Archives for the month of: October, 2019

As I reported earlier, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have been conducting a survey of monograph use. The results are reported on at The Scholarly Kitchen, where there’s also a link to the principals’ own report on their research. The Foreword to the study explains its genesis in the need to resolve conflicting views of the monograph: “For many years, we’ve heard that the days of the monograph are numbered, that it is inaccessible and old-fashioned, that the world has moved on. And yet, we see ever more monographs submitted to publishers and a growing online usage of monograph materials.”

The outcome, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that monographs remain important in the humanities, less so in the sciences. It was always difficult to get scientists to write books surveying a topic. They tend to be focussed on results which get communicated in journal articles.

Wulf and Anderson conduct a to-and-fro discussion of the report, leading one of them (Anderson) to speculate whether “perhaps some monographs should be written, but should not be published, or at least not published in the traditional way.” Maybe I am just showing my ignorance, when I react to this by thinking “But isn’t this exactly what has been happening for ever?” Lots of monographs get written but not published: we call them unpublished PhD theses, and a copy of each is deposited in a library where the odd, highly-motivated researcher can track them down and consult them.

The discussants focus on the fact that fewer books are being taken out from our academic libraries: but this doesn’t have to mean that researchers are ignoring books. In the olden days in order to find out what was in a monograph you had to sit down and look through it. Now you can sample it online, and rule it out before you ever have to visit the library and look at the actual object. Doesn’t mean you’re not using the book just as much as you ever did. Doesn’t even have to mean your not using the physical copy as much: it just means you don’t end up taking off the shelves those books you don’t need to take off the shelves.

So we can assume, I guess, that in the face of this research CUP and OUP will be continuing publishing monographs. In a way of course that was never in doubt. As long as people write these things there will be a need to publish some of them. The real problem is how to make them affordable, or at least not utterly unaffordable. The number of copies of a monograph that can be sold has come crashing down. In my youth 2, or 3,000 was not unheard of. Now print runs of 2, or 300 can be met. I. really don’t think this is because “people don’t buy books any more” — I think it’s absolutely because with the subdivision of disciplines into ever more and more specialized streams, there are just fewer researchers involved in each topic, so that the audience is perforce smaller. What this means is that the retail price of the monograph has to go up: those fixed (plant) costs have to be amortized over the quantity sold, and thus price has to give. This all tends to get a bit circular: higher prices mean fewer buyers; fewer buyers mean higher prices. Still at any given time there is a sort of temporary equilibrium.

Now I’m sure Jeff Bezos likes to read books as much as the next guy, but whether he wants to remain in the book business is something I’m less confident about. I should emphasize that I am inventing this theory out of whole cloth: I have seen no indications and have no knowledge of any idea that he’s thinking of abandoning the book business. I just doubt that there’s very much thinking about the book business going on inside his head nowadays.

This picture of that head is the lead-in for The Atlantic‘s fascinating article, by Frankin Foer, about Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology·Innovation·Publishing.) Books are just there in the picture, tucked away in the occipital lobe. My belief in the likelihood of his giving up on books is based on the vast array of other businesses, much more profitable businesses, that he’s involved in. “At any moment, [Amazon’s] website has more than 600 million items for sale and more than 3 million vendors selling them. With its history of past purchases, it has collected the world’s most comprehensive catalog of consumer desire, which allows it to anticipate both individual and collective needs. With its logistics business—and its growing network of trucks and planes—it has an understanding of the flow of goods around the world.” And then there’s cloud computing, and space exploration, and groceries, and movies and television too.

Of course just because they don’t make him a fortune is no reason for Mr Bezos to abandon books, They do after all provide another avenue to ever more Prime membership dollars. Maybe his company is now so huge that it’s hard to spend the few minutes thinking about the narrow margins available on books, and consider doing anything about it. And there’s that old sentimental pull: without books the behemoth would never have gotten off the ground. And I suppose book buyers also buy sneakers. As he says of their Hollywood activities “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.” Shoes, note, not books.

