Archives for the month of: April, 2019

“Annual income five million dollars, annual expenditure four million nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine dollars and fifty cents, result happiness. Annual income five million dollars, annual expenditure five million ought and six, result misery.” Mr Micawber knew all about it. Stanford University Press is living through it now. Unfortunately with their five million income their expenses are not five million ought and six, they are around $6.7 million.

As Joe Esposito tells us at The Scholarly Kitchen, reaction to the news that the University has expressed unwillingness to continue subsidizing their Press has been prompt and outspoken. It is true that the university has a large endowment, but it also goes without saying that they can’t just pay for everything. But this bit of budgeting seems to have been executed without too much thought and consideration. Here’s a link to The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s piece on the troubles.

One of the more extraordinary claims in Inside Higher Education‘s report on the situation is that “Professors on the editorial board of the press . . . noted that even though they are charged by Stanford with providing guidance on the press, and know more about the operations of the press than do most other professors at the university, they were not consulted about the idea of cutting the university subsidy.” Provost Persis Drell who announced the funding cuts apparently “told a group of faculty leaders recently that she considered the press ‘second rate’ and that many of its series could be pruned.” This is obvious nonsense: though of course cutting things, even series, always looks like an easy option. There are no signs yet of any willingness to reconsider the decision, but with facts like these surely something will have to give.

A University Press is an ornament to its parent organization. Certainly this is the case at Stanford. Research isn’t really meaningful until it has been published, and a University Press is one essential channel of access to publication. A University Press is also a department of the university and might be argued to have as much “right” to funding as the department of linguistics, say, or the athletics department. But the University Press is also a business, and consequently at least some of the remedy to systematic losses can be held to lie within their own power. Stanford University Press publishes 130 books a year (more or less) and has a staff of 35. Their average revenue per title published thus comes to $38,461. With no cost cutting action they’d need to increase this average to $51,538, or by about ⅓, in order to balance their books. This obviously would take a lot of doing.

Aside from finding a rich benefactor, there are two ways of getting there: cutting costs or increasing sales revenue. Neither should be attempted without the other. Laying off staff is unlikely to yield brilliant results. Most university presses are not carrying vast numbers of staff in the first place, so cutting too many of them will tend quickly to impair a press’s ability to carry out basic functions. Increased sales revenue can be sought in a variety of ways, all of which carry huge and obvious negatives. You can try to find new markets — but we are talking about pretty specialized books, and anyway, does anyone imagine the Press hasn’t thought about that before? You can increase the retail prices of your books, but there’s an obvious connection between high price and low sales volume. You can decrease the discounts you offer to booksellers. Amazon’s unhappiness at this is likely to be no different that that of other booksellers: it’s just that Amazon is probably likely to something damaging about it — like not carrying your books at all. Jacking the prices up by 33.3% only to see a reduction in unit sales of 50% is not too brilliant a cure to your budgetary problems. Direct sales are profitable sales, and Stanford does offer to sell you a book direct. The suddenness of the transition from subsidy to “independence” is what really makes any solution almost impossible.

Compromise is surely what’s needed: a combination of cost reduction, revenue enhancement, and a reduced subsidy from the university, along with a time table for change. Provost Drell needs to be persuaded to sit down and discuss things with relevant faculty and the Press’s excellent director Alan Harvey.

Richard Charkin, via Publishing Perspectives last September, provided A Very Short History of the New Oxford English Dictionary, in which he describes the revolutionary digitization of the Dictionary in the eighties, a process in which he was intimately involved. It turned out to be a process which transformed the economics of the ancient cost center.

Whether or not a new edition of the OED will ever in fact be printed, we have to admit that the digital version, constantly updated, has become the most important bit of the project. Print sales of the current edition of course continue, but the project as a whole has changed over the last forty years from just-print to print-with-digital, to digital-with-print now. It’s possible it’s en route for a fully digital life style, but down the road a bit I’d bet that hard copies will be available via print-on-demand. However the ease (and constant updating) of the online version makes getting up to consult a large and heavy volume seem unduly cumbersome. Given that we now tend to write everything on our computers, having access in the same space to the greatest dictionary in the world is just overwhelmingly convenient.

As Charkin puts it “There will probably never be a third printed edition, but the online edition is in great health, builds every year, extends our understanding of English, our linguistic and cultural history, and stands as one of the great digital projects of all time.” I’d go further and ask: will there ever be something called a 3rd edition? An online project can evolve continuously, adding new material, correcting errors, updating the old on a daily basis. Thinking of 1st, 2nd, 3rd editions is now quaintly old fashioned: publishers issue a new edition of a book when changes have become sufficient for them to be able to justify printing a fresh, revised book with a realistic belief that their installed base of readers will feel the need to plunk their money down for the new edition. Obviously you can’t have a new edition every week, but in terms of content, with an online constantly updated project you can effectively have one every day on which any change is made to the database. It will be interesting to see if traditionalist opinion demands that there will ever be a moment at which OUP declares: “OK, today’s online recension is actually now going to be called ‘Third Edition'”. Sounds so silly that I bet it never happens.

