Archives for the month of: June, 2016

In Lost books, a couple of days ago, I expressed an insane desire to keep a digital copy of every book ever written. What now to make of the Memory of Mankind project which aims to put all our information onto indestructible ceramic tiles which are being stored in a salt mine at Hallstatt in Austria? I’m not sure I altogether buy their initial justification for the project “We have used writing for over 5,000 years. Some of these writings are preserved, enabling us to create a reconstruction of our history. Unfortunately, we now live in an age which will leave hardly any written traces.” I have to ask myself — when was that fortunate age in which more than “hardly any written traces” were preserved? Preservation has always been a chancy business: remember the burning of the library at Alexandria. How many of the immortally fascinating letters I wrote home from boarding school have found their way into “the archive”? Mercifully, none; though I do have one letter to Santa which they can have. A cardboard box with many of the idiotic essays I wrote at university may still be lurking in the attic of a house I once owned, though more likely the intervening years have led to their well-deserved destruction. I have a couple of scraps of my mother’s handwriting: a diary for one year only with terse one-line entries on a few days — preserved no doubt because it includes her first date with my father. Hardly the stuff to get the future historian’s juices flowing — though taped inside an old suitcase, the list of items taken by sister on a summer holiday might be more interesting to posterity.

No doubt lots of important stuff is there in the salt mines, though the come-on makes one a little dubious. And don’t worry about future space travelers being unable to read English or German: there are helpful vocabulary tiles providing a key to all languages. (Oh, come on!) Serious readers will be inspired by the knowledge that in order to preserve our literary heritage Memory of Mankind plans to ceramify the best 1,000 books of all time! This bibliographic initiative is named Cassiodor 2016, because “Cassiodor, a south-italian senator, realized during the 6th century, that its high time to collect any antique codices he could get hold on, otherwise everything would have been lost.” (We’d recognize him more readily as Cassidorus.) “To achieve this we look for a bibliophilic sponsor, who himself will be regarded as the ‘Cassiodor of the 21st Century’. Please get into contact with us.” So now you know what to do with that million you couldn’t find any way to spend.

This hare was started by the BBC’s program, Click.

Link via The Digital Reader

Mental Floss has compiled a list of books unlikely ever to be reprinted (or issued as e-books). Some of these look like they certainly could be financially worth making available (if Sex by Madonna is really the most sought after OP book, I can’t believe it’ll remain unavailable for ever — unless the maturing author wants us all to forget that she was ever interested in the topic), while others will no doubt remain unavailable for one good reason or another. The head of Oxford University Press got into a public kerfuffle when he opined a few years back that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would probably never be printed. (He was expressing an opinion, not promulgating a policy.)

While our technologies do offer us the possibility of bringing every book ever written back into print, there must be any number of examples of books for which there’s really no point in making the small investment needed to scan and set up. If your book had been in one of the university libraries which Google scanned a few years back, it would have some electronic existence even if nobody could currently access it. This must cover quite a lot of books, but of course a tiny minority of all the books ever published.

One has to acknowledge that there are many books such as guides to things that no longer exist, which may well have sold well in their day, but which the world just has no need for any longer. Remember the days when any computer program came with a substantial guide packed in the box with it: those kept lots of presses running. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wang Word-Processors would be unlikely to wash its face nowadays (if indeed it ever existed). Many academics shrink from the idea of reissuing books written in their naïve youth; books containing perhaps opinions and judgements which make their authors blush in their later years. Still, if everything were always available, and everyone’s early indiscretions were perpetually on-line, wouldn’t that remove the need for embarrassment? Professor X’s youthful enthusiasm for Wang word processors might appeal to few nowadays.

