Archives for the month of: December, 2016

Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’. Photo: British Library

It is only in the sixteenth century that carole became explicitly associated with Christmas. Prior to that carole, a borrowing from the French, had meant a sort of ring-dance, and by extension the songs which might be sung while doing the dance. Publishing Cambridge links us to this post from The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, which sets out the story and shows several early examples.

In 1967 Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Hymnal, notable (among other things no doubt) as being the place where Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” was first published.

I think we can all agree that poetry is “a good thing”. The world would be a less interesting place without it. But just because we can all get behind the idea of poetry, that doesn’t mean that we need worry about pay rates for poets. Amanda Nadelberg at Literary Hub considers the “problem”. Establishing a fund to support indigent poets isn’t an idea you can characterize as “bad”, but it sounds unlikely to catch on and become part of many people’s charity planning.

I think most people’s image of poets doesn’t include riches. Not that poets deserve to be poor, but we don’t think of money as the motivator. I doubt if anyone ever went in for poetry for financial reasons. You rather assume that the garret is more likely that the stately home. I would imagine even Lord Byron was a bit surprised at how much money he could make from his verse.

T. S. Eliot may be guilty of loose writing when he states “modern poetry is supposed to be difficult”. What he means is that it’s reputed/said to be difficult, not that it ought to be difficult. Of course we tend to give the second, more conventional reading to the clause and wheel it out to bash modern poetry. When J. H. Prynne, having had one of his poems read to him, responded that he didn’t understand it either, he was probably expressing his disdain for the question and lack of interest in “explication” rather than a literal inability to understand what he’d written. Of course such hostages to fortune should probably not be given in a world where the whole concept of modernity, and its tendency to self-reflexivity is always subject to sallies from defenders of the “faith”.

The best-selling poet in America is apparently Rumi, whose poems have sold in the millions.* However waiting 800 years for the gravy train is not a really great strategy. This year’s Nobel Prize winning poet is Bob Dylan: quite a few copies of whose words have been bought by his hearers. Rap is poetry. And popular. We have to acknowledge that there are in fact quite a lot of people who are making surprisingly large sums from poetry. Here’s a story about three poets who can get $225 an hour for writing haikus at office parties and other events. Apart from minstrelsy, online poetry does seem to be the (financial) way to go. This Publishing Perspectives piece tells of poets who have leveraged their Instagram or Tumblr followings into 100,000 copy print runs for their books. Haiku does seem to be a favored form for these successful poets — maybe it’s something to do with immediacy of impact. But of course social media is the key factor. “Out of the 10 best selling poetry books in the U.S., three are by poets who built followings on social media, including Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur and Memories by Lang Leav.”

So, Ms. Nadelberg, the problem with poetry pay seems, surprise, surprise, to be exactly the same as the problem with fiction pay. Either you’re a Jasper Milvain or an Edwin Reardon. You pays your money and you makes your choice.

ENVOI.  Ms Nadelberg’s story contains a link to what she bills as The state of poetry in England. This piece takes publishers to task for abandoning poetry, citing specifically Oxford University Press’ closure of its poetry list in 1998. It really doesn’t matter what any government minister may have said, publishers have no obligations as bearers of culture. David Howarth was simply wrong when he “labelled the financial grounds of the decision ‘barbaric’ and argued that the dropping of the poetry list equated to an ‘erosion of standards’.” A university press has a more specific mission than a commercial press, whose obligation is merely to avoid squandering its shareholder’s money: a university press exists to further research and education as carried on in its parent institution. Poetry is no longer central to the mission of any university (if it ever was). OUP published poetry way beyond any date where to do so was justifiable. Losing money on their poetry list was just diverting money away from their proper activities. Sorry if this sounds harsh: but it’s true.


* Given my oft-stated opinions about translation, this is notable also for being in translation!

01-e1481908042903Literary Hub shows some pretty nice covers in their post The 60 Best Book Covers of 2016, as Chosen by Designers. The first one, shown here, is fascinating, and unsurprisingly was selected by seven of the designers. I think the type must have been “set” using an Xacto knife, working on a print of the hands. It makes it look like the words have been carved out of the flesh.

Cosmopolitan comes right out and says it: when you work at Simon & Schuster ” You can go home with as many books as you can carry, every day”. Maybe that’s how it is at S & S, though I find it hard to believe. For my part I always felt a reluctance to go hog wild. I have a feeling that any employees observed struggling out every day under armfuls of books would be spoken to.

