Archives for the month of: January, 2019

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker held on Manus Island, Australia’s holding-pen for immigrants it wants to slow-track, has just won the Victorian Premier’s prize for non-fiction and their top award for literature with his book about life on Manus, No Friend but the Mountains. The Guardian reports on the prize award. This morning the BBC carried a report in its World Service Newshour broadcast. Mr Boochani appears to be a cultural phenom: articles, poetry, songs and a movie have all been created. The BBC reported on the film in October. Yes, he has his own Wikipedia page.

Without having read the book, one of the most interesting things one can tell about it about it is the method of composition. Mr Boochani wrote it on his cell phone as a long series of text messages sent via WhatsApp and other messaging services to Omid Tofighian, his translator from the Farsi in which the book was written. The authorities were not ecstatic: his phone was twice confiscated. “The main reason I wrote this book on my phone, and sent it out bit by bit, was really that I didn’t feel safe with the guards and authorities”. But after almost five years of composition the book was completed and was published last July by Pan Macmillan.

Now, of course, the judges for the Victorian Premier’s award are not members of the Australian government, but it does make for an ironical comment that the country’s top literary prize should be given to a writer who the government tried to stifle. Although the detention center on Manus Island has been officially closed it seems Mr Boochani is still there, and was not allowed to attend the prize-giving ceremony.

Well, I worked in publishing for almost fifty years and I never heard anyone claim this: maybe it was whispered and I didn’t hear. Doubt it. However Mr Eco came from Italy, and maybe they say this all the time around the water cooler at Mondadori. I suppose it’s also possible that it may have lost something in translation.

The Passive Voice sends the picture without comment. Not that one’s really necessary if your job is to display the stupidity of publishers.

And who is that beardy guy? He looks  a bit familiar. One wonders why he was selected to lend weight to this silly sentiment. He is certainly suitably quizzical, though one doubts he had too much familiarity with publishers. An Assyrian? A Greek god? A historian of beard styling could no doubt pin this down.

It’s an odd sentiment to have become such a quote-trope, though none of these wallpaper manufacturers seems concerned enough to hint at a source. I suppose it’s the self-publishing community that’s driving this popularity: as we all know there’s a substantial body of resentment against traditional publishers out there. I suppose some publisher once turned down a book proposal from a sensitive author, and now we’ve all got to pay for it. (Let me insist once more that I think the development of self publishing is an entirely beneficial thing for us all, book publishers and readers alike.) Ironically, I think it’s generally accepted that “easy” reading is what self publishing is so good at providing, while anything serious needs the help of a traditional publisher. See Richard Hershberger’s two recent excellent columns on “The State of Book Publishing” at Ordinary Times: (Part 1 and Part 2).

Mr Eco’s quote may have originated in a 2011 Guardian interview where he said “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things”, though of course it’s possible he may have formulated it differently elsewhere.

These straw men are always an excellent target if you care about winning.

This double page spread of the Bible of Yerevan (1338), on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Armenia! show, features an unusual image of the medieval artist at work.  At bottom left we see Sargis Pidzak painting the sponsor of the manuscript Catholicos Hakob II who is seen to the right of Pidzak in his official robes. Above him Saint Matthew is shown starting in on his gospel. (You can click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The manuscript was illuminated and partially written by Pidzak using ink, tempera, and gold on parchment. It normally lives at the Matenadaran, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia.

Mashtots at Matenadaran

Mesrop Mashtots was the inventor of the Armenian alphabet around 405 AD. His alphabet had 36 letters, but others have subsequently been added. There are some references to an Armenian alphabet prior to that, but no survivals have been discovered. The prototype for Mashtots’ alphabet is debated. According to Wikipedia, “Pahlavi [a Middle Iranian script] was the priestly script in Armenia before the introduction of Christianity, and Syriac, along with Greek, was one of the alphabets of Christian scripture. Armenian shows some similarities to both. However, the general consensus is that Armenian is modeled after the Greek alphabet.” Below is the ISO transliteration of the modern Armenian alphabet.