Yet part of me wants all these useless old books to be preserved. You never know. For the first time ever we have the capability of making a permanent (or nearly permanent as long we constantly update the technology hosting it) record of everything ever written. The only real thing standing in the way of our achieving this is the cost of scanning. Problems of permission from authors or their heirs who refuse to be located are just a temporary hiccough — eventually everything falls into the public domain, even The Authorized (King James) version of the Bible in England, perpetual copyright in which will be expiring in 2039 by virtue of a law passed in 1988. We assume, don’t we, that the cost of every computer-related thing will drop in a sort of Moore’s-law-driven evolution, so scanning may cost less eventually. Of course someone has to locate the object, and get it to that new fabulous robot scanner, and that will always prove a barrier. If we’d get our minds straight and allow more scanning of more libraries by Goole-Books-like projects, surely we’d get there quite quickly. An easy first step would be to get libraries to stop discarding books, and insist that they be sent to The Digital Public Library for them to make an electronic copy. But of course that gets us back to costs and funding.

How can this have happened? Total political failure — don’t ever ask a question you don’t know the answer to; and when you make an argument base it on reason not emotion. Resignation seems too mild a fate for the man responsible for not only the break up of Europe but the possible demise of the United Kingdom.

Philip Jones gives the publishing reaction at The Bookseller blog. In the narrowest of terms the effect on publishing will probably not be massive: less than the effect of more fundamental changes which have been under way for several years now. Still it does seem that all publishing people, all intellectuals, and all Scots didn’t want this result. I saw a Tweet suggesting that the Mayor of London was looking into joining Scotland in seeking continued EU membership. Can we see London as the Nagorno-Karabakh of a new European Scotland?

The EU is two things: a customs union sort of thingy on the one hand, and a beautiful dream on the other. Now let’s be real: the beautiful dream bit has been looking rather frayed at the edges, and may already have been moribund. The economic aspects, while no doubt troublesome in the short term, are probably going to get chewed up and lost-sight-of in the welter of world economic changes which the future no doubt has in store for all of us. Reassuringly the Premier League has refused to speculate on the effect of Brexit on England’s footballing prospects: but lots of work permits are going to be needed.

While I am devastated by this decision, I have to reflect that often our worst fears turn out to have been exaggerated. Events have a way of taking over.

Erik Kwakkel, invaluable medieval book person, has been measuring the proportion of the page occupied by the text in medieval books and finds it to come out around 50% — generous by today’s more cheese-paring standards. His post at Medieval Books shows several examples. Nowadays we often see around 70% in trade paperbacks and our most generous designs seem to get down to 55% or so.

One of the surprising features of these numbers is how high the trade paperback number looks. But the number is misleading. 70% sounds like the type must be really packed onto the page — but the example below, which is at about 70%, doesn’t really look too bad. Maybe we have just become conditioned to less white paper surrounding our type.


One reason for the larger margins in medieval books was to allow marginal annotation. Erik Kwakkel also attributes it to conservatism: it had just always been like that. Another might have been the knowledge that, as very valuable objects books would be kept for years and rebound over and over again. Every time the book was rebound a small amount of the margin would be lost.

On margin proportions see also Margins.


When was censorship at its worst (or best if you are a censor)? In 1840s Russia there were allegedly more censors than there were books published. The Spanish inquisition might be an answer, referencing Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But the correct answer may actually be today. Apparently there are 2 million censors at work in China controlling Internet information. Edward Snowden has familiarized us with the idea that our own ideas are potentially subject to censorship. We all thought, didn’t we that the Internet was the dawn of an era of unprecedented information availability? Sounds like we were a bit off, as this chilling piece from The Atlantic tells us.

Rude books used to be censored everywhere — quite a contrast with today’s Internet porno overflow. “We” used to be confident that “we” knew what was bad for others less educated than ourselves, and “we” took steps to ensure “they” shouldn’t be corrupted by seeing such frankness. What broke it all up in America was the case of Ulysses. This Mental Floss piece tells the fascinating story of the smuggling in 1933 of a copy (cunningly supplemented with laudatory critical reviews) on the Aquitania. Bennett Cerf, of Random House, wanted this copy to be confiscated by customs agents, because the only evidence you could bring to court was the actual confiscated copy of the book in question. By filling it with positive criticism, they were able to get that material into court too.

