this picture from the Bodleian Library via Twitter. The Bodleian caption describes it thus “Transparent vellum binding by Edwards of Halifax, c.1785. Members of the Edwards family took out a patent in 1785 for the process of rendering vellum transparent by soaking it in pearl ash and subjecting it to high pressure. They also made a speciality of painting landscapes on the fore-edges of books: this volume shows a painting of the falls of Tivoli, but it is only visible when the pages are fanned out.” You can zoom in on the image at the Bodleian’s Luna site, here. More information about the process and its patenting by Edwards of Halifax at CoolConservation. This piece expresses uncertainty as to whether the patent covered both the treatment of the vellum or the method of painting on the back, or only one of the two.

Booktryst has a story about Cedric Chivers of Bath who version of this process was called Vellucent binding. This story has several images showing quite elaborate transparent vellum binding. It looks to me that the processes differ in that the Edwards of Halifax process involved painting or printing the design in reverse on the back of the translucent vellum, lining that with a white sheet, and then binding the pair onto the boards. Mr Chivers’ Vellucent technique had the design painted onto the backing sheet, then covered by the vellum to make one “indisseverable” sheet.

A Vellucent binding

A Vellucent binding


While these binding processes no doubt have their own special character we would recognize them today as lamination applied to a paper over boards, particularly a matte lam. Designers seeking the translucent effect can now use a paper substitute, though as far as I know nobody has been printing on the back of such a paper.


Photo: Science and Society Picture Library Prints

Photo: Science and Society Picture Library Prints













Sir Joshua Reynolds’ camera obscura was disguised as a book, probably so that people shouldn’t know that he used it in his paintings. It’s now in the Science Museum in London. Painters appear to have made use of optical devices pretty extensively from 1420 till the early 19th century, when the invention of chemical photography and subsequently film making set them off in another direction. It’s not that at the start of the 15th century people suddenly became better at drawing life-like representations: a much more convincing reason is that they discovered of a tool which enabled them to do so.

Here’s David Hockney telling us about the curved mirror, the camera obscura, and the camera lucida and their use in painting. His point that images were just too important back in the early modern period for artists not to have made use of optical technology seems completely convincing. The fact that he himself is an artist and draftsman is what enables him to put two and two together in a way which nobody previously had done. At one point a scientist, Charles Falco, says “Any physical scientist knows that a curved mirror is a lens, but David didn’t”. It’s this joining together of different knowledge bases which make Hockney’s discoveries so believable. There are two videos which has some slight overlap, but, to me at least, the story is so fascinating that watching both is worth the hour and a quarter it’ll take you.

There are other videos of David Hockney describing the process at my earlier post on Camera lucida.



















Jon Stewart, from Comedy Central via


This subject is still able to raise the passions. Partisans of self-publishing keep getting furious about traditional publishers reporting sales breakdowns for their industry which exclude the sales of self-published and indie published books. For one of the more sane debates, see this recent post by The Digital Reader. But the fact is you can’t include numbers from outside your industry when you are reporting industry sales. That’s sort of like complaining that theater ticket sales information fails to include information about films. Superficially they look alike, but actually they are different businesses. No doubt there have been too many instances where careless reporters have written about the sales of books as if that was exactly what they were, rather than making it clear that they are merely discussing sales by the (traditional) publishing industry. The partisans’ real beef is with the commentariat, not the publishers.

The publishing industry has over the years developed methods of collecting sales statistics: and they sort of work. Adding into that sales by Kindle, self-publishers, indie publishers, small publishers, etc. is tough. The Data Guy at Author Earnings has made a good attempt at this, and we all agree, I think, that there are lots and lots of e-books being sold by non-traditional publishers, possibly more than by traditional publishers. This Nielsen chart, from a post by Publishing Perspectives, tends to confirm this view.


However to me the big problem with this chart is the catch-all category on the right, “Self published + very small publishers”. The numbers in this column presumably contain sales by all traditional book publishers other than the “Big Five” who have their own column on the left. The center column is clear. The gap between these two groups is immense and full of wild variety. Partisans of self publishing will want to look on this column as being made up mostly of what we now call indie publishers: basically self publishers who publish books by other independent authors. But the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has over 400 members — only 5 of whom are shown in the left hand column of the Nielsen chart. And not every traditional publishing house pays membership dues to AAP, so there are many hundreds of other small independent traditional publishing companies. Let no-one believe that these many publishers didn’t publish any e-books at all! They are all included presumably in the right hand column.