Bookbinder Jeff Peachey has a post about the Met exhibition with more pictures of books and book-related objects. The Armenia! exhibition closed on 19 January.

Another scribe may be seen at my earlier post Eadwine.

That the Victorians were worried that reading would make you go blind had, I’m sure, more to do with the lighting conditions available at that time rather than any special problem with the mechanics of reading. Just see young Abe trying to read by firelight. Fast Company’s cautionary story of reading’s toll on the eyes comes to us via Kathy Sandler’s blog Publishing.Technology. Innovation.

When I was in school, a place by and large built during the Victorian era and thus in spots rather sparingly lighted, we were constantly being warned about blindness, but generally for more earthy reasons. Reading was definitely encouraged, and teenage boys are the last group to have concerns about loss of eyesight, or anything else that might be said to be bad for you.

Of course as long ago as Socrates we were being warned of the dangers of reading and writing. There’s always a reliable group of misery-guts lurking about eager to tell us that anything we like doing is liable to be bad for us. Remember just a few years ago how it was ebooks that were going to destroy our eyesight, especially that bright light boring into our eyes in the dark if we were rash enough to read in bed with the lights off. The Best of Health tells us that no real research has been done on this issue, and then goes on to warn us against close detailed work, lack of daylight, and even too much education: “studies have suggested a correlation between higher rates of short-sightedness and long hours spent studying at school. For example, as many as 80-90% of school-leavers have short-sightedness in certain parts of East and South East Asia.” Dr Ghosheh warns us about Computer Vision Syndrome, but does allow that you can also damage your eyes reading a printed book too. Clearly ignorance really is bliss; though some of us may prefer informed and short-sighted to ignorant and eagle-eyed.*

On the other hand though reading is meant to be good for your health. What is a concerned citizen to do?


*Vision Source suggests that “you should follow the 20/20/20 rule. When reading, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.” Also useful to stop and think about what you’ve been reading.

While I’m writing this I do stop from time to time to stare at the cliffs of the Palisades on the other side of the Hudson. Unfortunately the leaves are all gone now.

Good advice from a tweet by The Scottish Book Trust.

Of course numbers can be over interpreted, and almost always seem to be.

On 19 December this item was carried by Shelf Awareness (I think it was them, though I’m no longer sure as I cannot find the reference in their archive): “24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual employment data from 2008 to 2017 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, to create a list of ‘the fastest dying industries.’ Or less sensationally, businesses that have shed jobs as tracked by the government.

No 24. on their list is ‘Book and periodical merchant wholesalers,’ where they estimate recent employment of 36,184, 38 percent lower than 10 years ago. ‘Bookstores and news dealers’ — not that those are in any way the same thing, but these are government categories — ranked No. 13, as their estimated employment of 81,000 people is down 43 percent; ‘Support activities for printing’ comes in at No. 12. On the bright side, while categories called ‘other publishers,’ ‘newspaper publishers’ and ‘directory and mailing list publishers’ all appear on the list, book publishers are not included in any of those declining segments.”

The list of the “fastest dying industries” can be found at the link above, which takes you to their USA Today source. Are we so desperate that we have to clutch at straws as flimsy as this. I’d feel a bit better if I was certain than “book publishers” were absent from the list because employment was increasing, not, as is probably more likely, that it’s just not one of the categories the government uses. However, our own experience shows us that declining employment numbers don’t tell the whole story. For most of my working life book publishers laid off this category of worker after that category of worker, replacing them with freelancers — ironically often the self-same individuals — while steadily increasing the number of books published. Proofreading, copyediting, design are now mostly done by freelance workers, but they are of course still being done. The fact that part-time workers and freelancers don’t need to be included in medical, vacation, pension and other benefit plans makes dispensing with full-time staff a temptation lurking behind every bump in the road.

Does all this not just confirm the need for caution in the face of statistics? For a government department focussed on employment these numbers may well be fascinating. For the rest of us  — beyond a need to deplore layoffs, zero-hours contracting, and freelancification when they come up — there’s not too much to make of this information.

