Archives for the month of: September, 2019

One almost thinks that any big publishing companies rash enough to give $375,000 to someone this starry-eyed simply deserve to suffer the loss. The Digital Reader sends us a link to Heather Demetrios’ Medium story about the dangers of publishers’ advances, commenting “If you can make it all the way through this humble brag about an author pissing away a third of a million dollars in advances, I have the deepest respect for you”. Well DR, as Ali G might say, “Respeck”!

When Ms Demetrios found that, because the books she’d written didn’t sell well enough to earn out, she was being offered smaller and smaller advances (though still pretty substantial ones to my mind) she wonders “What other job would lower your salary after getting such great performance reviews?” Now of course she must have been well aware she wasn’t on a salary, but of course it sounds better to blame your publisher for cutting your pay check rather than to acknowledge that your books weren’t selling as well as had been expected. “My editor, a real gem who believes in my work . . . advocated hard for me” she tells us — and this may be part of the problem. It sounds like the editor may have been blinded by optimism. Over-optimism is an occupational hazard for an editor: after all editors have careers too — which depend of the success of their authors. An editor has a vested interest in keeping the idea going that their author is great, and also of course in making the author feel good so that they will keep working without worldly worries getting in the way of writing. We should not be surprised if we hear an editor exaggerating.

Ms Demetrios’s piece is unusual and useful in that it does provide chapter and verse on a subject about which we generally know only generalities. She pays her agent 15%. At the start of her writing career she confesses “One of the most respected publishing houses in the world gave me $100,000 to write two books, one of which was already finished, and I was feeling . . . well, fancy.” I can’t be bothered to research which publisher gave her which advance: she’s been published by Macmillan, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Why exactly an obviously educated person would think her publishers at fault because they didn’t warn her not to spend her advance check all at once, I can’t figure. Why she thinks these publishers are at fault because they failed to find a senior author to mentor her, and thus steer her right, is a mystery. Why her family, including her school-teacher husband, couldn’t be expected to point out that a royalty isn’t a salary, who knows? Anyway her $15 cocktail days are now over, and she’s had to leave the Big Apple, having gained wisdom the hard way.

However wrong one may take her point of view to be, Ms Demetrios does tell a frank and non-self-pitying story. She now describes herself as an author and writing mentor, and her piece may help other willfully blind people to avoid blowing their advances. As a youth I blew my way through a not-insignificant inheritance — hey, have you ever owned a brand new bright red MGB sports car? When the money was gone (part of it it is true as partial down-payment on the purchase of a London flat) I never thought to stand in the Rialto complaining that nobody warned me that after you’d spent all your money, you wouldn’t have any money left. One rather knew that ahead of time. Isn’t that why kids get pocket money?

A year ago New York Public Library launched its Insta novels series. Sounds like it’s been a success. Fast Company has a report (linked to by BookRiot) telling us about it all. The NYPL video below says that 300,000 readings have taken place. Insta Novels has 140,000 followers on Instagram.

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

To access a book go to NYPL’s Instagram account, @nypl, and tap the title in the highlights section under the intro text. Once it opens keep your thumb on lower right part of the screen to hold the page. When you’re ready to turn the page, take your thumb off the marker.

Memento mori.

Do we really need reminding that we are all going to die? Apparently we once thought we did. The dance of death/dance macabre category of book enjoyed strong sales back in the fifteenth century. I guess if you’ve got to go you may as well exit having a good time dancing your way off stage. Or is it more that by dancing you’ll take your mind off the real issue: dance your way to the head of the set and just vanish? The Princeton University Library’s exhibition Gutenberg & After includes one of the two known surviving copies of La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes. As a note in the front of Princeton’s copy of this 1499 book tells us the only other known copy is in the British Museum. (You can leaf through a digitized version here.)

In this Lyons edition a few new woodcuts were added. One is this depiction of death coming to get book trade workers. This illustration is frequently reproduced — it’s the only contemporary illustration of a fifteenth century print works that we have.

On the left we see the compositor at work sitting at his typecase, following the copy which is propped up in front of him, adding sort after sort to his composing stick. Behind him the pressman is being relieved of the task of pulling on that lever every time a new sheet of paper was put into the press. (A relief since this was quite hard work.) The apprentice in the background, brandishing his ink ball, seems not yet to be getting a dance ticket.

After a line of Latin which I can’t make out, the text below the illustration reads

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Venez danser vng tourdion
Imprimeurs sus legierement
Venez tost/ pour conclusion
Mourir vous fault certainement
Faictes vng sault habillement
Presses/ & capses vous fault laisser
Reculer ny fault nullement
A louurage on congnoist louurier.

