Archives for the month of: September, 2018

This just screams trouble, but as a protest against the President’s decision not to put Harriet Tubman‘s portrait on the $20 bill after all, Dano Wall has created a 3-D printed stamper so you can update the bills in your wallet all on your own. He plans to make a few more stampers for others to use as well.

Hyperallergic tells the tale. According to adafruit stamping Ms Tubman’s face on your $20 bills should not land you in jail. Burning a bill, flushing it down the toilet, or defacing it “to render it illegible or unrecognizable” would seem to be illegal, but, perhaps because nobody had imagined anyone would do such a thing, overprinting a different portrait seems to slide by.

We all know hip-hop artists do it, and many musicians seem to regard it as a kind of tribute to find a snatch of their own song repurposed in a new track. Remix in the music business started out meaning simply reformatting. I dare say there’s a developing theology of remix, also referred to as sampling, as to how much is OK and how much is too much. I think we’d all agree that my rendition of Yesterday, substituting “Wednesday” for all the “yesterdays” in the Beatles song should not be accorded copyright protection as a new work, but just where the line should be drawn is clearly up for debate.

Same no doubt in other arts. Remix may be a way to describe this black & white version of Graeme Williams’ color photo, but does the alteration make it a new work? Certainly any publisher seeking to reproduce a color photo in black and white only, would not think that because of that change permission didn’t need to be sought. The greying out of part of the picture might be said to put us into a grey area. To me it seems that the alteration is not enough to constitute a new work: the second picture can’t be anything more than a derivative work for which permission from the original copyright owner is required. But of course that’s in the end why we have law courts. Insult was added to injury when Mr Williams noticed that the black & white photograph was being offered for sale by Hank Willis Thomas at $36,000, 25 times what he’s ever gotten for a print.

Details of the two versions from Petapixel.

You can see the whole story (and the complete images) at Petapixel. Link via The Passive Voice. The Guardian also covered the alleged plagiarism.

Whether the results of scientific research should be made available free of charge or not, there is an awful lot of it. This isn’t utterly amazing given the expansion in universities, and the progress we can see possible in many research areas. Stanford Medicine’s blog Scope raises the question of whether it’s possible to have too much science publishing. From the sidelines one would assume that you can’t really ever have too much data. But it seems that some smart people have figured out that publishing the “results” of experimentation brings larger rewards than actually bothering to do the research. A few scientists appear to have become wildly productive. Dr John Ioannidis describes these problematic cases thus “Hyperprolific authors are those who publish so many papers within a short period, that many other scientists would find it implausible and rather unfeasible. These are full papers, excluding editorials, letters, or notes, and publication is happening at a rate that’s equivalent to publishing a full paper every five days.”

University World News carries another article alerting us to the problem of too much academic research being published. The authors, Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit, are mainly targeting the poor old journal: beset from all sides, but amazingly still hanging in there. For years publishers have been worrying about the demise of the journal as a publication medium. Relying as it does on the good will of already busy academics reviewing articles without remuneration, the basis of the journal medium has become open to question as costs in all areas have steadily risen. Maybe we just can’t think what else to do, even though the arrival of digital media did for a while provide the appearance of a beacon leading towards — whatever you’d like to wish for.

In a related story Science Magazine tells us about editors resigning because of pressure to publish more substandard work. The Economist weighs in warning us of a tsunami a-coming carrying vast amounts of open access science papers.

It seems to me that we must almost be tottering on the edge of a radical change in the way academic work is evaluated and published. If open access turns out to be the norm, maybe the onus on deciding whether this or that research is any good will move from the gatekeeper to the consumer. If everyone who looks at a paper adds a comment about their reaction to it, we might arrive at a sort of TripAdvisor regime, where caveat emptor rules. This is obviously inconvenient for researchers, but if we reach a point where peer review as we know it becomes untenable because of volume, time pressure, economics, and cynicism some alternative will have to be found.

And, lo, here carried by Nature comes good old AI riding over the hill to save us all by providing a way to read this flood of information without having to waste any of our time doing so. (That’s Artificial Intelligence, not sheriff Alfred.) If AI can really tell us what’s worth looking at, then peer review and careful editing perhaps become less important.

