Archives for the month of: March, 2018

Not entirely sure what to think about this piece, Publish and be damned, from Kenilworth Books (a bookstore in England’s green and pleasant Midlands) abbreviated and commented upon at The Passive Voice. I’d like to think I’m as much in favor of authors’ prospering as the next guy, and while some of what’s said here is correct, especially about bookstore discounts, overall I think it misses the target.

Publishers do not cavalierly divide their lists up into books they’ll promote, and books they’ll just let sink or swim. The raw reality is that a book’s marketing budget is (must be) a function of its sales. Books that sell lots of copies get lots of promotion; books that don’t don’t. Publishers make judgements, occasionally wrong — but god knows they’ve got a lot more experience at doing this than commentators or authors — as to which books are likely to sell in which quantities. The marketing and promotion budget will be a fixed proportion of expected sales revenue. Books with good prospects get lots of promotion money; those with less good, less — and theoretically (though no publisher seeks out this type of book) those with no prospects, none. None will of course never be $0. If you weren’t an optimist you’d never be a publisher.

Stop thinking of authors as employees of a publishing company. They are not (though over the course of history a few publishing companies have employed writers for specific tasks — usually rather boring reference-type writing). The truth of the matter is nearer the opposite. Publishers exist to serve their authors: it would be less misleading to say the publisher is employed by the author than the reverse. Publishers originate nothing: they provide services to authors to enable them to reach readers. To compare earnings for clothes designers to those of authors is pretty irrelevant. Not too many designers of clothing are creating their designs on spec and then looking for a manufacturer to make them up. They work for the clothing company, and design what that company wants to see designed. They are on a salary track. Authorship, for better or worse just doesn’t work like that. Sure, one could say that, in a sense, the author does assume some of the risk of publication: if books don’t sell their authors can be said to have wasted their time writing them. But that’s not really what people mean when the assert that the publisher assumes the risk of publication: that’s a financial statement. The publisher invests money in turning the manuscript into a book and bringing it to market. If the book fails, the publisher loses money. If the book fails the author doesn’t earn any royalties. The publisher’s bank account will be smaller: the author’s just won’t have gotten larger. A potential loss rather than a real one. (This leaves to the side the matter of advances against royalties, functionally a mechanism for financing the author while the book is being written.)

Classic cart-before-horse-ism is displayed in the claim “And this is the way that the publishing industry generally views authors now – they are cheap producers. And if one gives up because they can’t make ends meet, there will always be another easily and cheaply obtained.” Authors are not producers for the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to take such manuscripts as have been written and bring them to the people who’ll pay to read them. True, publishers will often attempt to direct writers towards certain projects, and try to bind authors to them in order to be able to benefit from their future offerings, but the author always has the choice of not signing a contract with an option clause, or of changing publisher. By choosing a publisher authors are choosing the company they want to design, edit, produce, market and sell their book. One hesitates to cite supply and demand: but in a market economy what publishers pay authors is bound to be “the going rate”. If that weren’t so we’d find the big houses running out of stuff to publish as authors rejected their terms. Have you noticed a drop-off in output of publications? The Kenilworth Books writer even takes time to complain that there are too many books being published.

“If the net revenue by the publisher then is only 30% of cover price, the author will get 30p of a £10 book, not the 60p they would have got had it been sold at a standard 40% trade discount.” True, true; but what will the publisher be getting? Maybe 10p of net profit. Don’t forget the printer must be paid, as must salaries, interest on borrowed money, rent and so on.