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Sus auant vous ires apres
Maistre libraire marchez auant
Vous me regardez de bien pres
Laissez voz liures maintenant
Danser vous fault/ a quel galant
Mettez icy vostre pensee
Comment vous reculez marchant
Commencement nest pas fusee

      ¶ Les imprimeurs

Helas ou aurons nous recours
Puis que la mort nous espie
Imprime auons tous les cours
De la saincte theologie
Loix/ decret/ & poeterie/
Par nostre art plusieurs sont grans clers
Releuee en est clergie
Les vouloirs des gens sont diuers

      ¶ Le libraire

Me fault il maulgre moy danser
Ie croy que ouy/ mort me presse
Et me contrainct de me auancer
Nesse pas dure destresse
Mes liures il fault que ie laisse
Et ma boutique desormais
Dont ie pers toute lyesse
Tel est blece qui nen peult mais.

Death addresses the printers: “Come you printers and whirl in a dance with us, come all, come quietly, because in the end it’s beyond doubt that you’re all going to die”. The printers react: “Alas, where will we find refuge now that death has got its eye on us? We have printed the entire corpus of holy theology, laws, decrees, and poetry”. On the right hand side of the woodcut a bookseller also gets his comeuppance. He seems rather resigned: “If, despite whatever I might wish, I’ve got to join the dance, I say OK”.

Danse macabre books had been being printed in Paris in the years before 1499. Matthias Huss, a Lyons printer copied these Paris editions, presumably recutting the woodcut illustrations, the originals of which were apparently made by Pierre le Rouge. It is noticeable how superior in quality the woodcuts based on le Rouge’s originals are.

Here the Pope and the Emperor get the bad news

Still we see few reproductions of these other illustrations: that all walks of life end in death is understandably a less excitiing bit of news to us than what an early print works looked like.

Here’s a web version of Princeton University Library’s new exhibition Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470. There’s a lot of information in the nine online sections they provide. Each of the books and other objects in the show is available in a full digital reproduction, so, if you dig in here, there may be enough material to keep you busy for years. You can even rotate that little bit of type which is the first piece in the show.

Included in the exhibition is an unbound sheet of 32 pages from a German Book of Hours. Here’s one side of this sheet. You can perhaps get in there and work out the imposition scheme!

This sort of survival is very unusual — extra sheets tend either get bound up or thrown away. Book-sleuths have traced this piece all the way back. “The sheet was used as binding material in a Ptolemy edition purchased in 1509 by a Nuremberg ecclesiastic, Johannes Protzer. The Bodleian Library owns one half of this same sheet, recovered from the binding of a Sebastian Brant work purchased by Protzer in 1499. Presumably hundreds of copies of this small Book of Hours (measuring roughly 4¼ × 2¾ inches) were printed and sold, all of which were eventually lost or thrown away. Only the unused sheets sent as waste to a Nuremberg binder have made their way, through a secondary channel of preservation, into the 21st century.” The survival of waste product is notoriously chancy.

We need to bear in mind that in the first twenty years of printing’s history its impact on the general public was negligible. Gutenberg’s Bible is a hugely significant book to us. To fifteenth-century book buyers it was just another Bible, which quaintly hadn’t been written out by a scribe. Many ignored it. Many no doubt lost (or tossed) their copy. We don’t have a count, but up to 1470 the total number of books printed anywhere amounted to no more than several hundred. The real expansion took place in the following years when printing expanded outward from southern Germany. “About 28,000 additional surviving editions were printed from 1470 to 1500, and it is probable that thousands more have disappeared without trace.”

A dynamic map showing the spread of printing can be found at this link. I’m finding this map a bit balky today. If you noodle around you should be able to get it to perform though.

To me the most amazing thing about this link is that you can actually compile a list of 99 books on the subject of how to succeed in blogging. BookAuthority has done the job. I guess it’s a sign of the times that success tends to be defined in monetary terms. $10,000 a month seems to be where the self-respecting blogger should be aiming.

I hide my head in shame, never having earned a red cent by these my efforts — though I was paid the first time around, when I got to learn all this stuff.

On 20 August Shelf Awareness reported: “Showtime has given a script-to-series order to the planned adaption of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast book series and will co-produce along with Fremantle, “with a writers room set to be opened soon,” Variety reported. The BBC had previously adapted the first two books into a four-episode miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christopher Lee in 2000.

Toby Whithouse (Being Human) will serve as showrunner and executive produce along with Neil Gaiman, Akiva Goldsman, Dante Di Loreto, Oliver Jones, Barry Spikings and David Stern.

