Archives for the month of: September, 2016

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Thus Craig Raine in his 1979 poem “A Martian sends a postcard home”.

I myself have known one or two Caxtons to fly: many a schoolmaster delighted in throwing the book at their recalcitrant pupils’ head. As I remember it young boys, being attacked by such a bird were more likely to shriek without pain, rather than to allow their eyes to melt — unless they laughed so hard they’d weep. The lot of a schoolmaster was ever a tough one. The Caxton’s multiple wings do often flutter invitingly when you are reading in the open air, and one in the hand is definitely preferable to any number in the bush. Being left out under a bush is definitely bad for a Caxton’s well-being.

The Oxford English Dictionary somewhat stolidly and redundantly defines a Caxton as “a book printed by Caxton” but follows up with a charmingly expressed second meaning: “A variety of printing-type, imitating that first used in England by Caxton, introduced by Vincent Figgins in 1855 (for his reprint of the Chess book).” OUP does note that this definition hasn’t been updated since 1869, at which time perhaps the fact that Caxton had printed a book entitled The History of the Game of Chesse was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. (Wikipedia notices Vincent’s father but is silent about our Vincent’s work at the family typefoundery.)

William Caxton is a bit of a mystery man. He was born around 1422 in Kent, probably in Hadlow but maybe Tenterden. He is credited with being the first Englishman to introduce a printing press into Britain, having gotten into the new business of printing while living in Bruges. There he printed the first book known to have been printed in English, Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, probably in 1473. He set up his press in Westminster in 1476, the first known output of which was an edition of The Canterbury Tales. He was a jack of all trades and acted as editor and translator — a versatility not unusual in the early days of print. Unsurprisingly the date of his death is also uncertain; probably 1491.

One of the things we can be certain about is that Caxton had no input in the design of the typeface named after him by Mr Figgins. This illustration shows a page from Caxton’s book (from the Figgins facsimile). Caxton obtained his types from Flanders or later from France.



img_0170The modern Caxton type looks like this, which appears to bear zero relation to the original unless you regard the curlicue-ish serifs as imitation.

Here’s an interesting piece on why self-published books tend not to get reviewed. According to the review editor quoted (he is talking about children’s books) there are just too many of them; many aren’t that good; many don’t have a sense of their real audience; many self-published authors don’t have a clear idea of their market. Any journal just cannot afford to spend the hours needed to sift through the hundreds of thousands of potential offerings which they would be inviting by soliciting indie books. I suppose if there were any method by which a good self-published book could easily be identified from the mass, then it would be safe for review media to cover them. It’s the finding and analyzing them that’s prohibitive. I have seen one or two self-published books reviewed in traditional review media, but these must have resulted from the coincidence of the editor’s hearing by chance about the book. There just isn’t any mechanism for a regular scrutiny of the universe of self publishing. We all, and review editors in particular, may well be the losers because of this, but the stark reality is if the author is the publisher, there will be an irresistible tendency for all geese to be described as swans.

The traditional book trade has evolved methods by which such pre-sorting gets done. At The Washington Post “we’re getting about 150 books a day. A day. And these are books that had to find an agent. And then a publisher. And then were professionally edited. And now are being professionally marketed by people with money on the line. Many of these books, of course, are bad, but many — far more than we can review — are interesting, engaging, informative, moving, timely and/or newsworthy for various reasons.” Note in this sentence that one of the “methods” that traditional publishing has evolved is an acceptance of the brutal fact that not every book, not even every good book, will get reviewed. We are accustomed to accepting that you can’t win ’em all. If you are publishing your own work, accepting this is obviously much, much harder.

Maybe the self-publishing world will settle down and develop a means by which a similar sorting methodology can be achieved. But just as self publishing is a different business than traditional publishing, so unfortunately will the reviewing of self-published books probably have to be done somehow differently. That we have not yet worked out what this means surely doesn’t mean we never will. One probable route is the on-line review, though just how readers can become aware of reviews they might be interested in is a hard problem. A sort of crowd-sourcing Goodreads model may end up being the answer. Of course, getting your book reviewed is one kind of problem: getting it favorably reviewed is a horse of a different color. Businesses, and no doubt individuals, have not always been above trying to get the fix in. Well at least review integrity is secure in California, where they’ve passed a law imposing a $10,000 fine on companies which seek to enter contracts prohibiting unfavorable on-line reviews. Gigaom brought the news.