On the other hand, should we really be deploring freelancification? Aren’t we always being told that automation is going to put us all out of work and force us to bask on the beach every day? Heck, Dan Dare was telling me in the 1950s that by now we’d all have infinite leisure time ‘cos robots would do everything for us. Surely this is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Roll on universal basic income and single-payer health care.

Fact checking is one thing: opinion checking seems much more obviously a publisher’s editor’s duty. Publishers Lunch of 17 January tells us  that “Books & Books in Miami removed the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Miami and the Keys guidebook from their shelves after an employee noticed it referred to part of the Coconut Grove area as ‘the blighted “Black Grove,” an area plagued by high crime rates, drugs and deprivation, where many of the descendants of Bahamian workers have settled.’ Owner Mitchell Kaplan said, ‘We do not want to carry a guide to Miami that so misrepresents one of the communities within Miami.’ DK publishing director of travel Georgina Dee told the Miami Herald, ‘Our text introducing Coconut Grove does not give the full picture and is outdated. We will correct this at the next available opportunity, and we apologize if our content has caused offense.'”

One almost has to assume that this opinion of Coconut Grove was never actually read in DK’s office when the manuscript was going through. This isn’t as unbelievable as you’d like to think. Imagine a situation where the whole book was ready to go to the printer and for some reason some of the copy had to be removed, and a substitute found to keep pagination steady. You really don’t want to get into resizing art and moving pages around at this stage: the author is told to write some words to fill the empty space and do it quick. Bang, bang, and off it goes to the printer, with the error in judgement only exposed when the book hits the bookstores. Obviously I don’t know that that’s what happened — I’m just saying it could happen; in this way or some other which could be imagined.

Poor Georgina Dee tells the Miami Herald that they’ll “correct this at the next available opportunity”, a placeholder explanation. They are no doubt debating whether they have to waste stock and do a new printing right away or whether to wait till a reprint of the book becomes necessary in the normal course of events (which does of course include the possibility of that turning out to be never). The cost of waiting might be less than you’d think: after all, most guidebooks to Miami are probably not bought in Miami, but brought along by tourists in their luggage. Like so many things in publishing the judgement boils down to money.

The Mellon Foundation has just made a grant of $2 million to The American Academy of Poets. Here’s The New York Times story, (via LitHub). “The funds are divided into two grants. The first will help start a new fellowship program to support poets laureate of states, cities, United States territories or tribal nations across the country.” “The second grant will go toward the Poetry Coalition, a national alliance of more than 20 poetry organizations, several of which are nonprofits.”

It is great to see rich dead men supporting the arts. Maybe we can raise our maximum tax rate to 70% (as proposed by AOC) and allow more of the living ones to do the same.

As it happens poetry seems to be doing pretty well on its own. Lots of publishing going on, and lots of books, periodicals, pamphlets being bought. Here’s The Guardian reporting a couple of days ago about the trend in Britain.

Shelf Awareness brings us this report of buoyant book sales as reported by the Association of American Publishers. What are we to make of this comparison of November 2018 book sales with November 2017? What does a “Huge Jump in Trade Sales” really mean?

Table from Shelf Awareness

A 36% jump is certainly “huge” but timing counts. Monthly sales are just monthly sales. Annual sales tell more and with five or ten year sales trends we are beginning to get into the area where we can make projections. We also have to keep in mind the boost given to recent book sales (adult hardcover) by our controversial political situation. Solace for chaos often seems to be sought by buying a book and keeping your head down, reading away. Of course a book sold is a book no longer cluttering up the supply chain, so we rejoice. These big books no doubt attracted big print runs, and we should wait till a bit later to say they were all wild successes: the temptation to order too large a reprint increases as sales numbers go up. But such carping is out of place: next year and the year after there’ll no doubt be some big books, not perhaps about politics, maybe climate change, football payola, Hollywood scandals, supernovas, fruit canning — well, maybe not fruit canning, but with a changing climate who knows. These booming sales numbers are good news. Even if they will be over-interpreted and draw the snideness of indie publishing boosters — no, the numbers do not include sales of self-published books: unsurprisingly the AAP can only report on sales numbers reported to them.