“The joy of trying to describe Gormenghast to people is one where words will fail you and that’s why there have been people who wanted to film Gormenghast ever since Peake wrote the first book,” Gaiman said. “The BBC once tried but they were all making it in times when depicting the impossible on the screen was too difficult. The great thing now is that we can make it and actually show it and take you there. We are now in a world where you can put the impossible on screen and with Gormenghast, you’re not just dealing with a castle the size of a city but dealing with these incredibly glorious and memorable people.”

The three volumes in the series are Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction to Titus Groan, that the book (and the series) “is closer to ancient pagan romance than to traditional British fiction”. (Does this perhaps sound a little Game-of-Thrones-ish? Catnip to any television exec.) It’s certainly an over-the-top epic, though less swords and battle-axes than intrigue and personality. The back cover copy to my Penguin edition (55p when printed  in 1973!) calls it “a sustained piece of deadly irony. The characters are weird; the setting fantastic.” From time to time I still dream of the fantastical castle of Gormenghast with its dizzying towers and almost inaccessible spaces. I don’t see it at all like the picture at The Conversation’report on this latest adaptation. Visuals are far too literal: that’s why I will have to reread the books before the Showtime series preempts alternatives. A few of Mervyn Peake’s illustrations are reproduced in the Penguin volumes, though these are by and large of people rather than places. The television adaptation of the Game of Thrones series also fouled up my mental image of the wall — and every other place and person in the books; heck even the dragons. The books were just so much better able to construct an imaginary environment.You can even opt for medieval illustration as Getty’s The Iris blog shows us (Link via Shelf Awareness). I wonder if this visual open-endedness of our memory is why people always seem to find film and television adaptations of books disappointing.* I bet we all imagine Pemberley differently. Being shown a picture of Chatsworth isn’t really helpful: just closes off options. Open-ended is beautiful.

The opposite phenomenon just hit me the other day about another book growing out of World War II. I’m reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, and thought I’d “visit” Volgograd to see what the place looked like. Almost unbelievably Google Maps has pretty thorough Street View coverage of the city. It’s completely useless for imagining the scene of the battle though. Noodling around for quite a while I still haven’t seen more than one for two buildings that look like they were built before 1942. Not too surprising perhaps — read the books.

Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate. Unlike that second installment, it was in fact published in Russia in Grossman’s lifetime, in 1952, though it was heavily censored and appeared under a different title (For a Just Cause). The wonderfully readable translation of this volume is also by Robert Chandler, joined on this occasion by his wife, Elizabeth Chandler. He can be heard discussing Life and Fate and other parts of Grossman’s work at my earlier post on Grossman.


* I count the BBC’s 1967 Forsythe Saga as an honorable exception to this rule. The casting seemed totally spot-on with Nyree Dawn Porter, Susan Hampshire, Eric Porter and Kenneth More more or less coinciding with the pictures Galsworthy had conjured up.

Gwyneth Paltrow has hired a personal book curator to set up a home library for her. All she needs now is someone to read the volumes for her, or maybe, more charitably, to her. Celebrity bibliophile Thatcher Wine (who knew there was such a job title) sort of covers the event in an interview at Town & Country. The photos make you shudder: you’d never dare take a book off some of these shelves! (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers of 27 August.) Mr Wine with Elizabeth Lane has written a book about designing and creating a home library; and we always thought you just had to go to a bookshop and buy some books you might like to read. Both authors work at Juniper Books, which appears to be — well — a personal book curation service.

Here’s their picture of the Paltrow library. The adjective which insinuates itself into my mind is almost contained in the actress’ surname.

This urge to get your books in order puts me in mind of Abdul Kassem Ismael (938-995). His personal library, allegedly 117,000 books, was said to have been carried around with him on 400 camels, making up a caravan a mile long. For ease of reference the camels carried the volumes in alphabetical sequence, thus comprising a living index. Not sure if my stash of the readies will stretch to hiring 26 likely lads to carry my library about for me. Just have to stay at home I guess. The story was recently sent to me in a link from LightSource, a Christian ministry site. (How does Jeremy find this sort of thing?) The tale was retailed by Alberto Manguel in his (to me anyway, rather disappointing) A History of Reading. (I’m amazed to discover from my BoB that it was exactly twenty years ago that I read it.) Somewhat surprisingly it is The National Security Agency which provides a reality check on this legend. According to them, and who’d dare doubt them, “However charming this tale may be, the actual event upon which it is based is subtly different. According to the original manuscript, now in the British Museum, the great scholar and literary patron Sahib Isma’il b. ‘Abbad [which apparently is another fancier way of saying Abdul Kassem Ismael] so loved his books that he excused himself from an invitation by King Nuh II to become his prime minister at least in part on the grounds that four hundred camels would be required for the transport of his library alone.” The piece may be found at Wikisource.

