Archives for the month of: May, 2020

The New York Times has a long and fascinating article in the Business Section of the issue of 24 May. (You may need a subscription to see this I fear.) The piece involves the saga of suit and counter-suit from a couple of authors active in the Omegaverse. The Omegaverse is a sort of fan fic phenomenon, involving folks writing and sharing futuristic wolf-themed erotica. Apparently 70,000 stories set in the Omegaverse have been published on the site Archive our own. One author, Ms Cain, took tropes from this “conversation” and wrote novels which tuned out to be wildly successful. These books were adapted from her earlier unpublished Batman fan fic erotica. She later discovered another author, Ms Ellis, who was writing novels using the same tropes, and also selling lots of books. Ms Cain issued “takedown” notices, as allowed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act*, and sales of Ms Ellis’ books stopped. Ms Ellis is countersuing on the basis that Ms Cain owned no copyright in these group-sourced characters and situations, nor does it seem that the words of any of Ms Cain’s books were duplicated (which of course is the real basis of copyright — you can’t copyright a story line or a character). In a statement which doesn’t increase confidence in her, Ms Cain reports that she hasn’t actually checked to see if any words were actually duplicated as the experience of reading Ms Ellis’ books would have been too upsetting! “It was hard for me to read them side by side, honestly, because I felt very violated.”

It is interesting to note just how much money there is to be made writing this sort of stuff. Ms Cain is quoted as saying in a 2016 sci-fi/fantasy podcast “Dip your toes into the erotica pool. There’s nothing to do here but make money.” At a relatively early stage in her career, it seems, her publisher, Blushing Books, reported that the series had made $370,000. The amounts of money to be made have obviously turned Ms Cain from a fan into a tycoon, whose motivation has shifted from lust to lucre. Blushing Books has dropped out of the suit admitting that no plagiarism or copyright violation has taken place. The law is moving forward as the law does. The Times article concludes: “In the meantime, the Omegaverse continues to thrive. This year, more than 200 new books from the genre have been published on Amazon.

“The latest batch draws on virtually every genre and trope imaginable: paranormal shifter romances, paranormal Mpreg romances, [Mpreg refers to the ability of some males in the Omegaverse to give birth] reverse harem romances, sci-fi alien warrior romances. There are fantastical Alpha-Omega stories featuring witches, unicorns, dragons, vampires, wolf-shifters, bear-shifters, and wolf-shifters versus bear-shifters. There are comparatively pedestrian Omegaverse romances about celebrity chefs, dentists, frat boys, bakers, bodyguards and billionaires. In a teeming multiverse of stories, the tropes are still evolving, inexhaustible.” Quite amazing.

Implications for our copyright law abound, but it does seem to me the main issue behind all this is plagiarism rather than copyright infringement, with Ms Cain having no exclusive right to the themes collectively developed in the Omegaverse.

In the isn’t-life-crazy genre, here’s an article from Electric Literature about five other plagiarism and copyright infringement suits.

See also the related Cockygate case from a couple of years ago.


* According to the Times, the US Copyright Office has recently issued a report detailing how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has failed to keep pace with digital developments. From 1998 to 2010 Google apparently received less than 3 million takedown notices: in 2017 alone they got more than 880 million of them. Change will be coming.

Well, OK, maybe there might be a little drive under way to organize publishing workers. Atlas Obscura tells us there is, and who am I to say them nay? (Link via LitHub.)

The organization making the noise is named Book Worker Power, and seems to have gotten going in response to a tweet claiming that the “big 5 publishers routinely give six figure book deals to fascists”. Well, OK, I dare say that publishers do do that sort of thing from time to time. They may also give six figure book deals to leftist radicals, not to mention recent inhabitants of the White House — all you’ve got to do to get in on such a deal being to be writing a book which may sell millions of copies. The ability to write such a book has of course little to do with your political beliefs, but just shouting “the big 5 publishers routinely give six figure advances” is less of a catchy rallying cry.

