Archives for the month of: October, 2020

The Bookseller reports on a merger between Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment (what we used to call the Local Examinations Syndicate). I was surprised to learn that together they have about 6,000 employees worldwide more or less evenly divided between the two organizations. The  University Press publishes books and journals; Cambridge Assessment provides examination papers and education assessment training. The Press site already includes the announcement of this merger.

The Press Release announcing the get-together advances this manifestly spurious reason for the change: “The move is in response to a growing desire from learners, teachers and researchers to engage with Cambridge in a joined up digital way, and the demand for innovative products that combine expertise in learning and assessment.” If you know any learners, teachers and researchers yearning for Cambridge books and Cambridge exam papers to come from the same source, I’d be interested to see the evidence. Maybe I’m just too uninformed: after all, Chief Executive of the Press, Peter Phillips, assures us our customers already see us simply as Cambridge, so joining the two organisations is a natural next step that is given added impetus by the rapid changes we are seeing in education and research.”  

Does this mean that the combined organization will be getting into punt hire, pub ownership, and the other essentials of university education? I certainly see having a pint at The Mill after a punting outing as part of the Cambridge experience!

I wonder if there is any potential problem with a single company supplying both national examination papers and the textbooks you need to buy for success in these exams? Dismiss such silly concerns: nobody from Cambridge would ever be anything other that utterly honest and upstanding!

“The need for an integrated approach has been accelerated by the rapid uptake of digital education during the COVID-19 pandemic.” For myself I think that if there’s any real value in that claim it is just because it makes a handy excuse disguising the desire and perhaps need of the University to achieve efficiencies (money savings). Tragically we are living in a world where the winning argument in any discussion of the value of education and culture is always and only money. You know the number 6,000 will be somewhat smaller in a couple of years.

Now a few days later comes an announcement of an internal restructuring of Cambridge University Press. “The Press is looking to restructure its Academic division in response to changing markets, with the number of roles at risk unconfirmed but in excess of 20. The publisher said it hopes to achieve the restructure through voluntary redundancies and by not replacing colleagues who leave. Meanwhile, subject to consultation, a ‘small number’ of roles are also at risk of redundancy in one of its Technology teams.” It is claimed that this development is unrelated to the merger with Cambridge Assessment — As it may well be: one might see schoolbook publishing rather than Academic being affected by arrival of the exam papers. Schoolbook publishing might logically be separated off from the whole as a separate free-standing operation in combination with Assessment. The Academic division — what you and I think of when we think of university presses — one would have thought might be doing OK during the pandemic: after all people have been able to figure out ways to get hold of books. They are however obviously being heavily affected by the move towards digital and open access, and this might reasonably be expected to lead to staff realignment.

The Union (delighted to see we still have a union) is quoted:Keith Sands, Unite branch chair at Cambridge University Press, said in a media statement: ‘We are already in collective redundancy consultations relating to two areas of the business. The news of the Press and Assessment merger comes on top of this, and has created more anxiety for staff. It looks very likely we will see redundancies on top of those we are already seeing. It is disappointing that the management of the press is choosing to push ahead with redundancies while also imposing a disputed pay freeze, and at the same time continuing to pay out high bonuses to selected staff, as we saw this summer. We believe that secure pay and job security should always be a higher priority than bonuses.'” A spokesperson for the Press says: “Some colleagues received a higher bonus for delivering truly exceptional sales that were crucial in helping us to weather the pandemic and so protect jobs.” Nice to get a bonus of course, but bonuses to some must always be of ambiguous justification at a time of redundancies elsewhere in the company.

One is perhaps a bit too readily inclined to greet news like this with wringing of hands. There can, after all, be no organization which can survive without continual change. At the Press’ London office we used to sell the Local Examination Syndicate exam papers: actually publishing them doesn’t seem like too radical a step beyond that. If indeed there really are “synergies” available from the increasing migration of education online, then this could be “a good thing”. The main concern would be any potential damage to the Press’ central traditional mission, of making available scholarship to the widest possible audience. One hopes that the timing of the announcement of changes in the Academic division may be no more that a coincidence.

Good luck to all worried workers.



I just love reading accounts like this of a pretty straightforward career in the book business. The Passive Voice brings us a substantial extract from Lori Hildebrandt’s account of her career and recent layoff, with a link to the original at Publishers Weekly, (which is only a sentence or two longer). Companies come and companies go, and we get to roll with the punches, coming back for more, because that’s the job we just love to do. Ms Hildebrandt, an inside sales rep for a book wholesaler who was laid off recently as a result of coronavirus, writes of her career with such positivity that one can’t imagine her remaining unemployed for long.

Typically dyspeptic, the Passive Voice sneers at the publishing industry for its treatment of Ms Hildebrandt, failing to notice that she has never actually worked in publishing.

