Archives for the month of: December, 2017

Literary fiction is near death? Say it ain’t so Jo.

The Guardian brings us the dire warnings of the Arts Council England who see an earnings crisis among authors. Sanely The Guardian points out that the real source of the trouble is that publishers have woken up to the idea that lavishing huge advances on authors who then deliver books which don’t sell enough to earn out their advance is a form of charity that they can no longer afford. “The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t ‘earn out’. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an ‘important’ writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.”

Fascinatingly, perhaps in a bid for balance The Guardian brings us an alternate version of the same story, this one suppressing the excuse about advances and earning out. Their tag line on this one reads “New figures show that fewer UK writers earn enough to live on, as ACE blames falling sales of literary fiction on the recession and the rise of smartphones.” Maybe the cold weather in early December had something to do with it; or sunspot activity. Surely Teresa May can’t escape blame, nor D. Trump for that matter. Come on ACE, the rise of smartphones?

The article tells us “The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: ‘Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income . . . That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.’” The wording there needs slight adjustment — it should be “the 10,000 best selling books”: we’d all love for their to be 10,000 bestsellers, but of course there aren’t. The 10,000 books with the greatest sales will get you down into territory which nobody would ever mistake for bestsellerdom, even probably that of books written for a popular audience. Most books have always been unable to deliver a living wage.

Now of course, one might prefer the term “literary fiction” to be narrowly defined as fiction written with a primary concern for art, not stuff written with popularity and sales in mind. That second-rate, catch-penny trade fiction might be in trouble shouldn’t cause The Arts Council too much concern surely. One assumes that their remit is solely with the quality stuff — which has always had, and always will have, a rather small audience. If you, heir to Edwin Reardon, write such material it is of course a matter of regret that publishers are no longer willing to play the game which pretends that your manuscript is bound to turn into a To the Lighthouse, rather than some forgotten masterpiece like, say, Emma Smith’s The Far Cry.

This poverty amongst midlisters is surely just the ending of a short interval in the history of relations between publishers and writers. Have publishers finally decided once and for all that fiscal responsibility trumps the gambling instint? I remain to be convinced.


In 2014 Benjamin George Friedman, famous apparently for having read the Dictionary from cover to cover, left St Marks Bookshop in Manhattan (recently closed) and opened a used bookshop in Ridgewood, Queens. It is named Topos Bookstore and Cafe, and is one block from the Forest Avenue exit from the M line. I wonder if Deborah Emin is happy; maybe she was more focussed on new books being sold in library buildings in the borough.

Friedman tells us about this in a nice Freelance column in the Times Literary Supplement of 20 February 2015 (lurking behind a paywall I fear). He writes “New York City is an unforgiving place for booksellers. The challenges facing a small independent store hardly need rehearsing: competition from huge national chains and online discounters, as well as the threat posed by electronic books, are compounded in New York by the punishingly high retail rents. In the past twenty-five years, the number of bookstores in Manhattan has fallen by more than half. But recent years have seen a happier development, with some half-dozen shops opening, some good ones among them. This second-hand renaissance has mostly taken place in the outer boroughs.” Topos seems to be doing OK, which is great news. Friedman concludes his piece with an anecdote about a lady, originally from Ridgewood, back on a visit: “‘No one around here reads books’, she declared. Her tone was not hostile but something was troubling her. Eventually it emerged that she was herself a writer, a poet. She had grown up in the neighbourhood but had left many years ago. Ridgewood was for her always going to be a place from which anyone with a bookish sensibility would want to escape. She was unable to see it, but others are coming to share our vision of Queens as a literary destination.”

We wish them luck.

And now here comes another contender. A Kickstarter campaign has enabled the Queens Bookstore Initiative to gather $70,000 and open another bookshop in Queens. Shelf Awareness reported on the campaign:

The initiative is led by Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa and Holly Nikodem, all of whom have bookselling and bookstore management experience. The trio has pointed out that after the closing last year of Barnes & Noble stores in Forest Hills, Bayside and Fresh Meadows, Queens, with a population of 2.3 million, now has just one bricks-and-mortar bookstore selling new books, Astoria Bookshop. The group hopes to open in or near Kew Gardens or Forest Hills: “It’s important for us to be as accessible as possible to all the neighborhoods who have been abandoned by the big box bookstores.”

The Kickstarter campaign has succeeded in raising all the money and now The Queens Bookstore Initiative has a webpage. The store, named Kew and Willow Books, is open and may be found at 81-63 Lefferts Boulevard in Kew Gardens.

