Archives for the month of: May, 2016

ChghANOWwAEBYFUAccording to a tweet from Sophie Reinders, this account book from the House of Borghese weighs 60 kilograms. It is housed in the Vatican Archives. Thank you Erik Kwakkel for retweeting.

I guess one shouldn’t really complain that it’s mousetrapping.


The magazine and newspaper businesses are further down the digital path than are we book publishers. (Of course, just because there is such a path doesn’t mean that all businesses are going to have to progress all the way along it. Different businesses will doubtless have different outcomes.) Talking New Media tells us Lessons can be learned from ‘the old days’ of print publishing in the magazine business. (Link via Publishing Executive Insight.) Well maybe. The main lesson seems to be that management are all ignoramuses. I’ll bet that nobody working in any business hasn’t said (or at least thought) this at one time or another. And of course, until they have the blind luck to hit on the perfect strategy, all managers will tend to look like they are flailing about in the dark — as of course they are. Mr Hebbard reveals that the way forward is to follow the money. It doesn’t matter if it’s an e-book or a p-book, the important thing is to separate readers from their cash.

I guess that may count as a lesson learned, but it’s not really a media-specific idea. We can’t help thinking that other types of media should have lessons for us. We all know about the music business — prematurely written off by the commentariat, and the gaming business, which just because it sells strongly is held up as a model to us. From time to time we’ve tried to learn from newspapers and get advertising for the blank pages at the back of our books. It always seems to collapse into adverts for other similar books from our own backlist. Must just be the wrong lesson. In fact books have less in common with newspapers, music videos, and digital games than they do with many non-media products. Few people need another handbag; few people need another book — you can always read one you’ve owned for years, borrow a copy from a friend, or go on the waiting list at the library. But handbags and books get sold. The Economist recently did a piece on the piano business, and it struck me as having more in common with book publishing than do many of the industries we are often compared with. I’d not be altogether amazed if the future of the book business were not rather similar to the course of the piano business. For years Steinway have dominated the industry — almost all concert grands are Steinways. Bösendorfer, an Austrian manufacturer was recently taken over by Yamaha, who pretty much own the lower-price end of the market. In 1980 an Italian company was founded by Paolo Fazioli dedicated to making the best possible pianos. Fazioli pianos sell in the range of $200,000, rather more than Steinway’s, whose cheapest piano will cost you a mere $63,000. Mr Fazioli’s pianos have to be preordered; they are custom made for every buyer, and you have to wait about six months to get one. “Fazioli pianos have a clear, bell-like presence and an even line of sound” says Stephen Carter of Juilliard School which owns 275 Steinway pianos, more than anyone else in the world. They have one Fazioli and have two more on order The Economist tells us. Now books are different of course, but like pianos they’ll always be in demand, and people will be willing to pay a premium to get a good one.

Among all the doom and gloom about magazines we can see signs of change. What’s happening to them is an unexpected growth of specialized titles appealing to smaller audiences than the older business was accustomed to. It’s harder to make money selling fewer copies of course, but just because it’s no longer easy, it doesn’t mean it’s a disaster.

Sure books are a media format, but only part of our business is a mass media business. Even if trade publishing were to be drowned out by other entertainment media and disappear, books will still be published, and dare I suggest printed.

The Digital Reader provides instructions on how to get a variety of typefaces for your e-reader.

220px-ComicSansSpec3.svgTo me, if you are worrying about the typeface it is set in, the book you are reading probably isn’t really holding your attention. I dare say War and Peace in Comic Sans* might be a trial, though I still can’t believe it would actually stop anyone reading. If you can put up with wildly varying word space, forced in so that every line ends up aligned left and right, sometimes with letter space too, surely the actual form of the letters must be as nothing to you. Of course there are people who just love to play around with their devices almost to prove that they can “defeat” them. So if you want an alternative look, here you go.


*Because of the prominence of this illustration of Microsoft’s Comic Sans, I should perhaps point out that Comic Sans is NOT one of the faces The Digital Reader is proposing you might download for your e-reading device.

(See also Design of e-books.)