When it comes to work, there’s really nothing I can think of that can beat a life spent embedded in the network of relationships with people of good sense and will. This is the experience of anyone who works in the book industry. Over a fifty year career I can, as I’ve written before, think of two or maybe three people who were out and out unpleasant, but I’d go to considerable lengths to chat again with almost everyone I knew in the business. Every day I would learn something new from someone I came into contact with for even a small amount of time: colleagues, suppliers, sales reps, customers, reviewers, authors, bosses even.

Can others say the same? I do think so, though I’m sure lots of us don’t have time to stop and think about it. Well, Ms Hildebrandt is certainly another with my positive attitude. Best of luck to her.

Mike Shatzkin applauds Joe Esposito’s 360º analysis while haring off in a different direction. They neither of them seem be quite clear about what it is they are in fact seeing. This is of course quite natural: we all (myself included) want to talk about what we think is important, not what is actually happening. As if we any of us could really discern “what is actually happening”. Mr Shatzkin assures us “General trade publishing will be soon be recognized as an artifact of a trade that no longer exists.” In other words he thinks bookstores are done for. But who really knows what’ll happen tomorrow?

Maybe in five years we’ll be able to look back and say “in the time of coronavirus this or that is what was actually happening in the book trade”. However I’d bet that the changes we are all exciting ourselves about will turn out to be much less dramatic than we breathlessly anticipate. It’s easy to say all sorts of extravagant things: for them to happen however requires people to actually do them. Maybe in five years when we look at it, we’ll find that many bookstores, having had to close for a time, will have been able to open up again; Barnes & Noble may be going swimmingly; PRH may possibly be publishing fifty percent of the trade books in USA; and lots of new smaller publishing houses will have opened up; and (inevitably) the number of books published will be way up again.

It is true that independent bookstores are in great financial trouble at this time, but people do seems to want bookshops. Shelf Awareness of 28 October brings news of strong support for the Strand’s recent appeal for help:

“The plea last Friday by Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of New York City’s Strand Bookstore, for friends and customers to support the struggling store struck a chord — people lined up at its two stores in Manhattan and generated huge amounts of sales online, the New York Times reported.

On Saturday, there were 10,000 online orders, enough to crash the website. Altogether over the weekend, the Strand received 25,000 online orders, at a time when there would normally be about 600. Sales at the flagship store on Broadway were the highest for any October day ever, and the new Upper West Side store had its best sales day since opening in March. A customer from the Bronx ordered 197 books.”

That same issue of Shelf Awareness links to a letter from Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, asking people to support their local bookstores in Britain. His piece includes a recommendation for, still on schedule to open in the UK in November.

Our government seems unable to decide between relief plans which the one side sees as too generous and the other as too stingy. Settling in the middle doesn’t seem to be an option, and of course the whole thing is tangled up in electoral politics. Do we really have to wait till next year? If so, some of these businesses will have gone under by then. 

A three-piece case has a case cover made out of three pieces of covering material. Most cases are made from a single piece of cloth: see Casemaking. Nowadays the three-piece case has become something of a requirement for trade books.

I suppose it all started as a way of making the product look fancier, while slyly saving cost. Go back forty or fifty years and you’ll find three-piece cases made from two side panels of paper with a spine of cloth in order to provide strength at a shelved book’s weak point, the top of the spine by which it’s always being pulled out. Before that you’d find books with sides made of a cheaper cloth while the spine remained in a stout Buckram cloth: you’d often meet with this style of binding in the world of law books. Go even further back of course and it’s leather we are talking about — see Half bound. With leather you can see how avoiding its use on the side panels would represent a saving. Same with book cloth which costs more than paper though not of course as much as leather. 

Now we’ve arrived at a somewhat cynical spot where we have abandoned any pretense at strengthening the spine panel: we are using paper on the sides and on the spine. Might as well, as far as strength goes, just use one bit of paper rather than three. There’s a set up cost to make a three-piece case, so by putting a paper three-piece case on a book you are raising your total cost as against a one-piece paper case. Now of course the reason for doing things this way no longer has anything to do with strengthening the binding while saving cost. The motivation now is entirely directed toward getting to a “look” which we’ve lead the public to expect without spending any money to do so: it’s all about aesthetics and economy.

Here’s a step to the ultimate logic on three-piece cases — though this is by no means the first book ever to be done this way, but this is a timely one. The Consolation of Nature is a beautiful book about this year’s glorious spring in England (photographed here at the start of autumn in New York). It’s written in diary form by three naturalists living in different parts of southern England. Quite a striking story.

Here you get the look of a three-piece case without having to construct it: it’s all done with ink. That green spine is just part of the print image on the case cover. (The cost of printing the case cover is compensated for by avoiding having to print a jacket.)