The Future Today Institute’s comprehensive forecast was forwarded by Digital Book World.

Apparently ha-ha predictions of automatic transmission from the brain of the author to the brain of the reader may be on their way to becoming less of a joke.


This slide from the Future Today Institute’s slide presentation is of course unreadable here. It is slide 53, if you want to go to the report via the link above. Alternatively, this is what it says under the heading Examples:

We don’t recognize it as such but we are actually living in an age of digital telepathy, where information can be transmitted via direct input. At the University of Washington’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, researchers have built a system allowing one person to transmit his thoughts directly to another person. Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, one researcher sent a brain signal to another person elsewhere on campus, using his finger to tap a keyboard. Scientists at Barcelona’s Starlab fitted a brain-computer interface on a man in Kerala, India and instructed him to simply imagine how he was moving his hands and feet. His thoughts were sent to a man in Strasbourg, France wearing a TMS robot, which delivered electrical pulses to his brain. When the man in India thought about moving his feet, the TMS caused the man in France to see light, even though his eyes were closed.

Under What’s Next they discuss medical applications to help victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury. These sorts of application are obviously likely to be first fruits. But can we resist the thought that with a few years of development we can achieve direct communication from an author’s brain to readers around the world? This sounds like it might be a bit exhausting for the author, so of course the communication will no doubt be with an author-brain-surrogate and the rest of us. What price publishers when we eventually achieve unmediated links between your brain and mine? I always thought that Isaac Asimov’s electronic books in The Foundation series were much too primitive to match the rest of the technology.

I did a rather puzzled post on this subject a year ago.

Machine reading, machine indexing, machine curation, machine writing: computers have accustomed us to all possible eventualities. I have joked before the imminent arrival of the book we don’t need to fuss over: written by machine and read by machine. Seems the only blemish in this picture is the time-line. Atlas Obscura brings us an account of this 1845 machine which would compose (single lines of) Latin hexameters.


It all looks a bit like a bicycle rack. Rather amazing that it worked.

In indexing this post I find I did one under the same title last year. It was about a different machine though.

Well obviously Amazon’s the place you go to do this. But why shouldn’t there be options — even if Barnes & Noble seems intent on that not happening?

Last year The Digital Reader brought us this rather petulant report of the American Booksellers Association’s offering visitors to their IndieBound site the option of buying a book on-line at full price. Of course independent bookstores, and their corporate organization, realize that there’s no point in trying to take on Amazon. The DR’s objection is that the ABA are not really trying to sell books — but maybe that’s intentional. After all they are the organization representing independent bookstores, and they are quite explicit about wanting to “train” customers who visit the IndieBound site to go to an independent bookstore. I see no reason why they shouldn’t offer books to people at whatever price they want: their motivation is not primarily to sell, it’s to promote. If someone is generous enough to pay full price on-line, so what?

Many publishers used traditionally to be reluctant to offer their books for sale on their websites because they were so used to loyally supporting bricks-and-mortar bookstores that they found the habit difficult to break. But we live in a different world today: burying your head in the sand and pretending it’s still yesterday will only lead to greater and greater reliance on Amazon as the on-line outlet. Competing with Amazon doesn’t have to include any idea of beating them at their own game: a small share of the pie is certainly better than no pie. And bear in mind, selling the books yourself means you don’t give that large discount to any retailer. Book Business Magazine suggests that 2015 was the year in which the tide turned and publishers started getting serious about direct-to-consumer sales.