CeOlWLqW4AEtW0ZIf you sell millions you’ll get thousands back as returns. The problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is slightly different though: I guess many buyers decided they didn’t want to keep this opus as part of their permanent collection, so have donated their copy to charity. So many have been thus disposed of that there’s no market — they can’t even pay people to take them away (well, they probably could, ‘cos all the punters would have to do is walk along to the next charity shop and donate it again) but apparently nobody needs to buy a second-hand copy now. (Paradoxically new copies continue to sell.)

Here’s how one Oxfam shop in Swansea, South Wales dealt with their oversupply.

Well, it stands for the World Wide Web Consortium, and of course it has a website. Tim Berners-Lee is its director. W3C’s mission is to establish open standards on the web.

Here’s a piece by Liz Daly who is involved in trying to establish standards for web displays. The thing about standards is that until they become second nature to us all, standards are excruciatingly boring to most people in publishing. But thank goodness that there are people who love to get into this gritty detail: in the end we are all the gainers. I’ve no idea whether we had intense debates back when as to how a footnote should be indicated, but I expect we did. Maybe people would argue that a dot below the line would be better than an asterisk, or that a number preceding the word would be clearer, or bolding the word could indicate the existence of a note, or putting the note in the margin right next to the reference would be most convenient. One knows that one of the rules of human interaction is that the more trivial the point at issue, the more frantic and partisan the debaters will become. If any such knock-down-drag-out arguments did actually take place they would have been between scribes, as the system appears to have been sorted out before Gutenberg’s invention got going. Erik Kwakkel covers this history in his post: The Medieval origins of the modern footnote.

Now, via Digital Book World, comes news of W3C’s exploring a merger with the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum). “We share an exciting vision for W3C and IDPF to fully align the publishing industry and core Web technology,” said Berners-Lee. “This will create a rich media environment for digital publishing that opens up new possibilities for readers, authors, and publishers.” Can’t argue against that.

11879313-Pallet-A-CEN-EURO-pallet-on-white-Backgound-Part-of-Warehouse-series--Stock-PhotoA pallet is that wooden platform thing on which your books are delivered to the warehouse. It has wooden slats top and bottom. The ones without a bottom layer of slats are properly called skids.



A pallet is a tool used in hand bookbinding. It provides a rule, often decorated, which can be stamped onto the spine. It can be straight, as in this picture, or curved so that the design can be “rolled” into the material. Pallets are also used by potters.



A pallet, lest we forget, is a straw mattress too. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a pallet is also a piece of armor for the head (a helmet), a small vessel used to catch blood in bloodletting, a vertical stripe on a shield, and a color between red and white. Quite a busy word.

We rarely think about it now: they are always there. Books have page numbers. If they didn’t we’d have difficulty navigating around in them. Obviously an index without page numbers would at best be a minor help (“just after the middle” isn’t a wildly helpful locator). The convention that odd numbers fall on rectos and even ones on versos is almost universally followed. Starting at page 1 and numbering onward is common, but the more academic a book becomes the more likely it is to acquire two sequences of page numbers: lower case Roman numbers for the front matter, and Arabic numerals for the rest of the book. Nowadays we often find books with more number sequences: the index, the bibliography, notes, appendixes and other back matter elements are sometimes given their own pagination sequences. This is often the case in textbooks, and enables extra, late arriving material to be inserted into the book before the back matter without the delay and cost of repaginating the remainder of the book.

Naomi S. Baron’s piece in Slate’s Lexicon Valley tells us about the origin of page numbers. It is an adaptation from her Oxford University Press book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Linked via The Digital Reader)

Apparently only about 10% of manuscript books in 1450 had page numbering of any type. Professor Baron hypothesizes that the page numbers became common as a guide to printers. It is true that when we would send a job to the printer we included a “layout” detailing the pagination of the different elements of the book: it might look like this:

i half title
ii blank
iii title
iv copyright page
v-vii Contents
viii blank
ix-xi Preface
xii blank
1-237 Text
238 blank
239-246 bibliography
247-251 index
252-258 blanks
Total = 272

Clearly the absence of page numbers would make this task much harder.

