Archives for the month of: February, 2018

Is it just me, or is there really something a bit odd about the term “Table” Of Contents? I guess it really is a table in the same way that real tables are tables: columns of information arranged in rows. In this case just two columns, chapter title (though chapter number could make a third column) and then the relevant page numbers. I think my beef is really with the use of the full term as the main heading on the contents page in a book. The words “Table of” should always be omitted. They add nothing to the proper heading “Contents” and look ugly, and being redundant, intrusive. I always think the presence of the words “Table of” are a marker of the amateur publisher. (Nobody ever said that these value judgements which proliferate in book making are not snobbish or élitist.) While I’m at it, the use of leader lines has exactly the same effect on me.

Here, (via The Digital Reader) is a piece from .TxtLab about Rethinking the table of contents. This is all fine, but seems to me in the end to be nothing more than play. Does knowing there’s some enhanced relationship between paper and ephemerality in this text provide me with any information that I can make use of? Despite the heading the authors’ experiments don’t seem to have anything to do with rethinking the TOC.*

The contents list is in essence a part of the index; or to put it the other way round, the index is a continuation and expansion of the contents list. They are both techniques for finding your way around the book. (I wonder if this has anything to do with the European practice of putting the Contents at the back of the book?) There is obviously potential to automate the contents/index function in an ebook. In a print book you turn to the front or the back of the book and seek information on where you might find information about a certain topic. With a digital text you can potentially find every reference to that word; but that’s likely to be too much information. What you need is to find significant occurrences of the word or group of words, or actually not the word so much as the subject. You don’t really want an function that’ll find you “morbidity” without also bringing you “approaching death”. What you need is an index, compiled by an intelligence which has foreseen exactly the sorts of question you are asking of the text. This could potentially be invisible, summoned only by clicking on a word which would conjure up all the similar references to morbidity and to approaching death etc.

Does a list of chapters for a novel really help, even if they are hyperlinked? I tend not to be conscious of being engaged in Chapter 17 as I read along, and really just want to be able to get back to the page I was reading when I started noodling around in the text trying to remember just why Uncle Bob was such a problem. I dare say it doesn’t cost much to hyperlink your contents list, so that a reader can in fact flick straight to Chapter 17 however rarely a reader might need to do that. But surely more could be done. Maybe we want a return to eighteenth century practice with its “In which the hero . . . ” sort of chapter summary at the head of each chapter. In non-fiction this would be even more useful. Of course it all costs money: if you are going to provide this sort of hyperlinking, someone has to think it through, plan it out, and execute it so that when you do click on something you really do get there (and a pet peeve, are actually able to get back to where you started from).

Again I’ll say, remember we are (still) in the early years of the ebook. In the beginning all ebooks were just clones of the printed volume, and maybe the existence of so many unhelpful volumes out there inured us publishers to the idea that that was OK. But it’s not OK: to fulfill the potential of the ebook, so much more housekeeping needs to be done. But market forces are the real driver. Until such time as readers vote with their pocket books I suspect we’ll just continue short-back-and-sides-ing them.


* Is it odd that in marking up a manuscript we publishers will happily refer to this section of the book as the TOC, despite our prejudice (well maybe it’s mainly my prejudice) against Table of?

Peter Ginna’s book about this topic has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

There’s an hour-long video from C-Span available at this link showing a successful book event in January at Politics and Prose Bookshop in Washington DC. The presentation is divided into the three main bits of an editor’s job: acquisition, text development, promotion to the rest of the company. The second half hour of the video is given over to questions from the audience — many quite interesting.

I have always envisaged the editor as that self-confident person in the bow of the ship holding a big butterfly net with which he/she from time to time fishes out some kind of sea creature, passing it on to the guys down in the belly of the vessel who chop it up into suitable form while the editor is shouting to the marketing folks in the stern what it is that they are about to receive. When the engine room’s done with it, the people in the stern toss the product overboard, screaming things like “Seagulls: you’re going to love this”, “Dolphins, this one’s for you”, “The best thing you sharks have seen for years”.

Mike Shatzkin has caught the bug. His latest post at The Idea Logical Company is entitled “The written word is losing its power and will continue to”. What is it that makes these literate guys lose all hope in what they claim is such an important part of their world? Is Mr Shatzkin just feeling guilty about watching too much TV recently? Has he too become obsessed with curling?

