Archives for the month of: September, 2016
folio 15 recto after restoration

folio 15 recto after restoration

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge provides this step-by-step account of the restoration of one of their manuscript volumes, MS 251, a copy of the encyclopaedia Livre des proprietés des choses. This manuscript was produced in Paris in 1414 and illuminated by one of the leading artists of the day, the Master of the Mazarine Hours.

The link above takes you to the Introductory page. On the left are links taking you to the other parts of the story. They lead you through disbinding, flattening out and repairing the pages, reassembling the book, sewing and rebinding it, cutting the wooden boards and covering the book, including making a box to contain it along with the old binding they had just removed. These links also appear in sequence at the foot of each page.


Note that this Gothic type of binding over wooden boards has a secondary set of head and tail bands sewn into the covering material, not attached to the book block itself as in modern binding.

From Publishers Lunch on 29 August 2016.

For the next eight weeks, New York City subway riders can download free short stories and 175 book excerpts offered by Penguin Random House. It’s part of PRH’s “Subway Reads” promotion, in partnership with the MTA, “celebrating the installation of free wireless connectivity in more than 175 underground subway stations.” The NYT notes that, “Transit officials approached Penguin Random House . . . because it had run a similar e-book promotion in the London Underground last year, celebrating Penguin’s 80th anniversary. Transit officials said they were open to other platforms from publishers, and platforms for more than books — anything to draw passengers to the Wi-Fi service” that is being rolled out to all 278 underground subway stations by the end of 2016.

The five available short stories include Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novella High Heat, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Diamond as Big as the Ritz, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Book excerpts available include Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Hamilton by Ron Chernow, as PRH selected “as many titles by New Yorkers – or about New York – as possible.” To optimize the commuter reading experience, Penguin Random House has also created a feature for excerpts called ‘read time’ that enables customers to sort the short stories and samples by the amount of time it would take the average reader to complete them.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said in the announcement: “New York’s transportation network must continue adapting to the changing needs of its ridership and a key part of that is delivering the amenities that have become essential components of everyday life. Bringing Wi-Fi into underground stations helps riders stay connected throughout their commute, allowing them to check in with friends or family and access news or entertainment. We’ve made tremendous progress in modernizing the system and Subway Reads is a fun way to introduce riders to the new Wi-Fi experience.”‎

PRH ceo Markus Dohle added: “For millions of New Yorkers, having a few minutes to get lost in a great book is one of the true pleasures of riding the subway. This fun promotion provides commuters with a new twist on that classic – and classically New York – pastime, with great short fiction, and the chance to access extensive samples of some of the very best, and most entertaining books in the world.”

Connected with it yesterday. It’s all pretty obvious. Just connect to the Transit Wireless WiFi and open your browser, and there it is. There are many options, including a poem by Billy Collins which the app tells you will take you 17 minutes to read. I guess these timings are quite important, because if your journey were to last less than the advertised time you’d end up having to finish reading in the station, as you lose contact once you leave the subway wifi range, though the story will remain there till you close your browser. For the same reason don’t try to change from one story to the other while you’re between stations — the wifi doesn’t extend into the tunnels. Nor is it available in all stations: surprisingly I was thrown off the system in the 34th Street A train station. They aim to have it up in all stations by the end of this year.

Quite appropriately each item has a “buy” button. I didn’t activate this, so I’m not sure where it takes you. No doubt to PRH’s own website. I hope it is all a success and that PRH extend the service, and that other publishers join in. Surely the risk of giving away a single free chapter, story, essay or poem isn’t huge. Sure; lots of people won’t buy but some will, and some is better than none.

Maybe Caleb Mason didn’t chose this headline for his piece in Book Business Magazine, but it sort of misrepresents the story which is really about publishing books as e-books and as print-on-demand physical books. I’ve referenced Mr Mason before (see This is not why I believe in POD). It’s great that his company Publerati is doing well. One imagines his authors must be happy — 80% royalty on e-books and 50% on print is certainly generous by general industry standards.

I don’t think his technique of supplying books in e-book or POD format has anything to do with scale except insofar as it’s mostly smaller companies that are acting in this way today. But if Publerati were to publish 1,000 titles a year rather than the modest number they do, they’d still find doing things in the way they are doing them now to be advantageous. To my mind just about the only reason today to have a warehouse and fill it with books is that you already have one and it would be a nightmare (in terms of employee relations, organizational turmoil, and costs) to close it down. So you just muddle on.