Of course I have no idea of the real numbers behind this chart, and how easy it would be to refine them further, but I do think Nielsen isn’t being very helpful here by eliding the differences between Oxford University Press and say, New Street Communications.

The Independent Book Publishers Association has over 3,000 members, including independent publishers, self-published authors, small presses, and mid-sized publishers. I dare say lots of these people are not wildly keen on sharing their sales data, but we don’t end up having very sensible discussions when we hit each other over the head with incomplete and ill-defined sales numbers.



Reader analytics doesn’t sound like something we’d want to have to pay attention to, but of course more and more data about how readers like/don’t like our books is potentially available these days, and ignoring it isn’t really an option. Notoriously Amazon stores masses of this sort of data though they are reluctant to share it. But they aren’t the only source. Knowing how a person reads a book; how quickly compared to other books; how far they got; how often they looked up definitions; how they rated the book; whether and how they reviewed it, etc., etc., all tells you something. Andrew Rhomberg, founder of Jellybooks, discusses the use of reader data at Digital Book World, and concludes that fear of them is dictated by a fear of machines. (He promises to report of Jellybooks’ current non-fiction reader analytics study in a June blog post.)

I’d rather think the worry about reader data was not the machine collecting the response, but the personality traits driving the selection of respondents. In crude terms opinionated narcissists might be expected to be more likely to want to tell the world (well, a machine actually) what they think about a particular book. One might expect more modest reflective types to want to keep quiet, holding that their opinions are nothing more than that, and in any case are liable to change with further reflection. So my concern with publishers making decisions based upon reader analytics would be that they’d be risking following the opinions of a bunch of loudmouths. Of course if reader analytics is going to be used to drive your decision making, maybe a bunch of loudmouths is exactly what you want. They can be relied upon to talk up the next book you do, which you’ve managed to get the author to tailor to their wants. Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that if I was writing a novel, the knowledge that a plurality of readers would prefer that the hero kill himself with poison rather than a gun would be unlikely to drive my plot choices. Old elitists like me tend to think that books are written because authors need to tell a story, rather than to fill a gap in the market: but of course trade publishing is trade publishing, and non-fiction is a different story altogether.

Sorry to be so cynical. In theory at least knowing stuff can never be bad, but gathering Jellybooks’-type information will cost you — from £500 a title — so you have to be getting some really good information in return. And that information has to, when acted upon, drive a lot of extra sales. If you pay to have people comment on a galley but then fail to act fully upon what they say, you’ve just made making a profit even harder.

What is the right royalty for an e-book? That’s one discussion, which I indulged in last year, but here’s another question — what’s a sale of an e-book? When readers “buy” an e-book, are they really buying something, or just licensing the right to access something? In what sense do readers “own” their e-books? The truth of the matter seems to be — not that much. Amazon tells you “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider”. Perhaps if you buy an e-book direct from a publisher and plan to read it on your desktop computer without the help of any e-reading device, maybe then you may own something, but probably not. So are we really only licensing access? Probably, and unless you get into one of the rare situations where this does matter, this situation is pretty irrelevant to most readers. Motherboard‘s 2013 story reminds us of the sort of situations which can disrupt your “ownership” of your e-books.

It may mean little to readers, but to authors this all might mean a lot: Copylaw (via The Passive Voice) has an interesting piece on a class-action suit against Simon & Schuster claiming that e-book sales are not sales but licensing deals. As a licensed “sale” the royalty due the author would be 50%, not the lower royalty due on a sale in the traditional sense. This promises to make for an interesting discussion. Of course all that’ll happen in the long run is that publishers will change the wording of their contracts to redefine e-book sales as e-book licenses, and allocate to them a royalty lower than the 50% for other licensed and sub-rights sales. Still, if they succeed in their suit, authors may get a little temporary boost in income.