The interviewee at the Atlas Obscura piece asserts “The COVID-19 pandemic is not good for anyone other than capitalists who profit off human disaster and suffering.” We can connect the dots: self-evidently publishers are capitalists, so obviously they must be profiting from human disaster and suffering. (In so far as they do sell books which deal with disaster and suffering, like, I don’t know, say The Plague, or War and Peace, or even Development and Implementation of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Disease Response Protocol at a Large Academic Medical Center, this is trivially true, although of course this isn’t what the writers had in mind in slamming the man.) Everyone, when they are young, (myself included, and not just when I was young) loves to rattle on about this sort of stuff. It’s great to talk talk talk, putting your bona fides and right thinking on display to your friends and colleagues. Some people will be eager to direct this disgruntlement into union- and salary-directed channels, but few are willing to get up off their backsides and do anything about it. No wonder all these young intellectuals talked round and round in widening gyres and ended up at this still point: “Everyone agreed that something must be done, but no one knew exactly what would be right.”

Having vented at these innocents, let me say that I do believe that everyone should have the right to collective bargaining. Bosses hold all the cards when an individual worker negotiates his/her pay, and collective bargaining via a trade union will lead to greater equity and higher overall pay levels. High-flyers may do less well, but “low-flyers” will not be left out. My suspicion is that publishing bosses, who were after all once upon a time young liberal intellectuals themselves, resist unionization just because they think it’ll make their life more complicated, not because they think it “wrong”.

But getting an organizing effort off the ground is tough. It takes work, and commitment. Workers in a publishing editorial office, although rejoicing in the label “workers”, are in fact far from our conventional idea of the worker. No “publishing” workers are employed in publishing for the reason that it was the only job in town and that their fathers had toiled all their life at the same mill — well one does have to make an exception for the case of the offspring of the owners of the company, who may have to go into the business because Daddy expected it. But you know what I’m saying: working in publishing is not a hardship: you do it because you want to, and because you chose to. It’s not just a way of earning a wage. As the years go by lots of publishing staff move on and move out, as they realize that maybe they bet on the wrong horse, and find a good wage has some serious attractions. The fact that the workers by and large love their work tends to make unionizing difficult, though not impossible. Why should I pay union dues when I’m having such a good time, and when I can reflect every day “I’m being paid to read books!”? In Britain we paid our union dues from the get-go; over here you don’t pay till your first contract is negotiated for you. This should make it a little easier.

However it does look to me that Book Worker Power is likely to become more of an on-line talking shop than an effective labor organizer. And that’s fine too: we need discussion fora. Labor organizing is local; Book Worker Power aims to be national. There are of course already talking shops of this sort in the major centers of the book trade, but one of BWP’s aims is to widen the discussion to non-central publishing locations. This may turn out to be its strongest feature — publishers are surely seeing how effective working from home has been over the last two or three months, and conclusions regarding reduced NYC office space will surely be made. Some “workers” will be able to telecommute from their parent’s spare room in Podunk, though probably young people will still always want to get away to the Big Apple.

I have received confirmation that the quaintly named Sette of Odd Volumes, which I wrote about four years ago, does indeed still exist. I was recently contacted by His Oddship, Philip Head, who has provided much information, including the important notification that the club remains active in London as well as in Boston where it appears to be named Club rather than Sette, as well as in a recently established Florida branch. Some of my communication with Philip Head — the temptation to refer to His Oddship as the Head Man is almost overwhelming — took place by email, but you can see his initial comment at the 2016 Sette post linked to above. (For anyone in need of navigation help, you can access existing comments, or make a new comment, by clicking on the little speech bubble icon next to the date of each post.)

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, I had just before been contacted by Chris Brown who was interested in returning to the club an item of their “regalia”.

This was something he had inherited from his father who had been a member before his removal to Australia. As you can see from the photo, the pendant features the intertwined initials O and V.

Mr Brown reports that his father, who held the office of Bookmaker to the Sette, delivered a paper on the subject of Wilkie Collins, which he read to the 666th meeting of the Sette at Corpus Christi College in Oxford in April 1967. Mr Head tells me that Mr Brown has sent him two copies of this opusculum (as he calls it) privately printed in an edition of 133 copies. Apparently a printed piece is not obligatory, and Mr Head interprets the existence of a printed version of this one as an indication of its superior quality.

Past members have included Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, recently reissued as a handsome paperback by New York Review Books. One of the two surviving copies of Professor Brown’s Wilkie piece is inscribed to him — which presumably means he never got it. The only other members Mr Head mentions are current member Roger Michel, who originally brought my post to Mr Head’s attention, Maurice Healy, and Alec Waugh who brought his brother Evelyn along on at least one occasion. Mr Head believes Bridey in Brideshead Revisited is clearly a member of the Sette.


