Archives for the month of: November, 2018

Publishers Weekly reminds us it’s twenty years since Lightning Source Inc., a division of book wholesaler Ingram, started printing books on a Xerox DocuTech in La Vergne, Tennessee. I remember visiting in those early days when the machine was sitting in a disused loading bay. Visit now, and banks of machines covering a hangar-like workspace confront you, in multiple locations around the world.

Photo: Nashville Public Radio.

Print-on-demand was a tough sell in the early 90s when I was laboring in this particular vineyard. You didn’t so much have to demonstrate that you could do the job and do it well, you had to get down to basics and persuade management that this ludicrously expensive unit cost would actually end up saving them money in the long run. Printing books which we would never sell was what publishers were used to doing — though of course we never put it just like that. We were all vastly experienced at walking this tight-rope between understock and overstock, and were proud of this special skill. “What are you talking about? We know how to run our businesses, and doubling the unit cost is just silly.” Now I would be amazed to find any book publisher of any kind who didn’t think print-on-demand was a “good thing” — OK, I have to make an exception for high-quality specialist bibliophile publishers.

Now here’s Mike Shatzkin scolding us that publishers are not using LSI as much or as well as they should. He suggests that if every book were made print-ready at LSI nary a sale would ever be lost. He reassures us that although “It is rationally counterintuitive for publishers to spend time, let alone money, to set up with Lightning to print books on which they intend to maintain inventory in their warehouse” this is exactly what we should be doing. Many publishers are indeed doing just that. We quite often used to set up a defensive POD version of books we thought might “suffer” from rapid initial demand, though most of the books I myself set up for print-on-demand right at publication were not intended ever to be printed by offset and stored in the warehouse: we had 11,000 or so titles set up here and there for POD. (And this all refers back five years.) I wouldn’t be surprised if this early defensive POD set-up is already happening more and more frequently, in more and more publishing houses, and quite probably we’ll soon get to the sort of routine defensive POD set-up that Mr Shatzkin envisages. It all just takes time and money.

Optimistically he opines that set-up charges could be minimized by integrating LSI set-up into your workflow. He says “Although it would seem the cost would be near zero if the Lightning set-up were done as a part of delivering any book to publication.” Not quite sure what he means here. The cost of setting up a book at any digital printer does involve creating a file, and almost all publishers now do this routinely as part of their production process. But LSI, or any digital printer, has to do some work to massage the file into their system: they are unlikely to give this service away free, as why should they? A cautious publisher will want to see a sample, a proof copy, and this also represents a cost. But this spending is all all right because their charges aren’t immense, and can be regarded almost as an insurance policy.

As I’ve said before, I think any non-trade publisher setting up today, specially one doing academic books, would be crazy to invest in a warehouse. There are quite a few warehouse-less traditional publishers around — the smaller and more academic they are the more likely that state will become. LSI and their competitors in the POD business have enabled this.

Perhaps in noting LSI’s twentieth anniversary, one should note too that the POD book business was really pioneered by IBT (recently shut down) in conjunction with Bridgeport National Bindery.

It does come as a bit of a surprise to learn that a turkey wishbone turns out to be copyrightable.

Trademark and Copyright Law (via The Passive Voice) has the story of a lawsuit involving Sears and a potential supplier whose sample plastic wishbone, offered as part of his sales pitch, was sent by Sears to a Chinese manufacturer who ended up getting the order for a million give-away wishbones. Nobody can think Sears behavior in this matter was anything but despicable, but is copyright really the appropriate defense? Seems it was, as the plaintiff prevailed. “The Court acknowledged that objects found in nature are in the public domain and can not be copyrighted. However, the fact that an author bases a creative work on a naturally occurring object does not preclude a finding of originality where there is evidence that the author added some creative contribution.”

What would have been the legal situation had Sears sent to Hong Kong not Mr Ahroni’s plastic prototype but an actual turkey wishbone? Probably they’d have ended up about $1.7 million better off.

Squares are what we call those little bits of cloth showing (in a hardback) around the edges of the endpaper where the endpaper is glued into the case holding the book in the binding. In the picture below, the squares are the blue bits showing around the green endpaper. In an ideal world the squares will be an even all around, about 1/8″ in a 6″ x 9″ book. As a book comes off the binding line the glue is still wet and the book block can be squished around to even up the squares, but because this costs it’s not much done now.

In this photo you can see that the squares are not exactly even, which is a little embarrassing because this is Volume 2 of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The printing press as an agent of change. Still, not too bad, and let’s assume all the others were perfect. Book loving production people will also make sure that a slightly faulty book doesn’t get into stock. This they do by selflessly taking the “faulty” book home to read. I am embarrassed to confess that I have indeed heard a colleague offer to hurt a book for me. (I’d usually say I’ll take it uninjured!)

