Archives for the month of: August, 2018

Not really about FOMO,* this Wired piece, “Goodreads and the Crushing Weight of Literary FOMO”, is more about guilt induced by membership of Goodreads. (Link via Lit Hub Daily.)

I must have never moved in the right circles, as I don’t think I’ve ever read a book because I felt embarrassed that all my friends were talking about it and I hadn’t even opened it. I dare say I’ve managed to pontificate about many a book without any greater familiarity with it than reading the New York Times book review, but I always (I like to believe) mention that I’ve not read the damn thing. Why let facts interfere with your opinions? It’s nice to think that there may be people out there who can be shamed into buying our books, but I can’t believe there are too many of them. Goodreads is, I guess, based upon the assumption that competitive reading does exist, and lots of people do seem to use the site, so maybe I’m the odd one. They now display a “Readers like you liked these, so you’ll love this” feature — perhaps unsurprisingly as their owners Amazon have done so well with it. To be fair, the main intention of Goodreads is to provide suggestions about what books you might like to read next. You can tell it what books you’ve enjoyed, and other users’ data will cause recommendations to be suggested to you. If you’re a hermit with digital access, this can be very helpful.

FOMO, as an acronym, looks like a modern phenomenon, but of course it has always been around. It has affected every generation of teenagers and those who fail to grow out of the teenage state. We used to call it peer-group pressure. Almost all kids go through a period of desperately trying to be identical with everyone else. In the olden days your peer group was small — maybe 15 or 20 people. Now that kids are constantly looking at their iPhones your “friend” group may run into the thousands. Feeling like you have to fall in with the attitudes of thousands must make for a constant state of FOMO. Obviously nobody’d have time to type that out.


* “Fear Of Missing Out” for those who live quieter lives.

Are we beginning to see signs that we may be ready to shake off our petrified immobility in the face of the Amazon-monster? It seems so obvious that offering books direct to readers makes sense. Sure we all love bookstores, and wish them well, but selling books is what we exist to do, and an idea like Scholarly Books Unbound ought to make sense. The Scholarly Kitchen has a piece about the New Book Network‘s proposal.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between booksellers and book publishers. Publishers know that if they want to get a good buzz going it helps to have stacks of their books in front of eyes in as many bookstores as possible. But how much does it help? I suspect that with a prohibitive bestseller people are going to scramble to get the book regardless of whether they see it in a shop window or not. Sales of the specialist, slow-moving book will probably not be affected much by whether it appears in a bookstore or not. It’s probably the second-tier bestseller which benefits most from bookstore exposure.

Be it said here and now that we are discussing print books only. The distribution of ebooks is rather different. And we are talking only about print books from what has come to be called traditional publishing. Self publishing and indie publishing are different too.

Looking at any book’s retail price we can see a money cake which gets divided up between the three interest holders — author, bookseller, publisher (four if you count the shipping companies which today play a large role in our business). The size of the author’s slice is predetermined by the terms of the contract. Let’s call that 10%. Obviously, with a print book, it costs something to manufacture the object; let’s call that 15%. This leaves 75% of the cake to be shared by bookseller and publisher. Nowadays the bookseller, with Amazon in the lead, will be wanting more than 50% of the cake with books everyone’s aware of, leaving the publisher to cover overhead and profit out of the 25% remaining. Of course these numbers are not precise or even necessarily accurate: one book’s profit & loss picture will look very different from another’s. They are order of magnitude right, and are there simply to illustrate the issue.

Now as bookstores seek larger and larger discounts, approaching 60% in some instances, is the publisher not being forced to consider whether selling direct to the customer isn’t in fact a better deal? Well, it is undoubtedly a better deal in money terms, but we are not quite confident that giving up the ability to stack books up in customers’ faces isn’t worth quite a lot. In other words we aren’t confident we can sell as many copies on our own as we can do under the current distribution model. If we knew we could get away with it we would embrace direct to consumer sales. When I worked in Britain in the last century we had the Net Book Agreement, a deal between publishers and the book trade quite explicitly directed at ensuring the viability of a wide-spread network of independent bookstores — and it worked. Publishers knew bookstore were vital to getting books to customers — nobody had dreamed of on-line selling at that time, and a bookshop was the only means of reaching the public. (Well there were book clubs as well as book departments in department stores.) When Amazon was first setting up, publishers thought about competing head-to-head with them by building their own on-line book service, but decided not to as they considered the survival of bricks-and-mortar bookstores more important. And as long as bookstores were willing to settle for a half share of the remainder of the cake, this restraint continued to make sense. But now the game may not be worth the candle: obviously, if by selling direct you get all of that 75% (minus the cost of packing and shipping) you are doing a lot better than just being left with 25%. Lots of publishers already do this on the quiet, and many of them feel compelled (though I cannot figure out why) to offer a discount on these direct sales.