These accounts, which mainly hang their stories on the idea that after Barnes & Noble left, Queens was no more than a bookstore desert, quietly overlook the existence of The Astoria Bookshop. I can’t comment on El Ber Bookstore, Sinagtala Educational Resources, New Life Christian Book Store, Queens College Bookstore, Apollo Books, Academy Books, Books for Life, Evan Bates Books /Documents, Turn the Page Again, Austin Book Shop, but it seems there are more bookshops lurking about than we are led to believe. Of course these tend to be small, specialist, and often second-hand. But just because B & N closes doesn’t mean we are instantly plunged into utter biblio-obscurity.

On the other hand brings us news of the eviction of the borough’s only independent publisher. I can’t believe nobody else in Queens has self published a book, but maybe they are using independent in its old-fashioned sense.

Development continues. Book Culture announced in May their plans for a fourth location in Long Island City. They have 3 shops in Manhattan already. Just shows it can be done: the store opened in December at 26-09 Jackson Avenue. Could one risk suggesting that the Queens bookstore scene is thriving?

Didn’t work out too well as a slogan in Britain’s recent Conservative government’s election fiasco, nor perhaps can it be used to refer to the state of the book business, although Mike Shatzkin dives right in and declares at his Idea Logical Company that stability and at least a slowing of strength-loss have been achieved. Steady state may not be the most inspiring rallying cry, but Mr Shatzkin gives the industry credit for at least having dealt pretty well with recent changes in the ecosystem.

Any hint of complacency on the part of the wicked book industry acts as a red rag to the commentariat, including the Passive Guy, author of The Passive Voice. He points out once again how deluded are those inhabitants of cloud cuckoo land, the doomed book publishers. He’s perhaps not absolutely wrong, it’s just that the brush he’s using to cancel out the publishing industry is a paperhanger’s twelve-incher, rather than the No. 3 watercolor brush he really needs. It seems anyone can say whatever they want about what’s going to happen to book publishing: unfortunately they mostly appear to be blissfully unaware that what they are talking about isn’t publishing, it is trade publishing, the only kind they’ve ever thought about. Most books are however not trade books, and while it is possible the whole kit and caboodle might end up going to hell in that hand-basket, you can’t discuss this in any meaningful way without acknowledging the differences between various types of publishing.

One risk identified by Mr Shatzkin is that newspapers, libraries and other non-book publishing entities will expand and professionalize their existing book programs. While this may of course be a threat for existing trade publishers, it really has no bearing on the state of publishing as a whole. If the books are published by company X or company Y doesn’t matter — as long as they are published. If Lincoln in the Bardo were to have been published by The New York Times rather than Random House, who (apart from PRH employees) would be any the worse off (or notice)?

As an aside the Passive Guy takes a swipe at publishers for dissing romance authors. Now romance may not be your genre of choice, and some workers in publishing, just like some coal miners, bus drivers, and even lawyers (PG’s profession) may occasionally have allowed a disparaging remark or two to have crossed their lips upon observing a romance novel. But to describe Harlequin, Avon, or Mills and Boon as treating their authors in a disrespectful and condescending manner is, well, disrespectful and condescending — as well as patent nonsense just thrown in there because we love to slime those hoity-toity publishing types.

But of course that’s not the point at issue. Does the way genre fiction like romance has been moving more and more towards a self-publishing mode mean that all publishing is bound to follow? I would submit that such developments as the ebookification of the genre market have little to do with “serious” publishing, law, medicine, science, philosophy, history, etc., and that academic publishing, textbook publishing, legal publishing, journal publishing, and so on, while they may be subject to stresses of their own, have very little in common with genre fiction publishing and are unlikely to be damaged as much by those forces. This is not to say that they will manage to survive — just that the problems they face are not the same problems as trade publishers face. I have often said that I think specialist publishing will survive — but who can tell what the future holds? The least we can do when speculating about it is to be sure we are defining our terms clearly so as to avoid confusing ourselves. Nobody denies that change happens: what the detail of these changes is going to be remains opaque until after they’ve taken place, when of course they appear utterly obvious.


The Bookseller has a round-up of the best cover designs of the year — from British publishers. I was struck by this one which seems pretty cunning. For the sake of completeness here’s a link to a US view, Paste‘s 30 Best Book Covers of 2017. There are tons of bloggers producing this sort of cover favorites list.

In September The Guardian did a piece on the differences between British and American book cover design. I must say I do usually find myself voting for the UK jacket over the US, and I have always attributed this to the impossibility of ever overcoming early childhood conditioning. The Guardian, in discussing the cis- and transatlantic jackets of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened comes down on the US side (me too in this case). Slightly surprised, they say “it raises the question: why did the Americans get it right and the British so wrong when UK book design is supposedly the envy of the world?” Well, you can’t expect The Guardian to overcome its early childhood conditioning either.