Pause for a moment to reflect on how it is that perfectly unassuming facts can take on a vivid fantasy life of their own. Is this natural selection at work? “Striking” dominant; “boring” recessive? The Selfish Meme?

Juniper Books is the brain-child of Mr Wine. As their website tells us “Juniper books was founded in 2001 by Thatcher Wine. Thatcher had always loved reading and collecting books, he began his journey sourcing one-of-a-kind and rare book collections for clients around the world. A few years later, Thatcher invented custom book jackets and Juniper Books’ customers fully embraced this new concept. The creativity and our line of “Off-The-Shelf” book sets have proliferated since then. Today we work with thousands of customers in 50+ countries, helping them rediscover the power of print.” So there you go. Sign up for the Books Everyone Should Own (BESO) subscription, at $550 p.a., and you’ll get a pretty novel each month to keep you in touch with the power of print. Those who want to sound like the head of Amazon could sign up for two subscriptions.

A few years ago I did a piece on curation. But this was about content curation. Juniper Books’ service might be said to be trying to duplicate the experience of going to a good independent bookstore, which could itself be described as a sort of diffuse curated collection of books. If you don’t have access to a good bookshop, maybe this service is enough to be going on with? Of course it’s true that many bookshops willl accommodate you with various subscription services. Heywood Hill in Mayfair have particularly elegant offerings. I wrote previously about the subscription model for books.

The antidote for the Juniper service might be Marie Kondo. It’s almost perfect: pay Mr Wine to put in your library: pay Ms Kondo to weed it out: pay Mr Wine to build you another library: call Kondo: Wine: Kondo and so on ad infinitum. For people with too much money (a group whose problems continue to be shamefully under-appreciated by the rest of us) this represents a small step on the way to alleviating the worry of what to do with all that cash flowing in the front door.


Too much hilarity can easily become too much, though there are said to be big medical benefits in a good laugh. So if you need a pick-me-up here from NPR is Petra Mayer’s list of 100 rib-tickler books, based on votes from the public and a panel of experts one has to imagine sitting around giggling. I’m feeling exhausted already.

For determined participators their story carries links to a couple of other past polls.

There’s trooble at t’ mill.* This Publishers Weekly piece Big Trouble in Ink Production warns us of scarcity added on top of price increases in ink. Green-ness and tariffi-ness are impacting supplies of materials from China. First it’s paper, then press capacity, now ink too! We manufacturing people are having to work for our supper.

Just because it’s so nice, let me refer you to this video on making ink.


* Allegedly this is what they’d say in South Yorkshire during the industrial revolution.† As I went to school in Yorkshire this was a catchphrase we often repeated to one another. Hey, we were kids. One Sunday morning on our way to chapel we saw that there was indeed trouble at the mill. Rawthey Mill, about half a mile away across the fields was indubitably on fire. Well, what’s a red-blooded schoolboy to do: one’s duty to God by turning up at chapel, or off to fire-fighting duty? Are you joking? Es war getan fast eh’ gedacht as Goethe puts it, and off we raced to save the day. The fire was in the mill proper, but our efforts focussed on the adjoining residence which, although not burning, was certainly at risk. We emptied it in a trice, taking everything outside and placing it all at a safe distance away in the open field neatly situated between the cow pats. I can remember crouching on hands and knees under the grand piano along with Balls Ballingall and straining upward while our coadjutants unscrewed the legs so we could get the thing out into the field too. We probably didn’t need to take up the fitted carpets, and we certainly didn’t need to rip the sconce lights out of the wall, but we were on a roll. Soon there was nothing left indoors to remove except the wallpaper on the walls — and we considered it! By this time the fire brigade had got the mill fire under control — so it now being lunch time we left everything in the field and went back to eat.

I was surprised when the owner expressed his intense gratitude to us eager fire-fighter boys, and presented the school with a clock which now hangs on the front of the Busk Holme rugby pavilion. I never did find out how long it took to put everything back, or who did it. Luckily it was a beautiful day.


† Not so fast. The origin of this phrase is cloudy. It certainly didn’t originate with Monty Python’s Flying Circus as many speculate, since John Cleese et al were also schoolboys at the time of the Rawthey Mill fire, but it may not go back that much farther. My muscular fire-fighting took place in the late nineteen fifties. The earliest quote the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with is merely 1967, where they have it being used in John Winton’s H. M. S. Leviathan. Mr Winton’s (Lieutenant Commander John Pratt, actually) books appear to be out of print: they include the straightforwardly entitled We Joined the Navy. There are lots of them: 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction. He obviously made good use of the long watches at sea.

