Archives for the month of: August, 2017

Why is a piece of art in a book referred to as a figure?

It’s been that for long enough. The Oxford English Dictionary defines figure as “a delineation illustrating the text of a book”, and gives as their earliest example Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (c. 1400) “For the more decl[a]racioun, lo here the figure.” The book is still available, so, lo, there too the figure.

The word is well established, and the OED doesn’t bother to show any examples later than 1885. Recent enough you may say, but not long into the life of photography, which is what got me started on all this. I was reading an Oxford University Press book, George Cotkin’s Dive Deeper, and was struck by the fact that all the art is labeled as Figure this that and the other regardless of whether it is a photo or a line drawing. This actually seems an absolutely normal state of affairs, but why should I think that a figure should only be a piece of line art?

I fear the answer is that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, something I’m a bit ashamed to have to admit. In the old letterpress days, when photographs tended to be printed on separate sections of coated paper, they were referred to as Plates, and got their own numbering sequence. The other bits of artwork, which were printed on the text paper were labeled Fig. 1, Fig. 2 etc. Once offset presses enabled publishers to print halftones on text paper, they could be incorporated into the same Figure sequence. Indeed Judith Butcher tells us in Copy-editing, Third edition (first published in 1975, but in use internally for years before that) “Text halftones are usually included in the figure numbering. Halftones printed on different paper are more likely to be numbered in a separate sequence, because of the expense of inserting them at the right place in the sequence when the book is bound.”*

Still, figure remains an odd word for what might be called an illustration, a drawing, a diagram, a picture even — though perhaps no odder than may of the words we easily utter. The word ultimately derives from the Latin figura, which apparently (mysteriously?) was a medieval rendering of σχῆμα (from which we get schema, or schematic which is a word occasionally to be found as an alternative to figure in scientific publication).

Why is an illustration in a book referred to as art for that matter? This seems simpler I think. The manuscript would arrive at the printers as two stacks: pages of text, and a pile of drawings which had to go to a draftsman to be turned into reproduction quality “artwork”. So to refer to illustrations in a book as art, is to focus on their original production method.


* This reference to inserting plates at their text reference brings up another aspect of book manufacture. If you have a photo printed up and have to tip it in facing its text reference (which is obviously the most convenient location for the reader) you have to interrupt the binding process to flip through the book to find the page in question, open it up and do your tip-in. If there’s only one halftone plate, for example a frontspiece, this extra cost was often tolerated, but if there were multiple plates, the cost quickly became exorbitant. Gathering all the halftones together in one section doesn’t really inconvenience the reader all that much as it’s pretty obvious where the plate section is.