Might one envisage Mr Bezos making his book business over to the book publishing community? Unlikely perhaps but when political pressure is applied on the monopoly front, much dodging and weaving can be anticipated. As Richard Hershberger comments at last week’s Ch-ch-changes? post something like the abebooks system run by Amazon might be a good way for publishers to get into on-line sales. The cost of building that infrastructure just seems prohibitive to me, even if the initiative could be mounted without illegal collusion. Could we accept it as a gift?

To us Amazon is a huge presence in the book business.* To the overlord surveying his domain books must be almost invisible.


* And they do publishing too.

In his NB column in The Times Literary Supplement of 18 October JC riffs on the Edible Book Festival which took place in March this year. “The spirit of the event is whimsical and joyous” says Morbid Books winner of the first prize.  “The idea” JC tells us “was to come up with a visual food pun. One exhibit was a chocolate eclair broken in two: ‘The End of the Eclair’. Another was an alcoholic drink wrapped in a long twist of lime peel: ‘Ginfinite Zest’. A deep-sea diver peering at a pile of vegetables: ‘20,000 Leeks under the Sea’. Morbid’s entry was more, let us say, edgy. Picture a white dinner plate, with two noodles arranged in the form of a swastika. On a card, the title: ‘Chow Mein Kampf’.”

These and one other entry can be seen at the Morbid Books website, which also gives an account of reactions to this prize-winning pun. As JC reports, because of their edgy entry, Morbid were disinvited from an independent publishers’ fair organized by another publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe (a name which should surely prohibit them from objecting to any kind of pun) who claimed that the noodles represented “political imagery and symbolism [which] made us uncomfortable”. They felt that Morbid’s presence at their fair would have “the potential to make other stallholders and members of the public uncomfortable”. “We had to take into account the policies of our university partners who will play host to the fair.”

In some ways the biggest surprise for me in all this is not that sanctimonious publishers and academics sometimes go off the rails and try to suppress free speech which one had always imagined they were in the business of promoting, but that there are apparently lots of Edible Book Festivals all around the world. Wikipedia has a relatively sparse entry on the topic which informs us they usually take place around April 1st.

In a quaint juxtaposition, in the same TLS issue we find Jacques Testard, publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions telling us, in connection with his decision to seek out a Polish author to publish after Brexit, “I felt I had a duty as a publisher to fight against a difficult cultural climate, that we needed more Polish voices, and an insight into Polish culture in Britain.” The result: they published Flights by Nobel prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk. This admirable openness is perhaps a bit undercut by Morbid Books’ note “Fitzcarraldo Editions showed their emotional maturity when its publicist cried, ‘Holy shit’. . . ‘Seeing a swastika in a “comedy” context is not only deeply unfunny, it’s cruel and hurtful.’ Who was hurt, she does not or cannot say, because nobody was harmed in the making of this edible book pun.”

In yet another coincidental note about opinion suppression in the same issue of the TLS, we are reminded that as a result of his 2006 grave-side oratory in support of Slobodan Milosevic, Peter Handke (a Nobel winner on the same day as Ms Tokarczuk) had the award of that year’s Heine Prize revoked. The piece on Handke is sober and balanced, and suspects that he’ll probably be being read in the future, just like other laureates whose politics have been disapproved of: Hamsun, Céline, Pound.

I suppose we will get past this urge to monitor the opinions and speech of others whenever we don’t agree. I attribute it all to the existence of social media. In a world in which any opinion can be instantly “published” so too can any objection to that opinion. I expect that we’ll all calm down in a few years and learn to ignore this stuff. Give tolerance a chance.

This letter addressed to Jeff Bezos was posted on Twitter on 21 October.

Click on the image to enlarge the letter.

Mr Caine makes good points, and I suspect we all want to be on his side. But I fear the root of the problem is that there’s a basic conflict between his view of how capitalism works (or should work) and Mr Bezos’. His request for a leveling of the playing field can surely be met by the observation that the levelness of the playing field is exactly what is demonstrated by Amazon’s growth: nobody prevented Raven Book Store from setting up a distribution system that would take over the world. Raven didn’t do that; Mr Bezos did. Amazon may be huge today: but there was a time, just 25 years ago, when it was a little start-up. Obviously Jeff Bezos’ bet was the right one.