See also Peer review, and Open access like it or not.

The Guardian has a little controversy going on as a result of George Monbiot’s piece, Science publishing is a rip-off which amounts to a claim that knowledge really does want to be, and furthermore should be, free. Guardians of balanced debate, the newspaper has published a follow-up consisting of reactions to Mr Monbiot’s article. In the original piece the author touchingly tells us of the expense involved in his researching cancer treatments after his recent diagnosis: but is it not the case that what Sci-Hub saved him from was nothing more than the bus fare and hassle of going to a decent library with subscriptions to all the journals Sci-Hub has ripped off, and reading the papers in question there?

I’ve gone on about the open access issue before, and think that the question doesn’t have a single clear-cut answer. Like any simple formulation of a complicated idea, “information wants to be free” appears to say more than it really can. Too much depends on who’s asking the question, in what context, and what specific meaning is attached to individual words.

It’s undeniable that there’s a logic to the argument that since we all paid for this piece of research through government funding of research and/or universities, we ought to be allowed access to the results without further payment. Leaving aside the issue of private funding of research, the problem comes with the mode of that access. Most academics are modest enough to understand that their writing is at best serviceable for internal discussion, and at worst, incomprehensible to the general public. This isn’t usually a problem, as the traditional journals to which academics submit their papers will all have editors and copyeditors who will, in theory at the very least, whip incomprehensible prose into as elegant a shape as possible. Worried about factual errors? Fear not, peer reviewing will take care of such problems: unknown colleagues will quietly read, check, and approve your work. Which is all very good, and valuable. And costly. Someone has to do this sort of work, and someone usually likes to be paid.

The Economist, reporting on developments in Europe, jumps into this discussion with a piece called The S-Plan diet. Plan S is an agreement among eleven European countries requiring scientists who benefit from national funding to publish only in freely available open-access sites by 2020. This would prevent papers appearing in about 85% of current journals, including the most prestigious. It now looks like the European Union is racing down the legislative track of freedom for info. Now, we can all be relied on the deprecate the hefty prices put on journals by the likes of Elsevier, everyone’s favorite bête noir in this world, but that doesn’t do much good. We can all (I think) recognize that there are costs involved, we just don’t agree on how much of a margin over and above those costs, whatever they may be, the publisher should be allowed. We just believe that the profits are too damn high. The world of open access has tended to take care of these costs by publication fees charged to the authors when they submit the paper. The European legislation seeks to cap these fees, but nobody really knows how much of a fee is too much, and how low fees could go before publishers give up. Naturally, of course, many open-access sites have figured out that there are rich pickings to be made in charging publication fees as high as the traffic will bear, which is often a surprisingly large amount with academics doomed to publish or perish.

For a simple direct assault on the fat-cat publisher, see Aaron Swartz making his case at Academic publishing scandal.

We have all heard of wood blocks being reused in different books, sometimes even slightly altered. But what is even more surprising to  a modern mind is to find the same woodcut being used over and over in the same book to depict different people or places. This post from The Collation shows a couple of instances from a 1518 edition of Plautus’ plays. The book contains five woodcuts, each one used over and over again. In early printing the presses were small, and maybe two or four pages would be printed per sheet. After printing, the type would be distributed for reuse in subsequent pages. Clearly woodcuts would be temptingly available too. As you can see from the captions underneath, this picture first shows Alcmena, Jupiter and Mercury from Amphytrion, who on another page turn into The Wife, Sosicles and Menaechmus’s father-in-law in Menaechmi.

I wonder if the reader was expected not to notice. Hardly, I think. More likely nobody minded: a picture is just a picture after all, and it’s obviously unrealistic to expect an accurate representation of Jupiter, say, so why not just that bearded male figure? If you’re not expecting a realistic depiction, then not getting one will hardly be a matter of note.