Sid Huttner (of The Lucile Project) suggests that perfect binding has an origin earlier than the 1893 date I’ve thus far been able to push back to. He suggests an analogy to the making of pads of paper, which he tells me were bound in the nineteenth century rather as they are now, but with a manually applied glue strip holding them together. He proposes that such a technique might easily come to an alert and economical entrepreneur as a method for the binding of books. He also points to the even earlier process of caoutchouc binding, defined at Etherington and Roberts in these terms:

“A particular (and probably first) form of adhesive binding, invented by William Hancock, and patented in 1836, in which the single sheets were secured with a rubber solution obtained from the latex of certain tropical plants, especially of the genera Hevea and Ficus. According to Hancock’s specifications, the edges of the assembled leaves were roughened and then coated with the caoutchouc, which, when dry, was followed by one to five coatings of a stronger rubber solution. When the last coating was applied a strip of cloth coated with the caoutchouc was applied in a warm, sticky condition and rubbed down firmly.

“Great numbers of these bindings were produced both in England and the United States from about 1840, and the process was used for many of the illustrated ‘table books’ of the 1860s, as well as for many large folios printed on very thick paper. The process afforded both openability and durability, or so for the latter it was believed at the time. Both characteristics depended to a large extent on the purity of the rubber solution, and the degree to which it remained flexible. That it did not remain very flexible has been demonstrated by the fact most caoutchouc bindings have fallen apart. Also called ‘guttapercha binding,’ although incorrectly because gutta percha, which is also obtained from tropical trees was tried and found to be unsuitable.”

Shamefacedly I have to confess that this Etherington and Roberts definition has been sitting there two clicks away from me in the tab, Print Glossaries, at the top of this page.

A search of (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) discloses a miniature score of Mozart’s String Quintets 1-5  published by Ewer & Co., London in 1850. The format is  described as 12mo. “Bound by J. Rowbotham, ‘caoutchouc bookbinder’ in quarter green pebbled morocco with cloth sides, the spines with gilt titles and ornamental bands.” The dealer offering this goes on to describe the book as a “Lovely little volume, but for the caoutchouc style of unsewn binding wherein the pages tend to pop – this volume still sound.” 

This picture shows that caoutchouc binding wasn’t regarded as any kind of throw-away cheap-o alternative like our mass market paperbacks were. No doubt it was used for its ability to stay open while the sharp sighted musicians performed their quintet. The technique was also used on volumes of plates, no doubt for the same reasons. This binding is clearly expensive, and meant to last.

Here, from The Mechanic’s Magazine for Saturday September 5, 1846 is an ad from J. Rowbotham offering to sell you a tin or two of their “Liquid Indian Rubber”, so you can bind up your own papers.

Mr Huttner’s suggestion which seems utterly reasonable to me is that the term “perfect”, so oddly given to this binding process now regarded as rather imperfect, may have originated with a manufacturer of machinery trading under the name Perfect. This company (if indeed such a company exists) may, along with subscription companies like Home Book, have been responsible for the development of the perception that “perfect binding” was ultimately a binding technique designed straightforwardly to save money at the expense of quality.

In the meantime we have pushed back to 1836 with Mr Hancock’s patent.

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

Can’t remember the title or author, but want to identify that book that won’t leave you alone? Here’s help provided by Make Use Of (Link via BoingBoing and LitHub.) Follow that link if you want to explore any of the options they give: they provide all the links.

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

The Lucile Project is a unique (as far as I’m aware) site, directed towards “recovering the publication history of a single 19th century book”. The site focusses on all the editions of Owen Meredith’s Lucile, a book which enjoyed a wild popularity a hundred and more years ago, and provides an overwhelming amount of information about publishers, publishing practice, reviews, textual variants and much more. The poem’s popularity seems to have been more pronounced in the USA than in Britain: apparently there were only four or five British editions, while in America about 100 publishers issued editions of the work between first publication in 1860 and 1938 when it went out of print. (Of course it’s no longer OP.) It seems to have gotten itself into the list of essential books that publishers so energetically promoted in series to Americans eager to invest in brushing up their cultural bona fides in the second half of the nineteenth century. One example of such a series was the Premium Library of The Home Book Company which I recently wrote about.