We publishing people do get spoiled. It’s so easy to take a book for the perfectly legitimate reason that you want to read it, and then find that these objects turn out to be somewhat sticky so that they end up on your shelf rather than back in the office. Maybe you read chapters 1 and 2, and really do plan to return later to finish the book. I don’t know if any publisher actively encourages staff to help themselves. I know places where there is a shelf or two of books which, if employees don’t take them will end up in the garbage or perhaps in better organized houses being picked up by a used-book bookseller. I did once have a semi-formal employment contract which entitled me to free subscriptions to The Times and The Irish Times, as well as a copy of every book I worked on. I can be seen here reading my Times. Naturally most of the books I worked on were terminally dull, and although I thought about it, I considered that grabbing books and selling them down the street would be in violation of the spirit of the contract, if not its letter. So I only “acquired” books that I had a high chance of reading — and I still expect that I’ll eventually get round to them all.

The manufacturing department always gets some advance copies for approval and then distribution around the office. It takes so little to “hurt” a book (damage it so that it becomes unsaleable) that you end up not even inflicting the injury. “It was about to drop on the floor onto is corner, so I took it home to save it from becoming unsalable.” Because we all know that there are liable to be a couple of copies lying around any manufacturing department there grew up (in my days at least) a sort of informal trading network around the New York publishing houses. “Do you happen to have a copy of this book lying around. Of course if you need any of our books, just let me know.” This would become quite frenzied before the start of the academic year, and I always tried to stay above this marketplace. One node in this bonanza would lay on multi-publisher swaps so that he’d get a book from publisher Z to give to someone at publisher Y, so he could get one of Y’s books for a friend at publisher X in return for a book from publisher W which his nephew needed.

As all costs increase publishers tend to see the cost of returning books to the warehouse as prohibitive. Additionally I’ve never observed any office workers who could pack a box! Dropping books loosely into a carton and taping it shut just guarantees that after their trip to the warehouse the damaged books will go straight to the hurts bin: better to have kept them. If you can’t afford to send books back where they’ll incur a restocking charge, what are you to do? One place I worked would save them up and run a sale every year where staff could buy copies for $1. There’d be a bookseller sitting in the corner, who’d end up with all the leftover books free of charge. For the paltry sums this raised, it would have seemed to me better just to allow people to take the books.

Before the halftone process was invented, allegedly by Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s, illustrations all had to be printed via engraving or some such laborious technique. The halftone process, as it evolved from its shaky beiginings in 1873 (see Wikipedia’s article) takes a photo (and of course the invention of photography would clearly be a necessary precondition) and converts it into a series of regular lines of dots of varying sizes. imagesBigger dots would create the shadows, smaller ones the highlights. The exaggerated example at the left shows this in extreme. Retreat across the room and look at it and you’ll see a perfectly recognizable portrait. The finer the screen — the more lines of dots per inch — the greater the detail that can be reproduced. However printing technology and paper surface characteristics impose an upper limit to the screen value. Most regular book work is done at 133 lines per inch, while an art book on smooth coated paper will probably go to 150 lpi. Newspapers tend to screen at 85 lpi. The screen would be imposed by the simple process of mounting a transparent ruled grid in front of the photograph so that the process camera would only “see” a series of dots when it shot the art. (See also Dot gain.)

In the olden days publishers’ production staff used to do a lot more things for themselves, things which nowadays we have learned to slough off onto our suppliers (or software). Using a screen finder is one of these things. Authors often submit printed photos as artwork for their book. As I explained in my post Moiré, “an already printed photo will carry its original screen, and when it gets rescreened for your publication there’s often (usually/always?) a conflict between the two screen angles which sets up a pattern of darker and lighter areas regularly spread across the picture.” This patterning is called moiré and one should strive to avoid it. If you know the screen value of the original piece, you can adjust the screening you now have to apply to it to minimize the conflict between the two screens — just why we thought we had to provide the printer with this information, rather than trusting him to discover it, may amount to little more than that: trust. There was a time when workers kept their heads down and did what they were told: no less and importantly no more. So you’d tell them.

img_0446The screen finder shown above, is printed on a transparent plastic sheet. It consists of a series of thin lines, radiating from some distant vanishing point. When you lay this over a printed halftone and jiggle it around to pick up the screen angle it will form the sort of cross found in a moiré pattern, and the arm of that cross will be found to be pointing to the number of the screen value printed along the bottom of the oval. Quite ingenious. These screen finders, cheap to produce, were often given out by suppliers as gifts to their customers. This one came from Arcata Graphics Prepress.


p8082006Cambridge University Press’ Printing Division, referred to by us publishing staff as UPH (University Printing House) used to be located in the middle of town behind the Pitt Building on Trumpington Street.

