Archives for the month of: March, 2020

One of the laws of composition (typesetting) back in the olden days was “follow the copy out of the window”. If the author misspells their own name on the title page of the manuscript you have to assume they meant to and set it that way. There was naturally a strong temptation not to follow that diktat — keyboarding apparent nonsense is not something a craftsman would be eager to become involved in. Still I imagine most experienced keyboarders would be able to protect their sanity by an ability to switch off their critical mode while focussing their attention on accuracy.

John Carter, in ABC for book collectors, describes the situation thus:


“The compositor’s watchword, and his defence against the illegibility, inconsequentiality, impenetrability or errors of the author’s text. But often he failed to follow its dictate, the itch to correct or normalise being too great. In extreme cases, however, he could take refuge in the full text of the adage, and ‘Follow copy out of the window’.”

Now of course there were a few situations where author and compositor almost became collaborators. There were comps at Cambridge University Press who, meeting manuscript or typescript from a local professor for the fifth or sixth time, would take it upon themselves to correct the author’s Greek or mathematics — after all anyone can make a slip of the pen or typewriter key, and even the most eminent professor can have a blind spot. Some even got acknowledged in the front matter of the final book.* But the key feature of this process was the requirement that authorial attention should be drawn to the changes. If the author hits the wrong key and asserts that 2 x 2 makes 5, your duty will tilt to the other side of the scale — but mark the change on a proof so that the Professor of Combinatorics can assess the situation. Of course just because you may not approve of this or that author’s views on what to you is revealed truth, you don’t have a God-given right or duty to silently amend the “blasphemy.” (Go far enough back and I suppose your prejudice would have been supported by force of law.)

This sort of thing, cleaning up errors, you may object, is exactly what editors and copyeditors are meant to be doing: and so it is. The same process of marking the correction in the manuscript, or using computer software which color codes corrections to allow approval by the original author, is pretty universally followed nowadays at this earlier stage of production. We are well organized on this front these days, but there were times, and types of manuscript, which were less thoroughly prepared before the compositor got hold of them, maybe journals and periodicals for example. Go back a century or even less, and no publisher employed people called copyeditor; such nuts and bolts were left to the printers.

When book publishers worked in manuscript or typescript rather than computer files the whole stack of paper would be wrapped up in a paper and string parcel and mailed back to the author after the copyeditor had gone through it and made all their alteration marks. Along the way the copyeditor would have discussed any thorny or contentious matters with the author in a phone call, or more likely in those days, an exchange of letters. When checking the copyedited manuscript, the author it was assumed would carefully consider each change, but of course reality breaks through and many an author, learning to trust the copyeditor after the first few pages, would make a short back and sides job of it.

Following a well-prepared manuscript out of the window would present minimal risk of damage. And there’s always the proofing to come.


* A positive reaction was not however universal. See Jeremy Mynott’s comment to the post Manufacturing defects telling of Professor A. E. Housman’s reaction to the proofs of one of his books.

Jose Afonso Furtado sends a link to Edward Nawotka’s story in the Los Angeles Times about the effects of the virus on book publishing. The New York Times has a similar, even more comprehensive round-up today which you may find at this link, but I suspect subscription may be required.

As a general thing this blog was not intended to be a news source. There are lots of site whose roll it is to keep readers up-to-date on what is happening today in the book trade. Of course one cannot ignore important developments, but I think I ought probably to get back to focussing more on book manufacturing related topics — so look for a lot of stuff about how you put a ribbon marker into a book, the benefits of an Oxford hollow, and similar mundane mechanical matters.

Before leaving the news however, I should note that Powells in Portland OR, having laid off about 400 people, is now hiring back about 100 because of active mail order business. Another topic I had previously touched on is the new on-line bookseller, Bookshop. Apparently sales reached $380,000 last week, up from an average of $28,000 a week in February.

The Economist brings us this graphic of word searches at Merriam-Webster.

Of course they can’t tell how often one of us has used a paper dictionary to hunt for this sort of exotica suddenly made familiar.


Shelf Awareness‘s dedicated issue of September 26th, 2016 gives a detailed picture of Ingram Content Group as it was in those innocent times. Their piece includes this little gif which is no doubt now out-of-date. But I leave it in ‘cos I can’t make a gif myself, so am a bit impressed by it.

Ingram Content Group is part of Ingram Industries, a Nashville-based conglomerate with interests in marine engineering as well as entertainment and the book business. Ingram Industries are big in barges. The Content Group was founded in 2009, though before that there was a large book wholesaling business which had already been engaged in ebook facilitation and on-demand book printing for about a decade. They really have come a long way from their start — the date of which is a bit opaque to me. This New York Times article from 1984 tells us that in 1970 this division of Ingram Industries moved from being a school and library supplier into the wholesale supply of bookstores. Frustratingly it doesn’t tell us when the school and library supply business began, but the Ingrams started making barges shortly after World War II so we can perhaps assume a date between these two limits. Ingram Content Group is still a book wholesaler of course, but it’s so much more.