Owen Meredith is the nom de plume of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, son of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron of Lytton, the famous novelist (eg Pelham, The Last Days of Pompeii) who somewhat unfairly gives his name to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Young Robert’s parents separated acrimoniously when he was a boy, and going off to Harrow School may have been a relief. Whatever the effects of his childhood the lad grew up to become Viceroy of India and British Ambassador to France and to develop splendid mustachios. At the other end of the family tree, his son-in-law was Sir Edward Lutyens, designer of Imperial New Delhi (and of the perhaps more familiar Cenotaph in Whitehall). As Owen Meredith, Lytton published about a dozen volumes of verse, but tended to modesty about his achievement in that line. However, according to Wikipedia “Lytton’s poetic ability was highly esteemed by other literary personalities of the day, and Oscar Wilde dedicated his play Lady Windermere’s Fan to him.”

For my taste Lucile is a bit hard to take. It trots briskly out of the stable gate in heavily rhymed anapestic tetrameter couplets:

     Now in May Fair, of course,—in the fair month of May—
     When life is abundant, and busy, and gay:
     When the markets of London are noisy about
     Young ladies, and strawberries,—"only just out;"
     Fresh strawberries sold under all the house-eaves,
     And young ladies on sale for the strawberry-leaves:
     When cards, invitations, and three-cornered notes
     Fly about like white butterflies—gay little motes
     In the sunbeam of Fashion; and even Blue Books
     Take a heavy-wing'd flight, and grow busy as rooks;
     And the postman (that Genius, indifferent and stern,
     Who shakes out even-handed to all, from his urn,
     Those lots which so often decide if our day
     Shall be fretful and anxious, or joyous and gay)
     Brings, each morning, more letters of one sort or other
     Than Cadmus, himself, put together, to bother
     The heads of Hellenes;—I say, in the season
     Of Fair May, in May Fair, there can be no reason
     Why, when quietly munching your dry toast and butter,
     Your nerves should be suddenly thrown in a flutter
     At the sight of a neat little letter, address'd
     In a woman's handwriting, containing, half guess'd,
     An odor of violets faint as the Spring,
     And coquettishly seal'd with a small signet-ring.

From the Project Gutenberg text.

The bit about young ladies on sale for the strawberry leaves was surely riskily risqué for the times. Perhaps the American audience didn’t get the aristocratic reference.* There’s a sort of momentum in this celebration of the merry month of May which comes to a screeching halt when we switch seasons in the next few lines:

     But in Autumn, the season of sombre reflection,
     When a damp day, at breakfast, begins with dejection;
     Far from London and Paris, and ill at one's ease,
     Away in the heart of the blue Pyrenees,
     Where a call from the doctor, a stroll to the bath,
     A ride through the hills on a hack like a lath,
     A cigar, a French novel, a tedious flirtation,
     Are all a man finds for his day's occupation,
     The whole case, believe me, is totally changed,
     And a letter may alter the plans we arranged
     Over-night, for the slaughter of time—a wild beast,
     Which, though classified yet by no naturalist,
     Abounds in these mountains, more hard to ensnare,
     And more mischievous, too, than the Lynx or the Bear.

The man responsible for The Lucile Project is Sid Huttner, Emeritus librarian at the University of Iowa. His collection of Lucile editions includes 1535 volumes which may be observed here occupying several bookcases (scroll down). He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the nineteenth and twentieth century book trade. His collection contains two copies of the Home Library edition of Lucile, both of which he reports are still intact although perfect bound, but he does admit that they appear to have been little used. He has provided interesting suggestions about the origins of perfect binding which I will write about in a subsequent post.


* Maybe it still requires glossing. A duke’s golden coronet has eight strawberry leaves round the rim. A marquess’ has four of them plus four silver balls; an earl has eight of each; a viscount has sixteen silver balls; and a baron just six silver balls. So aiming for the strawberry leaves was aiming pretty high for the Eliza Doolittle’s of the day.

Another note, on the following line: we used to send three-cornered notes to and fro at school. You’d summon a fag to deliver the note, which would contain some vitally important high-security message, for example the names of the rugby team you were fielding that day in the game against Hart House. At least this is what I take a three-cornered note to mean. These school notes tended not to be violet scented however.

Kafkaesque, according to The Oxford English Dictionary’s deadpan definition, means “Of or relating to the writings of Franz Kafka; resembling the state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka”. Merriam-Webster helpfully adds, with a little less circularity, “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality”.