The request from book chains for a discount greater than 55% may end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Sure we love them, but can we afford to keep giving away money to bookstores? Any publisher who refuses the bookstore’s request for more discount faces a response which leads to none of their books being on sale in the stores affected. Collusion is not allowed, but if three or four large publishers were to refuse to give larger discounts, the selection available in these stores would be severely affected, and how long will people keep turning up to find what they want isn’t there. So I wonder if the threat is not just empty. Another massive, but hardly discussed side effect of refusing to sell your books to bookstores is that the returns problem disappears. D2C is returns-free — apart from the occasional manufacturing flaw — and that would represent a huge money boost for the publishing industry.

See my 2015 post End book returns?

See my earlier post on Edwards Brothers Malloy’s closing.

Literary Hub has a piece on near impossible to translate (long) novelsBerlin Alexanderplatz is not so much a challenge to the translator on length grounds, as in the way to handle contemporary Berlin street talk. It’s not short, but it’s no War and Peace. Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg is more impressive in the length stakes. It comes in two volumes, and seems to me to be an odd performance for the middle of the 19th century. It’s a sort of Tristram Shandy-esque tour de force, metafictional in its persistent focus on the mechanics of what the author is doing. One doesn’t expect a book published in 1855 to kick off with a couple of pages of words for different types of sexual intercourse, but preserving words is one of Fariyaq’s passions, and you are going to get taken along with him on his journey through many, many lists. But most of the books discussed in the Literary Hub piece are difficult for reasons other than length — some are indeed notably short.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff began his Proust translation in 1919 and was still working on it when he died in 1930. Conrad opined that the translation was better than the original. Constance Garnett translated 71 Russian works, none of which she appears to have found “near impossible to translate”, despite several of them being those “baggy monsters”.

Also ignoring Lit Hub‘s apparent warnings about the difficulties of length, Damion Searls has just completed his 1720-page translation of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl.

This novel, to be published in October in two volumes in a slipcase, presents the events of one year in the form of a chapter a day. It tells the story of “Gesine Cresspahl, a thirty-four-year-old single mother who is a German émigré to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and of her ten-year-old daughter, Marie — a story of work and school, of friends and lovers and the countless small encounters with neighbors and strangers that make up big-city life. An everyday tale, but also a tale of the events of the day, as gleaned by Gesine from The New York Times.” Volume 1 of Anniversaries takes places between August 1967 and April 1968, Volume 2 between April 1968 and August 1968.

But don’t talk to me about translating long books if you don’t at least give a nod towards the oft-translated Bible. The King James version, called the Authorized version in England, was the third complete Bible translation approved by the Church of England. It took 47 scholars 7 years to do. King James instructed them to get going in 1604. They divided the work into six lots assigning each to a different group of scholars, and by 1608 all were done, and a General Committee of Review hammered out inconsistencies and set the tone. The New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Apocrypha from Greek and Latin. The text of the earlier Bishops’ Bible served as a guide for the translators. They were conscious of walking a denominational tightrope, in a country fixated on the problem of having a king who had been born a Catholic. In their Epistle Dedicatory the translators wrote, in that orotund English which became so influential in British cultural history up unto the end of the last century, “So that if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish Persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us, because we are poor instruments to make God’s holy Truth to be yet more and more known unto these people, whom they desire still to keep in ignorance and darkness; or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by selfconceited Bretheren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil; we may rest secure, supported within by the truth and innocency of a good conscience, having walked the ways of simplicity and integrity, as before the Lord; and sustained without by the powerful protection of Your Majesty’s grace and favour, which will ever give countenance to honest and Christian endeavours against bitter censures and uncharitable imputations.” That’s quite a sentence.

In this context one might mention the almost impossible task of translating The Qur’an — something that is expressly forbidden. Translations take the form of translations of the meaning, but just as an explication of the meaning of, say, Paradise Lost might tell you what it’s about, such versions emphatically do not give you any real feel for the character of the original. Here’s a case where you really should learn the original language in order to be able to appreciate the book. Like Pushkin, so they say.

There are few people left at work in publishing production departments now who can remember how it used to be when paper didn’t just fall out of the sky when you clicked your fingers. We’ve worked ever quicker and smoother purchasing operations into our workflow systems, relying on a slick supply chain, and now allow for a couple of weeks at the end of the process for the printer to receive the files and get the book into the warehouse. Delays have become almost unknown: unknown because any supplier who misses dates for you will probably have their ticket cancelled. But it looks like the unknown terror is about to return. Get used to it. If there’s no paper, there’s no books. And we are approaching a no paper world — or at least a world which isn’t overflowing with pulp and paper.