Professor Baron reports that many of her students have stopped adding page numbers to the papers which they submit to her, and attributes this to their familiarity with the web where page numbers are less common — it’s easier to use “Find” than to wrestle with a location indicator when you’re on-line. I am struggling to remember if I would add page numbers on the essays I had to write when I was an undergraduate. In those days we had to write by hand, so any testimony I could give would probably be irrelevant anyway, as pertaining to the manuscript tradition. But the idea that page numbers are perhaps a fleeting phenomenon, nearing the end of their 500 year life span, is perhaps not altogether ridiculous.

Digital Book World, under a rather silly headline, has an interesting story about our reading habits. They report, in tones of gloom that users (which presumably means all users of media — i.e. almost everyone) spend 19 minutes every day reading. As they have already assured us that we amazingly spend 31 hours a day interacting with our media — the trick is apparently multi-tasking — that makes these 19 minutes magically turn into almost 25 minutes a day “devoted” to reading, though the reading may of course be accompanied by television watching, or e-mailing, or texting, or whatever at the same time. Even 19 minutes doesn’t sound Armageddonish to me — if the report is really true (and of course no one among us would really want to put too much weight on these numbers) this represents quite a bit of reading; much more than I’d have expected for your average American. The amazing number, to me, is more than five hours a day watching video — no wonder people find it hard to find time to exercise! The unusual feature of the piece is Mr Shoup’s non-apocalyptic tone: he answers his question, is this the end of publishing, thus: “The answer is, simply, no, because one thing has remained constant for humans over time: the desire for a great narrative.” His main aim is to examine what publishing can do to elbow more minutes out of competing media.

Now, nobody should pooh-pooh ideas about extending readership for our books. But we are not in any zero-sum race with other media formats. There will always be people who want to watch TV or play games rather than read a story, just as there are others (fewer I dare say) who’d rather do the opposite. And always have been. James I (IV of Scotland), a not altogether lousy poet, preferred to go a-hunting rather than to sit at home reading, well-read though he was. The success of the book publishing industry is not dependent on being bigger and better than any other media segment: we just need to be able to sell sufficient copies to cover our costs and yield enough margin for that to be an incentive to keep on doing so. This makes Mr Shoup’s worrying about how to make reading “relevant to today’s consumers” rather beside the point. As the population grows all the time, all we need to pray for is that the proportion of book readers in the population doesn’t decline. Personally I don’t see any reason to think that’s happening: it was never a huge proportion anyway.

Mr Shoup may be over-claiming though when he avers that “the revolution that occurred when Gutenberg invented the printing press . . . changed the way stories were told.” I believe that at the outset printers were pretty conservative, trying to mimic as closely as possible the “quality” perceived to exist in the manuscripts which had up until then been the norm. It didn’t change the way stories were told: it did change the way stories were distributed. Of course new literary genres were born and benefitted from printing’s ability to get them affordably into the hands of an increasing number of readers, but I really don’t think we could claim that, say, the novel was invented because of the printing press.

In the olden days we publishing people used to say we shouldn’t get into retail sales because we owed it to the bookshops to direct all business their way. Now that the bricks-and-mortar bookselling business is in crisis we apparently feel it’s fine to pile it on and kick them while they’re down.

This is provoked by The Digital Reader‘s piece laying into HarperCollins after their announcement that they are transferring their retail, direct-to-consumer site to Bookshout.

I want to take issue with the assumptions behind both of these paragraphs.

It’s true that once upon a time we did stay clear of retail because we knew that the proper division of labor was “we create the books; they sell them”. That business model had evolved over a couple of centuries and had the advantage that we all knew where we stood. There were always occasional exceptions: a bookshop which arranged to have a local interest book printed, or a publisher who’d retail this or that product. One of my responsibilities in my first job in publishing was, among many other things, our retail sales. We would sell direct to the public items which were too boring for bookshops to bother with. These were mainly University publications: Statutes and Ordinances, Members List, Exam papers, and most sexily the University Diary. Several things have happened to make this division of labor redundant: a reduction in the number of bookshops (caused no doubt, at least in part, by the following), the invention of the Internet and Amazon’s development of a killer retail system, the development of digital printing, the growth of e-books, an explosion of out-sourcing, the escalation of rents and other costs. Publishers are not trying to get into retail sales nowadays as a means of oppressing the independent bookshop. They are doing it in response to Amazon, whose size gives it power which threatens the very existence of the publishing industry. Publishers have moved on from their paternalistic attitude towards bookstores, and are now flailing out against the common “enemy”. The fact that the flailing may knock out the occasional bookseller is seen as unfortunate — but, of course, collateral damage happens. We didn’t mean to bomb you, Médecins sans frontières. The fact that we did so is an unfortunate side effect of our noble struggle. Now of course this doesn’t make it OK; but in desperate times we all do desperate things.

