Archives for the month of: November, 2019

The TLS (as they now officially call themselves after 117 years as the Times Literary Supplement) has a piece on 1 November about the PLR (Public Lending Right).

Public Lending Right is the scheme for the remuneration of authors for the use of their books in libraries. The notion behind it is that while the author gets a royalty (we hope and assume) when a copy of their book is sold to a library, it’s a bit unfair that that should just be that. An author whose book is borrowed every week will end up being paid exactly the same rate as the author whose book sits unborrowed on the shelf for ever. Hard to engineer a tiny payment every time the book is consulted, so a compromise is reached. As The PLR site at The British Library tells us, “Under the PLR system in the UK, payment is made from government funds to authors, illustrators and other contributors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. Payments are made annually on the basis of loans data collected from a sample of public libraries in the UK. The Irish Public Lending Remuneration (PLR) system covers all libraries in the Republic of Ireland and operates in a similar way.” Authors have to register to take part in the scheme. The current rate of remuneration is 7.67 pence per loan, up to a maximum of £6,600 — so nobody’s getting rich over this, but nobody’s being totally deprived.

Tom Holland’s TLS piece tells us that the earliest stirrings of the idea that it was right and proper that authors should get some reward for the library borrowings of their books occurred in Scandinavia. In 1919 The Congress of Nordic Authors took up a suggestion from Thit Jensen, a Danish writer, that library loans might be taxed for the benefit of the creators of the books. In 1920 The Danish Authors Association submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education but it took till 1941 for the Danish government to announce its support for a reasonable fee to be paid to authors for library loans. Obviously the turmoil of World War II got in the way, and it wasn’t till 1946 that they set up the world’s first PLR system. Norway followed suit the next year. It took until 1979 for Britain pass similar legislation, and their first PLR payments were made to authors in 1984. Since 2017 PLR in Britain has been extended to cover ebooks and audiobooks. Mr Holland tells us that in 2017 fully half of the top ten authors in PLR pay-outs were children’s book authors — an encouraging indication of continuing youthful book engagement.

Currently a PLR scheme is in operation in only 33 countries, 29 of them in Europe. A list is available at PLRInternational.

See also Ebooks and libraries.

Five Books provides a valuable service bringing weekly recommendations by a different experts to books on a variety of subjects. A new subject every week — if there’s a topic you know nothing about, Five Books is there to suggest the best way to approach it.

They now tell us here that they’ve been at it for ten years, so there’s quite an archive which you can visit via the link in the first line.

The dark blue words in the picture are rather hard to see. Click on the image to enlarge it. They don’t of course work as links though.

What a surprise. You can get Monopoly in a Game of Thrones edition. As Entertainment tells us (link via BookRiot) it works the same as any Monopoly game “but properties are re-named after famous Westerosi landmarks including Winterfell and Mereen as well as infamous locations such as Hardhome and The Twins. Monopoly money is replaced by Gold Dragon and Silver Stag coins to be handed out by the Master of Coin.” It’s on sale at half-price ($15) at Amazon just now.


Amazon is reported to be reducing the number of copies of books which they hold in their warehouses. The IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) post links to the Publishers Weekly report about this. (Thanks to The Digital Reader and BookRiot.) The reason given is lack of space in their warehouses, which is fair enough. Amazon has been building new warehouses all over the place for years, and logically a slow-down has to come at some time.

Now, Amazon works by powerful algorithm, and is extremely sensitive to changes in demand. If a book gets selected for some book group, or gets a good review somewhere, and as a result a few people place orders, Amazon’s system may generate orders to the publisher calling in more copies. They want to be covered against the algorithmic “probability” that tomorrow a dozen people will order the book and so on day after day. A consequence of this is that any sudden jump in demand can result in the majority of a publisher’s inventory ending up in Amazon’s warehouses, even though these dozens of orders don’t actually come to pass. Many a publisher has been forced into a reprint they didn’t really need, when ultimately Amazon’s excess inventory wends its way back as a return.

