Archives for the month of: October, 2018

How many successful writers have children who also become successful writers?

Amis authors, father & son at the right. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Getty Images

“One of the perks of being the son of a writer is not that you come automatically equipped to write novels, it’s that you don’t bother much about praise. Kingsley never bothered much about praise and dispraise. My stepmother did care. She was desperate for praise, and very much wanted it from me.” Thus Martin Amis in The Guardian. No doubt such insouciance can be passed on.

Abe Books brings us a list of ten examples of father-son writing continuity. Of course lots of people will write a book: and with self publishing now well established more of course than one could previously ever have imagined, but by writer don’t we want to mean more than just someone who writes? I think we imagine the term to imply “able to make a decent living by book writing”. Now I have no idea what monies Charles Dickens junior was able to pull down; it sounds like they were earnings rather than royalties. Alexandre Dumas Père et Fils leave everyone else in the dust in a listing of successful father and son authors. Some combination of the Waugh dynasty looks pretty good too, but notable inter-generational success is a bit of a rarity isn’t it? Not included on the list, Leslie Stephen/Virginia Wolff, and John Cheever/Susan Cheever would probably qualify. Anthony Trollope’s mother wrote novels which are not much read nowadays: three of them are available at Project Gutenberg. His brother Thomas wrote sixty books which seem to have quietly drifted into obscurity, though four do survive at Project Gutenberg. Trollope’s sister-in-law (Thomas’ second wife: the first had been a poet) was also a novelist: two of her books are also at Project Gutenberg. And her younger sister was Dickens senior’s mistress, keeping up the family’s literary activities.

Here’s the announcement of Joe Hill’s dad’s first big break.

This family seems to be as well established in the book-writing business as the Trollopes. Here’s Owen King writing at The Guardian about the difficulties of collaborating with Dad.

Of course following in your father’s profession is by no means unusual: many a weaver has sons who become weavers. My granddaughter is following in her Mum’s footsteps and studying medicine. And lots of children inherit the family business. Such succession is far from unusual: what’s rarer is the talent needed to make a success of the enterprise. Often the second or third generations who took on woolen mills in the Borders ran into difficulties. Of course business conditions had changed since patriarchal times, but there did appear to be a shortage of magic touch. My school-friend Charlie Stewart is a conspicuous exception. The Buddenbrooks trap all too often seems to catch us out. (Erika, Klaus, Golo and Monika, Thomas Mann’s children, were all successful writers however. I don’t mean to imply any aspersion here on the third generation: I know nothing of them.)

How many footballers have sons who grow up to be footballers? More I suspect than writers. Being familiar with the business helps, as well, I imagine, as being able to internalize at an early age that such a life is actually possible. Of course there is the problem of the very public inter-generational comparisons which you’d have to have the intestinal fortitude to put up with: is Kasper Schmeichel as good as his dad? Still I suppose that sort of intestinal fortitude would have to come with any form of celebrity: whether you are being compared with a family member or a stranger, you still risk an unpleasant shock.

Of course there is the concern that authors make terrible parents. The Walrus tackles this. Czeslaw Milosz said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” If you don’t want your quirks coming up for excoriation in some future novel, be sure to discourage writing in your offspring. The Walrus article quotes William Faulkner’s response when his daughter tried to intervene in his alcoholism: “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” Obviously a writing parent will need space and quiet to commune with the muse: rambunctious kids are doubtless about as incompatible with such a state as it’s possible to get. Maybe habits of silence predispose a child to internalization, reading, and mental story-telling preparing them for one kind of life only.

Interesting Literature has 10 of the Best Poems about Fathers. For fairness’ sake I point out that they link there to their previous post of poems about mothers.

Here for a little balance is a Lit Hub gallery of photos of authors with their mothers.

I’m not so sure there’s anything too apocalyptic in this news, but Mike Shatzkin looks anxiously here at a way in which traditional book publishers may end up being bypassed. Yes, of course all sorts of organizations (and people) can now perfectly easily publish a book. But that doesn’t have to mean everyone will: people’s laziness, or willingness to have others do the work for them, looks like an inexhaustible resource to me. The bare fact that Medium has published a book, I suspect, has no significance beyond just that: Medium has published a book. Good for them.