In Britain the breakdown came later, in 1960 with the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, undeniably priapic and far from D. H. Lawrence’s best. Even this didn’t completely clear the floor. It wasn’t till 1967 in the case of Last Exit to Brooklyn that the law finally moved far enough that all official censorship of obscenity was removed. It was only then for instance that the archaic system of all play scripts having to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain ended. It was fairly well into my working life that our printing works could first be persuaded to typeset the “f” word — not that this was a demand we, as academic publishers, would place on them with any frequency!

Now, whether the unleashing of obscenity was a good thing or not can of course still be debated. Personally I am content to be have the bedroom door  firmly closed against me in the novels that I read, and to some extent I think this impulse is part of the explanation for the popularity these days of YA (Young Adult) fiction among an adult readership. Still, whether I dislike it or not, I’d like to think I’d fight to a considerable length (probably not death) for the author’s right to write like that. It is however an unfortunate consequence of these changes that many a young author is nowadays encouraged by editors to sex up his/her book in order supposedly to ease its path into the bestseller lists. On the other hand, protecting readers (or students) from material “we” believe may be bad for them can’t ever be a good idea. People just have to go out and think about stuff for themselves. Observer—Innovation has a piece on this.

Slightly worse than suppression is the modern fashion of shooting people who’s opinions you disagree with. Tom Stoppard speaks out about this at Nashoba Publishing. While the coincidence of views on restricting access to many books, and the right to bear arms is not prefect, they are both views which tend to be held by the extreme right, by those who ultimately crave the feeling of safety brought by a strong father figure. Banned Books Week represents a small shout of protest.


Infographic from the Simply Novel Teachers Blog via GalleyCat


I suppose we at least have to acknowledge that it is a possibility that publishing may become a totally on-line business. But such a “totally on-line” business would still do boring analog things like printing books, magazines, and newspapers. Annoyingly for the commentariat many people still seem to want these things.

It always boils down to definition of terms: does the fact that most publishers have completely digital work flows and print digitally make them digital businesses? Most of their products are sold on-line, whether they arrive as a UPS carton or a file. Orders and payments flash back and forth via EDI. Data gathering and analysis, while still inconsistently applied, are at least now acknowledged to be “a good thing”. Of course any totally on-line business has a physical aspect or two, at least cups of Starbucks and Chinese takeout. (Did you know that those square waxed paper containers with a little metal carrying handle are designed to fold out to make a plate?)

Publishing Executive addresses the implications of Microsoft’s take-over of LinkedIn in this short piece by Ellen Harvey. So much of what taker-overers say about their acquisitions is of course merely aspirational. Microsoft, for so long an ex-golden-touch company, may just be wrong in their hopes for LinkedIn as a publishing platform. On the other hand, with the right touch (and enough money) why not? It’s probably not enough to aim for “more user-friendly content experiences” though. We keep seeing articles proclaiming Facebook as the next mega publisher. So what? If that’s what people end up wanting, why shouldn’t they? Hidden behind these statements (often not so very hidden either) is the implication that this or that development will spell the end of publishing as we know it. At an idiot level, which many of these commentators seem to struggle to rise above, “anything as we know it” is “doomed” to come to an end. But that doesn’t mean that people and organizations are incapable of adjustment to new circumstances. With determination you can see 225 different species of dinosaur in Central Park. We just call them birds nowadays.

This fallen horse has surely put up with enough beating. We are all pretty much agreed that we now live in a e-book plus p-book world. Nevertheless I link you to this story from LitHub because it’s rather nice. Reading hardbacks in the subway is often quite difficult as you stand rattling about, flailing out your free hand to regain your balance only to realize you don’t actually have a hand free. It takes some serious commitment therefore to insist on always traveling with a duffle bag-full of hardbacks.

Commenting on the story, The Digital Reader agrees that vinyl : mp3 :: hardback : e-book. I think he wanders off point a bit when he tells us multi-format music collecting is all about the content. Doesn’t Mr Israel tell us about his three separate “editions” of On Michael Jackson: surely he’s all about content too, or about content plus maybe.