On the other hand Amazon’s ordering patterns will tend to get baked into publishers’ sales assumptions, and a slow-down in ordering will have an impact on budgets. One publisher is quoted in the PW article as saying that in Amazon’s latest order quantities were down 75% compared with this time last year. That’s not nothing.

Is Amazon moving toward a position of maybe allowing a customer to wait a day or two for a book? Not necessarily. They can and do source books not only from the publisher but from wholesalers, especially from Ingram, so it’s quite possible that they figure they can maintain “instant” delivery using this sort of option. They also have the option, in many instances, of printing a book by print-on-demand, even in some cases where the publisher is still offering copies from inventory printed by offset. This set up will have to have been agreed to by the publisher, and is directed at keeping books continuously and rapidly available. Amazon, on getting an order from a customer, will go through a cascade of options on how best to source the book. In other words, having the book on a shelf in one of their warehouses isn’t their only option.

Now that I have started the hare in my own mind of Amazon’s possibly wanting to exit the book business, I can’t stop reading that speculation into any news about them. But that’s got to be over-interpreting things in this case, even if the IBPA piece does suggest that Amazon’s looking to favor items with a bigger margin this holiday season. Last Christmas season there was a bit of congestion around Amazon’s warehouses, with publishers unable to get delivery appointments to deliver their books. Amazon’s decision to carry a bit less stock is possibly just an attempt to moderate this chaos, with a bit of fingers-crossed hoping that there won’t be much of an impact on their deliveries to customers.

Dard Hunter

Tony Sanfilippo is down in the dumps. A meaningful visit to Dard Hunter’s* home in Chillicothe has gotten him ruminating on the rarity of beauty in today’s book output. He gives us an account of his visit at The Scholarly Kitchen, and enters into a spiral of despair culminating in his wondering if each book his Ohio State University Press produces won’t in fact be the last physical book they ever do.

No question running a university press is a hard row to harrow these days. Unit sales keep on going down; libraries are no longer the guaranteed market they once were; funding is scarce; costs escalate. Eppur se muove. Courage! I really don’t think things are terminal.

There are basically two things at work in Mr Sanfilippo’s piece: the problem of lost beauty, and the problem of lost sales. It was undoubtedly a very satisfying life working for a university press in the days when we could still afford to make books “properly” in the traditional fine-bookmaking manner. Although throughout my university press career I worked sedulously to get costs down and to expedite schedules, I was never thanked for getting a book in early, or below budget. Once or twice though I was lucky enough to get congratulations from on high: such encomia were always related to thanks for making such a handsome book. This always struck me as quaintly out-of-date. I had always been reluctant to submit our books to those shows where the books are judged on physical appearance, aesthetics, and production quality; (for example the shows organized by BIGNY and AUP.) I just didn’t regard that as what we were in business to do.

People who work in publishing are book people. Book people like a well-made book. Even though the bosses of bosses may insist you trash the specs in order to increase the margin, we could never close our hearts to the siren-call of the good. I remember being begged by a publisher to print a particular book on a particular paper, doing which would have involved a special purchase at a specially high price. This I refused to do. The publisher started weeping; and of course I bought the paper. The company didn’t go bankrupt — well it sort of did eventually, but that was for a whole bunch of different reasons.

We all want to be able to be proud of what we have produced. But, in the cool gaze of reality, our pride has to be refocussed onto the content and the sales of our books. Because it is difficult to run a university press these days. Every penny saved is a contribution to the dyke protecting us from the rough seas out there. If our customers are not insisting on beauty, or even a moderately well-made book, then making such a thing for them is just irresponsible.

And just because the university press, or any traditional publisher, is not giving the world a well-made book, this is no reason to despair that the well-made book will vanish from our lives. In hard times, and these are rather hard times for book publishers, lots of people lose their jobs. One or two of these will turn out to be the Dard Hunters of the future. There are indeed people, other than the odd disappointed publisher, who value a well-made book, and are willing to pay for a few. Just because trade publishers (or most book publishers) are unable to give them this does not mean that it can’t be had.