You can also make out by the shadows the edges of the cloth where it’s folded over the board forming the case. Along the spine you can also discern by its shadow the mull liner which adds strength to this binding — it is glued to the spine of the book block and held between case and the endpapers at front and back. There’s a useful diagram at my earlier post Hardcover parts.

Very rarely you’ll see a big fat book bound with almost no square at the bottom, so that the bookblock isn’t hanging within the case, tempting it to tip forward towards the fore-edge, weakening the bond at the top of the spine. Not sure whether there’s a mechanical reason why we don’t do this, or whether it’s just habit (or more darkly a desire that the book should fall apart, necessitating replacement with a new copy).

Like so many things we used to spend our working days caring about evenness of squares is hardly a matter of concern these days. The book market, certainly the trade book market, is price sensitive, so little quality touches tend to fall away in an attempt to preserve margins.

Apparently they’ve converted a bus shelter in Sedbergh into a little free library by adding a few shelves of books.

Sedbergh is England’s Book Town, so this is an entirely appropriate use of space. What the status of bus service may now be is not touched upon by The Westmoreland Gazette or Bookshelf who’s story was linked to be Shelf Awareness on 5 October.

A crusher panel is what we called the die used for blind stamping. Blind stamping is a stamping hit made without any gold or colored foil between the die and the cloth. Foil stamping involves the application of heat and pressure, transferring the foil from its carrier onto the case. A crusher panel might be used to create a sort of pseudo-three-color effect. You can see the effect of the crusher panel behind the title, Novels 1959-1965, of this Library of America book. In a toothy cloth like the Brillianta LOA use, a crusher panel will smooth out the surface of the cloth a bit, so that detail in the stamping will look clearer.

Behind the author’s name you can see that there’s a foil panel of dark blue. After that panel has been stamped onto the cloth, the rules + author + title is stamped in gold foil. Three dies (brasses or Chemacs in UK) may have been used, one for the crusher panel, one for the dark blue foil panel, and one for the gold foil. I say “may” have been used because it would be possible to make ready the stamping machine to do both flat panels, the dark blue one and the crusher panel, at the same time. The dark blue foil would be fed in from left to right on a thin strip, aligned so that it didn’t overlap the blind panel. A little bit fiddly to make ready, but probably worth while in a run as long as this one no doubt was. In that case the foil panel and the crusher panel could be carried on a single metal die, made with a little space between the two panels.

Here’s a picture showing how we used to manage to get our dies to fit the spine width. These two volumes are dummies, produced to check on the width of the stamping dies, as well as the fit of the slip case. Normally dummies would be made from blank sheets of the same paper you were going to use to print the book. These dummies were made later: they contain the printed text and illustrations. Dummies are expensive: you are binding a single copy, by hand, after all. So why waste your money?

Bear in mind that paper is sold by weight. Weight here means basically how much fiber there is per square inch. Nowadays paper machines are sufficiently well monitored that we can be confident that a 50# paper advertised as having 384ppi (pages per inch) will hit 384 pretty closely over the run. To go to the other extreme, imagine a hand papermaker’ vatman trying to keep his basis weight steady and maintain a consistent thickness just by dipping the mold into a bath of pulp and water: the better you are at it, the better you’ll get at approaching the target. But it has to be a wide target; total consistent is obviously unattainable. (The fascinating video at Paper making by hand 4 is well worth looking at to see the craft involved.) In the 1960s and 70s we lived somewhere between these extremes: thickness was fairly consistent, but not sufficiently accurate to hang your hat on. Thus we’d produce a dummy book on most projects where the width was critical. The majority of these were blank paper dummies and lived on to contain the artwork of many a little scion of the production department tree. I use the one from Alastair Fowler’s Triumphal Forms as a commonplace book.

The two-volume set illustrated, of Martin Robertson’s A History of Greek Art, was printed by letterpress and bound at The University Press Cambridge, with six 32-page signatures of plates printed offset by Westerham Press, Kent, in volume 2. It’s perhaps odd that despite the mixture of two papers in Volume 2 that’s the one we managed to guess right when we had dies made for the spine stamping. I suppose the dies made for volume one would just have been thrown away — many a production worker had nice brass as a paper weight on their desk — and new ones produced for the run. Presumably we managed to delete VOL before 1 before the final run. The books are in excellent condition, but the slipcase has endured some of life’s knocks, which is of course it’s function. I wouldn’t be utterly amazed to be told that the cloth used on this set was also the Dutch-made Brillianta, like the backcloth used on the Library of America volumes.