David L. Ulin in his The Lost Art of Reading (a title fortunately contradicted by his text) quotes Nicholas Carr moaning “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” He doesn’t notice any incongruity in expressing this brain-dead claim in the course of writing a 300-page book, self deprecatingly called The Shallows. Come off it guys. Why is it only good to read in the way you were brought up reading? There is in fact much more reading going on today than ever before. Does it really matter how long the texts involved are, or what the words used are describing? Reading seems to me to be reading. If you want to complain that not enough kids are reading Swiss Family Robinson, go ahead: just don’t expect too many people to pay any attention to you.

The literal meaning of “the written word” does not have to mean just words written on paper — amazingly enough there’s writing on other things like . . . oh, I don’t know; maybe TV screens, busses, walls, sandy beaches, packages of lettuce, and of course the internet. According to Mr Ulin, “In December 2009, a study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego, found that, ‘in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day.’ One hundred thousand words is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel.”

Just let that sink in. The equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel. Every day. Everyone.

This has to be an exaggeration of course. A UC, San Diego discussion, where the report can be downloaded as a PDF, reveals that 67% of the bytes are consumed as games, while 41% of Americans’ “information hours” are spent watching TV, while 16% are spent on the internet. But just because it’s labelled “game” or “TV” doesn’t mean that there’s no reading involved. Still, we might cautiously see the daily word intake as a 300-page novel with 60% illustration, so it might look more like a 300-page graphic novel or a 120 page novel.

Human nature makes us react to that reduction from a 300-page novel to a 120-page novel by saying “I knew that was all nonsense”. But, hold on a minute: can you credit every American reading the equivalent of a 120-page novel every day? Reading has never had it so good.

Every generation grows old to bitch about the generations following after them who are, by doing things their own way, quite obviously doing things wrong. But notice over the last few days how quickly the #NeverAgain movement has gained momentum after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and become a real force simply by responsible use of social media — and all this achieved by those teenagers we’ve loved to write off as being totally lost to the world because they never take their faces out of their smart phones. And of course the curmudgeons all know that these kids never read, because reading text messages is not what they think of when they think of reading!

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires. Photo: M4CAQUE/FLIKR

Conde-Nast Traveller brings a gallery of photos of 17 places they say book lovers should visit before they die.

“Where are all those activists when you need them —  the folk so keen to move statues of Robert E. Lee, Christopher Columbus and the rest of them?”

Our secular patron saint of printing (the word on the front of the plinth, beneath Franklin’s name is PRINTER) gives passersby on Pennsylvania Avenue a nervous little wave, while looking a bit fed up at finding himself before that controversial new hotel in Washington, in the converted Post Office Pavilion.

“Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1440; the modern paper jam was invented around 1960” says Joshua Rothman in a piece entitled “Why paper jams persist” at The New Yorker.

Unfortunately neither clause is true. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press — he invented movable metal types for use in a pre-exisiting wooden press. Nor was the paper jam invented in the 1960s: we’ve been contending with them for hundreds of years.

All too often a printing press will suffer a paper jam. It may be more likely on a sheetfed rotary press* than on a flatbed press; though plenty of paper jams of course occurred on flatbed presses before the rotary press was developed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Mechanization is the big bugaboo. Jams on a wooden press being fed by hand are rather unlikely: things just go too slowly. I well remember watching the printing, by flatbed sheetfed letterpress, of an extremely thin bible paper. The paper delivery system on a flatbed press relies on the weight of the sheet of paper to cause it drop quickly from the delivery platform onto the press bed. But this paper was so light that it’d lallygag about on its drop and gently flutter down into position. Miraculously the pressmen concerned were able to time their activity to get this to happen every time with total accuracy. But error lurked always just around the bend. Slight misalignment, slightly late arrival, a bowing in the paper which may not have settled down quickly enough — any of these, and other freaks lay in wait for the pressman who momentarily looked away. A misaligned sheet may catch on some projection on the press and cause a pile up of crumpled paper as sheet after sheet behind it rushes on to join in the chaos.