The Pitt Building

The Pitt Building

The best perhaps that can be said for the building they moved to in the sixties on the southern edge of town, (shown at the top) is that it was functional. No longer did lorries have to be squeezed into Mill Lane or skids of sheets moved up and down from floors at different levels in old buildings that had been smashed together: the work could flow. The University repossessed the buildings behind, and the Pitt Building remained the publishing office, and it was from there that I set out for the new world.

32 E 57th. The gigantic structure behind only arrived recently.

32 E 57th. The vacant lot next door (in front) was occupied by a building in those days.

When I first came over to New York to work for Cambridge University Press’s American Branch at 32 East 57th Street, a small part of my salary was paid by the Printing Division. My UPH duties consisted almost entirely of just being there to answer the phone. They were not looking to increase their business in USA; just to service such accounts as they already had. The key factor in the success of any UK book manufacturer’s ability to get American work has always been the state of the $/£ exchange rate. At that time it was not favorable, and work (like me) was flowing the other way. The UPH phone rarely rang. When it did, all involved were happy to find a British accent on the line able to talk about demy octavo, picas and ems. One of my predecessors in this role had been Brian Allen, a full-time rep., and a man of considerable typographic ability. He became after his return to England a full-time letter-cutter in stone.

It was in my capacity as a UPH representative that I inherited a membership of the Typophiles, at that time a rather traditional-minded organization of aging letterpress fans, typographers and bibliophiles. As the representative of Cambridge printing I received respect way beyond my personal deserts. The organization still exists, as manifested in this their Facebook page. The really good thing about this organization was the keepsakes you could pick up at their monthly lunch-time meetings held at the National Arts Club in Grammercy Park. For instance we had a series of meetings addressed by wood engravers each of whom brought something for us. I still have framed and on display original pieces by John DePol, Clare Leighton, Barry Moser, John Lawrence, even Reynolds Stone (though he didn’t appear in person). Fritz Eichenberg I don’t have, but as he was a member of the Typophiles, probably his role was exclusively as organizer of the series. At our Christmas meeting we’d get a goody-bag containing three or four books: several published and printed by the Typophiles themselves, but others donated by publishers. Ah, those were the days!

Sometime in the late eighties or early nineties the UPH stopped doing Monotype hot metal composition. This was a serious break in what had always been their pride and joy: fine hot metal composition and letterpress printing, arguably the finest in the world. Most of their business in the USA by that point consisted of finishing up the few multi-volume sets of The Papers of X or Y which a few American university presses had been typesetting and printing in Cambridge. The presses which had committed this work were naturally discombobulated by the failure of their supplier to be able to continue typesetting their series in Monotype before they had even gotten half way through the project. In large projects like this volumes come in at widely separated intervals as one volume editor or another finds more or less time for the work. Obviously if you go to Cambridge to get hot metal Monotype Garamond, having it switched to a filmset version, even if the two versions are pretty indistinguishable to the man in the street, is rather like being stabbed in the back typographically speaking. I got an enquiry from one of the few surviving letterpress houses in America, The Heritage Press, in Charlotte, NC, as to whether they could buy the Dante matrices from Cambridge. As this came right at the end of my tenure at CUP, I don’t know whether the sale was ever consummated, allowing the Collected Papers of this or that founding father to continue in the same font, or not. Dante was unfortunately a rare typeface, and wasn’t one that would be available filmset. I suspect it didn’t happen — I have the hint of a memory that the mats had already been disposed of — but in any case Heritage Printers in their turn have departed the scene, so it would anyway have only been a stop-gap solution. We seem no longer to be able to plan for the ages.

And now, just to drive home that point, the University Printing House’s operations, which had been transferred by sale to a competitor who’d moved them to Bar Hill, have disappeared in the closure of that company. The hangar-like University Printing House building is now occupied by Cambridge’s publishing staff, the custom-made Edinburgh Building across the street, to which publishing operations had moved from the Pitt, having been pulled down.

“Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau was created in the 1870s when the Bolton Evening News owner W F Tillotson wrote letters to authors inviting them to syndicate their stories in newspapers. This meant that the authors were paid for their stories by Tillotsons who then sold them on to other newspapers including those published in America. Many of the replies to these letters are held in Bolton Museum and The Bolton News Library holds copies of these. Numerous famous authors wrote for the bureau, including, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, E Nesbit, George Bernard Shaw and Arnold Bennett.” Quoted from The Arnold Bennett blog.

In the Introduction to the 1954 Penguin edition of The Grand Babylon Hotel Frank Swinnerton writes that Bennett’s first dealings with Tillotson’s was as a buyer. He edited Woman, a weekly, and was a regular customer of their syndicate. Their rep didn’t respond favorably to Bennett’s suggestion that Tillotson’s commission him to write a serial for them. Bennett responded that he was already at work on a serial, and that they’d regret it if he let some other syndicate have it. This empty boast he immediately set about rectifying by starting to write his first serial, For Love and Life (subsequently published in book form as The Ghost). He completed it in 24 half days selling the copyright for £75. The Grand Babylon Hotel was his second serial, took him fifteen days and sold for £100. The serial appeared in the paper The Golden Penny and was published in book form by Chatto and Windus in 1902.

These rates of remuneration seem pretty good. But Wilkie Collins had been offered £5,000 by Smith Elder for serialization of Armadale in their Cornhill Magazine, no doubt for both serial and volume rights. We have also seen Smith Elder’s extravagance in the case of George Eliot’s Romola. Syndication continues of course, and no doubt some are doing well out of it. Unfortunately for serious writers the interest in such literary properties has waned.

You can’t activate the links in the screenshot below. Here’s a link to the show.


Life and Fate is Vasily Grossman‘s magnum opus. It is a large book, panoramic like War and Peace in its treatment of a doomed foreign invasion of Russia: its high point is the Battle of Stalingrad. The book is in effect the War and Peace of the Second World War. In 2011 the BBC made an 13-part radio adaptation with Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacchi, Janet Suzman, David Tennant, Harriet Walter and a cast of thousands. You can get the whole thing as part of your subscription ($14.95 a month). The BBC did make all the episodes available for free download, but only for two weeks after the broadcast. The two episodes below seem to be the only ones still available free of charge on YouTube.

Wikipedia has an exhaustive entry on Life and Fate. I’d recommend spending the time reading the book itself!

Mass market paperbacks in non-bookstore locations were usually supplied by a wholesaler who’s rep would turn up and “restock the shelves”. The retailers only cared that the books should sell, not whether their inventory included this or that title. People didn’t tend to go to the drug store to ask after the latest bestseller: there they would buy on impulse. The Shatzkin Files carried an interesting consideration of the stocking technique last year. Mr Shatzkin’s father, Leonard, was it turns out something of a pioneer in this area, establishing the Doubleday Merchandising Plan.

One might have thought that bookstores would have been resistant to someone telling them which books they should stock — after all aren’t they the ones who are in close touch with their local audience — but about 800 stores signed up for the Doubleday plan (though maybe they were mostly non-bookstores). But it does seem like an idea which might work. And now would seem to be an even more propitious moment for Vendor Managed Inventory than 1957 when the Doubleday Plan was introduced. Cheap computing allows us to know what’s selling where almost in real time. Your exposé on election fraud is selling fast in Duluth — send ’em some more. That bright and bushy-tailed first novel is doing well in Seattle — off go more copies. Of course it doesn’t work like that: the publishers don’t presume to send books on spec, they wait instead for the bookstores to place their own orders. A rep may call the store to suggest that they might reorder, but few publishers will presume to ship books without an order. And yet they could: we have the knowledge and could surely earn the trust. And of course we do accept returns!

No real reason to stop at this level of the business continuum. Publishers could easily have printers monitor the publisher’s inventory and autonomously print more copies for supply into the publisher’s warehouse at the moment before existing stock is depleted. All that’s needed is trust that giving your printers access to your inventory planning data isn’t something that they’d abuse. As they have precious little motive for doing so, and plenty pointing them in the other direction, this is a trivial problem. You’d want of course to have confidence that they’d act on the information and not leave you book-less.

There is precedent. For years paper merchants have been putting paper on the floor at various book printers. The printer’s customers will call for the use this paper from time to time; the printer uses it for the printing and reports usage; the merchant will bill for the usage, and monitor stocks so they can ship in more paper when the inventory runs down.

Beware, manufacturing department staff. I am probably not the only one to have had this thought.