I recently bought a copy of The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book at the CUP bookshop in Cambridge. As a holder of a CAM card I got a 10% discount. They said that as an ex-employee I’d get the same discount, though I don’t know how I could prove that status. I’m relieved to see that if I go to the CUP website and make to buy the book there I not only get no discount but can look forward to paying $6 shipping too. Now of course I’m almost the last person they’d ask, but if the CUP decision-makers were within earshot I’d be shouting about their wasted opportunity. Incentivize the customer! Even a slight incentive, like that 10%, might be enough to encourage people not to visit Amazon (where they’d get a 20% discount). I don’t see how offering the books on unattractive terms is worth the effort — the publisher is in business to sell books, not like the ABA to promote the interests of those who are. Sure every now and then at full price plus shipping someone will buy, but with any sort of offer that’d happen more often. Even the Association of American University Presses is rumored to be considering setting up an on-line bookstore, though as this 2012 Scholarly Kitchen post from Joe Esposito indicates that corporate head has been being scratched for quite a long time.

And of course anything said about publishers here can be applied to bookstores as well.

books-published-per-capitaJakub Marian has a nice little post on this subject, featuring this informative map.


Revenues in millions of Euros. Blue = 2013, brown = 2014, green = 2015 publishes is annual ranking of publishers. Thank the Lord these numbers cannot be subject to the niggling of self-publishing fanatics, as they explicitly include only companies with revenues in excess of €150 million (c. $200 million).

I don’t detect signs of an industry in crisis in these numbers. McGraw-Hill is the only one not showing steady growth, and they are in the process of reorganization after acquisition. The chart showing evolution of revenues which can bee seen in their report shows a steady upward curve with a bit of a wobble in 2013. Note, for those who think “publishing” actually means “trade publishing”, that the trade publishing subset shows a similar bar graph.

The Chronicle of Higher Education presents On Not Reading by Amy Hungerford. Academics are the main candidates for this ailment (and not just those in David Lodge’s universe). The amount of material you have to work through is obviously a bit of a problem if as a literary scholar you chose to study contemporary literature rather than earlier periods. Students of classical Greek literature may bemoan the amount of material that has been lost: the student of the contemporary novel has to decide which of thousands of books he/she will not read. Shouldn’t we really feel sorrier for the former though?

Classical studies as a consequence of the scarcity of texts perhaps have developed a methodology of intensive textual analysis. If you only have a couple of brief or even partial texts from your chosen author you are liable to end up reading them differently than you or I would read the latest Jonathan Safran Foer. I was always a bit annoyed at the idea of R. W. Chapman of Oxford University Press applying the methods of classical textual reconstruction to Jane Austen’s text. This resulted in the addition of lots of commas, which he was able to deduce she had really intended should be there.

Ms Hungerford piece is entertaining but she goes a bit adrift when she suggests “Because more books are published than ever before, thanks to the birth of desktop publishing software in the 1980s . . .”. Can we really attribute an increase in books published to the birth of the word processor? Sure, computers make it easier to compose a book, but isn’t this a bit like attributing the rarity of chairs dating to the seventeenth century and earlier to the invention of the machine-driven lathe?

Firstly, I suspect (because one can’t really know) that many more books were written in the olden days than we imagine. I’ve just been reading Ruth Scurr’s excellent John Aubrey: My Own Life (NYRB 2016). Aubrey’s a case in point. He wrote constantly and was obsessive about preservation, altogether appropriately for an antiquary, and worried about his manuscripts being lost after his death. In the end he managed to scramble out one book before he died. For the next couple of hundred years nothing happened. By the end of the 20th century about 10 of his works had been rescued — his manic directions that his papers should be stored in the Ashmolean, (now in the Bodleian) had worked, and his writings were eventually excavated. How many a “mute inglorious Milton” has the luck to have his writings survive, and then almost as luckily, found?

Secondly, the surge in numbers of books published results primarily from the commercial muscle-flexing of the post WWII publishing industry. When you figure you can make money off almost anything, then almost anything will find its way to the marketplace. Desktop publishing happened along coincidentally, and just made the supply of the voracious press that much more efficient — it didn’t cause the hunger though. Clearly we none of us can avoid awareness of the recent the explosion of output occasioned by the invention that consists of a) the internet, b) Amazon, c) the e-book and d) self-publishing. With all that coming at us refusing to read is merely inevitable.

