Archives for the month of: December, 2019

So what were your top ten books of the year? You haven’t published your list yet!

It’s all getting to be too much: you can’t turn around these days without somebody else bombarding you with yet another list of the best books of the year. I even got a list of the top ten books borrowed from New York Public Library. (Number 1 was Michelle Obama’s Becoming.) This list-bloom happens every year of course, but the fact that we’ve survived another decade is adding to the pile. I must be getting these notifications at the rate of more than one a day. Just got a notification of a list of the best books of the decade as selected by first-time authors. I await the century’s best from left-handed authors with blonde hair.

Just because it’s a pretty color, here’s an infographic showing the 16 best sci-fi books of all time. (The decade be damned.)

In protest against this proliferation, here’s my list of the Best Making Book Posts of 2019.

I quite liked Letterspacing 5, worth the price of entry for the interviewer’s reaction in the gobsmacking video, and The Shed at Dulwich has to be seen to be believed. Stanford University Press deserves a nod. Selling Encyclopedias gets in on the sentimental ticket. Sheep touches on an important topic. Slipcase also struck me as a nice one. V and U represents a type of post, and a post of type. Biography of a book suggests a new line in subject matter — I am keeping my eyes open for similarly meaningful copies. I was a bit harsh about some of my former colleagues in the jaundiced Pitt Building, Editorial, but I really did have a great time there. I guess Ch-ch-changes? was perhaps worthy. Ten’s enough — ten’s maybe too many.

My best books of the year? This category suffers, for me, the fatal flaw that I don’t just read books published during the year: in fact I surely didn’t read ten of them. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries was published in English in 2018. This immense and hypnotically narrow-focussed New York novel was originally published (in German) in the early 70s, and is now triumphantly translated by Damion Searls. Uwe Johnson’s one of our own: from 1966 to 1968 he worked as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace & World and lived with his family at 243 Riverside Drive where the novel is set.

Richard Powers’ Overstory (also 2018) takes a while to get going but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded richly, and inspired to redouble your environmental efforts. The Portable Faulkner, the volume featured in the “Biography of a book” post referenced above, cannot but be one of the best books of any year in which you read it. Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind is full of fascinating facts. It was originally published in 1984.

After Life and Fate one would naturally expect Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad to be a considerable achievement: it’s another masterpiece, and might actually count as a book first published in 2019 as this translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler restores chunks of the manuscript excised by Russian censors, or just left out of earlier editions, so this is a newly published complete edition. The book is supported by comprehensive apparatus at the back.

However, the book which most knocked my socks off in 2019 was one I’d read a couple of times before. This time I found Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) an amazing triumph of tone.

If you really hate p-books this may be a must for you. CZUR are crowdfunding the CZUR Shine Ultra portable scanner on Indegogo. They’re doing pretty well too — they seem to be 52,680% funded already, thanks to 5701 backers who’ve pledged $675,528 with 23 days to go. — When I drafted this post about a week ago, these were the numbers. Since then things have moved on: they’re now 79,702% funded with 8,195 backers. Still 15 days to go. See if you want one:

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

CZUR’s claim to be able to scan 180 languages sounds odd at first sight: aren’t they just doing an image scan? They say they are scanning at 340 dpi (dots per inch) which certainly suggests that. However, what’s actually going on is that the initial scan (a 340 dpi image scan) can be exported in 4 different formats, a PDF, a TIFF, a searchable PDF, and as an OCR file.

CZUR is a Chinese company, and they already offer a table-top book scanner. It seems that $129 invested at Indegogo will get you one of these machines — but of course you’ve got to want to convert your library to some kind of digital format to make even this reasonable price look worthwhile. Still there could also be business applications.

The brave new world of scanning started in 1984, and since then prices have come crashing down. Reliability has improved too. This machine does actually look tempting: but I still can’t really figure out what I’d need to use it for.

Everything’s up in the air. Pearson just sold its last 25% stake in Penguin Random House to Bertelsmann who now own the whole enchilada. Markus Dohle, CEO of PRH, commented: “The full acquisition of Penguin Random House is a testament to Bertelsmann’s belief in the future of books and reading” — which is great but . . . Is bigger really still better? One quaint feature of this deal is that Bertelsmann’s German trade publishing operations, Verlagsgruppe Random House will now become part of PRH, rather than the wholly-owned subsidiary of Bertelsmann that it remained after the 2013 merger of Random House and Penguin. PRH already has some 275 separate presses and imprints, and Verlagsgruppe Random House 47, which means that after the merger, PRH will have nearly 325 imprints reports Shelf Awareness.

