Archives for the month of: January, 2018

“Lipogram is the name applied to a species of verse in which a certain letter, either vowel or consonant, is altogether omitted” W. T. Dobson tells us in Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies, and Frolics (1880) as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. Maybe this sort of thing is more common in verse but it doesn’t have to be restricted to poetry.

Wikipedia has examples including versions of “Mary had a little lamb” worked in various lipogrammatic ways: i.e. each one avoiding a certain letter or letters.

In what must surely be one of the oddest sentences in Wikipedia we are told “Poe’s poem The Raven contains no Z, but there is no evidence that this was intentional.” Bit of a stretch to allow that to qualify it as a lipogram surely. What evidence of intentionality might we look for? A letter from Poe saying that he was planning a poem with lots of Vs and Qs, but no Z? As far as I can see very few of his other poems contain a either. Anyway I’d say it was obviously (if trivially) intentional in that Poe clearly selected no words in which Z featured. Of how many poems could we say that they contain no Z? Certainly too many to bother with. I suspect that big-league lipogrammarians would consider their job required the omission of a letter slightly more frequently-occurring than Z!

Eunoia by Christian Bök certainly satisfies on that score: it restricts itself to the use of a single vowel. Wikipedia includes it as a lipogram, though it is in fact not a lipogram but a univocalic. Each of its five “Chapters” uses a single vowel only. Incredibly this actually manages to make sense and at the same time be interesting, or at least tell a coherent story. The title, which apparently means beautiful thinking in Greek, is alleged to be the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels. It is not however represented in the OED, even after this week’s update. Maybe Mr Bök’s efforts will get it there eventually. On a bellyband around the book, Gyles Brandreth describes Eunoia as “Extraordinary, outrageous, irresistible — a must for verbivores.” I guess experimental writing encourages that sort of thing.

Here’s the first page: Chapter A continues to page 30, so he keeps the performance up for a considerable time.

Haplography (chiefly to be encountered in the world of palaeography) is “The practice or an act of inadvertently writing a letter or word, or series of letters or words, once, when it should have been repeated. Opposed to dittography, which is “double writing; the unintentional repetition of a letter or word, or series of letters or words, by a copyist.” Re-reading this paragraph I find it itself sounds a bit haplographic, or maybe I mean dittographic.

Joe Esposito clearly knows more about these sorts of things than I do, but isn’t he being a bit too vague when he writes at The Scholarly Kitchen “a fair number of not-for-profit publishers have margins that come close to 50%”? Having just talked about Elsevier’s net profit margins, isn’t he here carelessly sliding into gross margin?* Maybe not, but surely a not-for-profit publisher with a 50% net profit margin would be conspicuous. This sort of profitability was not in evidence at the not-for-profit publishing companies I’ve worked for; and they are usually described as relatively successful.

The point he makes that size brings cost reduction through efficiencies is nevertheless important, though we might not all wish to go along with the implications of the shock headline of his paper Why Elsevier is a library’s best friend, from which my quotation comes. Before big companies like Elsevier consolidated so many journals under one umbrella there were subscription agents  who could be used by librarians to consolidate all their subscriptions into a single transaction. Of course the middle man would be taking a bit of margin, but that margin has in effect merely been transferred over to the publisher whose profits on this sort of business have long been objected to as gross (as well as net).

My objection is to the suggestion that libraries unambiguously benefit from the efficiencies created by Elsevier and their like. If every journal was published by a separate publisher, each one of whom had to pay their typesetters and printers more than Elsevier with their market power do, and if they had to pay a subscription agency to manage their subscriptions, would librarians necessarily be worse off? The publisher’s margin would come way down, the subscription price might go up a little or even remain the same (nobody’s accusing Elsevier et al. of giving their journals away) and the library might end up paying more for each subscription. The big difference would come in the library’s freedom to choose. In order to get the “discounted” price on a bundle of journals from a single large publisher, you have to subscribe to them all. You may feel that 100 of these journals are essential, 50 are optional, and 25 are junk which you take because you have to in order to get the overall price. Without the consolidated subscription each individual journal might cost you more, while your overall expenditure was a good deal less, because you no longer have to subscribe to the 25 worst and maybe most of the “optional” group.