Mr Shatzkin continues to play on our anxieties with his next post about imprint consolidation. He sees this happening as a result of sales reductions. But imprints have always been being consolidated. Publishers have established imprints for years for various reasons, including to flatter prominent employees, and then closed them down when the advantages of keeping them going no longer seemed so pressing. This doesn’t mean books which would have been published under that imprint no longer get published. They just get published with a different publisher name at the bottom of the spine — and who out there really notices? Only publishing people recognize or care about imprints. Crown books will now be published as Random House books. Big deal. The way it goes is Random House buys a separate publishing company, Crown, in 1988 and keeps the name as an imprint, no doubt partly because it’s just administratively easier to do so; partly because there are good people working there; partly because they have a list of books signed up for the future and some authors might have a sort of Crown brand loyalty; and partly because they can maybe sell a book or two extra if it looks like it’s come from a separate source. Now thirty years later they collapse the Crown list into Little Random, a similar list at the core of their own operations. This doesn’t seem particularly significant to me. I dare say there are one or two high-paid job losses, but further down the tree life continues pretty much as before I expect. As far as the public is concerned not a ripple disturbs the calm surface of life as we know it.

The other imprint closure causing Mr Shatzkin concern is at Simon & Schuster, who just a week later announced the founding of another, completely different imprint*. Surely we can all see that a greater or smaller number of imprints doesn’t mean anything for the health of our industry. The total number of books published, or the total number of copies sold, or most importantly the amount of revenue generated — now these numbers do tell you something about our industry. Whether all these sales came from 900 imprints or 9,000 doesn’t matter a whit.

Now of course I have to acknowledge that Mike Shatzkin knows a lot more about trade publishing than I do, and maybe my beef here is merely to do with the absence of the word “trade” in his pieces. I do rather think that the age of big trade publishing may be approaching its end. Consolidation/diversification has always during my career been a pendulum-like phenomenon. This latest swing towards consolidation has gone on much longer than I’d ever have credited, but I do think the time is a-coming when book publishing will return to the myriad-small-companies mode which was the status quo when I first started in the game. Now it’s just so easy to get into the business because of technological progress. Unlike so many other people though, I don’t think that that ease of entry is in itself enough to doom the industry to extinction by excess variation. Quite the contrary: I think the existence of lots and lots of little publishing companies will enable anyone wanting to get a book published to find a home for their baby which will relieve them of any worries in getting the book presented and sold in a professional way. The behemoths may all have gone extinct by then, but a Permian-like explosion in publishing companies will have enlivened the environment.


* ShelfAwareness  of 30 October reports “Simon & Schuster is launching a new imprint, Avid Reader Press, that will be led by Jofie Ferrari-Adler, v-p and publisher, and Ben Loehnen, v-p and editor in chief, and will publish its first titles, which include fiction and nonfiction, late next year or early 2020.”

The Simon & Schuster announcement can be found here.

To make a typewriter for Chinese along the same lines as the typewriters we all are familiar with would require a keyboard so big that nobody could reach the middle of it. Because each character in Chinese is (by and large) a syllable or a word*, such a keyboard, thinking in terms of an English comparison, would need to have the same number of keys (plus key shift options) as there are entries in the dictionary and then some, as you’d need to conjugate and decline too. The Remington Typewriter Company, founded in 1816, was the early brand leader in “English-language” typewriters. They claimed their machines were universal, but this required them to turn a blind eye to the Chinese language.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese were determined to overcome the problem and they set about solving the conundrum along three avenues: firstly, restrict the number of characters to the most frequently used 2,000 to 3,000 — surprisingly this actually takes care of a good deal of what anyone might normally need to communicate. (By the 20th century there were over 85,000 characters in the Chinese lexicon.) Then secondly, look at dividing the characters into constituent parts and combining these separate parts to create a variety of characters. This proved almost impossible to work out because of aesthetic concerns about fit and size variation. Thirdly, simplify Chinese script — not something anyone other than the odd enthusiast was prepared to consider.

