Archives for the month of: July, 2016

I did post a video of this process before, but one can (I can) never get enough of this sort of thing — so here’s one from Florence.

The jaunty musical sound track may be a bit too much, but the end result, the peacock design, is worth waiting for. I can’t figure out how it is that the printed design doesn’t get smeared when it is dragged off at the end — maybe we are just not seeing exactly what’s happening.

See Stephen Fry build a wooden press using only technologies available in the 15th century, so that he can print one replica page of the Gutenberg Bible. This film is almost an hour long, but it is worth the time: he’s such a likable presenter.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Now while it is probably true that Gutenberg did indeed build (or arrange to have built) his own press in the way Stephen Fry’s collaborators do here, this was not Gutenberg’s invention. Printing presses existed before his day, so the idea of inspiration illuminating the Gutebergian mind as he visited a vineyard is a pleasant fiction. We knew fine how to build a printing press long before Gutenberg’s time. What Gutenberg did invent was the casting of single pieces of reusable metal type from which pages could be assembled and printed. That was a revolutionary efficiency gain and enabled an industry to take off: in spite of Mr Fry’s lyrical tributes, however, it was not the first time multiple identical copies had been available.

Stan Nelson, the type cutter and caster who appears in Stephen Fry’s film, was featured in my earlier posts, Punchcutting and Casting type by hand,where there  are videos looking at this, the true Gutenbergian breakthrough, in more detail.

Link to the Fry video via The Scholarly Kitchen.

There is no Frigate like a Book                                                                     To take us Lands away . . .

SHARP has been having a vigorous swapping session about books on ships. It wasn’t inspired by Emily Dickinson — it all got started by this article in The Washington Post about contemporary cruise ship libraries. In general it seems people view them as a good thing. ShipParade gives us a gallery of photos of their top 20 favorite libraries on cruise ships. You can’t of course tell about the bits you can’t see in the photo, but several of these libraries seem a bit short of books while heavy on comfort.

The Hathi Trust has a list of books required on U.S. military ships in 1918. Mostly relentlessly serious — The Almanach de Gotha? Unsurprisingly there are different lists for officers and crew. The crew get a lot more fiction; they obviously didn’t have to worry about how to address that unfortunate admiral they just fished out of the waves. Today’s navy continues to think about providing books: here’s a link to the Navy Libraries website.

Today’s BBC Assignment program reports on a secret library salvaged from the wreckage of Daraya in Syria which is under continuing siege by government forces. You can listen to the story at this link.

The library now has 14,000 books. They refuse to ban any books: “Censoring books just leads to ignorance”. As the librarian says “Just like the body needs food, the soul needs books”.

The library is used for education — local doctors use it to read up on treatments, but fighters also borrow books and read while on duty.


Wikipedia tells us that the wa means Japanese, and shi means paper. Washi was traditionally used to make shoji screens, paper lanterns and some items of clothing. Its long fibers makes it very strong, and it is often used in origami.

Here’s Keith Houston’s account of learning to make a washi paper at Chrissie Heughan’s studio in Edinburgh from his Shady Characters blog. She uses kobo bark mixed with some linen fibers.

In this post from Open Culture you’ll find a somewhat lyrical impression of making washi. However I think the video below, from the Sekishu-Banshi Craftsmen’s Association, gives a clearer impression of what’s going on.

One surprising feature is the way they stack the wet sheets and dry them off in one pile without absorbent separators. You’d think the individual sheets would stick together, but they obviously don’t. I guess the bark fibers are long and tough enough to keep their formation.


Data ConversionLab-Center for Information-Development Management survey ‘Following the Trends 2016 – Is Your Content Ready?’








For all that the pundits scream at us that the game’s all over and digital has won, it is interesting to note that Publishing Perspectives recently reported on a survey of publishers which found that “Twenty-eight percent told us they don’t know if they’re ready” for digital publishing and thirty percent know that they aren’t. Of course that same group of pundits will see this as proof that they are right when they say traditional publishing is dead. The link in their article to Publishers Weekly doesn’t work. This link will take you to Brain O’Leary’s piece which provides a bit of perspective on these data.

But maybe it’s just an indication that things are not as clear-cut as punditry appears to demand. I keep pointing out that as long as e-books represent less than 100% of book sales it’s premature to talk about the death of print. Whether there’s any long-term relevance to the current pause of e-book sales at around 30% of the total or not, the print book is clearly far from done for. That over 50% of publishers are less than sure whether they are fully ready for digital publishing tells its own story. Many of these are no doubt houses which have no intention of ever getting into non-print publication, whether on some sort of principle, or because their list just doesn’t work well electronically. If you think they are crazy — go ahead and think it. After all, if you are correct they will eventually disappear. If you are wrong, then you’re wrong.

This Publishing Perspectives article is really about remuneration rates. “Being a literary translator is no shortcut to riches” seems so blindingly obvious that one wonders if the words were really ever said. Heck, being an author is no shortcut to riches; are there really any such shortcuts? But I thought this graphic was interesting as an indication of which languages were the sources of German translators.


Iceland is in the ascendent these days. Maybe the BBC was right when it told us that 1 in 10 Icelanders will get a book published. Do they have writer training camps analogous to their encouragement of football?

I wonder what a pie-chart showing English translations would look like: no doubt different in USA and UK.

(“Sonstige” is what we’d call “Others”.)

When I originally did this post in November 2010 I didn’t make it crystal clear that this was actually a genuine letter written to a persistent complainer. Almost everywhere I have worked the odd-ball letters always seem to have ended up in my in-box: I guess people quickly find out my love of the odd-ball. I never heard back from this correspondent.

Dear Customer:

I am sorry that you have not had any response to your previous complaints about unsewn binding.