Now it is true that there are the beginnings of signs of possible changes in corporate governance. To quote The Washington Post of 19 August: “In a new statement about the purpose of the corporation, the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of 192 large companies, said business leaders should commit to balancing the needs of shareholders with customers, employees, suppliers and local communities.” Can we imagine self restraint on the part of a big corporation? Maybe some form of self restraint which is designed to help PR imaging and thus ultimately sales. Businesses are (necessarily) all about business. John D. Rockefeller when asked how much money was enough is said to have replied “Just a little bit more”. I fear that’s baked into the system. But maybe we can look forward to some cosmetic changes. Amazon does have an interest in avoiding government scrutiny: any monopoly position invites such scrutiny. One suspects it won’t be coming about as a result of pie and coffee in Lawrence, Kansas though.

We book people tend to sniff at the term “content” — it is a bit too computer-esque for us I guess. Of course we can’t get away from some responsibility for the word: when was the first List/Table of Contents printed in a book? We find Caxton referencing one in 1481. Wikipedia tells us that it actually predates printing by a long way: according to them Pliny the Elder credited the first Table of Contents to Quintus Valerius Soranus who died in 82 B.C.

Kate Eichhorn, via the SHARP listserv writes “I’m currently working on a short book exploring the history of ‘content’ and the ‘content industry’. In my own book, I start the history in the early 1990s. At this time, John P. Noon attempted to trademark the term content because, at the time, his company, Content World Publishing wanted to launch a magazine called Content for people working in the emerging content industry. This didn’t happen, but he later did launch the Content World Trade Show. Again, attendance wasn’t great and his entire enterprise collapsed around 2004, which is also when he sold off various content-related domain names. Ironically, just as Noon seemed to be abandoning his content-related enterprises, a range of technological and economic shifts converged (social media platforms, Google Adsense etc.), finally enabling the content industry to explode.”

Professor Eichhorn does refer to “the emerging content industry” which helps get me past my agony of worrying whether I hadn’t in fact spent my life laboring in a vineyard labelled “Content Creation” as part of that content industry she alludes to. Seemingly not: content in this context apparently means something with less structure and meaning than what you’d find in a book. Content World still appears to exist, though I’ve no way of knowing if there’s any kinship with Mr Noon’s baby. It is a kind of conference for people who care about content marketing, an innocent sounding term which, the more you look into it, appears to mean less and less. Wikipedia has an entry on the topic: if your mind is like mine, you’ll learn little from this other than how it’s possible to string together lots of words with definite meaning and create text with none. If you can’t bear to follow that link, the picture below will provide you with the knee-weakening feel of it all.

“Organizing for content marketing. This figure depicts how companies organize to create content in harmony.” Image and caption from Wikipedia. Created by Altimeter Group.

I suspect my problem relates to an unwillingness to believe that content marketing doesn’t refer to the marketing of content, but instead means using content to market any old stuff. I suppose it’s as if I were trying to sell you sewing thread, and used this blog to make you feel good about my yarn-spinning abilities, slipping in every now and then a subtle suggestion as to where you might go and buy a reel of cotton.

Of course content has long been a pretty non-value-laden word referring to what’s contained in some container or other. Its metaphorical extension to include the content of a document is of early date. The Oxford English Dictionary gives an example from Shakespeare and another from the King James version of the Bible. Linguistics may also bear some responsibility for the isolation and salience of content. The OED gives us a 1963 reference to content-analysis by J. B. Carroll in his The Study of Language.

Rudolf Ammann, on the same SHARP listserv, attributes the usage “content” in its current computer-dependent sense to the introduction of markup language for text processing: SGML famously wanted us to separate content from presentation. We had never had to think about such a distinction when we were just making books; the one was inextricably tied up with the other. This would take us back to the late 70s, which sounds about right: though of course it’s impossible to remember if we talked about what was inside a book as content before the arrival of computers. But I’m content to believe we didn’t.