Is the gap between US and UK design closing, and if so why? If it is, it’s probably for no reason other than because everything in Britain/ everywhere seems to get more and more international/American all the time. One reason advanced in The Guardian piece seems fairly lame to me: “US designers have upped their game because of the explosion in digital books”. There’s no question that jacket design has been affected by the on-line revolution: a fussy little detail-heavy design is just going to look like a blob when viewed at 436 x 436 pixels on Amazon. But surely the force that is Amazon is just as strong in Britain as it is in the USA, and UK designers are likely to have upped their game in similar ways.

I find myself voting (contrary to The Guardian) for the US cover of Go Set a Watchman rather than the UK one. Harper have made their version look quite like the well-known cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book everyone’s familiar with. True it has some gash typeface taking the place of the hand-lettering on the older book, but anybody looking at them would know they were related to one another. The tree makes a nice comment too.












The UK cover for To Kill a Mockingbird (lower row) is surely not one anyone would want to echo. In America where every schoolchild is made to read To Kill a Mockingbird, the cover is lodged in most minds. In Britain it can’t have any similar iconic aspirations. Those Brits who have seen their cover will probably instantly have forgotten it. That little circle on the Go Set a Watchman cover quoting the other cover, is, I think, the worst feature of the design. Notice that it has the tree making the same comment.

Robert McCrum seems to be an inexhaustible list builder. Here’s his ongoing list at The Guardian of the 100 best nonfiction books written in English. He’s up to number 97. Reading this lot represents a serious commitment, but on you go.

He introduces the series on a BBC podcast which can be found here. His interview starts at about 22 minutes in.

A couple of years ago I reported on his 100 best novels list.

Three weeks later: Here’s the complete final list.

What the commentariat often fails to understand is that book publishers are not in business to encourage e-reading. Ebooks represent, to a publisher, just a different format in which their books might be supplied. For a publisher the ebook is no more “desirable” than the paperback, the hardback or the audiobook. It’s just another way to supply content.

Here’s a piece from GoodEReader, in which the question is asked “Why do ebooks cost so much?” Might as well ask, as no doubt lots of people do, “Why do books cost so much?” I have written about the pricing of ebooks quite a lot (see Index to all posts): no doubt that’s because it has frequently been a topic of discussion out there. What most people get misled by is the obvious fact that when you buy an ebook there’s self-evidently no material there, no evidence of work like printing or binding having gone on. It is true that after a book is published if nobody ever buys a copy the publisher will not have incurred any more cost for an ebook, while there is already a pile of inventory cost sitting in a warehouse in the shape of printed books. But just because there’s no marginal cost in selling an ebook does not mean there’s no cost. Imagine a book which costs $5,000 to write, edit, design, layout, proof etc.. Let’s say every copy of the print edition costs $2 for paper, printing and binding. The ebook, obviously, costs $0 for its physical output (maybe there’s tiny electricity bill and some marginal computer cost, but let’s just say $0). If you published the book only in ebook form, you would not price it at $0 — clearly you still need to recover that $5,000, so you have to guess how many copies you’ll sell and divide the $5,000 by that number so that you can eventually cover the cost of creation. So this means that if the book were to have been a print book, sold at $25, the ebook could stand being published at $23 with the same gross profit (after all it costs $2 less to manufacture). Actually the math makes the difference more than that, so let’s call it $20 for the ebook. You can argue of course that publishing at a lower price will increase sales. And that is true. Unfortunately, except in the rarest of cases, it won’t increase sales to the extent needed to bring in the same budgeted amount of revenue*. In this regard the idea is a bit like trickle down economics: as a policy it has never worked.

The whole basis for the struggle trade publishers undertook with Amazon a few years back was a fear that Amazon was on the way to accustoming customers to an ebook price of less than $10, something which would have had disastrous consequences for the example quoted. At the time it looked like ebooks might continue to gain market share so that eventually publishers would end up locked into a pricing model which prevented them from ever publishing in the first place. One of my earlier posts from 2013 illustrates the point. Now we are much more relaxed about the “threat” of ebooks — indeed I think you could say publishers are now more likely to view the ebook as an opportunity rather than a threat. Relevant is also the fact that early ebooks were all conversions from print books, so that all the upfront costs were already covered by sales of print books. But loading all the costs onto the print edition isn’t a viable policy. Sure it’ll work in this case or that case, but ultimately, if print does go away, customers would be faced with huge price increases in their unsupported ebooks.