Clearly the earlier you hook ’em the less likely they are to be able to get the hook out of their mouths. Make students dependent on the OED, and they’ll guarantee your subscription income in years to come. The Bookseller (link via Book Business) tells us that OUP have announced that they’ll be giving free access to UK primary and secondary schools.

See also my earlier post OED which I wrote while still employed by OUP, and at a time (2012) when the 20-volume set was being reprinted. The post contains a description of the manufacturing process for the two-volume, Compact Edition reproducing in miniature the entire 20-volume set.

This is the fifth year we’ve been doing this. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it seems to be working.

The organization’s website is here.

So, on Saturday go buy a book (or two).

Not as dramatic as the 3D maps I wrote about yesterday, and also a day late for Shakespeare’s birthday (or a couple of days early), but here’s another map post.

Charles Webb has created an online map indicating locations mentioned in history plays by Shakespeare. The Collation, the Folger’s blog, brings an account. His initial impulse was the fact that “in the beginning of Antony and Cleopatra Antony’s trip from Alexandria to Rome takes only twenty pages in the Folger Edition of the play, which corresponds to only three scenes on the stage. According to ORBIS, however, this trip would have taken Antony at least sixteen days if he had perfect weather conditions and made no stops”.

Antony and Cleopatra results

The mapping program can be found here, though it doesn’t seem to show the length of that particular journey.


Atlas Obscura has a story about The National Library of Scotland’s (Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba in Gaelic) improvement of their 3D tool which allows you to see elevation in maps with contours or even a consistent shading system to indicate slope. This 3D tool has apparently been available since 2016 and has now been tweaked to allow a more emphatic indication of verticality.

Galashiels, Borders. Meigle Hill, Gala Hill and Buckholm Hill did always tend to look higher from the middle of town.

The 3D map viewer uses open-source technology from Cesium, a geospatial 3D mapping platform.

The National Library’s website gives several examples, but you can visit the site and noodle around. Pretty cool.

The New York Times reports on an exhibition of tiny books at the Grolier Club in an article by Sarah Lyall which contains lots of illustrations. I’m afraid that tiny books excite a level of interest in this viewer proportionate to their size. I glanced at some of these books on a recent visit to the Grolier Club, and as usual found it hard to make much of them. So they’re small. Yes . . . Making these little volumes is cunning, detailed work, and at that level quite clever. Insisting on there being printed text inside the tiniest of these miniatures is surely slightly manic. The type is so small you need a magnifying glass.* Books surely are for reading, not for furnishing a doll’s house, or even a doll’s library.

One piece which does catch my eye is a sewing kit made out of a walnut shell, and containing a copy of Valeurs et constance, and almanac from 1823. I guess if you can see to thread a needle, you can probably see to read the almanac. Carting your reading around in a walnut shell certainly makes for light traveling — and easy loss, which is one of my sources of concern on looking at these things. The Times article has a picture of the entire kit. Also included is a picture of a Galileo letter reasoning that the Bible should not be used as the basis for science. Notable is the presence in the picture of a flat sheet as well as a bound book.

The Grolier exhibition closes on 19 May.


* This of course is also true of the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but in this case the miniaturization is done to fit 20 large volumes between one set of covers (well, two sets actually), and enables humans, not dollies to consult the dictionary.

I have often paid tribute to publishers’ ability to sell a book in the face of free competition. The fact that The Mueller Report is #1 on Amazon’s Bestseller list is striking evidence of this — on the day after the report was “published” and made available on-line free of charge. The fact that the same title is also #2 on the list and #3 drives the point home emphatically.

Open Culture reports the story. And these Amazon orders are pre-publication orders. The print industry is quick, but one day is not enough to see books delivered to warehouses. Probably these orders are mainly displacement activity: by buying the book you’re showing how strongly you feel.

A PDF of the free text may be found here, courtesy of Politico.

Everyone in publishing just knows that women are the ones who buy books, especially fiction books. It’s just one of these pieces of common knowledge that everyone accepts without ever really thinking about it. (Have booksellers ever been asked about this? Amazon of course must know, but probably isn’t telling.) Here’s a piece from The Washington Independent showing confirmatory results about male/female reading and book buying from a 2018 survey, although it was only a “survey of over 2,400 people from around the world”.

We are often assured that ladies were the main consumers of fiction in the nineteenth century: see an earlier post on a Lancashire book club. I do think the claim is largely true despite obvious exceptions to the rule: for instance many mathematicians are male and have been known to buy a book or two, and probably most of the people who buy Wisden’s Almanack are men, though copies may often enough be purchased for them by mothers, wives, girlfriends etc. (Note however that the most recent edition features a female cricketer on the cover: they’ve been rather more successful than their male counterparts in recent years.)