The negotiation of contracts remains an uneven contest: whoever has more power controls the outcome. It remains the case that publishers tend to have more power than individual authors. Of course, many best-selling authors have enough sales power behind them that they can push for more favorable terms. But this has little to do with this current lawsuit. Powerful authors are no doubt already able to get the royalty they want for their e-books. Will this tip the scales towards self publishing? Maybe a bit, but the arguments in favor of going with a traditional publisher remain what the have always been, and are unaffected by this sale/license discussion. Of course anything which frames the discussion in terms of conflict between authors and publishers cannot be helpful for the publishing industry. In reality their interests are aligned: the more books and e-books we sell the better both parties do.

0,,18083756_303,00Rainer Traube made this photo-essay for the German site dw. He sounds a bit pessimistic, but his photos seem to me to work in the opposite direction.

“If I had been someone not very clever, I would have done an easier job like publishing. That’s the easiest job I can think of.” Thus A. J. Ayer, showing becoming modesty, as reported by The Passive Voice. OK, Sir Freddie, we’d probably have been glad to have had a clever boy like you, but I dare say the world’s a better place because you decided to devote your life to wrestling with philosophy.

In so far as the gears of his mind were fully engaged when he made this comment, Professor Ayer would no doubt have been thinking of a job as editor, not anything as non-Eton & Christ Church as sales rep, warehouse worker, or accounts clerk. Whenever non-publishing people think about publishing they think of an editor — reading and shaping great books, taking Nobel-prize-winning authors out to lunch, going to sophisticated launch parties. It’s all so wonderful — who, given a decent education and a lively mind, wouldn’t want to do that? Getting paid to read books! I can remember chortling this to my self in my early days — and it still remains to me a wonderful feature of the job, even though one has to confess that most of the books weren’t really all that good. Still, I feel grateful to have read them: if I hadn’t been paid to do it, there’s no way I’d have read most of them. My mind is overstuffed with esoteric trivia.

But what, beyond being not very clever, are the qualities called for in the aspiring publisher? I do think Professor Ayer, though he might have been politer to have bitten his tongue, was basically not all that wrong. Really smart people are probably going to end up with more “important jobs”; Professor of Philosophy, Prime Minister, CEO of Apple; whatever; but someone with an open mind and the gift of curiosity could do worse than getting into publishing. Probably the basic requirement, after the required indifference to remuneration, is a desire to be involved in books. I almost wrote “culture”, but that’s too wide a label. Working for a museum of fine arts at one end of the scale and being in the movie business at the other are wildly different types of life, neither nearly as attractive, to me anyway, as book publishing. In academic publishing, which was, is, and will remain the most important end of the business, it often looked as if many of my colleagues were aspiring academics who’d given up the grind. No doubt Professor Ayer would have agreed. But I think that characterization is far too harsh. An academic publisher has a vicarious involvement in academic research, facilitating its dissemination, but isn’t tied down by the detail of actually having to do the research, which can make so much of academic life appear rather stultifying. We pick up the nectar and assess its quality before getting the drones to turn it into salable honey. Our butterfly minds then flit off to another academic flower. Involved in serious academic thinking, with the reality anchor of an involvement in a profit-generating business, the publisher gets the best of two worlds while usually avoiding the bad bits of both.

Don’t tell everyone, but it really is the easiest job, if only because it’s such fun.

The other day I suggested that maybe selecting which books to publish might just be the only remaining function that we could use to define a publisher.

Now a couple of weeks later, via The Passive Voice, comes news of the impending publication of the first book selected for publication by an algorithm. “Inkitt,* the company responsible for discovering the novel, is an online writing platform where ‘budding authors’ share their work with ‘inquisitive readers’. It relies on an ‘artificially intelligent’ algorithm to bring the two together with the purpose of uncovering ‘blockbuster books’.” Publishing Perspectives also has the story. Algorithm drives selection perhaps, but least the writers are (we assume) humans, though as discussed last year, this isn’t an altogether reliable assumption any longer.

Perhaps our destiny is merely to facilitate the reading of books by machines. These will be books conceptualized by machines, written by machines, edited and produced by machines, and curated by machines. And dare we hope, enjoyed by machines. Relax and enjoy it, proles.