So, bite the bullet, make your POD books, and don’t spend too long examining the product.† If your customers object to the trimming of a few pages, reflect that in order to discover this flaw they have to have bought the book. Books are needed because they convey information: nice to convey it in a handsome physical form, but ultimately irrelevant to the communication process.


* Dard Hunter (1883-1966) was primarily a papermaker, but he mastered and practiced all phases of book manufacturing. The books published by his Mountain House Press are “believed to be the first American ‘one person’ books, meaning one person did everything: made all the paper for the edition; designed, cast, and set all the type; created every illustration and ornament; every punch, plate, die-cut, and embossment; wrote the book; laid out the book . . .”

† And be it noted, production flaws of the sort Mr Sanfilippo instances are no more likely in a print-on-demand book that they are in any book. I suspect we just go looking for them more assiduously.

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

Books of poetry have power. Ezra Pound asserts in the opening stanza of “Envoi” from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley that his poetry transcends the eroded traditions of English poetry (the “her” of line two is Britain; and the “Lawes” is Henry Lawes 17th century court composer). Henceforth poetry will be serious — and new. Books of poetry will change the world.

Interesting Literature brings us 10 of the best poems about books and reading. (Only someone who’d been to school in Britain half a century ago would instantly think of “six of the best” on reading this title.*) Seems Interesting Literature aren’t the first to bring us a group of booky poems, but that’s fairly unsurprising isn’t it? Interest in poetry and interest in books tend to ride together.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul —


Emily Dickinson may perhaps be overlooking the fact that prancing poetry (or any kind of book for that matter) often asks a fairly oppressive toll. Books have never been cheaper than in our lifetimes, but many still moan about how expensive they are. Maybe she has library borrowing in mind, otherwise it’s not such a frugal chariot. But she’s spot on on the frigate image. I was recently complaining about how films short-circuit our imagination by forcing our imagined worlds into one specific cast. Text in a book leaves us free to see the world we are reading about just as we want it to be.

26 inspiring poems about joys and importance of books and reading from bookkidsblog also include Ms Dickinson, but sacrilegiously not her em-dashes.


*The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as “a beating, usually of six hits with a stick”.

For a British schoolboy back then this was an almost weekly hazard. I was not a particularly well-behaved boy, and have over my schooldays been beaten with a hand, a book, a rolled-up newspaper, a wooden-backed blackboard duster, the back of a hairbrush, a ruler (the edge applied sharply to the knuckles), a stick, a cane, and a leather strap, both plain, and with the end cut into a nice fringe (what sailors would call the cat-o-nine-tails). Oh the glory! Oddly perhaps it was at the earliest age, five or six, that the strap, applied to the palm of your hand, was the instrument of choice for disciplining pupils. None of this seemed especially awful to me at the time: it was just what happened.

I know that 21st century Americans regard the whole idea of corporal punishment for children with horror, but I have to say I never felt particularly violated by this ritual. Sure it was painful, but only for a few minutes. The sensation of having been a hard case (blubbing was of course not an option) and of having as it were “stuck it to the man” was positive rather than hurtful. Schoolboys who were unhappy were I think unhappy because they were being bullied, not because they were given six of the best by a figure of authority. (Fascinatingly The Economist of November 9th tells me that a child’s likelihood of being bullied at school is, according to recent research, 70% genetic. Really, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”.) Just to get an American audience really going, I might point out that “figures of authority” included not just teachers, but senior schoolboys too. Yes, dear reader, I have administered condign punishment myself. I never heard (or thought) those clichéd words “This is going to hurt me more than you” and I believe I survived these rituals relatively healthy (so I claim at any rate).

And I’ve never forgotten that seven eights are fifty-six, and the inspiring rallying cry “of nemo let me never see neminis or nemine” — though it is true that most of the times I had to bend over were for disciplinary infractions rather than failure to remember.