The one way in which Ms Hungerford’s claims against desktop publishing ring true is that I do believe that the ability simply to revise your work without laboriously retyping pages of it, did result in longer and longer books. (See Bloat.) She cites David Foster Wallace’s arrogance in wanting to make his Infinite Jest lengthy and obscure so people would have to read the book twice. Still we’ve had plenty of long books from before the days of on-line writing, and obscurity is by no means a consequence of modernity however much it may be attractive to some its practitioners.

I believe it was Sir Francis Bacon who was said to be the last person able to claim to have read every book ever written, though other claimants exist, notably John Milton. Whoever it may have been — the point is they had to be wrong, because so much of what had been written had been lost or never even found in the first place. This of course just reinforces my cynicism about such claims: surely anyone who’d be in any position even to think about making the claim would know that it was a ridiculous thing to say. No doubt we could track this bit of urban myth back to some biography or other in which the hagiographer writes “X was so well-read that it might be said . . .”.

In this context the BBC’s graphic animation linked to in my recent post Get on with it may be relevant.

The Digital Reader, run by Nate Hoffelder, is an invaluable resource. You may have noticed the frequency with which I link to it.

So it was with dismay that I got this rather panicked e-mail yesterday:

The Digital Reader blog is offline for the indefinite future.

This email includes our official statement as to why the site is down, and it is going out to everyone who signed up for the mailing list.

The Digital Reader experienced a minor technical snafu with its database Monday morning.

I tried to fix the problem by installing a backup copy of the site only to discover both of the most recent backups were corrupted.

The automated daily backups were performed by my web host, Mediatemple, and were my only set of backups. This problem is currently being worked on by Mediatemple, and if it turns out that all the backups are corrupted then my site is dead.

P.S. Expressions of sympathy are appreciated, but what I could use right now is an introduction to a lawyer who can help me get compensation from Mediatemple (experience with ToS contract law is a plus).

I did not think to include this until after I released the statement, but I also want to add that I am open to any job offers or business proposals, or even out and out insane ideas.

I may or may not relaunch the blog under new management, possibly with a corporate parent/partner.

I rather like that possibility, but it is just as likely that I might take my skills and 7 years of experience as a web publisher and go write for someone else. Or I might do something completely unrelated to blogging about digital publishing.

The sky is the limit at the moment.

P.S. My main source of income vanished with the blog, so I would also be grateful for any donations.

A few weeks ago The Digital Reader had a post about the importance of backing up your blog. Horrid irony that the messenger should be thus victimized. Note the importance of back-up. I’m almost up-to-date on my stone-age backup of Making Book. I must work harder.

Fortunately Mr Hoffelder’s blog has been restored, as today’s e-mail indicates (after the tell-tale arrival of today’s version of The Digital Reader in my in-box).

The following post was supposed to have been included in the newsletter this morning and explain that The Digital Reader survived its near death experience.

Not everyone got that post in their copy of the newsletter, so I find myself having to send it out again.

Reports of this blog’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

The adequate engineers at MediaTemple were able to recover the database in the backup from early Sunday. This has cost me all the posts from Sunday and Monday, but it looks like everything else has been restored.

Posting will continue as soon as I have run a few tests to make sure that everything works. (And of course beatings will continue until morale improves.)

Thank you, Kat and John, for giving me the names of a couple lawyers who could have helped me with the worst-case scenario (getting compensated for a destroyed blog).

And thank you to everyone else who expressed sympathy with my situation. I appreciate the moral (and in several cases, financial) support.

Welcome back.

Joe Esposito tweets the link to this fascinating report of MIT’s new technology.

What more can you say? Eventually it won’t be just a matter of having machines to read for us, we won’t even need to open the book for them to get stuck into the job.


Later: The Economist of September 24th has a related story. It tells of archaeologists reading ancient scrolls damaged in a fire without unrolling them which would have destroyed the whole thing.