Archives for the month of: July, 2018

Here’s a couple of small German houses implying that they see the publishing business as a whole declining. At least I think that’s what they are saying at this Publishing Perspectives piece.

I suspect (hope) they are being unduly pessimistic, or at least over-generalizing. Overall book sales numbers, at least in USA, remain encouraging, and population numbers keep going up so there are just more folk to buy a book. It must often be difficult for publishers to see the wood for the trees: their own trees are so overwhelmingly significant to them that when they try to look at the wood, what they must see is the grove consisting of their own titles, plus a vague impression of the surrounding forest. If your sales are down, things must be bad. If your sales are up, things are good. But clearly at this sort of scale all sorts of little effects could be responsible, rather than some industry-wide trend. Maybe your sales reps are not too effective, maybe your discount schedule isn’t right, maybe the jackets are dull, heck, maybe the books are just not as good as they were a couple of years ago.

“Germans, like everybody else in the world, tend to read less and less. We sell half what we sold 10 years ago. Half.” Thus Jürgen Christian Kill of Liebeskind. Print numbers are down: more people are buying fewer copies of more titles. But “Half”? I believe it’s at least possible that Liebeskind, founded in 2000, and publishing 8-10 books a year, started out with some exciting books that sold really well, and is finding it hard to repeat the trick.

On this old plaint that people, whether German or not, are reading less, please see Is the Internet killing reading?


A Hinman Collator is a pre-digital machine for comparing two different copies of a printed page in order to detect any differences between them. Lights and mirrors allow you to see the two images superimposed one on top of the other, at which point any small differences between them will hit you in the eye.

The Folger Library blog, The Collation, has a piece by Andrew R. Walkling. This includes an animated clip showing dancing before your eyes the difference between two versions of a line of type.

The device was invented by Charlton Hinman  (1911-1971) in the late forties and drew upon his wartime work on aerial photography. Its main market was among bibliographic research institutions, but it is alleged that the CIA did buy one for more practical purposes. Hinman was the editor of the Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles and The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare. From 1960 till 1976 he was professor of English at the University of Kansas.

We have been hearing again how hard up authors are becoming. The Guardian‘s article sets out the recent debate quite clearly.

I dare say the evidence being used doesn’t lie. It’s just that I don’t think the evidence being used is the right evidence. Authors (tend to) work on a royalty basis, a percentage payment made for each copy sold. If authors are really earning less than they used to, this must surely mean that either the royalty rate has been reduced, or fewer copies have been sold. I don’t believe that royalty rates have been reduced, and the fact that nobody seems to be making that argument rather supports this belief, so only one conclusion remains — one that we all already know. Books now sell in smaller quantities than in the past — with the possible exception of bestsellers.

The fact that royalty payments represent this or that percentage of a publisher’s profit or turnover is irrelevant. Profit is made in various ways, and short-changing the author is not usually one of them. Apart from the morality of cheating your authors, it tends to be bad for the future as word gets out and new writers become reluctant to sign up with you. Like selling books, signing authors is a competitive market. The people working for publishing houses might consider a similar calculation as to the relationship between wages and profit to be even more interesting — it would at least be more relevant, wages having a greater effect on profitability than royalties. Nobody imagines that authors, when they decide to become writers, are signing on for the security of a middle-class income: in all probablity most of them have eschewed that option and gone for the freedom of making their own way. Some play for the big time seeing success as massive sales, while others aim more for an interesting and fulfilling life. I’d love for them all to make more money, but the harsh reality of the marketplace governs.

As the market flattens, and as trade conditions toughen, publishers have begun to look at those advances which used to be thrown around as bargaining chips in competition for this or that “big” book. Many of these advances did not earn out, and it’s not too surprising that publishers have begun to reevaluate their advance positions. If, instead of using blue-sky forecasts to fix on the advance, you make rather pessimistic sales forecasts, then naturally the size of advances will come down just as the percentage which don’t earn out will fall. From the point of view of the generality of authors this will appear as a reduction in earnings (even if the earnings were actually royalties for books which were never sold). For publishers it will lead to an increased profit margin. Does the Society of Authors really want to argue that publishers should be ashamed of not making large unearned royalty payments any longer?

Now one could envisage a system which mandated that books should be sold at X times their page count, and that the authors should get W%  of that, the booksellers Y%, and the publishers Z%. That however is not the system we live with, and I doubt any legislature anywhere would be willing even to debate such an idea. We live in a system where the author’s remuneration is based on the number of copies sold. The brutal fact is that fewer copies of more titles are now being sold than hitherto. Naturally the size of the pot for each author is smaller. If as an author you are fed up with that deal, there is now the wonderful option of self publishing.