In this new world of virus consciousness Ingram is possibly even more important to the book trade than ever before. They can ship books to bookstores and now importantly drop-ship to the end reader; they can print books in their Lightning Source operation; they can manage digital files and thus ebooks; they provide warehouse and distribution services for lots of publishers; and of course they are supplying books to myriad bookstores — including Amazon. They are possibly now the biggest force in the book business — empty claim since I’ve no idea how you’d measure, but they are a vital part of the system of book creation and distribution. They are stepping into the breach in these constricted times, doing shipping for many bookstores. This includes Amazon*, who are of course reserving much of their warehouse space for household and medical products. (This of course sounds like a noble task, but one can’t help reflecting that margins are likely to be a good deal better for them with those sorts of product than they are for books, no matter how much they’ve succeeded in nailing publishers to the floor over larger and larger discounts.)

Chris Meadows at TeleRead wonders if Ingram ought not to be closing too in order to protect staff. “Ought” gets us into areas of ethics and moral philosophy which I’m not willing to explore. I dare say employees are glad to have the pay, and let’s hope that safety can be maintained, as well as book supply.


* Again I speculate on whether this might represent a sign that Amazon’s thinking about abandoning the book business. Getting Ingram to ship on your behalf gets the books out, but must cut into margin quite significantly.

Of course we are all reluctant ever to imagine a book trade different from the one we know and love, but is it possible we are moving towards a world where traditional publishing evolves into an editorial development system, with sales handled by Amazon, and everything else by Ingram? For several years Ingram have offered a print buying service to publishers who don’t want to do their own: I don’t mean just the POD stuff they do at Lightning Source — they will contract with outside book manufacturers for books which print longer runs.

The times we are living through encourage one to get outside the envelope even as we can’t get out of the home.

Well, it’s not good of course.

Clearly publishing a new book this week is a bit different from publishing it a month or two ago. Publishers Weekly informs us that Simon & Schuster is the publisher who appears to have moved (delayed) the most publication dates — 145 thus far. Most publishers seem to be taking a bit more of a wait and see attitude to the issue. It is obviously desirable for the publisher to sell some books, and sales appear not to be as dramatically down (yet) as one might have expected. (Of course sales reports come from the past. The present may look different, not to mention the future.) For the publisher, income from one book rather than another, is still income. Cynically, for the publisher books are fungible when it comes to the accounting department. On the other hand for the author, having their book published into a weak market means a once-and-for-all loss of potential earnings. If only my book can be delayed until this is all past — our irresponsible president is after all telling me now that that’ll just be Easter! — I can still make all the sales I anticipated. Thus, once again, the wishes of authors and publishers diverge. I wonder if the arguments which will inevitably break out will drive more writers toward self publishing. Of course many authors are to a large extent made whole by the advance on royalties they have received. However a lot of this is going to hit the publishing industry down the road in the shape of advances which haven’t earned out.

Via Book Business Magazine I find this piece by Publishing Perspectives about publishers’ response here and in Britain. There’s detail on individual publishers’ responses, and links to other publishers’ crisis offers, including Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. The Association of American Publishers is also compiling a record of what publishers are doing in the crisis. Here also is Publishing Perspectives with a forecast for Italy. Is there such a forecast for America or Britain?  Given that we are meant to be two weeks behind Italy, perhaps there’s not yet been time to work one out. But publishers are dodging and weaving. Books continue to get sold, and books continue to get printed. And this is really just a week and a half into the brave new world of non-denial.

At random: Skyhorse Publishing has laid off 30% of staff, says Publishers Weekly, and Scholastic has also made layoffs. Book Expo America has been postponed and the American Library Association annual meeting is cancelled. Publishers Weekly is compiling a list of book happenings and non-happenings caused by corona virus. This will be updated. Big (and small) promotion events are peeling off. Bookstores are experimenting with on-line book events, and this might actually work out once we’ve nailed down the distribution end of things. Working from home does seem to be working quite well. Will anyone think of extending this into the future? Supervision remains an issue of course. It’s 35 years ago (or more) that I offended an employee by refusing to let her work from home and keep in touch by phone, but of course in those days we didn’t have the systems which now facilitate this mode of operation — not, I suspect, that my decision would have been any different today.

Now that attending school has been replaced by online learning, what a surprise, there are copyright issues. Publishing Perspectives has a story about how publishers are signing on to the Copyright Clearance Center’s “Education Continuity License”.