The expression “There’s trooble at t’ mill” shouts music hall to me, but I cannot find that anyone has made a record of the line. If you know, please tell the Oxford English Dictionary folks at this link.


No doubt this piece, Self-publishing in 2017, from Publishers Weekly infuriated the indie-booster crowd. What makes that mouthpiece of the traditional publishing industry think it has any right to talk about us super-virtuous, totally un-self-interested indie authors? Such condescension! I rather agree that PW probably shouldn’t be trying to cover self publishing. It’s just a different business, and much too hard to get your arms around to allow of any sensible general coverage. PW does appear to have moved on; they now have a site, BookLife, devoted to helping self publishers. They even offer “free reviews”. Traditional publishers are fully cognizant of the existence of self publishing. Some keep their eyes open for individual publications in that area, but by and large the influence of the one business on the other is negligible. They coexist.

But the 2017 article actually seems to be fairly even-handed, pointing out that times were likely to be hard for self publishers, just as they looked like they would be for traditional publishers. (Sales for traditional publishers in 2017 turned out to be not that bad: they were just a bit down. Who knows what self publishing sales may have been?) At any time, this book or that book from one or the other strand of publishing may become a big seller, but overall sales are likely to remain fairly close to “normal” annual totals. Surely we cannot imagine that there’s likely to be a sudden increase in the percentage of the population interested in reading books. We work in a fairly mature business: expansion is liable to be pretty much limited to demographic growth. Still we can’t stop trying. Joel Friedlander is quoted as saying “Authors are starting to understand that the world of book publishing is much bigger than e-books and print on demand,” predicting that self-published authors will be exploring other formats beyond ebook and print. The fact that this seems to amount to audio isn’t amazing: one can see an individual author funding an audio book, while a movie might be beyond reach even of the biggest of the big five.

My sneaking suspicion is that the apparent fragmentation of the book publishing industry is pretty much played out. We have three different bits of it, and the divisions look like they may become permanent.

  1. There’s the self-published individual author
  2. Theres’s the indie publisher, gathering together and providing resources for several self-published authors, and then
  3. There’s the traditional publishing industry — which of course itself can be broken down into many different categories by size, organization, format and specialization.

None of this should be taken as disparaging the sensitive souls who cheer on the self-publishing community. It is great that anyone can self-publish a book (I’ve done it myself, and I know half-a-dozen ex-colleagues and friends who have also done so via the print-only route) and I wish every success to those who do it. There are however inevitably certain problems with the fact that anyone and everyone can publish — notably the resultant vast selection of material available and the difficulty of discovering and judging which bits you might actually like. This doesn’t have to mean that self-published material is worse than traditional published, just that the tools for making the judgement are not fully developed, and may actually be beyond man’s devising.

I would foresee a world in which category 1. above, self-publishing by individual authors, would end up being subdivided into

  1. Materials published almost as a pre-publication proof: bread thrown on the waters in the hope of hooking a traditional publisher
  2. Some genre fictions, though one could imagine say romance publishing ending up dominated by the indie publishing model — if it isn’t already
  3. Fan fiction, minority fiction or non-fiction — almost by definition community audiences which know where to find what they want
  4. Books published by authors who have built large social media followings
  5. Self-published materials directed at members of a club or society
  6. Family histories, photo albums etc., by intention private.

I wonder if the rate of self publishing might begin to slow down as all the pent-up projects have been brought out in a surge at the beginning. This is hard to judge as there really aren’t reliable industry statistics, but wouldn’t it be similar to what we saw with ebooks? After all the backlist had been dealt with sales stabilized — yes, yes, I know you can interpret these numbers in all sorts of different ways.

The world might be said to divide into two camps: those like Honorée Corder who believe that everyone should write a book, and those who believe that there are just some people who can’t or shouldn’t. For myself I really can’t see why everyone should have to make such a choice. I’m perfectly happy if you never write a book. But at the same time I can’t really see any reason why you shouldn’t do so. I may not like what you write, but I will “defend to the death” your right to do it — and also my right not to have to read the results!

I fear that the world is also divided into two different camps: those who read books, and those who don’t. Maybe we can hope for a slight increase in the proportion belonging to the first group as education continues to spread, but I really don’t imagine that we are going to see any sharp increase in book reading. We are lucky to be living in a world where we all have access to a vastly larger number of books than any previous generation has enjoyed. Though at the end, does it really matter that there were a few million books you didn’t manage to get round to reading while you were capable of doing so rather than just a few thousand?