As Mr Mason points out, the success of a big trade publishing company depends on a tiny fraction of the books it publishes. If 90% of your profits come from 5% of your books it’s the costs associated with the other 95% of titles which are holding you back. Of course, however much we might like to think it possible, we can never preselect that 5% of titles which will become bestsellers*. One or two you might expect to get right, but too many intangibles go into making a bestseller for anyone to be able to pick only books which will fly high. Publishers tend to throw lots of stuff at the wall and see what small proportion of it sticks. Most trade books either do modestly or fail. If you never invested a penny in inventory of these books you’d have saved a huge mountain of cash. Sure, your unit cost of production would be higher, but what does it matter if the unit cost of a book you never sell is $2.00 or $20.00 — you never sold it, so $2.00 (which you did spend, along with lots of other $2 for other copies which never sold) is a lot more expensive than the $20.00 which you never spent. Unfortunately you can’t go into it saying “Although we all hope this book is going to sell 100,000 we are going to behave as if it will only sell 1,000, which means we’ll only print 500, and in that way we’ll be real clever”. If you print 500 you won’t have enough scale it out like a real prospect, the book won’t support the publicity budget a potential bestseller would have got, and although you may price the book as if you’d printed more, your conservatism will infect your other behaviors. So your hedge turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The argument against printing for inventory, though involving smaller numbers, is just as compelling in other areas of publishing. I once dealt with a series of annual bibliographical catalogs where we knew exactly how many we’d sell: all the potential customers had signed up for standing orders. Thus we could print exactly the right number of copies: that these numbers ranged from 65 to 250 made the books perfect for short-run digital printing. We didn’t need to make them POD as once we’d filled the standing orders we’d exhausted demand. Not many books are as clear-cut as that, but an academic monograph approaches that sort of demand pattern. Make them truly print-on-demand and you can fill orders for ever without any warehouse involvement. Warehouses are expensive: fulfilling ones and twos out of a warehouse is punishingly inefficient. Print-on-demand, where the book is only printed after it has been ordered provides a survival mechanism.


* I make no claim that these numbers are anything other than simple mathematical examples. I’ve no idea of the profit picture in a trade publishing house. I believe the detail is less important than the general principle here.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-3-13-48-pmThe BBC’s iWonder site has a nice animated graphic about how many books we read. They conclude that it would take one person 62,000 years to read all of the 130,000,000,000 books allegedly in existence.

Quick, quick. You’re wasting time. Read another book.

Rather a nice concise description from Chapter 1 of Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My own life (New York Review Books, 2016).

Looking back he [Aubrey] wrote:

‘Before Printing, Old-wives Tales were ingeniouse: and since Printing came into fashion, till a little before the Civil-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade: now-a-dayes Books are common, and most of the poor people understand letters: and the many good Bookes and variety of Turnes of Affaires, have putt all the old Fables out of dores: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries.’

In Aubrey’s time, most books were sold in London, at booksellers’ shops or stalls clustered around St Paul’s churchyard. From here the book trade spread out to towns with printing presses: Oxford, Cambridge, York, Ipswich, Exeter, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, St Andrews. Chapmen or carriers transported books to dealers in the provinces. Distribution became easier after the introduction of the postal service in 1635. Paper in England was more expensive than in the rest of Europe because it had to be imported; there was no successful manufacture of white paper for printing in England until the eighteenth century. When it was sold, it was counted in quires (24 or 25 sheets) or reams (20 quires, so 480 or 500 sheets). Publication of books was funded by an undertaker, usually a bookseller, occasionally an author or printer. It was the financial backer who owned the copyright in this period. Stationers’ Hall, where an undertaker could register ownership of a book after having agreed to finance it, was close to St Paul’s. For the booming book trade, the Great Fire of London of 1666 — known as the Memorable, General or Great Conflagration in Aubrey’s time — was a catastrophe.

And later:

In London, I got lost among the piles of books for sale in St Paul’s churchyard; most of them are sold in sheets, but some are already bound. I pick up one after another without any idea where to begin: the books that are bound all look alike. How to tell which will be worth buying with my spare money? I come away empty handed, overwhelmed, as though the books have become trees again and I am wandering blind in a forest. Back in Dr Bathurst’s library, I can explore more calmly; I am starting to find my way.

Reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.

Of course we’d want to, but do we have to? And if we have to, what actually does that mean? If we did all agree that we needed to do something to save the bookstore, what action could we take? More money is what’d be needed, since costs, especially rents constantly rise, but how do we make that happen? Bookstores can make more money by selling more books, making more off each sale, selling stuff with a greater margin, or reducing their costs. Publishers are unlikely to voluntarily give bookstores a bigger discount, and are reluctant to increase the retail price of books too much for fear that’d scare off buyers. Nobody realistically wants bookstores to be given grants from governments, though Europe seems to be toying with this approach. Efficiencies are scarcely available in what’s a pretty stripped-down business. Diversification can help: lots of bookstores sell stationery and other items. Appealing to potential customers to get up and go to a bookshop to buy a book can achieve something, but not enough. The fact is that rents rise, and center-city rents rise faster. Bookshops, in so far as they are able to survive are being pushed out to the periphery (which of course isn’t all that bad a thing). We nevertheless feel that a healthy bookstore universe is a cultural necessity.