So efficiencies are good, but freedom of choice may be better.


* Crudely, gross profit is the difference between receipts and outgoings. Net profit is gross profit minus the overhead cost of running the business, salaries, rent, insurance, paper clips and so on. In order to get your net profit within spitting distance of 10% you’d want to have your gross margin around 50%, as far above as possible. Efficiencies in operations will reduce your overhead. Reducing your overhead will increase your net profit. The PR difficulty that large commercial publishers of academic journals have is that their net profits tend to be over 30%, which their customers begin to see as excessive. It is believed that while some of this profitability may result from efficiencies, much of it comes from market dominance.

I think it may be a bit of a stretch to place the The Diamond Sutra at the start of an infographic illustrating the history of publishing. Surely ancient texts tended to be produced for reasons nobody would ever describe as publishing: for private distribution, not public. The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes two senses for the word “publishing”: “official notification, public announcement”, and “the action or business of issuing books, newspapers, etc. for public sale”. Their two earliest examples of the second meaning date from c.1454 and 1548. They seem to me to be really examples of the first meaning — at the very least they are ambiguous. Clearly by 1667 when the Royal Society notifies us that “This Author . . . promises the publishing of a Treatise about Insects” they are talking about a kind of publishing that we’d recognize.

Still the Ribbonfish chart settles down pretty well — compared to many competitors. “In its modern sense, publishing in Britain dates from the late eighteenth century, when we can first identify individuals and firms whose primary engagement was in issuing printed books for sale but were not directly involved either in printing or retail bookselling.” Thus John Feather in his A History of British Publishing. He goes on to qualify the baldness of this statement “Just as there were books before there was printing, there was publishing before there were publishers. Manuscript books were bought and sold in the ancient world and in medieval Europe. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a sophisticated trade had developed in their production, dissemination and sale. . . Not until the early nineteenth century was the word publisher established in its modern meaning, because by that time publishing and bookselling had also come to be practiced by different people and firms.” In my own mind I like to reserve the term book publisher for this eighteenth century development; thinking of the earlier manifestations as book merchant, printer/publisher, printer/publisher/bookseller or whatever.

Such vagueness need no longer continue to cloud our vision of the history of our industry. Book history has become such a thing nowadays that you can find many universities offering courses. Cambridge offers a graduate course in the Faculty of History. Many have podcasts on the subject. Here’s a link to Yale’s offerings. Look below and you’ll find several others; clicking on those will lead you to a lifetimes listening. Beware.

The website Publishing history appears to go in for listings of books published in various series. It’s an impressively long list which continues to grow.

Normally we might regard stealing books as a fairly low-level crime: even as a not altogether unacceptable means of spreading the reading habit. “[Theft] is part and parcel of what it is to be a bookseller – a certain percentage of books will wander off, and over time you know what they’ll be,” says James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, as reported by The Guardian. However earlier this month there was an unusual book heist from a Thetford warehouse. The Norfolk Police described these books as “not the sort of thing you see every day”. The haul included first editions of The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Can this Harry Potter book really be worth £40,000 as asserts? Who puts these prices on books? Harry Potter was such a publishing phenomenon that one would assume that second hand copies would be a drug on the market. It can’t be that rare can it?

Well, it turns out that it can be. Wikipedia tells us  “In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print-run of 500 copies in hardback, 300 of which were distributed to libraries” so the book is actually quite rare, and, given popular fervor, such a price might actually be realistic. “Her original name, ‘Joanne Rowling’, can be found in small print on the copyright page of this first British edition. (The 1998 first American edition would remove reference to ‘Joanne’ completely.) The short initial print run was standard for first novels . . . Examples from this initial print run have sold for as much as $33,460 in a 2007 Heritage Auction.”

