Archives for the month of: July, 2018

I insist that I can recall the smell of the Galashiels Public Library, or the College Library fifty years ago. Of course the beauty of one’s confidence in such memories is that nobody can deny or confirm whether they are or are not accurate. If I think it’s a madeleine, it’s a madeleine, whether what I think is correct or not. It’s completely un-contradictable.

Apparently however the Morgan Library is running a research project into exactly how the library would have smelled back in 1906. Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library’s blog has a story about the project.

One has to be impressed by the bent paperclip’s research role in Christine Nelson’s photo of the smell sampling equipment at work at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York on Ihesus: The Floure of the Commaundementes of God, printed in London by Wyken de Worde (1521). As Hyperallergic tells it, “Nelson [curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan] and a group of students from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), who gathered in the Morgan’s conservation lab, were deeply inhaling the scents of a selection of old books to consider what the place may have smelled like way back in 1906, the year that John Pierpont Morgan’s stately McKim, Mead and White-designed library was completed.”

“And whether or not the windows were open in J. P. Morgan’s day was on the mind of Jorge Otero-Pailos, who is teaching this experimental historic preservation class. Street smells from Gilded Age New York could have wafted through the windows, mingling with the collection of rare tomes from across various eras, and the cigar puffing of Morgan himself. ‘I try to get students to rethink how we can preserve objects in a creative way that reengages people with those objects,” he said. Last year at Westminster Hall in London’s Palace of Westminster, his The Ethics of Dust” installation involved a latex cast of one wall, a process that lifted visible and invisible dust and dirt from the old structure.'”

If one can eventually get at the smell of the Morgan in 1906, how much will that tell us about Galashiels Public Library in 1958 of course? Still, it’d be interesting to see how much one would be willing to accept the smell as “right”.

As an addendum to my recent post Declining author earnings, these words from Philip Roth provide a bit of background. They come from a 1974 New York Review of Books piece called “Imagining Jews”. Reacting to the furore which greeted the publication in 1969 of his fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth wrote:

“That this shameful, solitary addiction was described in graphic detail, and with gusto, must have done much to attract to the book an audience that previously had shown little interest in my writing. Till Portnoy’s Complaint, no novel of mine had sold more than twenty-five thousand hardcover copies, and the hardcover edition of my first book of stories had sold just twelve thousand copies (and hadn’t yet gained nationwide attention by way of the Ali McGraw movie, which was released after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint). For Portnoy’s Complaint, however, 420,000 people — or seven times as many as had purchased my previous three books combined — stepped up to the bookstore cash register with $6.95, plus tax, in hand, and half of them within the first ten weeks the book was on sale.”

Now I expect most people can name Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959), and his fourth, the controversial Portnoy’s Complaint. But nowadays who reads the books in between, his first two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967)? I just did — I seem to be on a tribute troll through his complete opus, guided by a simultaneous reading of the Library of America volume of his essays, Why Write? — and I have to say I preferred these two lesser known novels to the two better known books.

I wonder how many young writers could now say with a straight face “no novel of mine had sold more than 25,000 hardcover copies”. 10,000 I’d suspect might be the largest number they’d dare to choose. We now seem to sell fewer copies of more titles. For publishers this isn’t such a bad deal, though of course there’s more money to be made off big sellers than lots of less successful books. But for the author it’s a bit of a squeeze. On the other hand, after ten years, isn’t 12,000 surprisingly low for a National Book Award winner, even if by a first-time author? Maybe nowadays that’s about it.




Uncopyrightable are names, titles, slogans, and short phrases. Same with ideas. (Trademarks and patents may work for some of these.) Also uncopyrightable is something someone else wrote — unless they have explicitly made over ownership of the rights to you.

The fact that the word “uncopyrightable” is one of the two longest words in English which don’t repeat any letters is one of the side benefits of this video from Oxford Dictionaries blog about the longest one-syllable words in English.

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

British copyright law enjoins publishers to deposit one copy of every book they publish to six libraries: The British Library (formerly the British Museum), The National Libraries of Scotland and of Wales, and the University Libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Dublin. This obligation in one form or another dates back to the 17th century.

U.S. publishers only have to bother about the Library of Congress, though they need to send two copies if they register copyright. (Even if it’s not registered a book is still copyrighted. It’s just a bit harder to act against infringements if not the book isn’t registered, so most publishers do register their copyrights. This prosaic process is often left for someone’s spare time and has been known in some houses to fall a year or more behind schedule. The U.S. Copyright Office has a useful list of frequently asked questions.)

According to Wikipedia, Poland requires the deposit of 19 copies, so English-language authors and publishers shouldn’t feel too aggrieved.

See also Copyright registration.

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.

See also How to boost your sales?

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.