Perhaps boys just enjoy running around making noise rather than sitting quietly reading a book. I would certainly have had to plead guilty to this charge. One should note however that of course there have been lots of books directed at the male child, and many have been very successful. Biggles was a huge British case in point. In America The Hardy Boys are surely meant for an audience of boys, similarly Captain Underpants.

I often go on about how publishers are merely the agents of their authors — taking the manuscripts these authors bring to them and preparing them for sale to an eager public. But of course, not all publishing follows that pattern. There are significant bits of publishing where the authors act more like freelance employees and write at the direction of the publisher. Children’s books are often created this way. I worked for a few years at a company where we churned out books for pre-teen girls, all notionally written by a couple of celebrity siblings, but in reality written by a team of professional writers paid a fee for their work. The books were created by and printed by this book packager, and then the finished books were sold to a large publisher who’d sell them through the book trade — and sell them very well: first printings were usually 150,000. The game came to an end when the “authors” started quite publicly doing non-pre-teen things like going out on dates, and having a general good time at college. I never thought it was the pre-teen readers who abandoned these books; it was the aunties and grandmas who refused to lay down their money for the benefit of such “badly behaved girls”.

Tying your books to a celebrity is a tried and true way of guaranteeing a good sale, but obviously carries the risk of the celebrity losing their popularity, or in the case of kid’s books, simply growing up. Of course, other strategies exist: don’t tie your heroes to living people, and they can remain the right age for ever and ever. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys exemplify this trick. Crime Fiction has a story (link via Literary Hub) about such branded series.

I may never have wondered about the gender distribution of book buyers and readers, but the OUP blog has, and makes a fist of explaining the phenomenon of apparent female bias. Turns out that the real question should be Why do girls outperform boys on reading tests around the world? In the end it seems to be because we apparently arrange things so that they’ll be this way. Psychology Today tells us about a recent survey that found that on average parents spent 3 minutes more daily reading to a girl than to a boy; and this grosses up to 100 hours a year. It’s not nature: it’s all nurture. We appear to want our boys to be reluctant readers. Or to put it the other way, we think boys should all be running around shouting!

The Collation, the Folger Library’s blog, has a post on early almanacs with this fascinating illustration showing us which Zodiac signs govern which parts of our body. Who knew?

STC 501, [A4r]

I wrote about almanacs last year.

Last year saw a net increase of 18 bookshops in Britain despite overall declines in retail store numbers. Here’s Shelf Awareness‘ 12 April story:

British Bookshops Defy Negative High Street Trends

Although a record number of small retailers closed in Britain last year–an average of 16 stores a day–bookshops “are bucking the trend,” the Bookseller reported. A record net 2,481 stores disappeared from Great Britain’s top 500 high streets in 2018. In total, 3,372 shops opened, compared to 5,833 closures. (2017 net loss: -1,772 stores), according to PwC research compiled by the Local Data Company.

Despite the widespread decline, “bookshops took second spot of the biggest growth categories after gyms with ice cream parlors. Bookshops reported a net change of 18 units with 42 openings and 24 closures,” the Bookseller wrote.

While welcoming the news, Booksellers Association managing director Meryl Halls said, “We are delighted that the PwC report confirms the strong showing for bookshops on our high streets that the BA highlighted earlier in the year, and we continue to be immensely proud of the hard work and creativity by booksellers that has led to this situation…

“Booksellers are creative and deft, but they can’t save high streets by themselves. We need to work in collaborations and civic partnerships with others to ensure our high streets survive and flourish, and we need government to recognize the enormous part high street retail plays in the culture and economy of the U.K. and act to support it, partly through business rates reform, which currently clearly unfairly favors online and out of town retail.”

Only gyms with ice cream parlors increased more quickly! I guess you put it on and take it off in one handy location. Food for the mind usually doesn’t require you to sweat it off, but after coffee shops and wine bars, is an ice cream parlor with a couple of treadmills the next idea for a bookshop?

What happened in USA? Well, during 2018 the American Booksellers Association gained 96 new members and in 2017, 75. The ABA is a membership organization which stores have to pay to belong to, so its membership list is by no means synonymous with “the independent bookstore”, but maybe we can assume a similar trend throughout the entire bookstore universe. In an NPR interview last year Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School, claimed that between 2009 and “today” the number of independent bookstores in the USA increased by 40%. This piece from Statista shows a similar picture, slightly lower for companies, rather higher for locations. There’s a graph illustrating this at the link.

The long and the short of it is that for the moment independent bookstores are more than holding their own: sales increased about 5% last year according to Professor Raffaelli. I went to The Shed in Hudson Yards last week after it had been open for a couple of days, and they too have a bookstore.

See also Independent bookstores, where there’s a Professor Raffaelli video.