The paper jam is another of these tweaks to old technologies which have to be made in order to allow a new bit of whizz-bangery to work. One of the glories of nineteenth and twentieth century craftsmanship was exactly this victory over metal, entropy, and gravity in order to get high levels of production out of recalcitrant machinery. At the junction between a new technology and the physical world lurk trolls. Sort of like Jimmy Speckerman asking Leonard Hofstadter’s help to bring to life his “invention” of glasses which will enable you to watch non-3D movies in 3D. Jimmy knows Leonard is the smartest person he’s ever met, so that he can obviously make the 3D glasses work. But the mind, even Jimmy’s, can outpace the laws of physics. Another familiar example of technology/ physical world conflict can be seen in the fact that from time to time you won’t be able to recharge your iPhone because of the lint accumulated in its tiny charging socket. The phone is of course designed to be carried in your pocket, but the lint gets into the charging port because you carry the phone in your pocket. Pockets, being made of cotton cloth, slough off cotton lint. The hi-tech solution is carefully to scoop out the fluff with an unbent paperclip!

Despite my carping, the New Yorker story is well worth reading, and provides fascinating insight into the workings of R&D at a big company.


* Cylinder presses had been used for printing fabrics since the 17th century. Early patents involved horses (or water or steam) rotating large circular engraved copper cylinders. But what was really needed for printing anything other than pictures was a stereotype process. Without such a thing gravity would ensure that type would just fall onto the floor after one rotation of the press. See Mr Applegath’s ingenious interim solution. Paper jams look rather dramatic on a web-fed rotary press: crumpled paper piles up fast. provides copious detail on the development of the rotary press.

We’re all still reeling a bit from Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry’s casually dropped judgement from his recent interview with Scroll, to the effect that “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.” However, reading on, I’m forced to the conclusion that what Mr Nourry really thinks is stupid is not the ebook itself so much as book publishers’ attempts to develop it; that the ebook as we’ve presented it is “unintelligent” — lacks the intelligence that the digital format so obviously invites. As he goes on to say: “I’m convinced there is something we can invent using our content and digital properties beyond ebooks but I reached the conclusion that we don’t really have the skills and talents in our companies because publishers and editors are accustomed to picking a manuscript and creating a design on a flat page. They don’t really know the full potential of 3-D and digital. So we acquired three video game companies in the last two years to attract talent from different industries and see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital. We need to offer different experiences to our consumers.” 

Now of course a man in charge of a world-wide media conglomerate should one might assume be able to express himself clearly and without ambiguity. To say the ebook is stupid is really no different from saying the paperback format is stupid. It just doesn’t have a lot of meaning. Worse, it provides a red rag to the commentariat who can read Mr Nourry’s remark as another example of publishers’ benighted prejudice against the digital hordes. So glaringly obvious is this “error” that one is tempted to assume that Mr Nourry may in fact have been misquoted: surely, whatever you might believe about the relative desirability of print and digital, it’s unlikely that “stupid” would be the word you’d choose.

It is true that the ebook hasn’t really changed anything much — access yes, but the basic experience, not so much. Reading an ebook or a print book ends up being basically the same experience: it’s the book that you’re reading, and the effect on you of War and Peace is liable to be very similar whether you read it on an iPhone, on a Kindle, as a hardback, as a paperback or even as an audiobook. The economics of TV and cinema make watching War and Peace quite different though, and what Mr Nourry is perhaps stumbling towards is a book-based product which differs from the original to a similar extent. Not sure I feel in need of such a thing, but of course I don’t really know what I’m talking about as it hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s not that people aren’t trying. “Between the web and social media, I read more than I ever have — and yet I read fewer books than ever. Reading over all my notes about the future of reading, I see I have reported it out of hope that books will evolve to repair what other technologies have started to break: my ability to concentrate over hundreds of pages.” Thus Casey Newton in his pean to Amazon on The Verge. His piece reports on developments under way at the Kindle lab in Sunnyvale, CA. I must admit that such changes as he mentions seem incremental rather than transformative. Transformative seems however to be what Craig Mod is after (and perhaps Mr Nourry). In his much referenced piece at Aeon Mr Mod blames Amazon for not developing the Kindle more than they have. Fiona Smith-Strickland echoes Mod’s complaint at Gizmodo. Mod shows (at the very end) one fairly dramatic ebook development at Bret Victor’s Communications Design Group research laboratory in San Francisco. But who is going to pay for this sort of work? These sorts of thing are always nice as R&D, but in the real world people probably just aren’t willing to fund them by paying more for their ebooks, are they? Not me, anyway.