Things will be different when we come back to normality. Exactly how different is hard to know, but they have to be different. I suspect many publishers are personally unable to make any big decisions: there are just no precedents to inform any decision, and while you’re in shock it’s probably wise not to leap to any potentially dangerous dramatic conclusions. Time will help: lots of small decisions will begin to shape into an overall direction. Some books are being delayed. Bookstores are being granted extended billing. Print numbers are being cut, which means that publishers are going to be getting used to narrower margins. Maybe a few months of this will allow us to come to the realization that a narrower margin which is actually achieved is usually better than a wider margin which is missed. Budgeting routines will need to be changed. Forecasting sales which everyone has to do to create a budget is not going to be possible for a few months. It’s those sales forecasts which build in the reliance on high margin numbers; once you had the big number the machine used to have to be tuned up to achieve them. If however you just start with a book, print as few as you can get away with, and end up wherever it is you end up, having maybe done a couple of small reprints, your profitability while it may be lower will at least have the benefit of being real.

Bookstores are closing but enough still remain in business. Online sales will inevitably increase. One might anticipate movement in the ratio of ebook to print book sales, but print books can indeed still be supplied. Ingram offers to ship books direct to retail customers on behalf of publishers and booksellers, including Amazon. They remain open and as more and more bookstores close become proportionately ever more important to the book trade.

It’s basically about assessing the quality of journal articles, or, in more general terms, academic research.

When the world was young(er) it was pretty straightforward to know when a high-quality journal article appeared. There were probably only a couple of journals you needed to monitor in your subject area, and when a hot paper came out the buzz would alert you. Now there’s so much stuff being published, partly because of the growth of the academic industry, and partly because of the splitting of disciplines into more and more separate disciplines and sub-disciplines. As a consequence finding out what among the crowd is worth looking at has become hard. The assessing of the quality of academic research has become a topic of academic research itself!

Knowing what’s good and what’s not is also important for hiring decisions as well as for researchers. Just counting citations — the number of times your article has been referenced — is a fairly crude weapon.

“Altmetrics are non-traditional, article-level metrics that can include journal comments, blog mentions, Wikipedia mentions, Tweets, Facebook posts, Mendeley and CiteULike social bookmarkings, and many other items. Aside from articles, altmetrics can also measure videos, individuals, books, journals, and a host of other content types.” Thus John Bond in his Publishing Executive article.

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

Altmetrics is a website too, and brings us news of the top 100 articles of 2019. The most fascinating (to me anyway) is Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial from the British Medical Journal. The paper was published on 13 December 2018, though one is inclined to believe that the authors were hoping for a delay of about three and a half months until early April. Here’s a photo of one of their research subjects taking the leap — this one without parachute.

Presumably the point this paper is making is about research methodology and design rather than parachute use! The authors have surely got their point across, as it was the eighth most discussed article of the year.

In 1717 a French slave ship was captured by the English pirate Blackbeard. He renamed it “Queen Anne’s Revenge” and started using it as his flagship. It had 40 cannons and a crew of 300 jolly men, and would sail around the Caribbean and up the eastern coast of the America colonies. But in 1718 it ran aground just a mile off Beaufort, N.C. and sank.

Blackbeard’s pirate career seems to have lasted just a couple of years and his reputation for violence (and success) to have been somewhat exaggerated. In particular there seems to be no justification for the tale that he’d go into battle with his pigtails on fire which in this picture he seems to be doing just for fun.

In 1996 the sunken vessel was discovered by marine salvage company Intersal, Inc. Under federal and state law the remains of sunken vessels belong to the state, and the state commissioned Intersal to recover the ship. The company hired Frederick Allen to make a video record of the operation. Mr Allen would register copyright as he went along. The State of North Carolina began publishing photos of Mr Allen’s work on its website, and when he objected, made a settlement in 2013 with him of $15,000 for one such copyright infringement, but continued to make similar uses of his work. Ultimately Mr Allen sued the state in Federal Court. The Supreme Court of the United States just decided that states remain immune from prosecution for copyright infringement. Naturally the case isn’t as straightforward as that, and you may read more detail at NPR‘s story by the inestimable Nina Totenberg.

But the long and short of it appears to be that you cannot sue a state for copyright infringement, though Congress does appear to have made some efforts to allow this, and I suppose may try again sometime in the future if it ever has the time.

Chris Meadows speculates at TeleRead on whether the current pandemic will doom face-to-face retail. Once you start thinking through the facts of the situation (would that facts were actually in readier supply) it does become tempting to believe the worst. Anything is possible, and extremes provide a siren call for analysis. (Mr Meadows is innocent of this implication: his piece admirably balanced, despite the arresting question in his headline.)

However I think it’s important to recognize that the outcome of any disaster is obviously not likely to be the best of all possible worlds, but even more importantly, it’s also likely never to end in the absolute worst possible situation. Even those dinosaurs didn’t all drop down dead from one week to the next. Like all things I suspect the outcome will be more nuanced, landing up somewhere in the middle.

