Archives for the month of: December, 2019

A couple of years ago, shortly after Stig Abell was appointed to the editorship, the Times Literary Supplement did a bit of market research in which I got involved. They were already talking about wooing a younger audience back then, and I fear my input was probably not too helpful as I kept on saying “don’t change this; don’t change that”.

Of course every publication wants a younger and more diverse audience. I’ve often claimed that the subscription base of a newspaper like the TLS or The New York Review of Books will not really be an accurate reflection of its readership. Anyone working in publishing will get these papers at work, and we all read them. So the average age of subscribers may well look high — I didn’t subscribe till I had retired — but will be self-refreshing as people cease to get it free in the office. Still, the circulation department are not going to take my word for this and stop trying.

One of the troubles in changing the title to TLS tout court is that this combination of letters already means quite a few things on the internet. Type TLS into the Wikipedia search box, and it’ll ask you to chose between 27 different options. Is this a good thing? Google it and your search results will be all about Transport Layer Security which is “a cryptographic protocol that provides end-to-end communications security over networks and is widely used for internet communications and online transactions”. So they’d better not throw out the full title too quickly.

Now they’ve come up with a new design which according to Design Week, “aims to attract ‘new, younger and more culturally diverse audiences’”. I’m not altogether sure what’s particularly culturally diverse about having a big white space between column two and column three of your three-column layout. The old four-column layout looked too “old, white, Anglo-Saxon male” I guess! I’m not going to do the cast off, but I expect they are now getting fewer words per page. I imagine contributors must have been warned of the youthful virtues of concision. There’s quite a bit of orange type sprinkled about. It occasionally changes to pale blue without apparent rhyme or reason. Poor old JC has been banished from the back page which is now just a boring old advert — sorry, an exciting, young advert. The title of his column, now on the penultimate page, has virtually disappeared and is transformed into a tiny orange box at the top right corner. The admittedly old-fashioned NB logo made up of books representing letters is nowhere to be seen.

One comment in their correspondence columns describes page 18 (shown below) as a “typographical hot mess”. It does look a bit scatter-shot with these wobbling margins which are mainly a consequence of the decision to indent long quotes both left and right, as well as setting them in smaller type. In the old design they didn’t have that right hand indent. Cleaving to minimalist principals, I think long quotes can be distinguished by indentation or by the use of smaller type. Using both risks redundancy and in this case a messy page. And yes; it looks like they are using a whiter sheet, though my photos may exaggerate the difference — and the fact that the old issue is a year and a half old already may mean that acidic decay is responsible for the yellowing.

You can click on the photos to see the whole page of the old design.

I sound sarcastic, but I don’t really have any problem with the new design. I didn’t have any problem with the old design either though. I suppose change is necessary from time to time, and when the publication made the fairly dramatic decision to hire Mr Abell they were obviously signposting a turn towards youth. His editorial in the first issue using the new design ends up with the rather mild and middle-aged rallying cry: “Continuity and change, as ever, need to be kept in balance. I do hope you enjoy our own reinvention”. The new design grows on me as I refer to the pages while writing this. It may be damning with faint praise to say it’s certainly a lot better than The Economist‘s recent redesign. The front cover is (at least in the first example) admirably clean and attractive. The new typeface used for the title/logo is an upgrade, and is much better letterspaced than its frumpy predecessor. Not sure what if anything is particularly youthful about the redesign though, but if you can persuade younger people that the redesign is a gift to them, them persuade away, and hope that they sign up.

I guess we can call the contest for best cover of the year now — anything to be published in December will already have had its cover designed and printed.

Literary Hub does this cover round-up every year — there’s link in the story to previous years’ posts. Why 78? Or do I mean why 26? Did each selector get to name 3 choices? Doesn’t really matter: 78 remain an odd (if even) number. Why don’t I love any of them? (Or hate any, for that matter.) Not sure. I doubt if it’s got anything to do with modern design trends though.