HarperCollins may well have had a lousy website, as The Digital Reader suggests, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong to try to sell their books direct to the reader, or that the failure of their site means that all our industry’s efforts are over. In fact if their site was that bad, I’d see that as grounds for optimism. If a lousy site failed, might not a good one succeed? In fact there are many publishers who are able to direct-sell their books very well. Some can count on retail standing orders which take care of up to a quarter of their first printing quantity. There are lots of things that have to be done in making a retail sale which are almost invisible when you are dealing with bulk sales to a wholesaler or retailer. But to make up for that extra effort (cost) there’s the 50% or so discount which you’d have had to give to Amazon. Small scale may help here: giant publishers have giant investments in the infrastructure devoted to scaling out books in the way we’ve always done it, and switching from carton-based logistics to one-off distribution can be wrenching. The fact that as an industry we have “failed to address the remainder issue” seems utterly irrelevant in this context. Does The Digital Reader perhaps mean returns, rather than remainders? With the ability to print shorter and shorter runs gifted to us by the digital printing fairy, remainders are hardly the problem they used to be. They’ll never go away — we manufacture lots of book intentionally for the remainder table. As long as there are bricks-and-mortar bookstores, there’ll be reminder tables. People love the idea of a bargain. In effect it’s just another sales channel. Returns are an intractable problem: everyone would like to stop them but nobody can afford to be the first mover.

Amazon’s site is of course wonderfully efficient and nobody can realistically expect to compete with them and win. But total victory isn’t essential. Selling some of your books direct to customers at a small discount doesn’t have to be your only revenue stream. It’s just the jam. I wonder if Amazon really want to keep on controlling book retailing — I bet they have other better businesses they prefer, like cloud services, and general retailing. Of course Amazon could fight publishers on direct-to-consumer sales, refusing to sell the books of publishers who compete with them, but this doesn’t seem in any way certain to happen, and is contrary to their “the customer is always right” rhetoric. (Though they have of course taken down sell buttons before this.)

A couple of years ago I did a post on crewing mustie books, a charming acronymic coinage meaning the throwing out of dead books. Now The New Yorker, via The Passive Voice, brings us a story on the subject.

IMG_0388We all tend to feel uneasy about destroying a book. Getting rid of 40,000 of them from the Berkeley, CA public library sounds appalling, but of course we need to consider the individual books in question, not to mention the space needed to keep on storing them. A few of the millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t really affect anybody. One suspects the world can go on quite happily without Be bold with bananas (See Awful Library Books, below). Biological anthropology and aging by Crews and Garruto might well contain important material for researchers, but one can see why this library withdrew the book — one reader in maybe 15 years! Still, of course, if it was an academic library, one might reasonably anticipate that they would keep such material. I think that even outdated books can contain important information. It may well be that biological anthropological research into aging has made vast strides in the last 20 years, but isn’t it maybe important to know what the state of knowledge was back then? I guess the Library of Congress can be relied on, but this sort of stuff is unlikely to make it as an e-book, so archival copies are important. The book has been scanned by Google Books, but Google isn’t of course allowed to share anything more than snippets with us!

Awful Library Books is an amusing site which displays many weeds. Some of them do look pretty awful, and surely every library doesn’t need to keep a copy. Still, it might be useful to someone — a future biographer? — to have a superannuated 1976 life of Carol Burnett for kids. I still give proud shelf space to a 1993 school library biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, which I expect to provide valuable insights into the mind of our next president. (I do also keep it as an example of how school library books were bound in accordance to industry standards, it’s true.)