Here’s a Publishing Scotland video from YouTube. This was featured at this year’s (virtual) Frankfurt Book Fair, where according to Publishing Perspectives it caused a stir. It does contain some pretty pictures.

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 video presents eight books:

Just like writers in many parts, Scottish authors have been experiencing hardship during the coronavirus crisis. Here, via Publishers Weekly, is news that The Society of Authors and Creative Scotland are distributing £600,000 ($775,000) in hardship grants to help authors in Scotland. 

Take any data set and slice and dice, and you can come up with whatever you want, so of course you shouldn’t put too much weight on this research into generational differences in reading preferences. Even the definition of generations is a variable. Still, The Passive Voice gives us this list of reading preferences by generation which originates at the BookBaby Blog.

  • Gen Z prefers fantasy to other genres.
  • Millennials read more books than other generations.
  • Gen X reads more online news than other generations.
  • Baby Boomers rely on best-seller lists to find their books.
  • The Silent Generation spends the most time reading each day.
  • A preference for physical books spans all generations.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that the silent generation would spend most time reading: after all if you are chatting all the time it’s hard to focus on your book. (Plus of course, more obviously, the silent generation is now the retired generation, so much time is available.)

This information is gleaned from this infographic created by Best By the Numbers.

Photo of Solid State Books in DC from Shelf Awareness

The American Booksellers Association has launched #Boxed Out, an anti-Amazon campaign, designed to encourage people to buy books from their local independent bookstore.

I suppose you’ve got to do something: clearly recent developments have heavily favored mail-order book-buying. But the slogan “Boxed out” seems a bit negative to me. Wouldn’t “Boxed in” have been more positive, and perhaps an even more accurate description of the situation of independent bookstores during the coronavirus pandemic? For quite a time bookstores had to be shut. Now that things have been opening up a little, many bookstores are keeping their heads above water by packing books into boxes and shipping them off to loyal customers. Clearly this is not a business in which they could ever be as efficient as Amazon.

Naturally many in the book business want to resist Amazon and support independent bookstores, but in a way it’s just a matter of substituting one box for another now that we are all buying our books via mail/UPS etc. By wrapping their stores in brown paper the ABA hopes to bring home to people the problem of bypassing your local bookstore. Shelf Awareness links to this story from AP. Publishers Weekly also covers the campaign. AdWeek spoke to the designers: they are the ones who brought us Palessi, a fake Italian boutique a couple of years ago.

I’m always a bit leery about the desire to punish Amazon for being so successful. Any business is bound to have love/hate relationships with its major customers, of course. I think it’s the negativity I don’t like: I too support the idea of not ordering the books I want from Amazon but buying them instead from an independent bookstore — independent bookstores certainly need help after the lockdowns and in the face of on-going caution on the part of their customers. If we really want the independent bookstore to survive we should all resist the easy option of ordering a book from Amazon — they’re unlikely to notice the draft — and provides an easy alternative. Even better though is going direct: many stores have curbside pickup options. Give them a call.

Part of the problem is that Amazon can afford to discount their books. We just have to recognize that there are benefits from keeping independent bookstores going, and it’s worth a little bit extra on your book budget to help fund them. Compared to so many things we buy without a second thought, books are not really that expensive, so forgoing the discount isn’t such a big sacrifice.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize typos. They happen even in the best regulated houses: even our own.

It’s well known, from all of our own experience, that it’s tough to proofread one’s own writing: well, it may actually be all too easy — the hard part is detecting errors. Wired assures us rather flatteringly, “There’s a good reason why we’re so terrible at catching these typing errors, and it has to do with our brains being a little too efficient.” (Link via Mental Floss). Apparently because we are so smart, and our brains are running way ahead of our dumb old bodies, we are always anticipating the right word. Accordingly we run the risk of seeing the right word even though our laggard fingers may actually have typed the wrong one. 

Well, OK. If that makes you feel good, run with it. For my part I suspect it all has a bit more to do with vanity — what I type must be great — but it doesn’t really matter; we tend to have difficulty noticing our own errors. One might note that Autocorrect often gets into the act. Reread slowly, carefully and often. 

In this context, might I direct the reader to a recent exchange of comments with Charles Foster about Susie Dent’s book, Word Perfect? You need to scroll down, since Mr Foster commented at the “Comments” tab, which a few others have done before, so our conversation is quite a way down.

I am conscious of committing a typo or two on this blog. I do read and reread, but stuff slips by. (I just noticed that the second paragraph above began “It’s well know . . . ” No doubt this is a survival from the first version which probably said “We all know”. History shows me I’ve read this piece 23 times already!) Other typos do get by though. Perhaps I can ask frustrated readers to attribute these errors to the fact that my brain is super-efficient, not to any carelessness or lack of attention on my part!

See also Proofing.