This almost sounds like a slick definition of the publishing process itself. We read stuff (tidy it up a bit maybe) and then publish it. But no: “Read & Publish” (or occasionally “Publish & Read”) is a refinement of “Big Deal” agreements between publishers and academic libraries or library systems.

Research Solutions’ Reprints Desk has a piece designed to explain what Read & Publish means. A Big Deal is just a contract between library and publisher where the publisher supplies several journals at a negotiated price for the bundle, which represents a saving to the library as against subscribing to each journal individually — a bulk discount scheme. The business of academic journal publishing has tended to become more and more concentrated, thus the deal has grown into the big deal. The Deal has recently been sweetened by factoring into it the costs for getting the library’s users (academics) favorable terms in having their research published in the open access journals from that company.

Open Access, which sounds utterly logical and sensible — after all taxpayers have paid for the research, so the research ought to be available free of charge — is in fact a thorny thicket. The problem, as we have discovered to our collective surprise, is that there are actually some real costs involved in journals publishing — it isn’t just a license to print money as the commentariat always assumed. So if you make the resulting publication available free, who’s to pay for the cost of publishing it? Well, the brilliant answer we’ve come up with is — the author. We’ve begun to slide round the problem that creates by getting grant-giving bodies to include money to cover Article Processing Charges in their research grants, but not every journal article comes as a result of a project funded by a donor organization. Universities often fund APCs too. But it hardly seems fair that the author should be made to pay, does it? If not though, who? Some of the true believers in Open Access are beginning to worry that there may be real problems here. Richard Poynder has just released an 87pp report on Open Access which ends up “I have also suggested that there must be some doubt as to whether a fair and equitable global system of scholarly communication is even possible in today’s political environment. Finally, I have raised the possibility that, for a number of reasons, we may in any case see a pushback against open access.” Maybe that old-fashioned way of allowing publishers to make a profit on the journals they publish actually may have something to say for it.

There’s a discussion of this at The Scholarly Kitchen, in a piece mainly focussed on the problem of reading (or rather not reading) things that are too long — which is a whole different can of worms. (Computers make us do it. Let them read the stuff too!)

Now this is important, and has obvious bearing on the world of literature. JSTOR Daily informs us that there’s a company in Britain, Carlings, which will sell you a dress for £30 which comes with the caveat “This is a digital product that will be applied to your photo, you will not receive a physical version of this item”. They also inform us, rather inspiringly if redundantly, that their digital collection has zero impact on the environment.

So you can now buy an item of clothing just so as to look good in your Instagram feed. Carlings will “tailor” your garment to fit your photo. It’s clearly a trend waiting to explode, and I’m mulling over whether to offer to sell readers of this blog analogous “books” . . . let’s say Nicholas Nickleby for starters. You’ll never have to go to the bother of reading it (it is quite long) because the text won’t be there — it’ll just be a photo of the book which you can upload to Instagram and thus gobsmack all your friends with your superior reading chops.

Oh, all right — I’ll do it. Here’s your book:

All you have to do is download the photo: just drag it to your desktop. The hand’s a nice touch don’t you think? Makes it look like you didn’t just download a cover pic from Amazon. Hey, for an additional 50¢ we can even offer you a feminine thumb.

This is a free introductory offer. The next book you want to “read” will cost you £5, not bad compared to the price of a dress, eh?

Oh, oh: just had a horrible thought: will I have to share the proceeds with the publisher? Perhaps I’ll just call the whole thing off.

Standard Generalized Markup Language was what we first became familiar with in the late nineties in order to enable us to “repurpose” our texts. SGML is not a document language, but a description of how to specify one. In the old days typescript would be marked up by the designer or copyeditor, in pretty general terms, for example CT next to a chapter title. The typesetter would mark it up in more detail so that the keyboard operator could fly through it without having to stop and figure out what type size and face was really called for here in the designer’s specifications. Thus we were familiar with the need for markup. But what we were familiar with was markup directed at creating a book, laid out in pages, not markup which would enable the text to be output in multiple ways on different platforms, including as a book. Up until then we were book publishers, and we published books.