Bookstores do have legitimate beefs with the question of discounted bulk sales, especially to non-trade outlets. Such deals are clearly not in the interest of the corner bookstore. Publishers used to be reluctant to do such deals in the days when there were bookstores on every corner (well, on at least one corner in most towns). But, as the big chains and online retailers grew in importance, publishers’ sales management became less motivated by the wishes of independent booksellers, and these bulk sales became rather sexy. We should perhaps not forget to set against this effect the crash in book club sales. Sales to Book-of-the-Month Club, which in their heyday could be huge, were less visible to the carping commentariat than the skids of books confronting you as you go into Costco. But from an accounting point of view, they were rather analogous. I’m not sure how common the sliding scale of reduced royalty implied in the article is. In the simpler world I remember the contract would allow for a reduced royalty in the case of sales at greater than X% discount. This is theoretically justifiable in that a cheap sale is valuable not just for the lump sum it brings in, but because of it’s potential promotional effect in generating word of mouth. When you see those skids at your superstore, do you not assume that this is a popular book? Still, one might agree that agreement from authors before a steeply discounted sale was agreed might be justifiable, though this would surely best be taken care of by an additional clause in that freely-negotiated contract.

The Bookseller article referenced at The Passive Voice can be found here. I’m slightly leery of this sort of discussion. What god-given level of profit for publishing companies did Moses bring down from Mount Sinai? Is 9% really too high? Is the fact that profits have generally been rising a bad thing? Authors are not by and large making profit sharing agreements with their publishers.* If their publisher doesn’t make enough profit they won’t be around too long, and the books they publish will become unavailable. If only all our eggs were really golden — but be careful when you consider wringing the goose’s neck.


* In a profit sharing contract the author will agree to receive not a royalty (fixed percentage of sales) on every copy sold, but a proportion of the profits the book makes. Here the author is really sharing in the risk of publication, and in some instances may also be financing some or all of the manufacturing cost. Such contracts are rare nowadays.


Here’s the trailer for Pressing on: The Letterpress Film, linked to via Medium.

The film was financed with help from a Kickstarter campaign. Here Erin Beckloff, the co-director, talks about the origins of the concept.

If you don’t see any videos here, click on the title of this blog post in order to read it in your browser.

The other day I wrote about the trouble between S. Fischer Verlag (part of the Holtzbrinck empire) and Project Gutenberg.

Here is a cri de coeur from Eric Hellman, originally at his blog Go to Hellman, reproduced by TeleRead. I hadn’t realized how devastating the judgement would be for Project Gutenberg: fatal it seems, as they can’t afford to pay the fine imposed. This is obviously ludicrous. Even the most ardent activist at Fischer cannot really want Project Gutenberg to disappear. One wonders how much income they lose on downloads of the 19 books in question. Not enough to consign all the free reading to the garbage heap.

Rather than fight to the death, I hope Project Gutenberg, if they can’t get the decision reversed, just delete the nineteen books, and let us all suffer from the inability to read Buddenbrooks, for example, for free. Of course that may open the door to other similarly dog-in-manger publishers, but that’d be better than losing everything.

Just as, whenever we have a school shooting in USA, gun sale spike, one consequence of this kerfuffle is no doubt a flurry of downloads of the books in question. I already have print versions of the ones I want, but I almost feel I should download for solidarity.

With the world’s borders dissolving before our eyes, some universal copyright code is desirable — if no doubt unattainable.

Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word by Alex Johnson has been published by Frances Lincoln. Atlas Obscura brings a piece about it. The towns covered in the book are:

  1. Ascona, Switzerland
  2. Bécherel, Brittany, France
  3. Bellprat, Catalonia
  4. Borrby, Sweden
  5. Bowral, NSW, Australia
  6. Bredevoort, Netherlands
  7. Clunes, Victoria, Australia
  8. Cuisery, Burgundy, France
  9. Damme, Belgium
  10. Featherston, New Zealand
  11. Fjaerland, Norway
  12. Fontenoy-la-Joûte, Lorraine, France
  13. Gold Cities, Grass Valley, California
  14. Hay-on-Wye, Wales
  15. Hobart, New York
  16. La Charité-sur-Loire, Nièvre, France
  17. Langenberg & Katlenburg, Germany
  18. Lillehammer, Norway
  19. Montereggio, Italy
  20. Montmorillon, Aquitaine, France
  21. Montolieu, Aude, France
  22. Obidos, Portugal
  23. Paju, South Korea
  24. Redu, Belgium
  25. Richmond, South Africa
  26. St. Pierre-de-Clages, Switzerland
  27. Sedbergh, England
  28. Selfoss, Iceland
  29. Sidney, British Columbia, Canada
  30. Stillwater & Twin Cities, Minnesota
  31. Sysmä, Finland
  32. Torup, Denmark
  33. Tvedestrand, Norway
  34. Unrena, Spain
  35. Wigtown, Scotland
  36. Wünsdorf, Germany
  37. Bhilar, Maharashtra, India
  38. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  39. College Street, Kolkata, India
  40. Jimbocho, Tokyo, Japan