One might like to argue with the assertion that 500 copies was standard for first novels in the 1990s. If you added another zero, I might not object. If the hardback came out simultaneously with a paperback edition, (the table of dates in the Wikipedia article appears actually to be for the US Scholastic edition) then a short run of the hardback might have been done if the publisher had wanted the paperback to be the primary edition. Maybe if they were doing a few hardbacks just to supply the library market, 500 might have not been too out of the way. I don’t think that Bloomsbury was focussed on the paperback though. They may have just done 500 as a sort of prepublication test, though this seems unusual and in need of some explanation. One would assume that information about this would be available somewhere, but I’m not able to find it in any reasonable timeframe. We have of course to remember that hindsight always distorts. The book was by no means guaranteed to be a publishing sensation. The public had to weigh in for that to come about. Bloomsbury however look like they were being strangely cautious. They can hardly be assumed to have been intending to fuel the second-hand market twenty years on. Obviously everyone woke up to reality quite quickly after publication and reprints in quantities way north of 500 were quickly done. For example a copy from the 22nd printing of the book is available second hand at £48. So in order to fund your retirement you’ll need one of these 500 1st edition 1st printing copies with the J. K. expanded to Joanne.

The resale value of your books is governed by rarity (and condition). has a simple site where you can see what current offerings are for this or that book. Bear in mind that the prices delivered are the prices people are being asked to pay, not the amount a dealer will offer you. That will be a good deal less: book dealers need to make a profit too.

Isn’t it likely to be simpler just to get another pillow? But this photo does indicate one of the difficulties of reading in bed: posture. Still, like so many things, if you are used to half-an-hour’s reading every night with your head propped up and neck bent forward, you will quickly get used to it. The fact that these fancy glasses never caught on suggests that they were indeed the solution to a non-existent problem. Heavy books do present a challenge for the bed reader (just as they do in the subway).* Still, if you’re deeply engaged in the book the balancing act you have to perform with that 1,000-page volume will recede into irrelevance. Last November Robert Gray had a nice piece about reading in bed at Shelf Awareness. Read it at his blog, Fresh Eyes Now.

I wonder if there are any physical commonalities with books for bed reading: do people chose thin volumes over massive tomes. For myself I can detect no avoidance of heavy books, though I probably tend to steer away from heavy (in the sense of serious subject matter, requiring constant thought and analysis) for bedtime reading. But of course, if I’m fascinated by this book on quantum mechanics, I’m not not going to read it at every available moment.

Author Howard Jacobson (who shockingly confesses to having abandoned reading in bed in favor of television) calls  in his Guardian piece for someone to write a history of reading in bed. Tough research project for a book history grad student looking for a thesis subject! Is he generalizing from his own experience when he claims that the practice has declined overall? Until the research is done we won’t know (if then, since historical data will be recoverable only via unreliable often boastful memory) but my bet is that the amount of reading in bed hasn’t declined at all. We readers should never forget that reading is a minority interest — not because of smartphones, but because it always was, and always will be. There have always been relatively few readers, and thus also relatively few readers-in-bed. There’s no way to reach any conclusion about numbers — but of course demography is our friend here: if 10% of people read in bed, that means that there are many more of them today than there were 50 years ago. That we continue to think of reading in bed as a sort of norm is evidenced by the first question in the New York Times Book Review‘s weekly column “By the Book” which is always “What books are on your nightstand?”. One may be able to detect a slight tendency for self-aggrandizement in the answers given: there’s certainly no shortage of heavy tomes.

Having been brought up in the north, reading in bed, seasonally at least, was almost unavoidable. If you have to go to bed at 9pm you’ve still got a good hour, hour and a half of summertime daylight to encourage you to keep going. I remember (no doubt in the winter) a lot of under the bedclothes with a torch (flashlight) reading too. I suspect — well, more than suspect, insist — that adult reading in bed is merely a continuation by alternate means of being read a bedtime story by a parent. We all acknowledge how important in the making of a reader is that parental service: I think I can remember (though I really know I can’t) the moment when I told my mother not to bother, I’d take over from here on.