In the nineties along came the idea that the text of a book (the content) might in fact need to be used in other ways, and the fact that we already had that content on a digital medium made it obvious that money could be saved by using the same digital storage for all and any reuses. The main difficulty here was the difficulty of getting people’s minds changed so they could countenance the idea. Prior to the invention of computer systems the different ways a book might be used amounted to a paperback edition or a hardback, with the occasional opportunity for an extract to be published in some periodical. Magazines would just reset the extract they were doing, and while we academic publishers would use the same typesetting for hardback and paperback, even if a mass market paperback required resetting, the cost of typesetting was fairly trivial when compared to paper, presswork and binding a huge number of copies being printed. Now we also had the opportunity to allow people to access our content online: this required a severe adjustment of focus.

SGML is ancestral kin to XML (Extensible Markup Language) and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) which are now the primary tools used for text markup. The theoretical background to all markup languages is that before it ever appears to the world the text of any work should have been described in such a non-specific way that any application in whatever form you can imagine can be run off on a computer without any intervention beyond the specification of what medium you are targeting. In the example below you can see the HTML codes enclosed in guillemets < >. Here <h1> denotes a first level heading, <p> a new paragraph, <i> italic, and <em> tells you that this is an emphasized word. (The green color is just there for pedagogical purposes. Markup doesn’t show in green in the real world.)

Given that when you use one of these meta-languages to describe your document you have in theory prepared it for any and all applications, it may be seen as perverse not to use the markup to facilitate certain outcomes. In order to make our ebooks fully accessible to print-disabled people, here’s Bill Kasdorf in Publishers Weekly encouraging us to take advantage of the powers provided by our HTML mark-up. This additional small step is pretty straight-forward if you are doing your markup thoroughly — and if you’re not, why bother?

Almost parenthetically I might note that the transition to digital text processing and SGML markup, like all changes, caused a good deal of low-level turmoil. Once people got on board and accepted that text markup “was a good thing” a kind of enthusiasm gripped those bosses with more power than knowledge. Why couldn’t we take all those digital resources which we’d been holding onto for a few years and magically get them SGML-ed? Well, I can’t imagine that at the end of the last century the digital storage system we had was much different from that at any other book publisher. It consisted of a cardboard box or two into which the disks of any book that had had disks were tossed. Rubber banding together the disks from a particular book was a good idea, but rubber bands give up the struggle after a couple of years. What you had therefore was a mess of disks of various sorts, sizes, and formats, some of which were unreadable because the machines they drove no longer existed, some of which had gotten one of their component disks lost, and all of which required time to assess. Publishers will staff their production departments on the basis of the volume of work going through at any time. The amount of work going though was calculated on the basis of the number of books due to be published in the next 12 months — not with regard to sorting out the disks for every book you’d published over the previous five or so years. Eventually, I suspect, all publishers either threw away their old disks (and tapes), or sent them off to an overseas supplier to sort out, but we all spent a considerable amount of time trying to solve the problem of “looking back”. It’s always easier to implement a new system going forward: you just start doing your new books in the new way. Trying to catch up with the old books which were done differently is a nightmare. (This of course is why lots of older books remain unavailable as ebooks.)

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for crystalized fruit, but what about crystalized books? Designboom tells us of Alexis Arnold’s work in San Francisco. They claim she’s exploring the theme of materiality versus content — a theme that surfaces periodically in this blog. Just how these frozen-look books have anything to say about content escapes me. Indeed the Designboom piece gives the lie to the claim they just made by going on “in this series, the books are stripped away from their text and content, instead becoming superficial objects frozen in motion to highlight the water crystals and structure of the pages.”