I never really liked yapp edges, those overlapping floppy, flappy edges to a leather bound book, often a bible. Here’s a picture of my father’s prayer book, showing its creaky yapp edges. You can see a hole in the leather at the left. (I did a post about this book five years ago.) These flaps are semi yapps; full yapps would pretty much join when folded across the book’s bulk. 

John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors tells us:

“Yapp, so called after the London bookseller who invented it about 1860*, is a style of binding (usually in leather, often limp) with overlapping edges or flaps on all three edges. Hence, yapp edges, meaning the flaps. The yapp style (no relation to the overlapping fore-edges of limp-vellum-bound books of the 16th and 17th centuries) is mostly used for books of devotion, slim volumes of verse printed for private circulation, ‘tasteful’ reprints of the RubáiyátPoems of PassionSonnets from the Portuguese, etc. The American term for this style (according to The Bookman’s Glossary) is divinity circuit or circuit edges.”

I always liked to imagine that it was the sight of yapp edges that put into the mind of some inventive Cambridge bible guy the idea of bibles with zippers. The zippered bible was patented by Cambridge University Press in 1933. The CUP blog tells the tale.

I have posted about the zip bible before.


* Etherington & Roberts (see “Print glossaries” tab) give Mr Yapp’s first name as William.

Maybe I’m just not looking at it in the right way, but I don’t see why a Bertelsmann bid for Simon & Schuster would represent anything more significant than even greater size for the world’s biggest trade publishing conglomerate. Joseph Esposito at The Scholarly Kitchen seems to see the strengthening PRH Publisher Services as the motive for such an acquisition.

Now providing services — sales, warehousing, distribution, and supporting analytics — has I think generally been regarded as a smart way to amortize your costs for providing these services to your own publishing company or companies. Publishers have been doing this sort of thing for years. When I started out in the business in 1965 we were providing exactly these services in London to the University of California Press and Melbourne University Press. If you’re going to fund back-office operations and a warehouse, why not get help from a few other publishers by doing back-office and warehousing work for them?

It is however a little surprising to find this sort of business being looked on as its own profit center motivating a possible takeover. But I guess the service-providing publisher will charge enough to cover their costs plus a bit more. You just have to pitch your charges at a point below the cost to an independent publishing house of providing these services on their own, and you’re off to the races. In principal there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have one vast publishing services operation with lots of little editorial companies feeding product into the machine. Maybe the very success of the current regime of working from home will end up making the splitting up of the book business into this sort of structure more likely.

Mr Esposito tells us that a “360° company is one whose strategy looks and reaches in all directions”. I find this a bit hard to visualize. The concept of the 360º company seems to have originated with a book by Sarah Kaplan, with that title, which was published last year by Stanford University Press. However Professor Kaplan seems to see the 360º company as one which is set up in opposition to “Milton Friedman’s dictum that ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits’” — so a company which takes into account the needs of its workers, suppliers, customers, neighbors in addition to those of its shareholders. Mr Esposito apparently wants it to be a company which seeks to control its entire environment. So upstream: authors and agents beware. (He doesn’t promote that age-old upstream junction: owning your own printing plant!) Downstream: maybe we’ll be negotiating smaller discounts to bookstores. And a bit vaguely, left and right, we’ll be taking over the publishing functions for all the other publishers.

Sounds a bit like an update of the rallying cry of “synergy” which was all the rage at the end of the last century when I worked for a company owned by Viacom, thus linked to Simon & Schuster, and apparently in position to benefit from all the television programming and movies our parent controlled. The only effect I ever noticed was that we had a television set in every conference room which came in handy when there was a day game in a World Series involving the Yankees.

Mr Esposito informs us that “It is axiomatic in the publishing industry that you can unbundle everything except for editorial.” Axiom makes it sound like we are always saying this as we gather at the water cooler: we don’t. But I think we are all alive to the possibility that our jobs could be outsourced: which may be a potent force in keeping pay rates down. Publishing service offerings already include production and manufacturing, so you could really start your publishing company with a single employee, the editor. Of course this might sound a lot like self publishing. However, a big organization like Ingram or PRHPS is not going to be too eager to sign up a “publisher” with a single title on their “list”. But there are of course smaller operations in town, even down to the individual freelance worker.

One reason for buying S&S, Mr Esposito hints, might be to head off Amazon or Ingram. I guess that might make sense. They both provide publishing services, Ingram more extensively as far as the trade is concerned than Amazon. I keep arguing that book publishing wants to be small-scale, but events do constantly seem work in the opposite direction. Could both positions be correct? Maybe that’s the true answer: trade publishing wants to get bigger, 360º, while academic and specialist publishing seeks to get smaller, like a 15º company. Under  such a regime 360º companies would execute all the centralizable functions that PRH Services provide, while little editorial driven 15º companies thrive and multiply, paying the likes of PRHPS for services.