Now those purveyors of sleep, hotels, are more aggressively getting into the book business. Some are furnishing their rooms with books which they will be happy to sell you, having a small inventory in the cellar. Here’s Bustle telling us of room-book-service at a Paris hotel. Is a hotel room with a few books not bibliophilic enough for you? Then you’ll relish the news from Atlas Obscura that you can book a room in William Ewart Gladstone’s library in Hawarden, Wales. The Poetry Brothel appears to be aiming in a slightly different direction, one which doesn’t involve beds.


* Actually I think big thick, oversized books present a problem anywhere really. Maybe we can get some requirement added to our next copyright revision law that books may not weigh more than 1 or 2 pounds. War and Peace in three volumes is a much preferable offering (to me anyway) than one single podgy book. Costs more of course.

Originally they were “parlour window books” — books which were supposedly being looked at so frequently that someone had just put the object down a minute before.  The term originated with Montaigne who playfully worries that his Essays might “only serve the Ladies for a common moveable, a Book to lie in the Parlour Window” and proposed that he “be preferred to the Closet” by which he means moved into the study, not what we might think nowadays. When Hazlitt recounts his breakfasting with Coleridge at the inn at Linton in 1798, he notes that they found a worn copy of Thomson’s The Seasons lying “in a window-seat”. This he accounts as “true fame”: read so much there wasn’t time to put it away.

Wordsworth and Scott, as well as other romantic poets were dragged into the coffee table books business in the 1860s when there was a vogue for publishing collections of verse (often without copyright permission) accompanied by photos of the scenes mentioned in the poems or around the poet’s home. These flashily bound volumes claimed to have brought poetry up to date by the addition of the modern art of photography.

A coffee table book is a book not intended for reading; for looking at, rather than for immersive reading. Wikipedia defines it thus: “A coffee table book is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose place is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one would entertain guests and from which it can act to inspire conversation.” It may be a personal prejudice, but I always suspect that a book which looks too good, with four-color printing and high “production values”, a handsome binding, a lavish jacket, and especially a ribbon marker must almost by definition be a trivial book. Color suggests “gussied up to sell”; whereas if a book is serious it will make its way perfectly well without such artificial helps. It doesn’t help that the main source of coffee table books these days is the remainder table, with many such books being printed specifically for this section in the bookshop. They have declined to gift book status.

I do own a few serious books which to my mind suffer from being produced à la coffee table book. Although totally non-trivial, and indeed (since I gave good money to obtain them) obviously of potential interest to me, I have never been able to “read” these books. Their size mandates “dipping into” a technique which is utterly at odds with the nature of the material involved. I assume the choice of large format and plentiful color illustration was a response to a belief that a wider audience than normal might buy the books. For my money though I think academic publishers should probably restrain these impulses, and make their books of similar dimension to all their others.

A colleague (a man of ideas, possessed of at least one patent) long ago proposed a coffee table book which would be delivered with fold-up legs attached to the back of the binding. You could then dip into your coffee table. Like his patent, this idea remains, as far as I know, unexploited to this day.

Lots of books were published by the author him/herself back in the 18th century and earlier. The big difference between this and current self publishing is that in the past only wealthy people, or authors who could gather subscriptions from wealthy patrons could do this. Blake, though he had his backers, differed from most in that he did much of the production work himself. Now of course it costs next to nothing to get your book out there.

The “patron” might be an institution: at school we used German Grammar Notes, locally-printed by Titus Wilson in Kendal, a book arranged for, and written by, our German teacher A. E. Hammer. It was alleged that you could set your clock by Jack Hammer’s advance upon the school every morning alongside the cricket field: a kind of Yorkshire Immanuel Kant (Mr Hammer was a German too). Many years later, long after I’d left the school, a pukka edition of German Grammar Notes* was published by Harraps. We also had a locally produced French vocabulary picture book, compiled by J.H. Bruce Lockhart, an earlier headmaster of the school. I still tend to intone “une barbe de trois jours” when glimpsing myself unshaven in a mirror: B-L’s illustration showed a rather disreputable tramp — in those days you didn’t forget to shave. Apparently Strunk and White: The Elements of Style started out in life in the same way at Cornell. I’ve just been given a newly published illustrated tribute edition, signed by the illustrator, so I live in hope for Jack Hammer’s work. I long to see illustrated the “constellation” — that raucous party of three or four German verbs who at the end of a lengthy sentence, in long-anticipated bibulous song, together their voices may be found to have joined.