Self publishing really needs to be analyzed as a separate business. Of course an author can stimulate vast sales by pricing at $1.99. I can attest that that price in and of itself can also lead to minuscule sales. Will all books eventually end up being self published? Could be; and I do think it’s easy to see this as happening in those areas where maybe it is already happening, such as genre fiction. I think it’s a lot less likely in the case of the majority of books which, being directed at more specialist audiences where the quality control function of the gatekeeper is valued, tend to be overlooked by the commentariat.


* Another pundit problem is guessing at sales numbers. Just about the only sales numbers the public hears about are the big, exceptional ones. Nobody is out there boasting about books which fail, and publicizing their pathetic sales numbers. Sorry folks, most books are not bestsellers.


The Digital Reader, following the New York Times‘ lead, tells us it’s all over in a post entitled Book Mending is Going the Way of the Buggy Whip. The article quotes Mr Vass of the Kings County Library system in Seattle, who opines that he will be the last of his kind. He may be right if he means the last bookbinder to be an employee of a library system, though even there I’d suspect him of excessive pessimism. The world is a large place after all. Maybe he’ll be the last in the USA.

The Digital Reader‘s main beef with the whole concept is economic, and his math certainly does suggest that by a financial measure Mr Vass should be the last of his kind. Before WWII the economics of the business were completely different. We all tended to be more careful at conserving resources: not because of any ecological purity, but because “things” just cost more relative to labor than now. There used to be tinkers: now we just chuck old pans away and buy new ones. Governments actively discourage tinkering with automobiles in order to make them last longer, and manufacturers join in by making their vehicles more and more computer-driven. People are aghast to see me darn a sock or patch a pair of pants. It’s the same with books: unless there’s some sentimental attachment it’s just more reasonable now to toss a book with a broken binding and go out and buy another one.

BUT — you can still get your book repaired. There are many freelance hand binders out there who will continue doing this sort of work for private customers, though it can’t ever come cheap. Furthermore though, there are several companies who specialize in book repair for the library market, and if their back-logs are anything to go by, this is not work that’s about to disappear. Companies specializing in one-off library rebinding have found the development of digital printing technology a great opportunity for expansion. Bridgeport National Bindery‘s trajectory is a good example. Originally a library repair business, in the early 90s they pioneered a new business model by adding a binding service for printers who were using Xerox DocuTechs to print ultra short runs of books. After a few years they figured that they could easily enough get into the printing part of that business, and they did, first with DocuTechs and then with other print engines. Success built, and they began doing four-color photo books — the sort of book individuals put together as a family project, a wedding album or whatever. Eventually the new elements in their business mix dwarfed the old original one-off repair business, and now BNB has withdrawn from library repair. Acme appears set to pick up the slack.

A step-by-step can be found in this ALA slide deck which has links to many videos showing details of the process.

Poster by Hog Island Press. Click to enlarge

I guess it says something about the way Americans view themselves that this phrase exists at all and is indeed common currency. Nobody’s ever heard of The Great Scottish Novel, The Great English Novel, The Great French Novel, The Great Danish Novel, etc., etc. Why do we Americans seek “Great”, and especially why would we think “The” was appropriate or even desirable in such a context? Novels are not in competition with one another. All the novels on that chart are fine novels, some may be great, but why do you need to come up with one winner?

I see this phenomenon as related to the fact that a draw or tie is not considered an acceptable result in American sports. Baseball games can, potentially, go on forever, until one team wins. I just discovered that there are circumstances, too complicated for us to understand, that can lead to an American football game’s ending in a draw, but few people seem ever to have observed this. Football games* end in draws all the time and nobody has any trouble dealing with their team getting one point rather than the three they’d have had with a win. So why do Americans require victory in everything including their self-inflicted great novel race?

The Literary Hub has a piece on this question by Ursula K. Le Guin where she objects to the even sillier question “Where is the Great American Novel by a woman?”. She quotes Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid who responds “. . . Bear with me as I advocate the death of the Great American Novel. The problem is in the phrase itself. ‘Great’ and ‘Novel’ are fine enough. But ‘the’ is needlessly exclusionary, and ‘American’ is unfortunately parochial. The whole, capitalized, seems to speak to a deep and abiding insecurity, perhaps a colonial legacy. How odd it would be to call Homer’s ‘Iliad’ or Rumi’s ‘Masnavi’ ‘the Great Eastern Mediterranean Poem’.” The colonial bit does, I think, get to the heart of the “American” part of the matter. American literature grew up in the shadow of British/English literature in a way in which Indian or Pakistani literature, say, did not. Nineteenth-century Americans saw Shakespeare as part of their heritage, and Pope, and Fielding, and Thackeray, and Dickens, and . . . hold on a minute, this is getting embarrassing. Let’s stop and boost our Cooper, and Hawthorne, and Melville. Look, there’s Moby-Dick — we can claim that as The Great American Novel.