No doubt Pearson can make good use of the $694 million they are getting for this sale to make up for the decline in the textbook market which continues to keep going. We are always being told that online is where the textbook business seems to be migrating, and whether or not that’s a less profitable environment than the print book world, there have to be serious costs involved in getting the ship turned around in order to deal with the brave new world. So who needs a spending downturn too? This chart comes from a story at Publishing Perspectives.

The decline is in average spending per student.

This second chart from the same source suggests that online isn’t eating into publishers’ lunch as much as we had assumed. Still, 18% is a biggish chunk when compared to zero a decade or so ago.

The fall off in average spending is exacerbated by declining student enrollments. And declining student enrollments, which are also causing consternation among colleges who now have to fight one another over individual prospects, are a result of an irresponsible populace who just refused to do enough breeding a couple of decades ago. (Also of course we are energetically engaged in national self-harming by our refusal to admit immigrants.) This glum climate makes to proposed merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill reported on in the Publishing Perspectives piece look less a triumphalist take-over than a desperate survival strategy.

The New York Times weighs in with a plaint from Tim Wu (also referenced in the PP piece) that college professors are ripping off students by forcing them to buy expensive textbooks. Apparently the cost of college textbooks has risen by 1,000% since the seventies. (Link via Lit Hub.) This can only worsen if fewer students are buying the things. (Retail price is directly related to print run.) And it was only a few years ago that it looked like this goose was set to keep going as a good layer of golden eggs.


Photo: EnChroma®

Hyperallergic has a story about glasses being offered at Denver Museum of Contemporary Art which will enable the color-vision-deficient to see the art as they would if they didn’t have any color blindness. The glasses (4 pairs) have been donated by their manufacturer, EnChroma®, at whose website you’ll find a test to tell you how your color vision rates. They’ve also donated glasses to seven other museums.

The thought that color blindness might be corrected by clever lenses filtering the light appropriately is one of those ideas which is blindingly obvious once someone has thought of it, but which seemed unimaginable up till then. EnChroma don’t tell us exactly how they do it (why would they?) but their website provides quite a bit of information about color vision.

Color cone sensitivity. Picture: EnChroma®

We have two kinds of light receptors, rods and cones, located in the retina. Rods allow us to see in low light conditions: at night your color vision shuts down — that’s just not the rods’ job — while our three types of cones, blue, green, red, allow us to see bright light, and convert it into color vision. The cones of a person with normal color vision will be arranged so that their sensitivity ranges overlap slightly as shown above. In people with color blindness there is a greater overlap of the red and green curves so that in extreme cases it becomes impossible to distinguish between these two colors.

Color blindness is genetically inherited. It travels on the X chromosome and 1 in 12 men are said to suffer from the condition. Since a woman will have to inherit the gene from both parents, the likelihood of finding a color-blind woman is only about 1 in 200. (Both these rates strike me as surprisingly high, but I guess it’s not something that comes up in conversation that often.) Red-green color blindness is the most common variety, but there are several other conditions which can be broken down into three broad categories, Protan, Deutan and Tritan. Monochromacy and Achromatopsia are more extreme condition. Details about these conditions can be found at EnChroma’s website.

See also Color vision.

I speculated recently on the effect on book sales of winning a prize, warning that one should be wary of overestimating the effect since most books sell only modestly. We are rarely given real numbers because publishers prefer not to get too specific on sales quantities, since of course in a royalty-based-world such information tends to connect directly to author income. Modest if dramatic is the recent boost in sales of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other consequent upon her jointly winning the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.

According to The Guardian, “New sales figures from Nielsen BookScan show that, in the five days following its win last Monday, Girl, Woman, Other sold 5,980 copies, a stratospheric 1,340% boost in sales week on week. In its previous five months on sale, the polyphonic novel, mostly narrated by black women, had sold 4,391 copies. Waterstones fiction buyer is quoted as saying “We have also enjoyed an uplift for some of Evaristo’s backlist, and look forward to building on this further”. The book’s UK publisher, Hamish Hamilton, ordered a rush reprint of 90,000 copies. (The article doesn’t disclose any sales bump which may have been enjoyed by Ms Atwood’s book. It was no doubt doing fine as it would have done had no prize been at issue. At higher sales volumes the effect of any particular news event or award is difficult to distinguish as we tend to look at these things in percentage terms.)