Ebooks don’t look to be doing brilliantly except among the young and spiritual, but the worst news comes from the university press segment. However these numbers in fact include data from a dozen university presses plus a couple of wholesalers. The Association of University Presses has over 140 members, largely but not exclusively in the USA, so these sales numbers have to be looked at in context.

AUP members

What that context amounts to is opaque of course. The main ingredient has to be a recognition that one month is merely one month and with relatively small numbers percentage changes will look more dramatic than a similar change to a larger sales number. The take away ends up being “Don’t over interpret numbers put out by industry bodies”. This I’m sure is not a lesson we will ever manage to learn though.

On the face of it this seems like a good idea: Cambridge University Press is introducing a new format, Cambridge Elements, which will publish material falling in size between the journal article and the full-blown book. STM Publishing News brings us the information.

“Work of between 50-120 pages will be published digitally and through print-on-demand as ‘Cambridge Elements’ – concise, peer-reviewed guides to key and current topics across all fields of study and research. These will be organised into focused series, edited by leading scholars. They will combine the speed, flexibility and versatility of digital with the highest academic standards.”*

The problem publishers have with short books on academic topics isn’t fundamentally a problem of page count: it’s really the pricing of little books that stumps us. All publishers tend to consider the costs of running the business, the overhead, as a lump which has to be divided up between every book we sell, so that, ideally, each single sale we make during the year delivers its little contribution to balancing off the overhead. Recover a bit less: a loss. Recover a bit more: profit. A little book looks like it should have a correspondingly low price: but retail price does not march in lock step with page count, so such a book will always tend to look expensive — unless you can sell so many that your fixed costs can be recovered over thousands and thousands of lower-priced sales.

We tend to earn the money to pay for the ongoing business by applying a standard percentage of our overhead to every copy of every book. So if you plan to price the book at $100 maybe $45 will be what you get from the trade after your discount, and of your receipts maybe 45% ($20.25) will be notionally counted as the overhead contribution. But unless it sells fantastically well a little book will not be able to cover overhead adequately — 45% of a small number being an even smaller number. Now one could, dangerously, mount an argument that CUP’s overhead was covered by all the books and journals they are already publishing and that by adding a series called Elements they are not really adding to the costs of running the business, that any sales will really just be gravy. To conclude that this means that Elements could attract an overhead allocation of say 10% would enable you to publish at a price which people might actually pay, and this would allow Elements to succeed. But few publishers are going to be willing to open this door: just imagine what’d happen if Elements succeeded wildly, beyond all expectations, and you started publishing more and more of them. It’d start representing a large proportion of the shipments made by your warehouse, and would occupy more and more staff time in all other departments. If suddenly 50% of your sales are only earning a 10% allocation toward overheads your costs will rapidly exceed your recovery. Death by success.

Of course it is unlikely that the success of Elements could end up representing 50% of sales, but conservative accounting will militate against ever “fooling” yourself like this. I have while working more than once suggested a dodge of this kind. If you have a Shakespeare series, competing with other series distinguished only by annotation and introductory material, the different texts will end up sharing the market. Drop your retail price $2 and everyone will buy yours: bingo! 100% of the market at $2 is worth so much more than 10% of the market at $15. I have always (correctly) been rebuffed. The book market is relatively conservative and is slow to move. Professors recommend texts and will be slow to take the price paid by students into account. By the time any effect on sales might get started competitors will have responded by dropping their prices too, and nobody wants to get into a race to the bottom.

Our alternative approach to the short book is inflation: I once turned a manuscript of less than 50 pages into a 128 page book. Lots of white space, and very readable type! But we all hope that the book buyer is focussed on heft rather than number of words on a page. The publisher of short books for specialized audiences faces a choice: either the books will look relatively expensive, or they will be allowed to underperform financially, as a sort of service to the academic community. One way university presses occasionally manage to achieve this sort of result is by a grant from an outside body. Who knows: maybe CUP got such a grant.


* Dare one suggest that this sounds a bit like a rather more academic version of the Oxford series Very Short Introductions. That series succeeds by selling surprisingly well. And its prices are not really all that bargain-basement low. Of course I’ve no idea what CUP’s pricing plans are.