Unfortunately, nowadays it is only a minority of books which do actually get a sewn binding: and here I am referring to the entire universe of book publishing, not just our part of it.  In fact almost all the books which are sewn now are university press publications, and we do still make a few sewn bindings.  This change to unsewn binding is partly of course motivated by a need to economize, but it does also result from improvements in the quality of unsewn binding.  The adhesives used today are much stronger than those used years ago when unsewn bindings were first being used.  Paradoxically page-pull and flex tests show a sewn binding as the weakest type of binding, but this is only because the center two pages will tend to rip free of the sewing at values below those at which a glued book will fail.  Of course the rest of the pages are stronger, and the glued book only “wins” because the strength of every page is pretty much the same as every other.  But in the same sense as “the strength of the chain is the strength of the weakest link”, sewn bindings do test weaker than unsewn!

That is of course not to suggest that you are wrong to prefer that type of binding.  It is the way books were bound for centuries, and we should not abandon tradition lightly.  But there is also a technological reason driving us in this direction: in order to sew a book it has to be a book which has been printed in sections which can be folded to make a “signature” through the folded back of which sewing can be applied.  As the demand for books goes down, we cannot print sufficient quantities to be able to make books this way every time.  On many books the demand is so low that the only way they can be kept available is by digital printing.  With this technology we can actually print as few as one copy only: if you order a copy of the book you are considering, it will in fact printed in response to your order.  We keep no copies in stock and whenever someone orders the book a copy will be printed for them, “on demand”.  Digital print engines deliver the book as two-page sheets, and the only practical way to bind these pages is in fact to glue them.  The book you are enquiring about would actually be manufactured by a company which specializes, among other things, in library repair binding.  When the binding is worn on a library book, the library will send it to this company. They chop off the spine, glue the pages, and rebind the book in exactly the way your book would be bound.  I do think that testifies to the durability of the binding, at least to some extent.

Thus in effect the trade off is: either digital printing (and thus unsewn binding) or the book will have to be declared out of print.  We believe it is preferable to keep the book available than to insist on any specific product specification.  I hope that, however reluctantly, you can agree.

I hope and trust that your experience with the book will reassure you, but one has to admit that to some extent our attitude (the world’s in general) has turned towards replacement as the new durability!

Yours sincerely

Well it’s obvious isn’t it?  It costs less to bind a paperback than a hardback.

This is true, but not altogether unambiguous.  What we normally think of in these situations is a combined run, hardback/paperback, where the 500 hardbacks have a stamped case and no jacket, and the 2000 paperbacks have a four-color cover.  Actually, what makes the hardback more expensive in this scenario is the quantity not the specs.  If you did the whole run as unjacketted stamped case hardbacks, your overall cost would be lower than if you did the whole run as a paperback*.

Now you’ll say that’s ridiculous because we actually need the book to appeal to two distinct markets: the libraries who want a more durable version and will pay more for it, and the public who won’t pay nearly as much.  You want to be able to publish the book at $100 for the few and at $35 for the many.  Being able to show the same “profit” by pricing all 2500 at $48 won’t work: because your knowledge of the market tells you that $35 is as much as the masses will pay and $48 is less than you could get from librarians.

In that paragraph is embedded the truth that we tend always to overlook.  Paperbacks are cheaper because we (expect to) sell more copies of them.


* I’m not going to prove that.  You can run the numbers yourselves.  But do bear in mind that when you do the paperback cover you have to pay the designer, and perhaps a permission fee for an illustration.  For the hardback you can “design” a standard stamping die for next to nothing, say $5.  So it could be $5 against $1500 before you even start on the manufacturing costs.


As I seem to be spending almost all my time watching the Tour de France these days, I am recycling a piece I did back in 2010 at the very beginning of this blog. These unobvious truths bear repeating I think.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 2.10.36 PM

This Tweet, forwarded by Peter Ginna, made me think about this perennial transatlantic miscommunication problem.

Americans are just more direct. They tend to call a spade a spade: well that’s not quite right: it’s in emotional situations that this is true. When around simple nouns Americans tend to reach for tortuous circumlocution. It’s in areas where the emotions come into play, especially in cases where telling someone off is called for that the Brits wimp out. In this example the words “I was under the impression” provide an excellent example. Hearing these words a Brit is going to be instantly aware of having made a mistake, while an American is likely to think: “No problem. We all make mistakes. Too bad your impression was wrong”.

Once upon a time I was in a meeting in New York where the English editorial chief came over and ripped into our US editors for some practice they had gotten up to. He really laid it on thick, saying “I don’t think X is really the best approach”; “If it were me, I wouldn’t do X”; “I really don’t think X is a good idea”; “One would much rather see Y”; “Y is really a much more responsible course of action”; even rising to the embarrassing (to a Brit) crescendo of “One would surely feel embarrassed to be known to have done X”. Even though I wasn’t an editor, my ears were buzzing. As we filed out, one of the US editors right behind me said to his colleague “Well, that’s great. He didn’t tell us not to do X”. And of course he hadn’t told them not to do it: words that direct are unlikely to pass the lips of any trad Brit not in military service. British people don’t react well to being ordered about. Service with a snarl is more likely to be the outcome of a peremptory order than service with a smile. But any British person in the audience would have known perfectly well they’d been forbidden to do anything approaching X: tragically for the messenger, the only other Brit in the room was me, who had nothing to do with the matter. Was I wrong to say nothing? I don’t really think so: it’s not really my problem if someone can’t express themselves clearly. These boss men had had enough experience dealing with the wild west to know better. And I suspect that X, something which I genuinely cannot recall, was probably not any life or death matter.

We are in a pendulum-swing phase where management of lots of publishing companies in America is ultimately coming from the other side of the Atlantic. No doubt happy miscommunication of this sort is alive and well.