That the future book market will be shared by e-books and paperbacks seems entirely possible, with the hardback providing the de luxe option for the bibliophilic dilettanti among us.

I didn’t really know the difference. They are words you hear. You don’t really know exactly what they mean. This doesn’t much matter. You rarely have to use them.  Writerly Life makes it all crystal clear. I’m writing this paratactically. It is quite hard.

Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publications, Inc. recently lost a case charging Georgia State University with copyright infringement in the matter of digital copy reserves for class study. The plaintiffs allege that GSU administrators systematically encouraged faculty to offer unlicensed digital copies to students as a no-cost alternative to traditionally licensed course-packs. Having appealed, the publishers have lost again, as Publishers Weekly reports. The publishers are reviewing options, and may appeal, at least the damages awarded.

This seems to me a travesty — I base my view on the playground view of fairness rather than a strict application of the law, so of course I know before you object that I’m just wrong, wrong, wrong. But somehow the law has to be screwed up here. Can it really be that authors should go unremunerated for material they write which has the “misfortune” to be “adopted” for class use by a college? That just cannot be the intention of the copyright law. The situation has to be “merely” a consequence of badly drafted laws.

The law does clearly state that multiple copies for class use can be regarded as fair use, though such use would also have to pass the four factor test. (The relevant clause is quoted in my earlier post, linked to above.) Factor 1 is against the publishers, but it’s hard to see how digital reserves for class use could pass the fourth test: if publishers bring out a book for a class market, it’s surely going to affect the market if teachers are allowed to reserve an electronic text for the free use of all their students. Still, judgements don’t get made on the basis of one general factor: it’s detail and balance that the judge is seeking. If indeed the Court did argue that despite publishers mostly maintaining systems for licensing of paper excerpts, the fact that many do not have systems for licensing digital excerpts shows that there is no market for the licensing of digital excerpts, that just seems willfully dumb. What the situation suggests to anyone who has worked in publishing is that publishers have been slow to confront something which they regarded as a minor issue — criminally slow and arrogantly carefree. This omission is however surely not enough to justify making no payments to authors (and the publishers as their agents). Well, of course, in law it probably is. In the school playground though, no way.

We live in the world we live it: and in that world this judgement just isn’t fair. One could see a world in which it might be OK to use an author’s work free of charge for educational purposes: a world in which the system of remuneration for the work of compiling the material might be awarded differently. One could envisage a world in which students could attend university free of charge, and would be given the books, course-packs, and everything they needed for the learning process free of charge. It’s as easy as Bernie Sanders saying so. But of course such a world, however desirable, isn’t going to be a world in which university teachers work for free: it’d be a world in which we had worked out a way for the cost of tertiary eduction to be paid for from central government funds. We could of course have arguments about whether it was more important to get healthcare centralized like this before college education, or even a basic income which might collapse many government welfare programs into a single monthly payment to every adult not in full-time (free) education. The number of things we could ask our governments to fund for us is almost infinite: the resources the government has access to are not. So there would need to be action on the revenue side too. It does seem to me that there should in theory be enough out there to make something like this possible, but raising the tax just doesn’t seem politically feasible. The plan is all too radical for any non-revolutionary world we know of. Still, if authors were paid a fee, a stipend, an honorarium, a wage by central government, they could happily see their work distributed free to students. I’m not sure why the law courts should decide that in the absence of that tat, the tit of allowing students to use the product of their labor free of charge should be acceptable.


Not that it has any relevance in this discussion, but just in case some zealots are tempted to jump up and shout “But textbooks are ridiculously expensive. Publishers have been gouging us for years: it’s now payback time”, I will add that no doubt there are cases in which publishers have overcharged, or appear to have overcharged, but that this seems to present no reason to me for stealing the copyrighted work of an author (a different author too no doubt), however noble the use intended. (See also my earlier discussion of the expense of textbooks.)