Facts like these are hard to come by, so cherish this little lot. (Link via Book Business Insight.)

LATER: In its issue of April 24th, 2021, in an article about the declining popularity of the Oscars, The Economist writes: “The 13 novels longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019 sold an average of 160 copies in Britain in the week before the list was announced, and 470 the week after, according the Nielsen. The winner gets an average bump of about 10,000 sales in the week after the ceremony in the autumn says Philip Stone of Nielsen, with a tail that lasts until Christmas (and a valuable boost overseas). Making it into one of the “book clubs” run by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey means a still-bigger bonanza.”

The New York Times Magazine has done a love-piece on this most excellent bookshop. (Link via Shelf Awareness of Nov. 26th.) Three Lives has been around since 1978, and despite a recent scare, looks set for a cat’s-load of lives.

We are living through a moment of optimism with regard to the independent bookshop. I think we are all (well, most of us who are not rabid free marketers) agreed that some sort of action ought to be taken to protect small businesses from being bid out of real estate existence by the large retail chains. No idea what form this action should be, but we cannot want every vacant store to be snapped up by Zara or The Gap, can we?

A couple of years ago people in our neighborhood managed to persuade the large pharmacy chain which had taken over the lease for our local supermarket, that they should not open up yet another huge pharmacy there — the little one across the street suits us just fine — and leave us without options for food shopping. The Borough President was prominent in the crowd outside the site which probably helped, though as far as I know the decision was motivated by a realization by the pharmacy chain that forcing this change through would have been disastrous PR. But the retail industry in general is under stress these days, and local governments are being forced to pay attention, though I don’t see any signs yet that anyone has come up with a bright idea to prevent all retail workers ending up as delivery agents for Amazon.

I find it harder and harder to accept that real estate should be subject to unregulated private ownership. Surely the land upon which our city is built ought to be a public good. It certainly shouldn’t be reserved exclusively as an ever growing cash-tree for real estate fat-cats. (Yes, yes; there are no doubt a few small and thin cats in the business too. And some who may even be public spirited as the Three Lives landlord does seem to have been.) Well, obviously the United States is never going to go for anything even remotely smacking of public ownership of land, but I hope that we might manage some sort of rent regulation of retail space, giving us the option to encourage retail of a sort that we need, rather than just retail chains with deep pockets.

The fact that it is happening via our computers may make us think crowdsourcing, or more narrowly crowdfunding, to finance the publication of a book is something new, but books have been being “crowdfundeded” since the invention of printing from movable type. It’s not the thing that’s new; just the word. The Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia agree that the word “crowdsourcing” was first used in 2006 by Jeff Howe in Wired.

The Guardian provocatively touted Kickstarter, which started in 2009, as one of the world’s biggest powers in publishing , but this surely implies an exaggeration of the novelty of the collection of grants and subscriptions for books. Here’s John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, discoverer of the Aubrey holes at Stonehenge, and the first to recognize Avebury as an archaeological site, reporting in 1693 on his lack of success at collecting donations for his Monumenta Britannica. “. . . I think I will have to print it by collecting subscriptions instead. I have begun gathering them already and have been lucky so far. And I have sent a copy of my prospectus for publishing my book to Mr Wood. I hope he can find me some new subscribers . . . So far I have only 112 subscriptions for my Monumenta Britannica, which is not enough, so I must ask if the University will subsidize the printing of it . . . I need to find more subscribers or my manuscript will never be printed . . . It seems more and more unlikely that my Monumenta Britannica will be printed. I despair of the manuscript ever becoming a book in four volumes.” The book was in fact not published till 1980 when a quasi-facsimile edition, edited by John Fowles and Rodney Legg was issued by Little Brown and Company. Crowdsourcing was even harder back then.

Crowdfunding is a subcategory of crowdsourcing, which Wikipedia demonstrates can cover a wide range of non-finance operations. See for example Crowdsourcing content, which makes it obvious that when it comes to books you can crowdsource more than just money. Lots of money does get raised this way: according to Wikipedia “In 2015, over US$34 billion was raised worldwide by crowdfunding.”

This Observer piece tells us that Maris Kreizman is Kickstarter’s publishing ambassador. One assumes that the publishers she’s interested in are mostly self-publishers and small indie operations. The gathering of grants and subsidies can become a part of an academic publisher’s work when some complex scholarly research just cannot be published without financial support. I doubt, however, that traditional publishers are too busy crowdfunding, though Ms Kreizman does tell us she talks to them.