Not sure where the other five went, though there are a couple of double entries. There’s a International Book Towns website: one’s idea that there’d be one book town per nation seems to be wishful thinking. Willingness to pay the fee may be the main criterion!  Wikipedia has an overlapping listing. One way or another bibliophilic voyagers have their work cut out for them.

See also Book towns

What is it that makes us want to express everything in terms of polar opposites? Why do we love either/or, when most things actually turn out to be both/and? In reality new technologies do replace old ones, but not completely. Now we have to suffer under an onslaught of think-pieces warning us that the Internet marks the end of reading.

Well, this is obviously nonsense. Quite the opposite really — kids spend hours reading and writing stuff to and from one another. Most of it may tend towards the idle chatter end of the scale but discussion of books is far from absent. The Horn Book carries a brief discussion of this by Christina Hobbs, who comments “I see my own students making fan art for their favorite books using quotes and visual art, and then that work gets passed around Tumblr as fans find one another and build communities. I see kids making book trailers and talking about their favorite books ad nauseam on a variety of platforms. And, I confess to being a true and longtime follower of Nerdfighteria, a community that began with YouTube that now comes together around John Green and his brother Hank Green, to talk books and science and soccer and charity and all around love of learning.”

There are still people who think reading on a cell phone doesn’t really count as reading, and view those who do it as slightly insane. But it does have its advantages: Sarah Boxer writes in The Atlantic about her experience reading Proust on a cell phone.

Although Proust knew exactly where he was heading when he put together his masterwork—he began with the first and last parts, then turned to the middle—the same cannot be said for his readers, no matter how they tackle his text. They are at sea. This is what makes reading the novel such hard going, particularly in the middle. It is also what makes the experience extraordinary.                                                           Knowing where you are, physically, in a bound book keeps you from feeling this oceanic feeling quite so much. It keeps you grounded. But reading the book on your cellphone emphasizes your own smallness, your at-sea-ness, in relation to the vast ocean. There you are, moving along without any compass. How brave you are in your little dinghy, adrift and amazed.

This seems to me absolutely right. In one way what discourages you in a very long book is the constant reproach delivered by the thousands of pages which you can see you’ve still not read: the e-reader walks right past that.

Of course long books are not the only thing getting read on phones. Writing specifically for the smartphone is gaining traction. For example the Twitter hashtag #poetry features discussion, reaction and new and quoted poetry. The character number restriction can be avoided by taking a photo of your longer work, and tweeting that. Mira Gonzalez published a poetry book called Selected Tweets. The Guardian’s Bookmarks has a story which features her work. There is of course a hashtag #twitterfiction where people write 140 character stories with more or less success. I know that R. L. Stone has done a story in tweets, but I can’t really imagine that the results are superior to a proper book. Different, yes; better? — well we probably don’t have the right to ask for that. But different is fine enough. And who can say a work of genius will never turn up on Twitter?

Looking to the Future of Narrative another of Joe Esposito’s posts at The Scholarly Kitchen discusses innovation spurred by digital media. The thing so many commentators seem to forget is that innovation like this has to come from the authors. Publishers can be more or less receptive to such work, but are not going to be the initiators. Publishers are there to connect authors tor readers, and they will only do so if they can see a profit in the linkage. This is not because publishers are greedy bastards, folks, it’s just how business works.

For an extensive examination of this whole area go to Writing in the age of the web: This is not a book. (Link via The Digital Reader.)

I also flogged this poor old horse (despite the success of the internal combustion engine we still have a few of them around) at Death of reading? Give us a break!