Novels bearing the title The Great American Novel have been written by William Carlos Williams and Philip Roth. Williams’ short satire features a little Ford car falling in love with a Mack truck. Roth’s book is appropriately about the “Great American Pastime”, baseball. He analyses in his prologue some candidates for the title, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, dismissing each in turn. He debates with Ernest Hemingway during a fishing trip and Hem insists that none of them is any good: he’ll be writing the Great American Novel himself: end of discussion. Of course Roth’s leading man (“Call me Smitty” as the book begins) keeps on with his attempt to do it himself, as exemplified by the book in front of us. (He fails.)

The term “Great American Novel” itself derives directly from the title of an 1868 essay by American novelist John William De Forest. It is an indication of the fickleness of fashion that Forest sets up the putative G.A.N. as an response to The Newcomes or Les Misérables.


* I refer here of course to real football, what Americans refer to as soccer, that puerile abbreviation, needed in English public schools to distinguish it from rugger — Association football as against Rugby football.

An author recently asked “There’s no copyright in covers, is there? So I can just photograph one and use it as a slide in my forthcoming lecture?” Well, you probably could use a cover as a slide in a lecture, but that’s not because it doesn’t enjoy copyright protection. Depending on the lecture it might be regarded as fair use, though if it was a talk to a Wall Street firm for which you were receiving thousands of dollars, this might become less clearcut. The lecture in this instance was fairly formal, and I suggested that the author just hold up a copy of the book to make his point and thus avoid the potential “crime” of photographing it and “publishing” that photo. Reproducing a cover in a book or magazine would unambiguously require permission. Consider the fact that many book jackets come with their own © notice — e.g. all Library of America volumes.

 I suppose there might be a fair use defense for my use of this cover picture, but it might be a bit tortuous. The real reason* NOLO is (I hope) not going to come after me is not because I’m not making free use of a copyright object, but because publishers generally find reproduction of their book covers to be a good thing, bringing their publication to the attention of hordes of new potential purchasers.

There are actually two or three layers of copyright protecting this cover: the design is copyright, the photo is copyright, and the form of words used on the cover is copyright (but not the title and subtitle). All three aspects may vest with the one “owner”, the publisher. If the designer did the job as a work made for hire (which they would if it was part of their job, or if their freelance agreement specified this) then the contractor would own the copyright. The same might be true of the photo: and as the same image has been being used on successive editions of this book, this may well be the case. The cover copy would almost certainly be written in-house, and thus be work made for hire.

If NOLO wants to shout “Noli me tangere” at me, I’ll take the picture down.


* Apart of course from the harsh fact that they are unlikely ever to become aware of it!

Academic authors like to have offprints — little booklets consisting of just those pages in a journal on which their own article appeared — so they can give them to colleagues, especially those whose work has helped them in their own research. Nobody can afford to buy copies of the entire book or journal issue for this purpose. In the olden days, before digital printing made a publisher’s life so easy, we used to run on a few copies of each journal issue, so that they could be left unbound, cut up into individual pages and reassembled as offprints. The offprints tended to become less and less elaborate as the years went by. They might have had a little cover in the early days — in very classy journals, they might have been reimposed, given a new pagination sequence, and made up into proper little mini-books — but latterly they’d tend to be just a bunch of loose pages wire stapled down the spine margin. They might even come with the last page of the previous article or the first of the next incorporated, though this of course created problems for these other ones, so you’d have to run on even more sheets than if your articles all started on a recto. In order to facilitate the offprint process journal articles will tend to repeat bibliographic information on the first page of every article. This has nothing to do with the needs of the journal issue itself: it is so that the copyright notice will appear on each offprint on its own.

Collaborative book volumes, collections of papers on a single topic by a group of academics, can be regarded as effectively nothing more than single-issue journals bound in hard covers. As academic publishers never like to pay much for articles to be published in multi-authored volumes, the convention grew up that part of the author’s remuneration would be the provision of similar offprints. And they would be handled in exactly the same way. This meant the production people would have to remember to buy extra paper and tell the printer to add x number of copies to the ordered quantity for the book itself. Such specialist academic volumes are usually straining at all the limits of their budget anyway without some dumbhead’s error leading to a costly instant reprint in order to fulfill the offprint requirement.

Nowadays of course offprints can be done whenever and in whatever quantity desired by being run off on a DocuTech or similar digital print engine. Just another way computers make our lives easier.