The practice of reusing woodcuts seems to have been fairly common in early book printing. For example The Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, contains 1809 woodcut illustrations, though apparently there are only 645 unique wood blocks. It clearly cannot have had any negative significance for readers. In a way a reused wood block is performing a function little different from a historiated initial or a vignette at the end of a chapter — just filling up space and giving the reader a little resting point. Noting how publishers’ minds work nowadays, I’d expect a significant motivator for their reuse would be that of making the book look longer, thus better value.

If you want to take a look at The Nuremberg Chronicle, the University of Cambridge Library offers a digital copy of a hand-colored edition here. Below is the double-page spread showing Nuremberg itself. These blocks were not reused elsewhere in the book, though blocks for other cities less familiar to readers apparently were reused with different labels.

It’s hardly surprising that independent booksellers should feel frustration and powerlessness in the face of discount-granting publishers. Publishers not only get to determine the discount they’ll give, but also set the retail price off which that discount is granted. But, while I’m sure it’s never easy balancing your books, surely this piece from Publishers Weekly by bookseller Jonathan Platt can be said to miss the point that costs have gone up for everyone not just for bookstores.

Unfortunately we live in a world where neither bookstores nor book publishers function as public charities or quasi-governmental organizations. I dare say arguments in favor of such a situation would prevail in Utopia, but unfortunately we are doomed to deal with the here and now. We regularly hear how publishers should be giving authors a better deal. The same argument applies at both ends of the publishing supply chain: most books just aren’t selling as many copies as they once did. Publishers can keep their income up by simply publishing more of them, which doesn’t help bookstores any, nor authors other than those who can churn out multiple volumes each year. Now we should admit here that publishers’ margins have improved a bit over the past year or so: but surely no business owner would suggest that any improvement in profitability should immediately be passed on to customers. If this were to go on for a longer period, who knows?

The way retailers can counteract overhead cost increases is to increase sales revenue. Some of this happens just because the prices of books go up. Obviously 47% of a $29.95 novel is more than 47% of a $6.95 one — the price at which Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969. (See How to boost your sales?) No doubt it’s frustrating that you as a bookseller have no control over the price of these books, and while it’s quite legal to charge more than the face price of a book, it requires considerable intestinal fortitude to set such a policy — in the face of on-line discounting this might also be suicidal.* To the extent that price increases for books march more or less in step with price increases for everything else, this is perhaps of little comfort. (I would argue that trade discounts have in fact grown since Portnoy‘s days: perhaps not as much as Mr Platt would like, but grown.) Real revenue enhancement unfortunately has to come from selling more books or other stuff, or doing the job with fewer people. Harsh perhaps, but the same reality is faced by the publisher and any other businesses.

Be it noted that many independent bookstores are having success in achieving just these ends, and that we are in fact living through a time of bookstore growth. Heck, even Barnes & Noble opened a new store in Maryland last week.


* I wonder if any good would come of changing the pricing policy for books. Mr Platt justly identifies discounting by big-box and on-line stores as a large issue. His implication that this was a sort of general policy decision by publishers is of course not correct. If someone offers to take a huge number of copies off your hand, you may be liable to offer a discount: I dare say if you went into Nonesuch Books & Cards and asked to buy 100 copies of Fear, even Mr Platt might be willing to cut you a little bit of a deal. I would imagine that if publishers were to attempt to fix discounts to big retailers on an industry-wide basis this would in fact be an illegal restraint of trade. But would it help if publishers were to cease establishing a retail price and selling to bookstores at a discount from that price, and change to selling at a net price — more or less half of what their retail price is today? Bookstores would then be able to set whatever price they wanted, and might perhaps then be less at risk from losing sales to discounters? Not sure that’d be so. I expect what would happen would be a flight to the lowest price available from say Amazon which anyone can discover instantly on their iPhone.

While our current system may not be perfect, it does, I suspect, function better than any achievable alternative.

Well, OK, part of my motivation in starting this blog was to clarify differences between British and American book talk. (I think this got taken care of mainly amongst the earlier posts, though I’m open to queries from puzzled book folk.)