D. Eadward Tree gives us his 2019 Print Forecast, forwarded by Publishing Executive. The article is mainly focussed on the magazine business, but the same lessons apply for books. Bear in mind that book papers represent a tiny proportion of worldwide paper usage: there’s probably more paper consumed by Amazon’s cartons than by books. And as one papermaker suggests in Mr Tree’s piece, they’d make more money making toilet paper.

In the end, it’s not really too hard to work all this out. If paper doesn’t come quickly, then you need to lay in an inventory and keep it up-to-date. Large publishers used to employ people whose job it was to monitor and manage their paper inventories. We have now tended to lay off this responsibility onto the printer who gets to supply paper and maybe keep a penny or two on the transaction. I don’t think exhorting and threatening your printer on this score is really going to work: the squeaky wheel may get the oil, but too much squeaking and a small wheel tends to get switched out and put aside. It’s not hard to manage paper inventory: just costs you the labor time — and the cost of funding and storing an inventory.

Ideally you need to restrict your paper usage to as few as possible different types and sizes of paper. You also need to make your print decisions earlier, so paper can be guaranteed for the book once it’s ready for the printer. Maybe you’ll find yourself occasionally determining the print run based on the paper on hand: “Divide and print to paper” was an instruction we’d often have to give the printer. You’ll also need to preschedule. You’ll want to hold extra paper to make some allowance for a quick and unexpected reprint. All this takes time and concentration. Managing paper inventories can be pretty straightforward. I once upon a time constructed a moderately elaborate FileMakerPro system of three linked databases — to calculate probable future usage title by title; to book in firm usage numbers based on the printers’ usage reports; and to generate purchase orders in good time to ensure replenishment took place before inventory was exhausted. But you can run a paper inventory on a few index cards. Carrying a stock of various papers of different sizes will mean tying capital up in white paper, so you’ll need to sell the idea to the bosses. But consider what your chances of survival are in a sea where the big fish are going to be able to intimidate printers into letting them gobble up all the paper, leaving smaller fry without.

Look on the bright side. This “loss of efficiency” represents a gain in responsibility for production departments.

See also Paper buying

© 2014 Dan Piraro, from

Here’s Shelf Awareness‘s 20 August story:

Fire & Fury Over Unhinged

The attempt by President Trump to block another book critical of him and his administration has been rebuked both by the publisher and a range of book and free speech groups.

The book is Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, published by S&S’s Gallery Books imprint last week. Manigault-Newman had worked on the Trump campaign and in the White House.

Citing a non-disclosure agreement between Trump campaign and Manigault-Newman, Charles J. Harder of Harder Mirell & Abrams, representing the Trump campaign, last Monday wrote to S&S and threatened “substantial monetary damages and punitive damages” against the author as well as “tortious interference with contract and inducement of breach of contract” against S&S.

S&S issued this statement in response: “Despite various legal claims and threats made by representatives of the Trump campaign, Gallery Books and Simon & Schuster are proceeding as planned with publication of Unhinged by Omarosa Manigault-Newman, confident that we are acting well within our rights and responsibilities as a publisher.”

The Trump administration attack is reminiscent of its attack in January on Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff, which included a demand that Holt cease and desist publishing and issue an apology. On Friday, a coalition of groups led by the National Coalition Against Censorship, issued a statement supporting S&S. Noting the threats against Fire & Fury and the President’s regular attacks on the media, the group said it stands “in solidarity against threats by the president and his administration that undermine our country’s commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Efforts to restrict these freedoms are the hallmark of a totalitarian regime.”

On Wednesday, Elizabeth A. McNamara of Davis Wright Tremaine, representing S&S, responded to Harder’s letter, rejecting his arguments. (Interestingly, Harder wrote the Trump White House’s threatening letter to Holt about Fire & Fury, while McNamara wrote Holt’s response.) In the Unhinged response, McNamara wrote, in part, that although Harder charged there were “disparaging statements” in the book, “at no point do you claim that any specific statement in the book is false. Your client [President Trump] does not have a viable legal claim merely because unspecified truthful statements in the book may embarrass the President or his associates. At base, your letter is nothing more than an obvious attempt to silence legitimate criticism of the President. S&S will not be silenced by legal threats grounded in vague allusions to ‘disparaging statements.’ “

She also rejected Harder’s claim that the book contained “confidential information,” writing, “your letter also fails to specify any statements in the excerpts of the book that contain confidential information. Instead, you merely cite to four news articles published about the book. Yet, these articles do not contain any obvious confidential information.”

She also noted that Harder’s demand that S&S preserve all communications, documents and materials relating to the book also applies to the Trump campaign. “Should you pursue litigation against S&S, we are confident that documents related to the contents of the book in the possession of President Trump, his family members, his businesses, the Trump campaign, and his administration will prove particularly relevant to our defense.”