The solution used in the first working Chinese typewriter was to abandon the idea of a keyboard, and put in its place a rectangular tray carrying little metal characters. The tray, about 18″ x 9″, carried about 2,500 individual characters and offered the chance of substituting some special characters to customize the machine to particular subject matter. The typist moves the tray about to locate the required character, then pushes a lever to cause the mechanism to pick up the sort and bang it against the paper. Chinese typing was always a bit slow. By rearranging the characters in the tray so that characters frequently occurring together were placed adjacent to each other, individuals were able to get their speed up to 3,000 an hour in the revolutionary period. Attempts to standardize this sort of thematic arrangement always failed and by the 1980s manufacturers would supply the tray bed empty, so that each purchaser could load the characters in their own personal layout.

This slightly hazy video shows the system in operation.

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

The adaptation of telegraphy to Chinese took a different tack. There all the characters were assigned a four-digit numerical code, arranged in the sequence of number of strokes, a method often used in China for ranking in the absence of an alphabet. This involved the printing of directories showing the numerical code for each character, which the operator would have to look up. An efficiency break-through came when someone reprinted the book with all the characters beginning with the same two digits printed on one page. This meant that rather than flicking through the pages of the directory the operator could go straight to, say, page 32 to find the character 3261 which he’d just received. Cumbersome, but better than not having access to the telegraph at all. The work was slowed down by the fact that the digits in Morse code are all five clicks long, so it took longer to type a message than if they had had fewer clicks — though of course no character was longer than four digits, twenty clicks.

In 1947 Lin Yutang came up with a working prototype of a typewriter which contained over 8,000 characters, plus a system of partial characters which would enable the typing of every known Chinese character. He named it MingKwai, meaning Clear & Fast. It worked on the basis of a series of 8-sided metal bars, each face engraved with 29 characters. Six of these bars were mounted on a rotating mechanism. There were five more such 6-bar mechanisms which would rotate around one another as well as rotating themselves. The keyboard didn’t activate a character; it directed the machine to the character to be printed. A group of eight characters would be summoned up by two keystrokes; a third stroke using the number keys at the bottom of the keyboard would select the character in that location and print it onto the paper. All was going well when Lin ran out of money just in time for the whole project to be engulfed in the revolution and subsequently the Korean War, making foreign investment impossible to come by. The single prototype machine was apparently chucked out by Mergenthaler Linotype later on. Future archaeologists, please be on the look out. It may be rusting away in the Freshkills landfill.

This information is gleaned from The Chinese Typewriter: A History by Thomas Mullaney (MIT Press, 2017), a strangely fascinating volume which tells the totally unsuspected story of an object one had always thought of as utterly mundane. The book was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement of 1 June, 2018. You need, I fear, to be a subscriber to read it in full. Professor Mullaney promises us a second volume, continuing the story into the world of computers. One can perhaps sense that the telegraphy trick might become significant here.

The website ozTypewriter gives an extensive well-illustrated account of some Chinese typewriters, including Dr Lin Yutang’s MingKwai machine.


* Wikipedia tells us “Chinese characters represent words of the language using several strategies. A few characters, including some of the most commonly used, were originally pictograms, which depicted the objects denoted, or ideograms, in which meaning was expressed iconically. The vast majority were written using the rebus principle, in which a character for a similarly sounding word was either simply borrowed or (more commonly) extended with a disambiguating semantic marker to form a phono-semantic compound character.”


David Crotty’s regular Friday entertainment at The Scholarly Kitchen this week features a video on color terminology in different languages.

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

If variety is the spice of life, librarians must live quite spicily. New York Public Library recently discovered a box of old questions directed at their staff between the 1940s and the 80s and they’ve been displaying some at their Instagram account. This post from The Gothamist lets you see a few of them.

© Tom Gauld or The Guardian

Tom Gauld also has a go in his recent Guardian cartoon.

Instagram seems to be a favorite venue for NYPL: see my recent post on Insta Novels.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that To Kill a Mockingbird turned out to be America’s favorite book. Despite the potential turn-off of often being required reading in schools, almost everyone has read it on that account, and it does have an iconic film adaptation rattling around in one’s head. What did surprise me was the number of books on the list I wasn’t aware of: starting off with number 2, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon who was there to accept the applause. You can watch the Grand Finale here.

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

It turns out that I do recognize the stars of the TV show, Outlander (about to start its fourth season) from promotional Tweets I’ve gotten over the years, but I’d no idea that there were books lurking behind. “Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year of Our Lord . . . 1743.” Wow: is walking through a standing stone exactly what they mean? If the effect of doing so it to transport you back two centuries, maybe it is. The show’s obviously got everything.