At this Tweet, watch this Cap A turn into a 3-D letter after it’s been drawn and shaded on a  2-dimensional pad of paper with ruler and pencil alone.

According to the responses it seems that some people are unable to see the 3-D effect. Is this another of these duck/rabbit perception things? The first time I watched this, as the the page was rotated, it gradually changed under my gaze from a flat shaded drawing to the 3-D object. This 3-D version is now all that I can see, and I find I’m seeing it earlier and earlier in the video. I can’t get back to the flat shaded drawing after perceiving it as 3-D.

I thought I’d try drawing it myself. Couldn’t get it to work at all. I’ve given up for the time being. I wonder if it’s maybe just an effect of the computer screen. I was hoping, if the effect wasn’t there on the actual drawing, to discover whether it would show up on a photo.

This is new tech but not high tech. Call Me Ishmael is a site where people can phone in and leave a message about any book.

Ishmael appears to type out responses and share them over Twitter, Facebook etc. I wonder who apart from “Ishmael” is actually paying attention to these voice mail messages, but that’s probably not really the point. The fact that lots of people are willing to spend a few minutes recounting their reactions to reading a book is surely a great sign of literary engagement. You might be reluctant to stand at the water cooler telling a colleague how much you liked Catcher in the Rye, but here you can unburden your soul to the ever attentive Ishmael.

They are now offering a phone which goes in retail locations and provides stories to customers.

Link via The Hornbook.

Saturn said: He who tastes the power of books will be strong; he who has possession of them will always be wiser.

From a Tweet from Dutch Anglo-Saxonist, @thijsporck, via Erik Kwakkel.


Almost all academic books have to have a bibliography, a list of all the books referenced in the text or which may have provided information not directly quoted. The humanities advance (or keep churning on anyway) largely by discussion of other books, and if you’re going to discuss books it’s rather important that your readers should be able to identify which books you’re talking about. And this doesn’t just mean the title and author. They need to know which edition you consulted because there could be subtle differences between the UK and the US editions, between this and that translation, or between the first and the second edition. You also need to display to readers the fact that you have indeed consulted a suitably wide range of sources, and have not willfully ignored any specific line of research.

The bibliography is not a place where your own good ideas should be tested. There are conventions which should be adhered to. Your idea might even be better, but this is pretty much how bibliographies are laid out, and testing a novel arrangement is only going to distract the reader. The whole purpose of the bibliography is to enable readers to check references, and the most efficient way to achieve this is to lay things out exactly as the reader is used to seeing things arranged.

The bibliography may be given the title References, in which case it will in theory only contain books footnoted in the text.

Bibliographies may be arranged by chapter and printed at the end of each chapter. This may lead to duplication and to my mind is less useful than a single bibliography. It’s just harder to find than a single source at the end of the book. I suspect that this chapter-wise arrangement will tend to happen the closer one comes to the scientific and pedagogical end of things, though it will always be a temptation in a collaborative multi-author volume. The convenience of the reader should be the deciding factor in how such matters are to be handled, rather than the ease of producing offprints.

There are two basic ways of dealing with the issue of referencing books in an academic text. Well three actually, although the third, spelling out full title, dates etc. in the text every time you allude to the book is so ludicrously cumbersome that nobody’d ever contemplate doing it except perhaps in the shortest of pamphlets where each book reference only occurred on a single occasion. (There is of course also a fourth method, which is just quietly to pass the assertion off as if it were your own, but this is not recommended.) The two real methods are the Harvard system in which you give author and year of publication only in the text (Alcock, 2002), putting everything else in the bibliography at the back of the book, ideally just before the index for ease of location. The other, the short-title system, will include a full bibliographical reference only at the first mention of a book, with only the author’s surname and a short title for subsequent references. It can be fairly annoying if books referred to in the short-title system are not also included in a bibliography at the back of the book, since when you come upon “Bertrand, Inscriptions p. 82″ you may fail to remember the full title, and spend hours flipping back through the book you are reading trying to find the full reference, date of publication, publisher, and so on.