Echoing Casey Newton’s plaint, Hugh McGuire says he now can’t read more than four books a year in this Medium piece. He defines his “problem” thus:

  1. I cannot read books because my brain has been trained to want a constant hit of dopamine, which a digital interruption will provide
  2. This digital dopamine addiction means I have trouble focusing: on books, work, family and friends.

People like to write this sort of stuff, but it doesn’t have to mean what they think it means. This inability to concentrate on a book is blamed by the writer on the internet and the pleasure hit he gets when he follows up a link. But there’s really a much simpler explanation: he has two daughters, aged four and two. What reasonable human being thinks there’s any chance of their reading more than four books a year under these conditions? Your focus (thank goodness, Hugh) is elsewhere. The solutions you propose for your supposed problem are radical (no TV after dinner? — What about the World Series?) and they will help, but not in the way you think. They’ll help because with kids you need more sleep.

Of course all this will have settled down and seem quaint when we have moved on and invented the “whizzblook” or whatever the as yet uninvented electronic extension of the book book turns out to be named. I’m sure the invention will happen, just as I’m sure it’ll have as little to do with books as movies do today. After the “whizzblook” has come along I suspect book publishers will get on with publishing their books pretty much as they do today in all the stupid formats we’ve learned to love: hardback, paperback, ebook, and anything else we will have dreamed up by then.

Karin Wulf reviews reviewing at The Scholarly Kitchen. She selects an epitome of the review article format from The New York Review of Books, and demonstrates how it works. “The most effective review brings readers — those who have read or might read the book, but often those who have not and may not — into a broader, informed conversation about the topics the book addresses.”

In scholarly publishing reviewing is done both pre- and post-publication, and both are vital to the health of the academic community in the widest sense. Academics do reviewing mostly as a service to their community. Any remuneration for pre-publication reviews will be modest, often taking the form of a few books. Academic journals tend not to pay reviewers: you review in order to help guide your discipline forward, but also to keep your name in your colleagues’ eyes. You also get a free copy of the book.

Notoriously review media have been under pressure in recent years, and there are just fewer and fewer places where books can be reviewed in the print media. Apart from its obvious significance in the academic world, how important is the review process though? Do trade books need to be reviewed in order to succeed? Obviously not if one thinks of high fliers like Fifty Shades of Grey. However, no publisher would say that there’s no point in trying to get a book reviewed: it’s all part of trying to create that word-of-mouth buzz which is the marketing gold standard. One of the old saws we mumble now and again is “There’s no such thing as a bad review”. Any attention is better than no attention. This is of course not really true — a bad review can be a killer, especially with academic books — but the implication of second part is almost always true: getting the book talked about is (almost) always a good thing. Word-of-mouth is the real secret sauce.

Could it be that what we tend to think of when we see the words “book review” is on its way to extinction? Or perhaps to a lonely existence at the bottom of an Amazon page? I think there’s no likelihood of the disappearance of review articles of the type discussed by Ms Wulf: people just want to write about books which stimulate open-ended thinking, and an article about the American Revolution which is provoked by a particular new book is just as likely to see publication as any other article about the American Revolution (which is anyway just less explicitly inspired by previously published work).

The assumption that books get reviewed as a consequence of a free copy of the book being sent to the journal and then allocated by the editor to one of their reviewers who gets to keep the book afterwards (or to sell it off at The Strand) is so deeply ingrained, that we no longer consider whether there’s any ethical issue here. Of course there is, and this is being highlighted by the controversy over paid reviews on Amazon. The issue is starkly clarified if you think of someone getting an $800 refrigerator in return for a favorable review. Are product reviews different from book reviews? What about music reviews? What about reviews of theatrical shows? What about reviews of holiday resorts? Books are relatively cheap, so maybe this makes it less of an issue, but this doesn’t seem to make attempts to pay for coverage go away. See the examples in Digiday‘s article (linked to via The Passive Voice).

See also Purchased reviews, and Reviews sell books don’t they?

Leader lines are those rows of dots, often to be found in tables and contents lists, which carry your eye from one column of information to the next, without the danger of your flipping from one line to the next and thus getting things mixed up. Leader is here pronounced to rhyme with “need”, having nothing to do with the metal used in typesetting.

I think leader lines are really rather ugly, and usually represent an admission of design failure. If the gap is too wide for the eye to bridge reliably, then reduce the gap by indenting the lines left and right and/or increase the line spacing so that the eye can more reliably move from line to line without error. There’s almost always a work-around, and surviving leader lines suggest to me a lazy or ignorant designer.