Here are the top 15 of America’s favorite books:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon
  3. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  6. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  9. Chronicles of Narnia (series) by C.S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  12. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  14. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  15. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Game of Thrones surprises by not getting any higher than 48th place. There it’s behind even The Count of Monte Cristo. That White Teeth isn’t ahead of Americanah seems back-to-front. But there it is. The people have spoken. To a large extent the exercise points up the importance of a television of cinema version in spreading the word. Word-of-mouth was always the best book marketing tool. The cynic lurking within me wonders if many of the volumes were voted for out of piety rather than as a result of frequent re-reading.

I do hope that at least a few non-habitual-readers were motivated by the whole exercise actually to read a book. I may have to look at the Outlander series.

Total sales numbers for books in the USA are impossible to calculate. We can find out about sales numbers for an individual title, and obviously any single publisher will be aware of their own sales. The Association of American Publishers reports sales — but key to understanding these is that they are sales numbers for those of their members who report to them. There are about 400 companies who are members of AAP, but by no means all traditional publishers belong (there are monthly dues). I dare say a majority of book sales through traditional channels get captured by the AAP figures, but their numbers can never be totally complete. Now every time the AAP presents its figures it does not make a big hullaballoo about their incompleteness — who would? And because they are the biggest aggregation of sales information available, many commentators carelessly refer to them as if they were complete. To some extent they probably do work as a comparison of sales trends from year to year, but as an indication of how many books are sold in any year they fall far short.

The Digital Reader gives us a clear description of the situation in a recent post. The long and the short of things is that we have a fairly good idea of what sales are made by regular, traditional book publishers while we have no idea what the sales volume of self-published books might be. Self published authors are often known to have sold thousands of copies of their books, but there’s no place where such matters are consistently reported and aggregated. The main seller, Amazon, isn’t telling. Author Earnings has made a good effort at reporting self publishing sales, but they reach their conclusions more by analysis than by bean counting. We are quite willing to believe that the sales of self-published books are greater than the sales of traditionally published books, certainly in the total number of copies sold — but it just doesn’t matter. After all we know that oil companies have greater sales than wind turbine companies, and find such knowledge quite easy to live with. Others, wild enthusiasts for renewable energy perhaps, may deplore the situation, and that’s OK too. You cannot really make any claim that one kind of book publishing industry is “better” than the other. Now that the dust whipped up in our faces in the early years has settled back down we can see the two are just going to coexist. The fact of the matter is that self publishing and traditional publishing are separate industries, and trying to combine their sales numbers is as meaningless as grossing up sales of bicycles, motor bikes, and scooters, or closer to home, newspapers and magazines.

Good old reliable Passive Voice, commenting on the Digital Reader piece, weighs in with a non-sequitur tirade against Bowker, the company which issues ISBNs and (horrors) charges for the service. In his “ineffably humble opinion, Bowker is a classic example of a monopolist straining to hold on to its monopoly long after whatever usefulness the underlying service may have once provided has disappeared.” This is so nonsensical that it’s hard to critique it without boring the pants off everyone. Suffice it to say that Bowker provides a service that book publishers need and are willing to pay for. Yes, yes, we all know that indie- (self-) publishers don’t much cotton to the ISBN (even though a million of them bought ISBNs in 2017 according to Publishers Weekly). Many/most self-published authors (including myself) don’t bother with an ISBN. Unsurprisingly neither do automobile manufacturers, but nobody seems to allow that fact to provoke their ire. The Passive Voice is ever quick to deny imagined slights against self publishing. This is such a conditioned reflex that the defense is deployed even in the absence of any attack. Get over it: traditional publishers have no desire (much less nefarious plan) to take over all the offerings of the self-publishing world. We wish them nothing but good. Occasionally a traditional publisher will find a good writer in that universe and sign them up. Quite useful.

In Philadelphia there’s a nice handsome Georgian house on Delancey Place, a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square.

Here lived the Rosenbach brothers, one an antiques dealer, the other the biggest rare book dealer in the world.