The aim in academic communication should be to make it as easy as possible to check and build on assertions and conclusions. Omitting a bibliography doesn’t conduce to that end. In a brief, polemical work, it may be fine to omit a bibliography or to include only a select reading list. In more textbook-like writing a select annotated reading list will probably be more useful for students. But where academic debate is the point the lack of a bibliography is rather like an orator’s speech impediment.

This piece from Teleread is about annotated bibliographies, a staunchly scholarly category of book. I do have one annotated bibliography directed at the general reader, which I’ve always sworn by, The Modern Movement: 100 Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950 edited by Cyril Connolly. This book was jointly published in 1965 by André Deutsch Ltd. and Hamish Hamilton Ltd. neither of whom I guess wants to give up the honor of publishing Mr Connolly, the panjandrum of the day. That it was printed in Edinburgh by T. & A. Constable Ltd. further endears it to me. Connolly tells you just enough about each book to show you why it is you should get down to reading the book in question.

See also Professor of books

As the world gets smaller, ever more closely linked via digits, the grinding of the tectonic plates of different territorial rights regimes is beginning to cause stronger and stronger tremors throughout the book distribution system.

Project Gutenberg, a place we have come to look on as one of the benefactors of humanity with its free public domain offerings, has become involved in a lawsuit in Germany where the difference in rights between USA and Germany has provoked S. Fischer Verlag into action. They object to books which are in the public domain in USA being offered free in Germany where they are still in copyright. TeleRead has the story. Project Gutenberg’s policy on the rights issue has been to warn people that they shouldn’t download files for books which are still in copyright where they live. This putting the onus onto the customer, who is vanishingly unlikely to know what they are even talking about, is obviously not applying any real protection.

Project Gutenberg Australia, apparently unconnected to Project Gutenberg in USA, offers us Americans a download of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. This collection, which was published 1927 is still in copyright in America though anyone can freely obtain it from the Ozzie source.

It’s hard to see how frontiers can be applied to the world-wide-web, though authoritarian governments keep on trying. If information wants to be free, it also wants to be free of passport control. Surely the whole idea of having different territorial rights*, redolent of ships carrying physical books around the world, will ultimately have to yield the new reality. Amazon often lists the UK edition of a book on their US site — you can tell by the odd price, converted from sterling — and vice versa. They are always willing to take down the offending item upon application from the local rights holder, but you have to maintain eternal vigilance. Obviously if Oxford University Press publishes a book in Britain and also offers it for sale in America, this is not a large problem. If however they sell US rights to another publisher, clearly seepage of the OUP UK edition into the US market is liable to concern the US publisher who has paid for the rights. Publishers persist in selling foreign rights, as who wouldn’t access any source of ready money, but the whole edifice is tottering. In the end, will we bite bullets and just agree that the original publisher is the world-wide publisher? This could be satisfactory in a world where ebook distribution was the only format available — but that world is not one in which we live now, or maybe ever will. As long as we sell 75% or more of our product in physical form the issue of who has the right to sell it here or there will persist. One might also visualize a world-wide print book distribution system, named something like, say, maybe Amazon, which could efficiently ship any book to any person anywhere. But just as we are not ready to yield the entire market for books to the digital realm, nor are we eager to rush toward a single bookstore serving the whole world.

A uniform world copyright law is probably what’s really needed. Don’t hold your breath though.


* Most publishers contract with the author to obtain the right to publish. Depending on author and agent the rights granted may be world rights or just the right to publish in USA say, or the British traditional market. The rights to sell a book (in English) into say Germany will be separate from the right to translate the book into German. The bigger the book the more detail there is likely to be about this sort of thing in the contract. Less sexy books will tend to go through on a boiler-plate contract. In other words there’s immense variation is what rights are transferred on books.

Selling of sub-rights is a ready source of income to publishers who hold them, and if a British publisher has world rights, selling (in return for a hefty lump sum up front) the US rights to another publisher may look more attractive than trying to publish the book in America yourself. The timing of the income will always be a factor: if you decide to do it yourself you have to wait till the book is written and published, rather than banking an advance next week.