Until recently we had vanity publishing — for those who couldn’t collect enough cash from patrons, and were unable to find a publisher to front the cost. Vanity presses collected fees from authors and brought out their books in short-back-and-sides fashion. They were thus named because they’d take on anything regardless of quality — most such things being published to massage authorial vanity. Despite this prejudice, it must be the case that some good books made their way into the world by this route. The books were made available, rather than “published”, and any success would (as so often) depend on the author’s promotional vigor. It may be true to say that the main change this area is a change of nomenclature: surviving vanity presses have transformed themselves into independent publishers or publishing services companies.

Let us not forget that subset of patron-funded books which might be described as club books. One often meets these as cookbooks published by schools, churches, charitable groups. I even have one “Published by the Employees of Oxford University Press”, important as containing the recipe for Joellyn Ausanka’s locally famous Apricot Pecan Bars, which apparently evolved from her mother’s Date Walnut Bars recipe. Club publishing shades into such things as learned societies and academic research groups: one might include the Royal Society’s early publications, and certainly groups like the Roxburghe Club.

Paul Murphy at Huffington Post has some interesting comments about author earnings. Frankly I’m surprised that “almost a third of published authors earn less than $500 (£350) a year.” Does this not have to mean that ⅔ earn more than $500? That’s the bit that really surprises me. I think there must have been massive undercounting especially in the self-published ranks.

A couple of years ago McGill University’s Book History Group held a conference under the title “Self-publishing in 18th-century Europe : a comparative approach” lead by Dr. Marie-Claude Felton. You can listen to her talk on this topic at The Bodleian here. She tells us that in 1731 in London 30% of the pages typeset at one printing house were paid for directly by the author, while 31% of the books published in Paris in 1786-87 were entirely published by the author (financed and distributed). In fact these numbers may well understate the extent of self publishing: Alexander Pope self-published The Dunciad, although the book carries no indication of this. Obviously there might be many other instances where we do not have secondary evidence as we do from Pope’s correspondence.

Selling your book by yourself could be a complicated matter in the days before street numbers. Here’s Dr Felton’s showing of an involved set of “place of publication” directions for people wanting to buy M. Duplessis’ Archives mytho-hérmetiques.

See also Author as publisher.


* Still available, in a sixth edition:










I never really thought about this, and obviously never stopped to read the text, but I discover that the text of most Books of Hours was basically standardized: a collection of prayers and readings from the Bible suitable to particular occasions, primarily the eight “hours” of the day: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, compline, and vespers. You can see the same words on these pages from two different books. All these Books of Hours look so different with their illumination, illustrations and background patterns that we just assume the text is different too: it’s hard to read after all! Christopher Hamel took the time to look, and has an interesting essay at AbeBooks. He points out that The Book of Hours may have been the only book owned by a lady, and that many children would have been taught to read from such a text.

The Book of Hours developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements from the Breviary into their devotional life. A typical book of hours contains a calendar of church feasts, an excerpt from each of the four gospels, the Little office of our Lady, 23 of the psalms, the litany of saints, an office for the dead, the hours of the cross, and other prayers. Variations on these contents would exist by region and time as Sandra Hindman in her Primer on Collecting Books of Hours points out, but we are talking minor variations on a well-established theme. Obviously the decoration and illustration would differentiate the books, no doubt corresponding to the owner’s social status, though of course none of these books would be for poor people. You’d need to be able to read to want one, even though the texts would be familiar to most people from their attendance at church.

The trouble with the earliest typesetting machines was always the distribution difficulty (though justification also presented persistent problems). In a letterpress print shop distribution didn’t mean what we think it means today. To distribute type is to take the individual bits of type (sorts) after they’ve been used for printing and put them back into the place they had started out from so that they could be reused for the next pages waiting to be typeset. In a hand setting world this mean distributing the sorts into the type case, putting each individual sort into the appropriate box in the case, minding your ps and qs of course, so that the compositor could start work on the new copy. Distribution would tend to be done first thing in the morning by the apprentice who had to get in early to break up the type pages which had been printed on the previous afternoon and get the individual sorts back to the starting line.