Atlas Obscura brings us a story about book sorting at New York Public Library. This machine explains why, if you put a hold on a book at NYPL, when it’s ready you’ll get an email saying “In the next 24 hours your book will be available at your branch library”. They must be sending the email at the same time as they send the book off to the Lyngsoe Systems Compact Cross Belt Sorter in Queens. The machine is made in Denmark and can be seen in operation in this ABC news report.

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

Why does everyone love to over-interpret everything? I suppose writers aim to make a splash. After all a story saying “a little bit of something I can’t quite identify may possibly be beginning to happen” doesn’t really command the headlines. Here’s The New York Times warning us that the end of the novel is nigh yet again, though they do sensibly take refuge behind a question mark. The Digital Reader calls them out.

Of course we can say that sales of fiction are declining. We can say sales of fiction are rising. We can say whatever we want, but it doesn’t have to mean anything. We are unable to make pronouncements of any value about global book sales of any category since we simply don’t have any comprehensive data about books sales. Members of the commentariat love to dis traditional publishing people for their alleged inability to see the beam in their eye which is the self publishing industry. But here’s that organ of traditional publishing, Publishers Weekly, pointing out that the appearance of fiction’s losing its appeal is only there if you close your eyes to independent publishing. Hey guys we all know this, so lay off us please.

We do tend to talk about the AAP’s sales numbers as if they had a general application, which of course they do, but their general application is only to the world of traditional book publishing. People who work in this business often fail to consider that this does not represent the entire universe: to us it is of vital and fascinating interest. Sales data for self-published books are, almost by definition, not available. So the AAP numbers say (and we all know this) nothing about books sales in general. That we forget to say this every time we talk about sales is perhaps understandable because for so many years we didn’t have any meaningful self-publishing business to take into consideration. Not an excuse; just a reason for a failure to think things through.

Now the fact that traditional publishers are selling less fiction than in the past is a perfectly reasonable trend to study, especially if you are a traditional publisher of fiction. But quit going beyond the facts to speculate whether this means humans are evolving to a non-story-loving state, becoming capable of ever shorter and shorter attention spans, or moving into a non-fiction-buying evolutionary stage. There’s no data to confirm or deny such fantasies. Does such navel gazing stuff really help sell the publications in which it appears? I’d have thought everyone was pretty bored with the same old story about the death of the book, a story which we’ve been hearing ever since the world began (well, maybe just since the book began).

  • A. We don’t know whether less fiction is being sold
  • B. Even if it were, we’ve no evidence of what the significance of that might be
  • C. We can perhaps say that lower prices will tend to capture more sales than higher ones


Perhaps even odder than the “a” or “an” situations I went on about the other day is the case of publishers such as NYRB, who, as my wife points out, refer to themselves both ways. On the back cover of their books New York Review Books talk about an NYRB book, while if they were to spell out their name it would be a New York Review Book. Trolling through the alphabet one finds in addition to N publishers the following indefinite indefinite article afflicted publishers: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Harvard University Press, Liverpool University Press, Melbourne University Press, Random House (now protected by their acquisition of a leading Penguin), and Sussex Academic Press all forced to deal with such a dual indefinite article existence. I wonder if it’s a blessing or a curse? Probably a good thing on balance, as it must make you think every time.

Referring to yourself by initials only is a particularly university press sort of thing to do. We even resorted to initials for addressing our colleagues. I have to be addressed as RJH to get me started working in the morning. So I have to apologize for not listing the many other university presses lining up behind the initial letters, F, H, L, M, N, R, and S. Of course some of these may prefer not to refer to themselves by initials. I don’t know if Fordham University ever talk about an FUP book. I know I always feel a slight shock when Columbia University Press refer to themselves as CUP. After all, CUP used to be an RJH/a Richard H. employer, and I never worked for Columbia.

Running a bookstore is obviously not quite the same thing as running any other business. I suppose there may be the odd ironmonger fascinated by those ancient pliers lurking in the back corner, but booksellers are surely more at risk of having strong feelings about their inventory than any other retailers. Still, if you open a bookshop and insist on stocking it only with books you love, you risk disappointment culminating in early financial embarrassment. On the other hand the reason why local independent bookstores are currently doing better than big chains is precisely this feeling of the stock being selected by someone with likes and dislikes, and who is there to talk about their choices.

NPR tells about the tweet storm (maybe just a tweet weather incident) consequent upon Southport, UK bookseller Broadhurst’s Bookshop‘s announcement “I have just sold a book that we have had in stock since May 1991. We always knew its day would come.” Their tweet is followed by several comments which are worth seeing.