I guess I’d never really thought about it — if I’d even heard of it I think I must have filed Steampunk away as some sort of distant cousin of Starbuck from Moby-Dick, Steerforth from David Copperfield, or Steerpike from Gormenghast.* But steampunk it turns out is a sub-genre of science fiction, based upon technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. BookRiot alerts us to a recent BBC News post about a Steampunk festival held in Haworth, the Yorkshire home of those wild-in-a-different-way Brontës.

Photo PA Media

As may be seen from the photos, aficionados go whole-hog. According to the piece about a Lincoln festival linked to at the Haworth story, steampunk has been described as “nostalgia for what never was”. Steampunk Magazine puts it neatly “It’s about ‘steam’, as in steam engines, and it’s about ‘punk’, as in counter-culture.”

As an example the blurb for the first volume in the Steampunk Red Riding Hood reads: “When London’s brightest tinkers and alchemists come up missing, Red Cape Society Agent Clemmy Louvel is on the case. To help Clemmy get the problem in hand, Queen Victoria assigns her a temporary partner — a werewolf with knightly history and a tendency to be far too flirtatious for either of their good. Can she trust him to help her chase down the monsters they’re hunting? Wolves and Daggers is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale set in Melanie Karsak’s bestselling steampunk universe.” In the first paragraph of the book members of London guilds are seen leaving a meeting and getting into “steam- and coal-powered autos”, and off we go.

Steampunk Magazine‘s issues may be downloaded at their site. The Ranting Dragon recommends the top 20 steampunk books.


* Mervyn Peake it seems is often regarded as a steampunk precursor.

Following up his piece on the five essential things publishing does Mike Shatzkin tells us about the seven ways publishing is going to be changing in the next few years.

His headline points are:

  1. Sales will continue to move to online.
  2. The other big general online retailers will be Amazon’s biggest competitors for book sales.
  3. The bifurcated book market will continue: like mass-markets immediately post-WWII.
  4. Publishers will progressively shed overheads for service providers.
  5. Big publishers will see an ever-growing share of their own sales from their backlist.
  6. Amazon Publishing will continue to make inroads signing big authors.
  7. “Entity self-publishing” will increase dramatically.

So I guess what he’s really telling us is that there’s not going to be much change at all, since all of these are continuations of trends already under way.

Online sales will surely continue to increase: everyone expects Amazon to take a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But stop and consider the current boost in the population of independent bookstores. People do still seem to want to be able to wander through a selection of books, touching and feeling them while they seek inspiration. Walmart and Costco may well compete with Amazon, but won’t this just be for the big sellers? Maybe some people will go to Walmart for The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline, but they are more likely to look for The Testaments there aren’t they? Actually, I’ve recently been wondering if these big guys might not just abandon books. Books are a relatively cheap product with a rather narrow profit margin. Amazon found books the ideal commodity to get their business off the ground — they are easy to handle, don’t rot, and enjoy a fairly steady demand from customers who are willing to wait. But they can’t make anything like a much off them as from a Rolex or a Ferrari. Might Mr Bezos not just decide it all wasn’t worth the hassle now that he’s squeezed about as much discount out of the publishers as there is to squeeze? Being the biggest company in the book business is far from being the biggest company in the world.

Point 3: I regard Mr Shatzkin’s bifurcated market not so much as a single bifurcated market as two completely separate markets. Self publishers sell (mostly) to the people who buy self published books. (In this context see Richard Hershberger’s “The State of Book Publishing” at Ordinary Times: Part 1 and Part 2). In the traditional publishing market, the divide between ebook and p-book has devolved into nothing more meaningful, I think, than the divide between hardback and paperback. Digital is just another format.