If we didn’t have bookstores, what benefits would we actually be losing? We have become accustomed to the convenience of bookstores, but are they really giving us anything more serious than convenience? It’s obviously great to be able to see a book before you commit to its purchase, and there’s always the charm of serendipity. Have we book lovers become spoiled? Before the mid 17th century you pretty much had to go to London to buy a book. Not a distribution model that anyone would advocate of course, but it does show doesn’t it that where there’s a will there’s a way. Books got written; books got printed; and books got sold. You had to work harder to get them, and not just because they were relatively more expensive. We all “feel” that it’s important to keep bookshops, without really knowing what exactly we think society should be prepared to do to bring this about.

I do, however, think it’s a claim too far to state “Groundbreaking literature relies on bookstores and booksellers to thrive”. This dubious claim is made by Milkweed Editions in their KickStarter solicitation of funds to open their own independent bookstore. (Link via LitHub Daily. You can go straight to Milkweed’s video presentation here. The campaign seems to be going pretty well.) Avant garde writing, just like any other kinds of book writing, certainly benefits from the existence of bookstores, and authors and publishers make more money because of them*. But groundbreakers are breaking ground, not catering to the needs and wishes of an established clientele for this or that supply chain. Think of Ulysses for instance. It was written and sold (in its early days) despite the book trade. Not all publishers, librarians, and booksellers have always been dedicated innovators: we wouldn’t call it gatekeeping if there wasn’t the possibility of refusing entry to material the gatekeepers disapprove of. The contrarian ability to work around a disapproving trade only becomes simpler when we can so easily buy a book, digital or physical, on-line.

Now I am entirely in support of Milkweed’s bookstore initiative; the more bookstores we have the better. It’s the rhetoric I take issue with. In the end it’s the marketplace which will determine whether bookshops survive or not. I really don’t believe the élitist argument is (ever) right that people just don’t know what they want. Of course life would be different without bookshops, but as long as people want books there’ll be ways to obtain them. Just because this is the way we have “always” done it doesn’t mean that it is the only way it could be done. I think Milkweed’s claim would make more sense if instead of “groundbreaking literature” they had said “trade books”. The trade market is the one sector that would be seriously impacted by the disappearance of the bookshop, although of course trade publishing is ever more reliant on on-line sales, and may not need bricks-and-mortar by the time those walls come tumbling down!

However, that said, I think we have survived the apocalypse — surely nobody now thinks the bricks-and-mortar bookstore is doomed, at least in the near or medium term. We’ve had a shake-out, but haven’t things settled down? Maybe there’ll be other rough patches, (vide Three Lives, subject of Good news from the future, and their real-estate balancing act as reported in The Observer) but I do believe we can now see the outline of how things will be in the future.

News like Barnes & Noble’s continuing woes may seem to contradict my optimism (see The Digital Reader‘s take) but what I think we are seeing is a stabilization among smaller independent bookstores, and the end of the big bookstore. The mega store logically lives on-line. Predictably Hugh Howey has weighed in again. Here is his take on the situation — as usual well-informed, broadly correct, and stylistically rebarbative. It seems he can’t just discuss a subject and be done; he has to keep jabbing pins into the industry with which he is locked in love-hate passion. (Link via The Digital Reader.)


* Though one might just notice in passing that when a publisher sells direct to consumers on their own websites, as more and more publishers are doing, they make rather more money — selling at full price or at a 10% discount and even picking up postage will net you more profit than selling a book to a bookstore at 45% or 50% of its retail price!














Fortunately “the press” referred to here is not a bunch of scandal-mongering journalists — common sentiment has them coming from the other direction — it’s an actual wooden printing press being drone-dropped by the Spirit of Printing to an eagerly anticipating European world. Germany sits above the others at the left ready to hand the machine off to Johannes Gutenberg straight away. The Netherlands lounges below her. Britain sits next with Italy and France to her left. Each of the national ladies holds lozenges with portraits of their most notable early printers on them. This is the inspiring frontispiece to Prosper Marchand’s Histoire de l’origine et des premiers progrès de l’imprimerie (The Hague 1740).

Well, the press had actually been around for a while before Minerva and Mercury accompanied this one down into Germany’s and Mr Gutenberg’s hands. It is true, I guess, that the Spirit of Printing is surrounded by a cloud of letters and does seem to be holding a composing stick in her left hand. This stick is in fact emblematic of Gutenberg’s real invention; movable type — or as Keith Houston insists in an extract from his recent book, The Book, movable type that really worked. Go to I love typography to find this extract.