Early inventions tended to founder on this problem rather than on the easier task of getting the right sort to respond to a keystroke and drop into the right position. Type was something a printer valued. It would be obtained, at a cost, from a separate business, the type foundery, and was to that extent a “given”, representing part of the printer’s capital investment. Not until Mergenthaler and Lanston figured out that the problem could just be circumvented by recasting type every time you needed a character, was machine typesetting made truly cost effective. However the Thorne machine came close to solving the problem and was quite successful with between 1,500 and 2,000 machines produced. It traded from 1880 till about the end of World War I under the names of Thorne, Simplex and Unitype.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine used that tower to hold all the little bits of type in 90 channels where they could drop down for use in the new setting. The tower consists of two separate parts. The type for distribution would be loaded into the top, rotating part, face out, and sent to the appropriate channel in the lower part by using a series of nicks on the side of the type which distinguished every sort from every other one. Distribution could be continuous with the keyboard operator working away at the same time. After a line was set it had to be justified by a second operator, by the hand insertion of spaces and hyphens. This inefficiency was partially “justified” by suggesting that the justifier served as a sort of extra proofreader.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine is covered well at Circuitous Root, which carries many illustrations and much detail, including a link to a promotional booklet available at the Internet Archive. This booklet includes samples of the typefaces available on the Thorne, as well as testimonials from satisfied customers, including this revealing table of output and cost from APA.

The emphasis placed in the Note on the absence of heads and signatures is there to point up the efficiency even more starkly. Obviously setting a head like, say “Chapter I” would give you a quicker, easier line than the full lines of text which would follow.


The statistics we get given tend to focus on “the number of people who have read a book in the last year” which never really means very much to me. There are books and books, and readers and readers. Looking up Akita and Doberman Pinscher in The American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book is a bit different from reading War and Peace from cover to cover, but both of course would count as “reading a book”. Robert Gray had a piece in Shelf Awareness last December about Christmas gift books for non readers which may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. I guess that converting a non-reader into a reader would rank as a good deed, however reluctant the non-reader might be to agree that being made to take up a novel was a good thing. Mr Gray reports on the regular seasonal query “I need to find a book for my uncle.” — “What kinds of books does he like?” — “Oh, he doesn’t read.” Still, it must be worth keeping trying: as he says, a Gary Snyder poem at the right moment can be transformative.

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” Thus Anthony Powell* in The Valley of Bones, which is the seventh novel in A Dance to the Music of Time; surely the only dodecology in mainstream English literature — though there does also appear to be a series called Dead Song Legend Dodecology by the determinedly prolific Jay Wilburn. However he appears thus far not to have written beyond Number 4.

I guess it is true that you can’t impress a non-book-person by citing bookish evidence. They will either not notice, or, if they do realize you are referencing a book, believe that you are being condescending (which you probably are anyway). At the most trivial level there’s no point in remarking to someone that a person is behaving a bit like Emma Bovary, if your interlocutor has never heard of or read the book. Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time spends a lot of time keeping quiet about his being an author, that being a red rag to the bulls he moves among especially in the wartime army.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty described the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”. He believed that reading novels was a primary way of gaining understanding of fellow humans of types we might not encounter in our daily life, and that this consequently enabled us better to deal with them. Hard, to me, to argue with that, but then books are to me a necessity, and (mostly) readily convertible assets.

If hitting people over the head with a book is no way to influence their thinking, how much less must be writing about the making of these unconvertible assets. Of course I never expected there would be a large audience for my lucubrations on the making of books (of which fortunately there is no end: Ecclesiastes 12.12. But do beware: much study is a weariness of the flesh). I am very grateful for the select, but far from insignificant group of readers who follow this blog.


* Pronounced “Pole”, of course. The only other time I’ve known the name pronounced that way was Powell House at school, which we tended perhaps more to pronounce as “Poe-ull”.