Rank 2017 Rank 2016 Publishing Group or Division Parent Company Parent Country 2016 Revenue (in $M) 2015 Revenue (in $M)
1 1 Pearson Pearson PLC UK $5,617 $6,625
2 3 RELX Group Reed Elsevier PLC & Reed Elsevier NV UK/NL/US $4,864 $5,209
3 2 ThomsonReuters The Woodbridge Company Canada $4,819 $5,776
4 not listed Bertelsmann Bertelsmann AG Germany $3,697 $5,259
5 4 Wolters Kluwer Wolters Kluwer NL $3,384 $4,592
6 8 Hachette Livre Lagardère France $2,390 $2,407
7 10 Grupo Planeta Grupo Planeta Spain $1,889 $1,809
8 9 McGraw-Hill Education Apollo Global Management US $1,757 $1,835
9 11 Wiley Wiley US $1,727 $1,822
10 15 Springer Nature Springer Nature Germany $1,715 $1,605
11 14 Scholastic Scholastic US $1,673 $1,636
12 12 HarperCollins News Corp. US $1,646 $1,667
13 13 Cengage Learning Holdings II Apax and Omers Capital Partners US/Canada $1,631 $1,633
14 16 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company US/Cayman Islands $1,373 $1,416
15 19 Holtzbrinck Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck Germany $1,226 $1,231
16 23 Shueisha Hitotsubashi Group Japan $1,053 $1,013
17 25 Kodansha Kodansha Japan $1,004 $969
18 22 Informa Informa PLC UK $963 $1,073
19 24 Kadokawa Publishing Kadokawa Holdings Japan $949 $1,009
20 21 Oxford University Press Oxford University UK $939 $1,137
21 27 Bonnier The Bonnier Group Sweden $846 $827
22 26 Shogakukan Hitotsubashi Group Japan $818 $850
23 29 Simon & Schuster CBS US $767 $780
24 30 Grupo Santillana PRISA SA Spain $668 $702
25 28 Egmont Group Egmont International Holding A/S Denmark $605 $786
26 32 Klett Klett Gruppe Germany $567 $540
27 31 Woongjin ThinkBig Woongjin Holding Korea $520 $552
28 39 Mondadori The Mondadori Group Italy $501 $350
29 34 De Agostini Editore Gruppo De Agostini Italy $469 $483
30 35 Groupe Madrigall Madrigall France $461 $478
31 36 Les Editions Lefebvre-Sarrut Frojal France $442 $432
32 not listed Somos Educação Somos Brazil $426 $237
33 33 Messagerie / GeMS Messagerie Italiane Italy $431 $344
34 44 Kyowon Kyowon Korea $394 $277
35 38 Media Participations Media Participations Belgium $372 $371
36 37 Cambridge University Press Cambridge University Press UK $332 $399
37 40 Westermann Verlagsgruppe Medien Union Germany $317 $327
38 48 EKSMO-AST Privately owned Russia $314 $233
39 41 Sanoma Sanoma WSOY Finland $299 $307
40 42 Cornelsen Cornelsen Germany $287 $284
41 43 Haufe Gruppe Privately owned Germany $282 $279
42 47 Gakken Gakken Japan $261 $239
43 45 WEKA WEKA Firmengruppe Germany $248 $253
44 not listed France Loisirs ACTISSIA Club Luxembourg $229 $275
45 50 Bungeishunju Bungeishunju Japan $220 $201
46 46 La Martinière Groupe La Martinière Groupe France $217 $246
47 49 Prosveshcheniye Privately owned Cyprus $207 193
48 51 Groupe Albin Michel Groupe Albin Michel France $206 $194
49 not listed Editora FTD Editora FTD Brazil $184 $160
50 52 Shinchosha Publishing Shinchosa Publishing Japan $154 $182

From Publishers Weekly 28 August 2017.













Never heard of it — in a bookish context at least. The word can also be rendered as spue. But, as The Collation informs us, spew apparently results from a “reaction that occurs in some leathers which have been treated (or ‘dressed’) with different fatty or waxy compounds. When the leather is exposed to a change in climate, these unbound compounds migrate towards the surface and solidify, where they form a crystalline residue.” Spew can be found on your old boots as well as your leather-bound library.

It can be distinguished form its dangerous Doppelgänger, mold, by the fact that spew will melt when lightly heated.

The OED informs us that spew may also mean “the fourth swarm of bees in a season”. Good to know we have a word for that.

Many a Book Token I received as a child in Scotland. They were never exactly what you wanted, as they carried that hint of “this will be good for you”, but they were obviously much better than socks or hand-kerchiefs. In those days the Book Token would be a little greeting card, costing 3d, into which the bookseller would stick a sort of postage-stamp-like thing which indicated how many pounds the purchaser had paid to their local bookshop, and thus the amount you could spend in your nearest shop. All bookshops accepted them in those days.

Book Tokens were first introduced in Britain in 1932; a brainwave of Harold Raymond, publisher at Chatto and Windus. Booksellers were skeptical, seeing the whole process as a fiddly additional cost. They were eventually mollified by the evident success of the scheme, and importantly by the additional discount they were granted on books thus sold. As Iain Stevenson tells us in Book Makers, “Part of the antipathy . . . arose from confusion with the gift vouchers provided by the tobacco manufacturers Wix and Sons with Kensitas cigarettes.” Among the gifts for which these cigarette “tokens” could be redeemed was a list of 450 different books. Booksellers pointed out that the cost of the cigarettes you’d need to buy in order to qualify for a free book came in many cases to less than the retail price of the book. This objection evaporated when Wix withdrew the vouchers in 1933.