There were quite a few bookstores in precarious condition before all this started. They might be compared to those over-70s with pre-existing health conditions. Some of them may make it, and we’ll rejoice when they do. Others start from a stronger place and will doubtless be able to withstand greater stresses. Mr Daunt appeared to be on the right track with Barnes & Noble, giving store managers more responsibility for inventory selection, but this must be putting the whole operation in danger. Layoffs continue apace — let’s hope that our government can get it together to vote support to laid-off workers and small businesses before too many members of Congress are forced into self-isolation!

When we come out the other side of this, as inevitably we will — it’s in no virus’ interest to kill off all its potential hosts — we’ll probably go about our business in different ways than we did before. I’ve been saying that these are early days, and we haven’t yet figured out how to behave under these conditions. Already we are seeing lines painted on the sidewalk outside the supermarket, which is letting people in in small groups, and is showing the queue outside how it should be spacing itself out. Governor Cuomo, who seems to be having a “good war”, was inveighing against all those New Yorkers in the parks last weekend. I dodge and weave when running through the park, and have observed these groups too. A father kicking a football with his two children is a very different story than a group of unrelated youths playing basketball. The family members live in close quarters anyway: the youths come from all over. We need to take care we don’t forbid the first while trying to stamp out the second.

In the case of bookstores, it does seem to me that people rather like having them. Just as the supermarket has the beginnings of a system, so too in a little while will other retail businesses. People want something to read, and we’re clever enough to work out a way to get it to them. I wrote about kerb-side delivery the other day: better systems will develop.

Available from Books Are Magic; half the proceeds go to Binc (The Book Industry Charitable Foundation), the other half to support store employees during the shutdown.

Good news: Pennsylvania which had last week ordered a shutdown of a long list of businesses, has over the weekend decided that printers are providing an essential service and may now continue in operation. Paper mills are also allowed to operate. Once printing works and distribution services shut down distributing books will become almost impossible. Without bookshops, and with Amazon prioritizing household goods and medications, it’s hard to see how anyone’s going to get physical books in any way other than direct mail. Ingram, which is so much more than a book distributor now, has announced it’s staying open. As Shelf Awareness tells us on 23 March, “Noting that it has book distribution and printing facilities in five U.S. locations, in the U.K. and Australia, Ingram Content Group has affirmed that it is remaining opening despite a range of shelter in place, lockdown and other restrictions put into place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ingram’s wholesale, distribution, print on demand, and digital services are considered essential, allowing the exemptions, the company said.” Here’s the Publishers Weekly account.

I found this exposition of exponential growth rather comforting. It came courtesy of David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.

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

Book Riot links to this story from Boing Boing which tells us that there’s noticeable demand for learning to use a typewriter among Philadelphia’s school kids. It is claimed that you pay more attention to your writing when you type on an old fashioned typewriter because it’s harder to make a correction than if you’re using a computer keyboard.

OK, but what about handwriting? I keep hearing that schools are stopping teaching handwriting. If you write in ink it’s hard too to make a correction to a page of hand-written copy, at least a correction which is not blindingly obvious. I have a belief that our brains have evolved to work at the same speed as our hand will be able to write down our thoughts. Of course, even if that’s true, a hunt-and-peck typist like me is probably going equally slowly at handwriting or at keyboarding.

There’s short video at the Boing Boing site, but it may also be accessed here.

I would think that any writer will use the writing technique which feels best to them. If you get used to writing on a heavy old manual typewriter, that’s probably the place you’ll do your best work. (I wonder if, faced by writer’s block, switching to a different technology might work.) Recently Charles Simic discussed the physical side of writing at NYR Daily, the blog of The New York Review of Books. He favors a chewed stub of a pencil, and some little scrap of paper. Of course paying too much attention to the mechanics of a writer’s production line is a reductive trivialization. Thus Mr Simic mocks the cultural media “You are known the world over for your sculptures carved out of butter, sir, turning out masterpieces that are attracting the attention of leading museums in this country and the world: Did you churn your own butter when you sculpted your famous Weeping Madonna, or did you buy it at the local supermarket? If he says he makes his own, they want to meet the cow from which the milk came and take a photograph of the two of them standing next to the sculpture.”

It’s good that there are still one or two typewriters out there for writers who like to use them, but trying to co-opt them as an educational tool is a bit over-ambitious. After all, just because it’s hard to make a correction doesn’t mean that you don’t make errors. You just spend more time damning and blasting while rectifying a situation which is so simple on a computer that making an error has become trivial. We have calculators to make learning arithmetic less important. Thus we have spell checkers to make spelling ditto.

To the extent that this educational fashion is a means of assuring the survival of a typewriter repair shop, this is of course an excellent idea.