Here’s list from Merriam-Webster of British words not readily understood by Americans. Blimey, are Americans really that gormless? Surely most of these 10 words, and the second list accessed via a link at the bottom, are not utterly opaque to Americans. One might observe that a couple of their explanations are less earthy than they might have been.

Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.

A vignette was originally just an ornament with a intertwined vine tendril motif. In books the vignette started out as a border of twisted vines, and, shedding its vine motif, came to mean a repeated illustrative element placed at the beginning or end of a chapter. One most commonly comes upon them at the end of chapters in older books where they often seem to play the role of filling all that empty space which many printers seemed then to abhor.

Building on that meaning a vignette can effectively mean any illustration without a frame. For example this wood engraving by Thomas Bewick:

Ralph Waldo Emerson

After the invention of photography it took on the additional meaning of a design in which the central element (often a portrait) was highlighted by removing the background. In the days of photoengraving this was a highly skilled process, involving an air-brush, a paint brush and white ink/paint. You can see this being done towards the end of the first video at Engraving a halftone block. (Even more incredibly in this video you can also see the artist/artisan creating the type by hand using only his paint brush.)

Vignette has now evolved to mean also that effect created by a camera lens whereby the center of the image tends to be brighter than the corners and edges. Your computer’s photo software probably gives you the ability to adjust this if you need to.

Metaphorically the vignette’s meaning was extended in the late 19th century to mean a brief, tightly-focussed written portrait. This meaning has spread out to mean just a sketch in words.

At No. 1 Queenston Street in Queenston, Ontario, just about seven miles downstream from the Niagara Falls stands the house where William Lyon Mackenzie first printed The Colonial Advocate in 1824. Within is a small museum dedicated to printing, The Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum.

They have on show the oldest press in Canada, a wooden Louis Roy press, as well as a bunch of letterpress equipment including a Linotype caster. Examples of The Courier Advocate can be seen, and of course the gift shop offers you facsimiles.




An effigy of Mr Mackenzie greets you as you enter. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this image is Mr Mackenzie’s beard. Turns out the beard is merely a sort of chin strap to hold on his wig. Now whether this was the case in real life, or as I suspect merely true of this particular manifestation, I cannot confirm. Contemporary portraits and his bust outside the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto suggest that the actual beard was pretty real. We were told that to emphasize his point Mr Mackenzie would often throw his wig to the ground. He certainly was a turbulent man, starting his newspaper to give vent to his dissatisfaction at the land policies, patronage, and crooked justice of the ruling colonial administration. He was the first mayor of Toronto in 1834. He fled at times to the United States of America, to escape bankruptcy in 1826, and to avoid prosecution for rebellion after The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in 1837, when as leader of an armed revolt he had a price, £1,000, on his head. Born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, he died of an apoplectic seizure at his home in Toronto in 1861.

The highlight of your trip to the museum is the printing of a proclamation of your attendance. You have to typeset your own name by hand from an inevitably sparse collection of sorts in a job case. Word spaces were in notably short supply. The attending apprentice then fits this type into a standing form, locks it up, inks it with a couple of ink balls, and runs off one copy which you take away as a souvenir of your visit. The press used for this is not the Louis Roy, but a sturdier cast-iron Albion press made by Hopkinson & Cope of Finsbury, London.

While you visit the Mackenzie Printery do not fail to visit the many excellent wineries in the region.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, basically the right hand bit of the map above, is also the home of The Shaw Festival.


Via Twitter Erik Kwakkel sends these pictures together with the information that before anyone thought of creating a title page at the front of the book, they would give the “publication” details in a colophon at the back. This practice was taken over from the manuscript tradition.

Illustrated is a Bible Commentary which, according to Professor Kwakkel, was printed in Nuremberg in 1487. Printer’s errors seem to have a long and noble tradition: isn’t there a typo in the date? Or is this actually a manuscript created in 1387? Hard to tell without seeing it up close. I couldn’t track it down at the University of Leiden’s library using the call number quoted, Groenh. 014. The rubrication would be done by hand even if the black was printed.

The European Book in the Twelfth Century, edited by Professor Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.