Open Culture brings us this 2016 video talk by Noah Tavlin on the adjective, and they tell us Mr Tavlin has also provided guidance on the related term Orwellian. There’s a link to his Orwell TED Talk at the Open Culture site.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser. And if one video isn’t enough — and with all the spare time we now have, when can one video ever be enough? — here’s another. It has a biographical introduction (he blames Daddy) and rather more gruesome graphics:

Kafka is quoted in the video talk as having written to a friend: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy? . . . Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books . . .” Well, there you have it — just buckle down to it; read more books; suffer more; you know you love it.

At LitHub Alex George asks Why do some writers burn their work? He’s mainly interested in Proust, about whose decision to have the notebooks lying behind the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu burned because he “no longer needed them” he expresses puzzlement. He has just written a novel speculating that one notebook survived. Mr George informs us that Gogol, under the influence of a religious zealot, burned the manuscript of (among other things) the second volume of Dead Souls, apparently originally planned as a trilogy. He asks “would Gogol be as celebrated today if he hadn’t burned his manuscript?” to which I have to answer that, for myself, I never heard of this burning, but have certainly heard of the author (and read “volume one”, without realizing I was meant to be getting more).

We all recall that Franz Kafka wanted all his unpublished manuscripts burned after his death. We think Max Brod was right to disregard the wish, because we believe the world’s a better place with Kafka’s works than it would be without them. But if the author doesn’t want people to see what they’ve written why shouldn’t they be allowed to act on that wish? If he’d managed to get to it before he died, Kafka could have ensured that his directive was redundant. (Of course keen psychologists might suggest that the more or less subconscious hope that his instruction would be disregarded was the whole point of leaving it in a letter.) This New York Times Magazine article tells us about a long-running lawsuit over ownership of the remaining contents of the suitcase-full of Kafkaesque manuscripts with which Max Brod fled wartime Prague. The Guardian reports that the case was resolved in 2016 with the result that the papers have been deposited in The National Library of Israel. The Times Magazine piece tells us that after all during his lifetime Kafka burned 90% of his work. Surely standards are something we are all allowed to have.

A page of the manuscript of The Trial from the German Literature Archive, Marbach.

Maybe we can agree that Kafka aimed impossibly high, but it seems that Vladimir Nabokov’s decision was probably quite justifiable, although also disregarded. We can imagine an author noodling around with some sort of extraordinary idea, just to see if it might ever work out, and nevertheless being embarrassed at the idea that anyone else might see such an unsuccessful attempt. Feeling the approach of the grim reaper, a bonfire might become urgent. Nabokov appears to have missed that boat.

I wouldn’t wonder if many a manuscript hasn’t recently gone up in corona virus ignited fires. This is of course a time when the writer has suddenly acquired almost endless of time in which to have a go at the Great American Novel or whatever. Some such efforts must be being self-censored.

See also Book burning.

Atlas Obscura has a brief piece with a picture gallery focussed on those second-hand-book vendors along the Seine. Apparently there have been bookstalls there since the 16th century.

I’d never really thought about it head-on, but isn’t bouquiniste an odd word to end up meaning second-hand bookseller in French? After all, don’t they refer to that bound collection of leaves of paper as a livre? “Our” word “book” comes from a Germanic root, having (perhaps) something to do with a beech tree. French, like the other Romance languages, travelled down the Latin route from liber. Librairie in France isn’t a library (that’s a bibliothèque — there’s another root: biblos from the Greek). La librairie is a bookshop, a publishing house, or even the book trade in general. Weirdly, according to Larousse, bouquin‘s primary meaning is a male hare or rabbit — what an English countryman might refer to as a buck. They do allow a second sense for bouquin as an old book, labelling it “familiar” whatever that really means. My Harrap’s French Dictionary also, not unreasonably, tells me bouquin can also mean male goat. According the Atlas Obscura piece the word bouquiniste first appeared in the French Academy’s official dictionary in 1762. Wiktionnaire informs us that the bookish sense of bouquin is derived from boeckin, Middle Dutch for a little book, so this Germanic derivation seems to have been lurking around in spoken French for a long time. I guess you just don’t meet the word in literary works, where the familiar is unfamiliar.

Liber, I happen to notice in Harrap’s, means inner bark, bast. Does this tie back to the beech tree in some indirect way? It originates in Latin of course, where liber seems to have meant inner bark before it came to mean book — which in itself may be suggestive.

See also Is this a book? which contains links to yet more musings on this topic of nomenclature.