The San Francisco phone book

The artist’s website, where many examples are shown, is unforthcoming about the methodology, though the captions for many of the objets d’art do specify borax crystals. ZME Science comes to the rescue informing us that “Alexis uses a super concentrated Borax solution. She boils the thing, allowing more Borax in and then submerging the book in the hot solution, manipulating it in the desired shape and then draining it. Here’s the detailed process, so you can try it out at home. [Their next paragraph goes on to give you quantities and timings.] Be careful when handling chemical substances though (especially hot ones) – Borax is not particularly toxic, but sufficient exposure to borax dust can cause respiratory and skin irritation.

So any of you who’ve developed a sore wrist sculpting your old books can now play at crystalizing them instead. Whatever you do though, don’t read them. Books are so passé: especially as we can now safely ignore them online. Really “the materiality” is all that remains!

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link.

Readers of books should ideally be unaware of the thought processes of designers and layout people, so that nobody has to stop and wonder why this or that decision was made in setting the type in the book they’re reading. The mission of design is to facilitate the smooth transmission of the message from author to reader: not to shout out, look what a beautiful job I’ve done. For design and layout people beautiful ought to be synonymous with invisible. But of course because we remain unaware of these thought processes, when we might wish to consider them we find that we remain unaware of them.

To me, the knowledge contained in the head of a book compositor was amazing. A seven-year apprenticeship can’t have been enough to internalize everything. Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers* Oxford University Press’ guide for workers in its printing plant (which closed in 1989) contains the following instructions on word-breaks.


Avoid division if at all possible, having regard for the requirements of good typography. [Which basically means don’t set the line with too much letterspacing — i.e. don’t set the line t o o  l o o s e just to avoid a word-break at the end.] Where word-breaks are necessary, however, the following rules apply:

(a) A minimum of two characters may be left behind and a minimum of three characters carried over at a word-break.

(b) Two successive hyphens only are allowed at the ends of lines.

(c) A divided word should not end a right-hand page.

(d) If the right-hand page is a full-page illustration or table, the facing left-hand page should not end with a hyphen.

And that’s it. Following these simple rules will avoid ugly and confusing word-breaking. Too many hyphens and your eye will begin to pick up the wrong line when flicking back and forth; too few characters and misunderstandings threaten. Turning the page is always an opportunity to loose the place, so don’t make the chances higher by breaking the word. (In this context see also Catchword.) Attention should be given to the structure of the word in making the decision to split it: don’t do pr-oductive or produc-tive. These sorts of rules are now incorporated into software, and will be applied without the benefit of human intervention. But as an overriding rule In Hart states “In borderline cases supervisors are to be consulted for a decision whether an exception is to be made.”

These rules are a distillation of 500 years of trial and error. Printers arrived at this sort of consensus by discovering that doing differently resulted in poor outcomes. Each compositor internalized the rules, which would be drummed into them when they were apprentices. Actually, the thinking about all this goes back more than 500 years, as scribes writing out manuscripts developed rules about all sorts of things, including word division.

There are some word-breaks which although they are by the rule should never be undertaken. The one that sticks in my mind is pre-gnant”


* “Readers” refers here not to you or me snuggling up in an armchair to consume an OUP book — it refers to the proofreaders employed by all printers back then. When the type had been set it would go to an internal proof room where it was read against copy and sent back to the composing room for correction before a proof was ever sent out to the customer. I was at one time involved with the books of W. Edwards Deming, who held the view that Cambridge University Press was the best typesetter in the world because they never made a mistake. For an efficiency expert this was a slightly odd view as the reason for the apparent perfection was that the proof he was seeing had always been read and corrected before it was sent to him — not really the world’s most efficient use of labor. As the Press had closed the proof room by the time we were doing his books, we would send the proof to a freelance proofreader first, get corrections made, and then send the “perfect” proof to the author. I’m sure he went to his grave convinced of Cambridge’s infallibility.

Proof readers and compositors, whether they started out that way or become so as a result of years of experience, were often considerable experts in arcana. From time to time eminent professors of Greek or Mathematics in Cambridge would send notes of thanks to the compositor for saving them from errors in the subject areas in which they were meant to be the experts.