Leaf books are books containing one leaf (two pages) cut out of an old, decorative or famous volume, presented with some sort of accompanying commentary. This isn’t, to my mind, too different from cutting out a page from an old illustrated book and framing it so it can be used as a bit of home decoration. In principal I can’t avoid agreeing with John Carter that “breaking-up is not to be condoned, even in a good cause.” I have often registered my protest against book sculpture, not to my mind any kind of good cause. (I did walk beneath an archway made of sculpted books in an otherwise excellent Pennsylvania bookstore recently, though I wasn’t too happy about it. A bit like walking under a ladder. And the CUP bookshop did display a book sculpture one Christmas. I’d like to have them share my belief that they should have known better!) I suppose I do have to admit that sculpting a book may be no worse than burning it or pulping it. Pulping a book does at least generate material to make more paper — which is obviously more important than creating decorative objects.

Chopping pages out of a book destroys the integrity of the volume, and leaves it less useful to future readers. But what about a book of drawings by a famous artist? At AbeBooks, Scott Brown gives a brief run down of modern artist’s book illustration. Would it be OK to cut out a leaf from a book containing some engravings by Picasso and frame it for display on your wall? The puritan in me says no, but on the other hand if you’ve just paid $12,000 for the thing, maybe you have the right to do what you want with it. Book illustrations and the artists’ book perhaps present different issues. The Victoria and Albert has a useful essay on artists’ books.

Leaf from the St Albans Bible auctioned at Christie’s on 10 July 2019

Erik Kwakkel has a piece at his blog entitled Breaking Bad: The Incomplete History of the St Albans Bible. In 1964 Philip Duschnes, a New York rare book dealer paid $1,500 for a Bible produced in early-fourteenth-century Paris. Starting in his 1965 catalog he began offering individual leaves cut from the book. He seems to have done quite a bit of business in this mode, as of course have lots of others. You can apparently still buy cut-out leaves from manuscript books on Ebay.

Maybe we need to apply different standards to manuscript books and print books? My objection is fundamentally that breaking up a book destroys the book (in the sense of content, not so much as physical object, though it obviously does that too). But I’d have to admit that no amount of cutting up of Bibles is going to get us close to any risk of losing the content. So maybe it’s better that lots of people should be able to frame a page from the St Albans Bible and display it on their wall than that yet another copy of the Bible should sit around, unopened, in an archive. Of course as Professor Kwakkel points out these pages being in private hands does prevent scholars from examining them.

Am I stumbling towards a principal that shutting up works of art, graphic art, inside a book is wrong? I’ve never felt enthusiastic about artists’ books — though one has to agree that artists have every right to express themselves in book form. If the artist has created a work of art which takes the physical form of a book, it must be wrong to chop out part of it. But if they didn’t create these engravings to live inside a book, I’m not sure that we need to respect the decision of some entrepreneur to offer them to us in that form. On the other hand, although cutting out leaves may bring some short-term income, it does at the same time reduce the value of your book. Mr Brown tells us that a complete edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America has sold for $8.8 million.

Does it make a difference that the St Albans Bible is a unique, manuscript, copy? Not sure it does — the bit of unique that’s significant refers to the text, I think. Tearing out pages and using them as kindling would be unambiguously wrong, but that’s not what’s going on here — Arctic explorers are unlikely to lug along with them medieval illuminated Bibles. It’s just the profit motive red in tooth and claw. In theory it might be possible to reassemble the St Albans Bible, though in practical terms this is obviously unlikely ever to happen. Once a leaf has fallen it risks being lost for all time.

Parenthetically I might add that, to me at least, the fact that a text has been made digitally available online does affect the case. Doesn’t make it right to chop up the book, but does make it less damaging.