I suspect you have to start noticing the loss of something for the idea to come into your head that maybe it should be described as rare. Nobody would think of applying the label “rare” to the sparrow — unless they lived in London where the birds have apparently decided to join urban flight and flit* to the suburbs and beyond. In London they are rare; in New York they are everywhere, including especially the bushes in the sunken subway entrance at Columbus Circle where you often suspect there must be a couple of loudspeakers broadcasting chirping. They are also often to be encountered in quite deep subway stations, where they seem content with their underground existence.

The Cambridge University Press blog FifteenEightyFour has a post about the origin of the rare book occasioned by the publication of David McKitterick’s book The Invention of Rare Books: Private Interest and Public Memory, 1600-1840. It seems that it took till the late 16th century for the concept to emerge, at the same time as we collectively woke up to the fact that there were a whole lot of books out there, forcing us to consider whether we might have to start worrying about disappearing texts.

The University of Washington, according to Atlas Obscura, has a collection of over 20,000 rare and special books. Their notification of this fact carries a small gallery of images showing a few of these books. If you want to see them, you’ll need to make an appointment. Their website can be found here.

Quaintly, one of the rarest books, Shadows from the Walls of Death is a volume published in 1874 in an edition of 100, intended to warn against the dangers  of arsenic-printed wallpapers. “Paris green” a color often favored in wallpapers had a significant arsenic content, and tended to flake off after a while. The author, Robert Clark Kedzie, wanted to help people identify dangerous wallpapers in their homes. His book consists of a title page and 8 page introduction followed by 86 sample of poisonous wallpapers. He sent copies of his book to libraries in Michigan. Unfortunately, by including samples of those arsenic papers, the book posed exactly the danger it was warning against. Today, only four copies of that book still exist, and unsurprisingly they’re treated very carefully. It is not recorded whether there were any consequences for the author, but he did live till 1902.


* What we call moving house in Scotland. It’s an old English word which, like the sparrow, has deserted the metropolitan center. It’s already in the OED, so isn’t available for notification in the Regional English drive.

Transcription Services Ltd., based on the Isle of Man, will make plain that old handwritten document that’s driving you mad because you can’t read it — after all it obviously must contain your patent of nobility or at least a claim on riches beyond  your wildest. As well as English documents they’ll tackle Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German or Dutch.

This seems like a fairly specialized business, and I hope the piece about them at Atlas Obscura will help drum up customers. Maybe they’re doing OK — they’ve done a bit of transcribing for the British Library.

I suppose, now that they don’t expect to print the thing ever again, the size of The Oxford English Dictionary no longer matters. If it’s a word in English, anywhere, let’s just stick it in there. They are now soliciting information about regional word usages. Here’s your chance at immortality by getting official respect for that weird word from your childhood which is always being mocked by your friends.

BookRiot brings the Guardian story. You can submit your words at this link.

This brief post by Daniel Kernell, author of Colours and Colour Vision: An Introductory Survey, at the Cambridge University Press blog Fifteen Eighty Four gives a nice introduction to color vision. As Kernell himself is “color blind” he has a special relationship to his subject. He explains, in so far as this is possible, the differences in color perception between a trichromat and a dichromat. (Link via Publishing Cambridge.)

The mechanics of color vision are pretty well understood: rods and cones, and then neurons sorting it all out in the brain. The hard problem is working out how the neurons arrange for us to “see” the things in our brain. The old idea of perception as some kind of tiny homunculus sitting inside our heads watching a sort of unfolding movie, has obviously got to be nonsense. But coming up with a reasonable alternative is tough, leading philosophers of mind into equally crazy convolutions.

Cutting the Gordian knot, Kevin O’Regan* theorizes that color vision, all vision, results from our interacting with the scene being viewed. We feel the scene’s reality by sampling it: we scrutinize this bit and then that bit. O’Regan compares the process to the way in which your hand recognizes a penknife while it remains invisible in your pocket. It’s a bit like the kid’s game of touch bag where you get to identify objects by feeling them inside a bag. By feeling various bits of an object you are able to reconstruct the idea of the whole. But if the object is just laid on your hand you are unable to tell what it is. Similarly, when we see, we don’t have any sort of photographic representation inside our brain. In fact, the overall clarity of photos misrepresents what we actually see: our eyes are in fact relatively course-grained for most of their coverage. Our belief that what we see is really what we see as a sharp image results not from our having a clear image of the whole, but from our confidence that by moving the focus of  our eyes we can establish the details of any part of the scene. In other words by knowing we can sharpen up any bit of the scene whenever we want, we make the assumption (and adjustment) that every bit of the view is crystal clear, even though brief introspection of the visual evidence of what you are looking at will easily demonstrate that what we are seeing is actually a little central area of clarity surrounded by a large extent of vagueness. O’Regan’s theory takes the task of perception out of the brain and turns it into an interaction between the brain and the object being viewed.

O’Regan’s sensorimotor approach seems to me to get past many of the barriers which have prevented us from coming up with a good theory of vision/perception/consciouness.

* J. Kevin O’Regan: Why Red Doesn’t Sound Like a Bell: Understanding the Feel of Consciousness, 2011