Can it really be true, as Stig Abel, new editor of the Times Literary Supplement, suggests in a tweet, that TLS‘s house style mandates -s’ if the person is of Jesus’ age or older, and -s’s for anyone younger: thus “Achilles’ shield”, or “Pythagoras’ bath” but “Charles Dickens’s novels” or “Hugo Lloris’s distribution problems”? It’s just too quaint.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage isn’t too helpful on the subject, telling us “it was formerly customary, when a word ended in -s, to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s, e.g. Mars’ hill, Venus’ Bath, Achilles’ thews. In verse and in poetic and reverential contexts, this custom is retained, and the number of syllables is the same as in the subjective case, e.g. Achilles’ has three, not four; Jesus’ not Jesus’s. But elsewhere we now add the s.*” So is the TLS just being reverential to the ancients?

Typically Hart’s Rules doesn’t beat about the bush, though they do allow a certain room for judgement for euphony’s sake. “Jesus’ is an accepted liturgical archaism. In quotations from Scripture follow the Oxford settings.  In ancient classical names uses s’ (not s’s): Mars’, Venus’, Herodotus’. This is the prevailing custom in classical works.” They also say “Use ‘s for the possessive case in English names and surnames whenever possible: i.e. in all monosyllables and disyllables, and in longer words accented on the penult . . . In longer names not accented on the penult, ‘s is also preferable though ‘ is here admissible” on the grounds of euphony. So in the end, rather tritely, we find that the TLS is actually only applying Oxford style!


* The sentence goes on to refer us to the case of “sake” where Fowler pontificates “when the enclosed word is both a common noun & one whose possessive is a syllable longer than its subjective, the s of the possessive is not used; an apostrophe is often, but not always written; for conscience sake, for goodness’ sake, for their office sake, for peace’ sake.” All very odd.

If you hang a painting in the sunlight, you will notice its colors fading almost before your eyes. The yellows go first, then the reds, leaving you with a strangely blue landscape. It’s hard to know what the colors in ancient painting really looked like because time has faded them, even if they’ve never actually sat in direct sunlight. The Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition “Colour” aims to show us medieval colors as their creators intended them; as seen in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition goes on till the end of this year. It is almost overwhelming: you tend to get a bit blasé about so many beautiful works coming at you one after the other. But stop and look closely at just one and you can see what scientific cunning, skill and artistry went into its creation. One thing that struck me is just how small many of the books are, and consequently how finicky the detailed work was that went into illuminating them.


This page from The Macclesfield Psalter measures about 4¼” by 6½”. On one of the manuscripts (not this one) I noticed that the illuminator clearly considered the space left for him by the scribe to be inadequate as he’d allowed the illumination to extend over the ascenders of the script. You could still read the text, but with some difficulty.




The Fitzwilliam has the largest collection of illuminated manuscripts in any museum, and they have done a great job of displaying 150 of them here. Under the terms of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s bequest many of their manuscripts may never leave the museum. The lighting is low: one of the reasons so many illuminated manuscripts have survived so bright and vivid is that they live inside books which have spent most of their lives closed and protected from the light.

The Museum has also produced a site, Illuminated: Manuscripts in the making which provides even more information than was available on display, including multiple pages from some of the manuscripts. As their About page says “ILLUMINATED invites you to view multiple images within each manuscript, zoom in on details, discover drawings hidden beneath the painted surfaces, learn about the pigments and the advanced scientific methods used for their identification, and explore the relationships between scribes, artists and original owners.” Click on the Lab tab and you’ll get to find all the technical details. One might spend hours at this site. For the enthusiast, the catalog of the exhibition is available for £30 from Harvey Miller Publishers, an imprint of Brepols.



According to Publishing Perspectives ISBNs cost £89 (US$117) singly or £149 (US$196) for 10. No wonder lots of self-published books dispense with them. Now that you can get them on-line in UK as well as in USA, one wonders why they have to cost so much.


This chart comes from a report by Bowker trumpeting the increase in indie publishing. (Click on it a couple of times, and it should enlarge adequately. Or just follow the link to the Bowker report.) But of course it doesn’t tell anything like the full story as it is just a report on ISBNs issued — which is what Bowker does. Almost 80% of these ISBNs are for print books with Amazon’s own CreateSpace as the consumer of almost three quarters of those. One can see how having an ISBN on a print book might be a good idea — otherwise it’s going to be hard to get it into established distribution channels — but an e-book can thrive without such help. There seems to be no real way to measure the true extent of the self-published e-universe, but we can rely on its being more than 153,160 titles in 2015.

Of course we have to acknowledge that nevertheless, almost three quarters of a million self-published ISBNs represents a huge number of books. I despair of finding what the real number of self-published books might be.

For those who may want to know how an ISBN is constructed, and what its various bits signify, my post Bookland EAN & ISBNs may be helpful.