* A matter of boring detail: this is all being presented as much more radical and earth-shattering than it actually seems to be. While Inkitt’s algorithm may be ever so clever, it doesn’t really seem to be doing what’s implied — i.e. reading the books and deciding which one of many to publish. It is bringing together writers and readers and using the readers’ reactions to quantify which book may be a potential blockbuster.

Simpler digital methods of selection have long been enshrined in analog human practice: grip a pin between your digits and plunge it at random into a telephone directory, and lo and behold you’ve located a “character”.

Agency pricing is “a term for a new way of setting e-book prices that came about as Apple prepared to introduce its iPad in 2010. Under the traditional ‘wholesale’ pricing model, publishers had long charged booksellers around half the cover price of a book, leaving booksellers to discount the books if they wanted.” Thus The Wall Street Journal in April 2102 when the battle over e-book pricing was thick and heavy. Under agency pricing the retailer is rewarded for making the sale by receiving a fee from the originator. The traditional wholesale pricing model differs fundamentally in that retailers actually buy the product from the publisher at a discounted price, and then sell it on to readers, usually at full price, but at a discounted price if they so choose. Under agency terms the bookstore doesn’t take ownership of the product, and thus doesn’t have the freedom to alter the price deal when making the final sale.

Now, one reason why agency terms make good sense in the e-book world is that with an e-book there isn’t really any thing which can be sold to a retailer. Over the years we had evolved a trade system where publishers sold their (printed) books at a discount to middlemen, either retailers or wholesalers. The retailers would sell the book to the customer at the full price, and bank the discount as their operating margin. Occasionally retailers might offer books at a discount, but rarely a discount greater than the one they had received from the publisher. After all you have to make some margin if you want to stay in business. Barnes & Noble, say, can order 100 copies of the hardback of The Girl on the Train, and here come cartons containing 100 books bang into their warehouses, along with an invoice which eventually they’ll have to pay. In theory bookstores are sharing the inventory-cost risk with publishers when they order and pay for stock of a physical book. (Of course, the fact that publishers allow them to return unsold stock for full credit mitigates that risk almost entirely.) But clearly e-books are different: B&N can’t order 100 copies of the The Girl on the Train e-book in the same way, nor would they want/need to. The sale is made by granting access to a file after they have got a customer, and a retailer has no need to hold any stock of e-book files — if such a concept had any real meaning. It seems entirely appropriate that e-books should be sold under different terms than p-books.

Prior to the “invention” of agency pricing, Amazon would buy e-books from publishers under the usual wholesale discount terms and set its own price, often selling Kindle books at considerably less than it paid the publisher for them. Book publishers had two contradictory fears about this pricing strategy. On the one hand they worried that book buyers would become conditioned to very low prices for books; on the other hand though they also feared that, having priced the competition out of the market, Amazon might eventually feel free to increase prices to whatever level it wanted. Publishers have always been the ones to fix the prices for their books: seeing Amazon grab that power from them did not sit well.

The agency model is based on the conceit that the publisher of a book is selling to the reader and, therefore, setting the price, and any agent facilitating that sale is being paid a commission from the publisher for doing so. One might argue that previously Amazon effectively wanted to license the ebooks in its Kindle program, control their content, and set their prices. From the book publishing industry point-of-view Amazon was behaving as if it wanted to be the publisher, not a distributor or seller. Amazon is such a dominant force in the book retail market, that any negotiation with publishers tends to feel rather one-sided: but publishers show no signs of being ready to become mere content providers rather than publishers. The “conspiracy” with Apple by the “big five/six” publishers, was in effect an attempt to set up another outlet big enough to counter the quasi-monopoly that the Kindle threatened to become. Under the agency pricing model which the publishers sought to implement publishers would probably have made less money, Amazon would have made more, and the customer would have had to pay a higher price (which is what precipitated the Department of Justice’s action). The hope of publishers was that raising the margins on e-books would encourage competition and encourage other e-book outlets to flourish and grow. This is not an altogether wicked thing to have done — the trouble was that it required the customer to pay more, not something you are allowed to “conspire” to do.

The revised arrangements for agency pricing appear to be working out, though the commentariat remains gob-smacked that publishers look like they have shot themselves in the foot now that we see declining unit sales of e-books. But do the mathematics guys: 70% of x compared with 50% of y: solve for various sales quantities.