Now, if Broadhurst’s were to inventory only books which they had held in stock for 25 years, they would of course not be doing too well. No business can afford to keep its capital tied up for that length of time — as book publishers have been forced to acknowledge over the last fifty years. It would make for an interesting study to work out the average age (time since it was printed) of books sold by publishers over the last century. I’d guess that nowadays the answer would be less than one year, whereas back in the sixties it might have been near two: obviously new books will always tend to sell more than back-list, so looking only at back-list one might find numbers more like 2-3 years today and 5-10 back then. We publishers used to love to hang onto those objects we so loved and had lavished such care and investment dollars on creating. I can remember in my early days in this business finding in the “slow-moving stock” part of the warehouse books which had been printed in the 18th century. We’d even wrap up slightly damaged books and keep them so we could sell them off years into the future when we’d begun to run out of stock. These were called first copies. All publishers overprinted in those days; there was a letterpress technological determinant driving this, and we went along with it happily. These books looked so good; we all cared deeply about them; and laying down a few years’ stock made us feel warm and virtuous. Just not a really good business plan, as we were eventually forced to recognize.

The tightly managed bookshop nowadays cannot afford to hold their inventory for too long; probably something like one year would be considered too long. Sitting on the sidelines one often gets the impression that large bookselling accounts are settling their bills with publishers by returning for credit books which they’d ordered a year ago. In this way they come close to acting like a consignment supplier — taking a cut on the sale of inventory which is actually owned by the publisher. Rigorous inventory control and profitability are (unfortunately for the sentimental bookman/booklady) essential to business survival. There’s a certain Quixoticism involved with 25-year old inventory, and the romantics among us should perhaps do whatever we can to encourage such behavior.

I particularly like the proposal of one of the respondents to the Broadhurst tweet who plans to go into bookshops and buy the book which has been in stock for the longest time. Such regular randomness should result in a fascinating collection of books: inevitably some of them will be good, won’t they? It’s sort of like hanging about in second-hand bookshops.

Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the link.

This one just looks plain wrong to me. Though it sounds pretty awkward with an “a” too. Perhaps homage is a word to avoid? Tribute might upset me less.

Of course it all depends on how you pronounce the word: “a” if the “h” is sounded as a consonant, “an” if the “h” is silent and the word sounds like it’s started with a vowel. I suppose there may be people who pronounce the word as ‘omage — they’re probably the same ones who stay in ‘otels. In another corner of the linguistic world I guess one would say “Lend us an ‘and”.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme provide a transatlantic break point just like tomayto, tomahto. They are herbs to me, while to all around me they are merely ‘erbs. That always sounds to me like a Cockney telling me to “Lend ‘Erb an ‘and”. D. H. Lawrence was not David Erbert Lawrence, though, come to think of it, who knows how his family would refer to him. That most fondly remembered of schoolteachers, H. H. Mills, was a Bertie, but you knew that those two “H”s would always be sounded. Australian miler extraordinaire Herb Elliott was no shrinking ‘Erb. (My mother, whose mother was a Border Eliot, would always tell me that Herb’s surname should really be spelled with only two consonants — though if you felt the need, for whatever crazy reason, it was acceptable to double either of the consonants, but never both. I bet we’d have welcomed Herb at any clan reunion though.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary homage/’omage is another of those UK/US differences, so as Mr Spinnen’s book was published by David R. Godine of Boston, MA, I suppose I have to withdraw my objection. Never heard of an American paying ‘omage though. I guess it’s not a word that comes up too often. The country was kind of founded to get away from this sort of thing. Just yesterday I did at last hear an American on the radio mentioning homage in connection with some sports personality, and he did indeed say ‘omage. This doesn’t alter my objection to the oddness, ugliness of the word whichever way you jump.

I wonder if there’s something in all this about our relative closeness to/respect for France. The word does sounds better in French, un homage actually sounds quite worth having. I assume this French connection is the origin of the American pronunciation of the word. This is however a little surprising: the break usually seems to go the other way. What we in America call an eggplant is a British aubergine, which of course is no more than a French import. In America we eat zucchini (when we can’t avoid it). In Britain this becomes a courgette. The Brits seem hard-wired to pay homage to French cuisine (we don’t even have our own word for that) with courgettes, aubergines, éclairs, bouquet garni, mayonnaise, mache, roquette, not to go as far back as omelets, beef, pork, veal and mutton.

Parenthetically, on the subject of letterspacing, I think I’d prefer to see a little more space between those Os in the title, and a little less between the M and the A in HOMAGE. Might pull in that G too, the A just has too much air around it. Still, David Godine always makes a handsome (or do I mean an ‘andsome) book, and I can’t imagine that the cover designer didn’t consider the options here. If you cut up the letters and try different versions, who knows but that the one they ended up choosing won’t turn out to be the best.