Stop the presses! Publishers are expected to shed overhead! I have been at this game for over fifty years, and have never lived through a time when publishers were not shedding overhead, except maybe when they first hired me. Any sheddable overhead will end up being shed. As I have often suggested the barriers to entry into the publishing business are now lower than they’ve ever been: all those new little companies can’t afford overhead, with the ultimate expression of this being the self publisher. Thus those individuals who represent the actuality of overhead reduction aim to make a living as freelance suppliers.

Points 5 and 6 seem to me to be almost the same point. In some ways there’s no real reason, other than habit or tradition, to give your potential bestseller to one of the Big Five publishers when a huge proportion of the sales are going to be made by Amazon, so they may well start getting more and more “big” books. If Amazon’s going to sell most of the copies, authors and agents may well conclude that they should just let them publish the thing. Obviously if some/many new books migrate to Amazon, the trade publishers will see a higher proportion of their sales coming from backlist: it’s just arithmetic. While I am a blue-sky optimist about the future of book publishing, I do see it as a small-scale operation with dinosaur extinctions along the way. Big is no longer beautiful in the book business. If Amazon wants to hoover up trade publishing, hoover it up they will — but my suggestion made above that they may grow to disdain this narrow-margin and somewhat chancy business applies here too of course.

“Entity self-publishing”, a term sufficiently ugly to guarantee non-survival, has been vigorous for aeons. The Royal Society published its first book in 1665. I think one might argue that the Church had been a pretty large “publisher” throughout the Middle Ages. The American Chemical Society, the American Mathematical Society, etc. etc. have been bringing out books for ever. Newspapers have brought out books throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whenever they saw an opportunity to offload the things on their readers. Given the ease of entry into the business, such activity is bound to increase: I’ve written posts in the past about bookstores, libraries, agents, and (pre-self-publishing) authors publishing books. However, I insist, this sword cuts both ways: if it’s easier to become a publisher, it’s easier to become a publisher. This does not represent a threat to the publishing business: a change in its structure, yes, but no existential threat.

Alex Bray, @StGilesResident reports on Twitter on this improved jacket which has been wrapped round copies of David Cameron’s book in Foyles in Charing Cross Road. (Thanks to Dr Syntax for forwarding the tweet.)

Quite an elaborate effort, but of course color printing has become so much easier (and cheaper) to get done nowadays. Fifty years ago only the richest of commentators could have paid for a job like this. Now we almost  all have a little color printer in our homes: not that this job could have been done on your personal printer without taping several sheets together.

You’ve got to love the puff from our guy on the front of the jacket. The culprit has done flaps too, which you can see by following the link to the tweet.

Is this the ultimate in (worthwhile) fame? Uno Cup, Inc. has designed a typeface based upon Ms Thunberg’s handwriting.

Greta Grotesk Regular. © Uno

The font, which is based upon a sign Ms Thunberg deployed in front of the Swedish parliament, will no doubt be appearing in lots of upcoming demos. It’s available for free downloading.

Hyperallergic carries the story, and shows a few words set in Greta Grotesk Regular.

Uno is a startup aiming to provide us all with a single reusable cup which we will carry around with us. “Our vision is simple: we should all have one incredible cup of our own that can be easily filled with all the beverages we love. No more paper cups, plastic bottles or straws. We’re partnering with the most forward-thinking workplaces and merchants to enable Uno anywhere you get beverages.” You can reserve your cup in one of three sizes at their site. Seems to me the biggest problem might be persuading those vendors to accept the cups.

The Passive Voice has a wise and sensible post about keeping alert while signing with an agent. Beware: individuals die; organizations (tend to) survive. Literary agents are individuals, and as he suggests, it’s probably the skills of that individual which motivated you to sign with the agency (which may of course in any case be a one-person operation). Unless there’s a cancellation policy specified in the contract, the “agency” will continue to represent you even after the agent you liked has moved on to another company or world.

Click on the Agency link just above the title of the PV post to access a range of advice about agents. The law is the Passive Guy’s area of expertise — not forecasting the future of book publishing. If you are thinking of signing with an agent or publisher you should read this and some of his other advice first.