Here’s a ludicrous example from an 1894 edition of Balzac in translation printed in Philadelphia by George Barrie and Son. The line isn’t even long enough to make leader lines helpful: the compositor has just put them there out of habit or because he thinks that’s what you have to do, there can be no other reason. Look at the crazy one for page 272!

One basic principle of good book design and composition is that nothing should be included that does not have a function. These leader lines serve no purpose.

Their use in technical drawing to establish a link between a drawn object and text describing it is a horse of a different color, and as such is of course altogether acceptable.

I need sustaining just to get me past these sorts of complaints, which make me go weak at the knees.

Much of what Tom Corson-Knowles is saying at PRnewswire is true enough in detail, but put it all together and it can’t really justify the headline “Book Publishers and Book Lovers are Destroying the Planet”. (This piece was linked to by The Passive Voice, eager as always to pass on any story which appears to show publishing is a poor light.) Mr Corson-Knowles claims “that around 10 million of the trees that are killed to create books die in vain each year, because the books end up getting destroyed instead of being read.” Well, of course it’s true that publishers print too many copies of lots of books, and that most of this unsold inventory gets pulped. But this problem of excess inventory is really yesterday’s news: publishers’ inventory control is much tighter today that in the past, and print runs are way down, with more frequent reprints if a book takes off. But what’s a publisher meant to do in a world where you can get orders before publication for a million copies of a book? Say that their customers are nuts and print only half a million? In so far as the problem of excess inventory still exists it only affects a tiny proportion of books: most titles are getting preorders for quantities in the hundreds, not the millions, so there’s no need to overprint. You just don’t see headlines saying “Author X’s latest garners 650 preorders”.

It may also be true that somewhere in the world, say Indonesia, forests are being chopped down faster than they can regenerate. But the American paper industry has gotten its act together on this one, and for every tree chopped down for paper-making another tree is planted. It’d be nice not to chop down those 10 million trees, except of course for the 10 million little seedlings who’d never get to start their journey to treedom.

It’s also true that paper making consumes lots of energy and gives off fairly obnoxious by-products. Here again environmental controls plus self interest have led the paper industry to immensely reduced emissions. But paper-making isn’t unique in using energy. Almost anything we do consumes energy, and it’s NOT an argument in favor of ebooks to say that “Printing books is environmentally expensive”. Creating, transmitting, and reading an ebook is also “environmentally expensive” in almost exactly the same way. It’s just that the energy consumption is going on in places which you can’t see. Do you know for a fact whether any of the juice you put into your iPhone or Kindle is coming from coal-generated power? I’m no expert, but I have seen analyses suggesting that the ebook business consumes more energy that paper books do. It doesn’t really matter whether it uses more, the same, or less: the point is that energy cost does not attach to one side of the equation only.

Even more confusedly “If a bookstore can’t sell its copies, its entitled to request a full refund from the publisher. However, shipping books is expensive. So instead of sending the books back, bookstores often rip the covers off and send only those back to the publisher as proof that the book has been taken out of circulation. Those damaged books are often pulped: ground up, mixed with certain chemicals, and recycled into paper for other uses.” Again this isn’t altogether wrong; it’s just wrong in detail. Booksellers don’t “often rip the covers off and send them back” — this procedure happens with mass paperbacks only, and is based upon the calculation that a cheap paperback is worth less than the cost of shipping it. And of course, as anyone who’s bought one of these knows, books with their covers ripped off are not always pulped: all too often they are sold off cheap to customers who don’t mind cheating the author and the publishers who have already given credit for these rip-offs. It is true that the right to return unsold copies is the bane of our business. We have to do something about this, and I believe that the economics of it will force us to. But as long as we believe that people will buy Fire and Fury if it’s there, but will forget about it as soon as they leave the store, this is a very difficult cure.

TCK Publishing, Mr Corson-Knowles’ company, proudly states that they use print-on-demand technology to eliminate the waste of unsold books. Who do they think developed POD? Certainly not TCK Publishing! Oops, it was those very publishers who are out to destroy the planet.

Now of course all TCK is trying to do is put their best foot forward. Maybe the scare headline was put there by PRnewswire. But these sorts of things exaggerate a reality which is actually fairly anodyne, and allow the commentariat to pile on in absolute irrelevancy.