Reverse of Lackington token. From Bryars & Bryars

As close readers of this blog may recall “book tokens” had in fact been invented rather earlier. In the late 18th century James Lackington at The Temple of the Muses, had issued medallion-like tokens which could be exchanged for books. Bryars and Bryars give more details of these tokens.


Book Tokens still exist in Britain, but unsurprisingly they are now little electronic debit card things. The National Book Tokens site provides a lot of information. We don’t have anything exactly similar over here in America: an Amazon gift card can be frittered away on anything, even, god save us, groceries! You can in fact buy a gift card for “mind food” — a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, but as the Amazon help page emphasizes you can trade it in for a general Amazon gift card if you don’t want to be lumbered with anything as boring as buying an ebook. In January The Digital Reader (and Shelf Awareness) reported on Amazon’s testing title-specific Kindle gift cards — I don’t know whether the test is still on-going, and what may have been learned. The Digital Reader post mentions a few other similar failed initiatives.


This film, made almost unbelievably by school children, tells the story of the end of Fleet Street, telling you along the way what it was like there before the Murdoch-alypse.

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

The film tells the story (from one side it’s true) of the brutal switchover from letterpress to computers and offset in the British print industry. As one of the casualties says: “The benefits of new technology go to those who own it, not those who work it.” It’s hard not be get angry about it — inevitable as such change is. The film’s website is here.

The title, Banging out, derives from the celebration marking the end of your 6-year apprenticeship. The first part of the movie is about apprenticeship. Technological change has made apprenticeship less important — the machines now just know stuff which in the olden days had to be learnt by workers: it’s all been programmed in. The pride to be found carrying out a complex and back-breaking task with colleagues who all knew the same vast amount that you did, is no longer a feature of our work. Watch the film for the touching story of the bonds of comradeship which marked the old industry. It is 52 minutes long, but it is good.

“I call ‘commercial’ every work, not only in literature but in music and painting and sculpture — any art — which is done for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection. Of course, in commercial writing, there are different grades. You may have things which are very cheap and some very good. The books of the month, for example, are commercial writing; but some of them are almost perfectly done, almost works of art. Not completely, but almost. And the same with certain magazine pieces; some of them are wonderful. But very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers.”

Thus Georges Simenon in interview with Carvel Collins in The Paris Review, Summer 1955.

Is this reasonable? I’m almost tempted to put my hesitations down to a problem in translation — not that I’ve any idea what the original was. Surely almost all writers write with some kind of audience in mind, which might be described as “such-and-such a public”. Good writing almost always takes the form of an argument between the writer and the ideal reader. The real point Simenon is making is perhaps to be found in the last sentence: “a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers”. Certain groups of readers can love a work of art, but a work of art cannot be created in order to make them love it.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Maybe Dr Johnson didn’t actually say this: after all we only have Boswell’s word for it. It always struck me as a silly thing to say: it’s obviously not true, unless we count love-struck poets as blockheads, which maybe he did. Of course not everything one says over a pint of bitter has to make total sense, even if you are Dr J. — thank goodness we don’t all have acolytes following us around recording our every pronouncement. (Naturally I consider most of his jibes at the Scots as falling into the same category; probably directed at getting a rise out of poor Boswell.)

But getting a reasonable return on your labor is obviously a rational aim, while writing in order to make money might be considered a potential drag on quality. It’s the old Edwin/Jasper debate. Just because Dickens made a bundle off his writings, are they disqualified from being works of art? Because George Eliot made £7,000 for Romola, does this mean that the book is trash? Simenon, who clearly knew a bit of commercial fiction when he saw it, “wanting to rescind an agreement that had proved disadvantageous to him . . . achieved his aim by putting to good use his intuitive knowledge of the human heart. The novelist assessed how much it would be worth for him to redeem his original contract; then filled a briefcase with banknotes and won his negotiation simply by emptying the briefcase over the publisher’s desk.” (From Simon Leys: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, NYRB, 2013.)