The house (plus the building next door) has been turned into a fascinating small museum. In addition to furniture and pictures you can see bookcases full of rare books and manuscripts, with pages from some of them on display in a glass-topped display case. The manuscript of Ulysses, most of Conrad’s manuscripts, several Dickens originals, a Chaucer manuscript. There’s also a recreation of Marianne Moore’s living room in New York. Her complete library, with many personally inscribed and annotated books from her friends such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, is part of the Rosenbach collections as well as all of her correspondence and drafts of her poetry and unpublished memoirs.

Although much stuff has been deeded and donated to the museum subsequently, one almost gets the impression that the basis of the display may in fact be what was left unsold when the music stopped and these dealers in antiquities sloughed off their mortal coils.

Dr Abraham Rosenbach got into the book trade by hanging about in the antiquarian bookstore of his maternal uncle Moses Polock, and started book dealing while still an undergraduate. But what really established him as the go-to book dealer for the quality was the commission he got to build up the Widener collection after Henry Elkins Widener had gone down with the Titanic. The library Dr Rosenbach compiled formed the basis of the Widener Library at Harvard. Rosenbach also worked for Mr & Mrs Folger, J. P. Morgan, Henry Huntington.

The Library and Museum, which is affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation but independently run offers an interesting series of events, including Hands-On events which feature early editions and manuscripts, which obviously you can get really close to. Edward G. Pettit, Sunstein Manager of Public Programs at the Rosenbach, comes up with a varied list of activities. When we were there he let us see a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed (1640) in British North America. They had recently arranged for a concert featuring a choir singing psalms from the book. The Rosenbach also runs a Bibliococktails series, held almost every second Friday, which include light refreshments and themed cocktails provided by Quaker City Mercantile, as well as a rotation of activities such as readings, music, and games. So if you’re planning a weekend in Philly, book your place.

They have a blog, The Rosenblog, which often carries reports on their events, plus research activities and exhibitions. They welcome researchers: make an appointment.

I thought it would never happen, but no doubt that was because of an undue fixation on our national governmental stasis. How could we forget that many states are different? The city of San Francisco has just budgeted $103,000 to support eleven independent bookstores. The Mission Times (via Shelf Awareness) tells the story.

“In addition to the grant money, the bookstores will receive technical assistance for marketing, human resource consulting, and help negotiating long-term leases.

The recipient stores were Green Apple Books, EastWind Books, Dog Eared Books Valencia, Dog Eared Books Castro, Alley Cat Books and Gallery, Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, Comix Experience, Bolerium Books, Mission: Comics & Art, Stevens Books and Just a Touch Christian Bookstore.”

I still await, with dangerously bated breath, the legislation which will make it illegal for landlords to jack up the rent on bookstores beyond some sort of acceptable level. We have rent control and rent stabilization in New York City for people’s apartments, so why not for socially important shops too? It’s not really good enough to cross your fingers and hope that the landlord will be socially responsible enough to moderate rent demands on their own initiative. This did in fact recently happen when Three Lives was saved. No doubt one could make a list of other important institutions to be included, like the corner grocery store. We recently rallied (successfully, rather surprisingly) in this neighborhood against a chain pharmacy’s plan to turn our supermarket into a massive drug store — more pharmacies we don’t need, food we do.

D. Eadward Tree, author of Dead Tree Edition, has published a post celebrating ten years of live trees, entitled A Decade of Delusions. (The link comes via Publishing Executive.) Although Mr Tree’s focus is on the magazine business, what he says has relevance for the book business too.

The delusions he points to are:

  1. There’s a magic formula for 21st century publishing – we just need to figure out what it is.
  2. Web publishing means posting your magazines’ articles online.
  3. “Video is the next big thing.”
  4. The big publishers will join together to fix the newsstand system because that’s the only option.
  5. Print is dead.
  6. Legacy publishers must go all-digital to succeed on the web.
  7. Digital editions will revolutionize publishing.
  8. The future belongs to the big, sophisticated publishers.
  9. Some kind of postal reform must happen soon.
  10. Advertisers hate free copies.

We all overrated the impact of the digital revolution both on the positive and on the negative side. It’s proved neither doom nor bonanza; it’s just another format now, one that permits us to do things print wasn’t able to, but an addition to our quiver, not a total transformation.