The Apostrophe Society has announced its closure. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.) And as a result public demand has increased so much that it has crashed their website, which is now being rejigged and is due to come back online early next year.

In his announcement that at 96 he’s shutting the society down, John Richards, the founder, comments “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!” The so-called “grocer’s apostrophe” has, as The Spectator reminds us, never actually confused anyone. Which is fair enough, but is that really the standard to which we should hold ourselves? Like all questions of morality I suspect that the decision about the standards to which we hold ourselves ought ultimately to be decided by each individual. If you want to inveigh against burgeoning apostrophization, inveigh away. If not, devote your bandwidth to more important matters. But what others do need have no effect on your own practice.

I like to try to use apostrophes appropriately, and when I see one misused, I’m happy to mock it. But I can’t say I really care one way or the other. The purpose of signage or any other writing is communication. I doubt if an apostrophe in potatoe’s ever lead anyone, even whatsisname* into confusion.


* For those who don’t remember, Dan Quayle was Vice President of the United States from 1989-93. In 1992 he suggested at an elementary school spelling bee in Trenton, NJ that 12-year-old William Figueroa’s spelling of “potato” might be corrected to “potatoe”. Other gems include “I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future”, and “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy, but that could change”

I’m always going on about how the future existence of book publishing is guaranteed by the current ease of access to the business. You used to need a sizable pile of cash to finance your first books: now everything costs so much less (and happens so much more quickly), that these capital requirements have evaporated. The future publishing industry may not remain a business characterized by huge conglomerates: I suspect that the next decade may see them breaking up. Publishing is an inherently small-scale business, I contend. Here’s a perfect example of what I mean.

Publishers Weekly brings us an account of Tough Poets Press, a small press bringing back into print forgotten classics, using POD manufacturing and crowdfunding. Their books are available from Amazon.* They mention Kickstarter but I wasn’t able to find any Tough Poets books there, so I’m not sure how the deal works. Maybe you are promised a book in return for a certain level of support — which would make the whole thing even more analogous to subscription publishing.

It is, I have to confess, true that the publisher of Tough Poets Press does admit to not making huge profits, but as I keep saying people don’t get into this business because they are primarily motivated by money. And if they did they’d (mostly) be disappointed: there are lots of easier ways to make a buck. Few if any more satisfying though.


* Though Amazon does have its own print-on-demand operation they are perfectly happy sourcing books from Lightning Source (part of the wholesaler Ingram) where the Tough Poets’ books are set up. Lightning Source print the book and package it in smiling Amazon cardboard, so that when you get the book it looks to you that it came direct from an Amazon warehouse.

Mike Shatzkin tells us in his recent post at The Idea Logical Company, about supply chain planning at Barnes & Noble, that “When B&N was building out its capabilities at the turn of this century, the number of possible titles was probably not even a million and many of their stores carried over 100,000. Now there well over 10 million titles available through Ingram’s print-on-demand database plus nearly a million more in warehouse stock (which includes most of what is new and sells the fastest), and the retail stores carry a third or less than they did back then.”

That’s a lot of books. No wonder Amazon’s doing the majority of book sales in the world: there are few bookstores which can afford to stock more than a tiny fraction of available books. But even Amazon are feeling the pressure of the over-supply of books, and are cutting quantities in their warehouses. It’s always hard to schedule truck deliveries in the Christmas season, and this one seems to be worse than others: so if they are out of stock of a book this month, it’ll probably take a bit longer to get it back to availability than in the past. What I wonder is whether they are having the same difficulty scheduling trucks which are loaded with higher-margin merchandise. I bet not.

In a typically dyspeptic take on Mike Shatzkin’s post The Passive Voice assures us that the days of the bookstore are numbered. He ends his comments by declaring “In past decades, PG [the Passive Guy, as the author of PV likes to refer to himself] would sometimes visit a bookstore to kill some time in a pleasant manner. The electronic devices in his pocket or on his desk provide a much better time-killing service than any bookstore he has ever visited.” I dare say his local bookstore isn’t too concerned by his desertion.

Our breaths are bated as we stand on the brink of change. Will the dauntless Mr Daunt save B & N? Will PG get his way and find there are no shops in which to kill his time? Or on the contrary will independent bookstores continue their modest renaissance? Will Amazon get out of books? Will the ABA bookstore “Bookshop” work? Will big publishers turn into small publishers? Stay tuned.