However dismissive we may like to be about trade publishing, it has to be admitted that the occasional trade book will aspire to and achieve the status of “art”. I suppose one could posit a work of literature, written with extreme art, whose aim was to show us our true nature by being written to appeal (and sell to) the highest possible number of people. But until that genius of public mood comes along, we will, I guess, have to go with the working assumption that a novel written in order to get onto the bestseller list cannot achieve the status of “literature”, while literature can occasionally, almost by accident, sell in huge numbers.




Howard Jacobson says children may become illiterate because of apps like Twitter. The Bookseller‘s headline writer reports him as saying that Twitter “will” make them illiterate. Does The Bookseller really think I wouldn’t have read the item without the scare headline?

As evidence for his already extravagant claim, Jacobson advances the fact that Twitter has ruined his own memory: has he considered that it may have something to do with his age? He will be celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow!

To my mind literacy is literacy, and if you’re reading and writing Tweets, Instagrams, text messages, you are being literate. Of course we may be moving to a world where you won’t need to waste time keying in text and it’ll all come to you telepathically — or at least audibly. Maybe people will stop reading, but that’ll be because something easier/better has come along. Technological change is nothing more than change — something nervous conservatives seem to think of as terrifying. But even conservatives appear to have been able to bring themselves to take up smartphones.

As it happens the article points to research showing that “e-books positively impact teenage boys’ reading motivation and skills”.

At TeleRead Chris Meadows gives an impassioned appeal for the idea that creativity can be unleashed by looser copyright rules, giving an account of the manga and movie origins of The Castle of Cagliostro.

It’s hard to disagree with him that the ability to riff on Sherlock Holmes can/did release some valuable works. The ability of a copyright owner to suppress even mildly derivative works approaches the scandalous. The original aim of copyright was “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The promotion of science and the useful arts is not possible when copyright owners, often corporate entities backed by vast funds, can stop progress by bringing a law suit (which many artists cannot afford to defend). Maybe that clause from the original law should now be revised to say that the purpose of copyright is “to promote the profitability of corporations and other individuals who own copyrights by securing for as long as these corporate individuals shall deem desirable, the exclusive right to these writings and discoveries.”

Publishing Perspectives reports that a judge has ruled that Moppet Books, a line of children’s books based on well-known copyrights infringe the copyright law. These books do appear to be straightforward simplified editions of the original works, and as such are more justifiably disallowed than new stories which just use the same characters as the original work. Surely a work about Atticus Finch where he gives up the law and fulfills a lifetime’s ambition to ride in the Tour de France ought to be allowed, while maybe a simplified retelling of To kill a mockingbird should legitimately be held to need a license from HarperCollins. The difference is in the transformative nature of the adaptation: but even such works often get into legal difficulties.

America’s on-going love affair with the corporate economy (masquerading as the free market) of course guarantees that in the next few years Congress will manage to get it together to extend the term of copyright even longer. Mickey Mouse is approaching the edge of the public domain precipice. He was “born” in 1928, but won’t fall into the public domain till 2023. Obviously any corporate body would consider 95 years is a totally inadequate term of protection for an asset that still makes money!

Interestingly, shows 274 fan fictions based on Mickey. I guess none of them represents, in  Disney’s lawyers’ minds, a viable commercial threat, or they’d presumably have been forced down.

I still like my three-part proposal for copyright. It has of course a snowball in hell’s chance.

See also Tie-ins and fan fics.

The Booksellers Association blog Brave New World (now ceased?) had a story in 2015 about this device.

Have you seen any further developments? It seems a promising idea although this version is a bit stuttering.

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

Paper artist Ray Tomasso from Denver tells you in this YouTube video all about the history of paper making while making several sheets of paper in front of you.

This video is almost an hour long, but well worth watching. (If you don’t see the video above this paragraph, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)