As with the Fire & Fury controversy, the Trump attacks and threats seem to be acting as remarkably effective publicity. Unhinged is at or near the top of many bestseller lists.

Whatever you may think of the president’s way of governing, tribute does need to be paid to his sterling achievements in the field of book promotion. A couple of wild conspiracy-theory books about which he has tweeted his appreciation can be read about in Anna Merlan’s piece at Rolling Stone. And don’t be amazed that respectable publishing houses publish crazy books: we only do it for the money, honey.

New York Public Library is offering novels which you can read on Instagram. The first, available now, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with illustrations by Magoz.  Hyperallergic tells the tale.

Here’s an NYPL video — if you don’t see the YouTube video below, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

This plan seems insanely sane, and may even persuade some kids to look at a book.

The Library’s Instagram account is @nypl.

Stanley Morison’s name was always mentioned with reverence in the Pitt Building in the sixties and seventies. He had died in 1967. As typographical advisor to the University Press his name had long been the calling card of all who wished to celebrate and cement Cambridge’s place of preeminence among letterpress printers.

Nicolas Barker, Morison’s biographer, speaks for about ¾ of an hour in this video of a talk at the Cooper Union in New York. (If you don’t see a video above, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

Morison became interested in type as a result the purchase of the 10 September 1912 supplement to The Times dealing with printing and its history. He was, apart from his typographical work, notable for two main things. He always wore a black suit of ecclesiastical cut with a black hat, and was a life-time socialist, imprisoned during the First World War for his pacifist beliefs.

Any publisher at all interested in design should read First Principles of Typography, a brief introduction to his style: simplicity, balance, a historical sensitivity and attention to detail.

Many book designers need to see his remarks, near the bottom of this page about ‘bright’ typography. “Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” The designer’s work should ideally remain invisible to the reader’s (conscious) mind. Your job is to ease communication between author and reader; no more and no less.

See also my February post Stanley Morison.


I always find it hard to deal with the output of OULIPO. It seems almost like crossword puzzles: fine to while away the time, but a good use of my reading time? Still people obviously more serious, creative, and intelligent than me have gone in for it, so I should just get on with it.

OULIPO, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, was founded in 1960 by mathematician François de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau. Its aim is to explore the possibilities of verse and prose written under a system of structural constraints. Lipogram is apparently one of their favorites. Others include snowball, Macao constraint, palindrome, and univocalism: Wikipedia lists them.

The Academy of American Poets gives a brief introduction, in which they allude to the OULIPO technique of N+7 wherein an already existing poem is recast substituting for each noun the noun seven places forward from it in the dictionary. Clearly different versions can be generated by using different dictionaries. At the bottom of this post is an example of what comes out if one uses the Oxford English Dictionary on a bit of Wordsworth. What is one to make of this? Not much I fear, and certainly not enough to make me want to repeat the experiment with Chambers’ or Webster’s New World. To me it seems utterly trite and boring. I suppose the juxtaposition of two American Indian tribes might be seen as “interesting”, but it all seems a waste of time. Maybe a real OULIPOist would reject this one and move on to another — original or dictionary.

When it comes to translating OULIPO works, what’s a translator to do? Not I think reach for the OULIPO translation techniques discussed in this paper by Harry Matthews from Electronic Book Review. He quotes this (to me just plain silly) example of seriously intended work: Marcel Benabou’s translation of “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” to “Ah, singe débotté, / Hisse un jouet fort et vert”. It’s just like “Mot d’heures gousse rames”. Translating “Ah, singe débotté . . .” into English is clearly futile. This sort of thing is a one-way street: though I wonder what a “translation” into German might turn out to sound like. Better leave such things to German OULIPOists. I guess each translator, faced with an N+7 work in French has to decide on whether to translate a noun seven places forward in their English dictionary from the translation of the French word used, or a translation of the exact word used by the author, or even, I suppose, to go back to the original word before its N+7 adjustment, translate it and move 7 nouns forward in their English dictionary. I suspect that such tortuous manipulation shows that OULIPO ought not be translated.

Nevertheless David Bellos has translated lots of Georges Perec’s work. He wonders whether any of the translations he’s made are stylistically not Perec, Kadare, whoever, but just examples of Bellos-style. Of course Perec, although a member of the group, didn’t have to write everything as an echt-OUPIPO-text, but his 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter “e”. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994) Wikipedia tells us.

In the end I think these OULIPO constraints are more fun to do than to read: like so much 20th century art, the real consumer is the bored artist.


My N+7 example:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
   Or let me die!
The Child is father to the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
My heaume leaps up when I behold
A raita in the slade:
So was it when my ligase began,
So is it now I am a Manahoac,
So be it when I shall grow old
    Or let me die!
The Chilkat is fatling to the Manahoac:
And I could wish my deaf-mutes to be
Bound each to each by natural piggin.