Why do academics write even though their papers attract relatively few readers? Leiden Arts and Society Blog speculates on this. They come up with there reasons: 1. academics think everyone will read and refer to their self-evidently brilliant work; 2. having lots of articles will look good on a resumé; and 3. they believe in the importance of what they are doing.

To me this seems to omit the main reason — academics write because they are paid to do so. Not well (I intended “well” to qualify “paid” here, but some might want to make it refer to “write”), but in a research university it’s part of teachers’ notional job description, so they do it. Maybe Socrates used to sit around engaging in verbal debate, but at least since the 19th century academic discourse has been conducted in writing, not only by verbal debate — which still goes on of course in formal as well as informal settings. It has become essential for any kind of research results or intellectual insights to be communicated in writing so that people who might not have been there as you held forth in the seminar room or at high table can also be informed, and take part in the critical debate about your findings. This is how knowledge advances. It is absolutely irrelevant whether the research results are communicated in elegant prose or not — as a minimum we might be allowed to demand the elimination of any ambiguity — but as long as your fellow specialists can work out what you are saying, that’s just hunkey dorey. Here the differences between the sciences and the humanities rear their head. You won’t ever hear members of the public beefing about the difficulty of reading a journal article on nuclear physics, but historians better look out. The finding that 82% of historians’ journal articles are never cited should not depress historians; it just means their work is used in a different way from that of physicists or even economists.

See also Monograph publishing.

The Scotsman, appropriately proud of our national heritage, brings us these pictures of ten places which featured in novels. (Link via LitHub.)

Here’s another picture: this one from Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens where they always have a floral clock in the summer (in so far as that season exists up there). In 2017 the clock commemorated The Scotsman‘s bicentenary.

Princes Street, which you’ll find almost universally spoken of as if it were actually Princess Street, was actually named for King George III’s two sons.

The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation has an interesting account by Kathryn Vomero Santos of her detective work on an annotated copy of John Minsheu: A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, A Spanish Grammar, and Pleasant and Delightfvll Dialogues in Spanish and English (London, 1599).

In 2010/11 Professor Santos was examining all nine of the Folger Library’s copies of this work when she found copious annotations in one of them. She observed that “something fascinating happened: the Spanish-to-English dictionary section was removed from its original binding, interleaved with new sheets of paper, trimmed, and rebound. These new sheets of paper were ruled to mirror the three columns of the dictionary entries now on the opposite page. In various places throughout these ruled columns, a reader then inscribed a series of two or three numbers that correspond to words in the dictionary. Where the dictionary lacks a particular word, this user has added entries and numbers on the opposite page.”

You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Professor Santos’ solution to the mystery of why anyone would have gone to the trouble of interleaving the book and adding apparently cryptic numbers turns out to be that the reader in question was creating a dictionary or a concordance of Don Quixote. The numbers correspond to Part number and page number in some edition of Don Quixote of the word thus indicated on the facing page. Who exactly it was who was doing this work is uncertain. The book was part of the library of John Hunter (1728-93), Scottish surgeon. His older brother William it is for whom The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow is named. John however is commemorated in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and is also name checked in The Hunterian Society in London.

The handwriting of the annotations doesn’t however match that of John Hunter or his wife Anne. One might speculate that the book was marked up by someone who was planning to publish a concordance to Don Quixote, or a dictionary containing all the words used in that book, and that the Hunters acquired it when the job was done. Was there such a concordance or dictionary published?

My 1959 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, still to my mind the best one-volume dictionary because of its policy of nesting*, charmingly tells us that it aims to include “all words used in Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, in the poems (and many those in the prose writings) of Spencer and Milton, and in the novels of Walter Scott.” I choose to think that these handwritten annotations in the Minsheu volume were done for an eighteenth-century Chambers’s Spanish Dictionary with analogous aims.


* Nesting refers to the arrangement of entries all together under a single root heading. It can be thought of as a typographical matryoshka doll set. Saves space, but also occasionally provides quaint and interesting juxtapositions. They don’t do it any more I regret.