Archives for the month of: December, 2020

The CASE Act (Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act) has been lurking around Congress for years. Publishing Perspectives reported on the bill’s passing the house last year. Since then it has been waiting for our do-nothing Senate leader Mitch McConnell to permit a vote on it. Publishers Weekly tells us that the CASE Act was slipped into the latest Coronavirus relief bill, now awaiting signature at the White House. Let’s hope McConnell doesn’t read PW — we can safely assume the president won’t.

No sooner had I written the previous paragraph than the president weighed in, characteristically chaotically, not at the eleventh hour, more like the 13th, demanding changes to the Coronavirus relief bill which McConnell isn’t inclined to provide. So I held off on writing any more until clarity emerged. After creating his little bit of turmoil the president has of course now signed the bill, and Copyright small-claims are finally on their way.

The CASE Act would establish a Copyright Claims Board within the Copyright Office. This Board would act as a mediator on smaller copyright claims replacing the need for a federal court for copyright infringement cases. This panel would be made up of three members of the Copyright Office and two copyright lawyers. For registered copyright works the maximum statutory damages would be $15,000 per work and $30,000 per claim. Copyright works which are not registered are eligible for half these amounts. The Board may also issue cease and desist notices.

The CASE Act includes a provision that would  make illegal streaming a felony. Last October Boing Boing warned us about the potential downside of the legislation. One can see how big money companies should be reined in. But I wonder whether there’ll be implications for little fish like me though. There does seem often to be a tendency for small fry to be caught in nets spread for the big guys who can escape by legal delaying tactics. What really constitutes illegal streaming? I’m inclined to wait with fingers crossed to see whether linking and copying is ultimately OK or not for a small blog.


There’s been a little to-ing-and-fro-ing at the SHARP* listserv about what name we might have had for a mimeograph stencil partly created by hand. Not everything has to have a name does it? Of course some fairly obscure items are so blessed: for years I’ve been wondering why our language feels a need for the word “merkin” for instance. A mimeograph stencil partly created by hand is, I fear, only to be spoken of as a mimeograph stencil partly created by hand.

A patent for a mimeograph machine was granted to A. B. Dick Company of Chicago around 1887 based upon Edison’s earlier patent for a simpler pen-driven duplicator. Once upon a time if you worked in an office you would have been familiar with the mimeograph machine, sometimes called a Roneo, or Gestetner. If the boss wanted to tell everyone something, a typist would type the news onto a mimeograph stencil, having raised the typewriter ribbon out of the way. This would remove the waxy stencil coating and expose the permeable fabric carrier layer beneath. The secretary would then run off a copy for everyone by putting the cut stencil through the mimeograph printer where ink, often strangely purple, would be squeezed through the letter outlines to create multiple copies. Diagrams could theoretically be added by hand using a stylus, and even a signature — though in my experience signatures were not appended — once he’d dictated it the boss no doubt washed his hands of the whole potentially messy thing. According to Britannica up to 5,000 copies could be run off from a single stencil, though the more copies you ran the more likely it was that the counters of lower-case a, b, d, e etc. would fill in as the stencil edges deteriorated.

A related duplication method was the spirit duplicator (e.g. Ditto). This didn’t involve a separate ink: the master consisted of a double sheet, the first of which was typed on which removed the waxy ink coating on the second sheet and transferred it to the back of the first sheet by the keystroke’s pressure. It’s a bit like putting a carbon paper into a typewriter back-to-front. The second sheet would then be taken off and the back of the first sheet, carrying the waxy reversed image, would be used to run off duplicate copies by placing clean sheets of paper against it and applying pressure. They usually produced a purple image, and had of course a fairly limited life.

I recently discovered half of a mimeograph memo about 1968 vacation days. (Maybe it’s a sprit master job, though I think their image tended to fade.) This little memo lives in my 3-volume War and Peace where for forty plus years it has been serving as a bookmark. JLL was Jimmy Laidler, and WS Bill Starling, Bentley House Office Manager and Warehouse Manager respectively. Looks like I was getting my birthday off that year!

See also Hectograph for a closely related process.


* Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing.

For the past couple of months I’ve been seeing these initials — and reading them as RLS — as if they referred to Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact the Royal Society of Literature is celebrating itself.

They’ve been at it for 200 years, with, it seems to me, a fairly low profile. The Society was founded in 1820, by King George IV, to “reward literary merit and excite literary talent”. They seem to be trying to generate a bit of excitement late in their year of celebration.

The Bookseller has a substantial report on events marking their anniversary.

Here from a couple of years back is what the Society themselves describe as a trailer:

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 Society is dependent on charity and patronage but does offer memberships to the public at £60 a year. They publish an annual journal The Royal Society of Literature Review. I believe the recent flurry of attention late in their bicentenary year is the result of their recently appointing a largish number of Fellows, though the real reason may be as simple as their having achieved a more successful publicity operation.

Am I being a disloyal subject of Her Britannic Majesty if I confess that to me RLS is a lot more interesting than RSL? Not too many authors are known by initials only — HD is the only one who comes to mind. (Amazingly Wikipedia has a page of authors who are known by initials — but they mean initials in place of given names). I suspect RLS gets the initial-only treatment because otherwise, and I must confess he is more generally known this way, as Robert Louis Stevenson, he becomes a bit of a mouthful. The list shows me that R. L. Stine shares these initials: maybe teenage boys refer to him as RLS too? JFK was of course an author, but his initialization no doubt occurred for other reasons.

In the office we used to be referred to by initials. I suppose this was because our “literary output” — memos — would be signed by initials only. (OK; that is a little circular.) RJH is maybe a bit more intimate than Mr Hollick, while not as presumptuous as Richard. The school/college form of address of surname only was of course available but this form tended to be reserved for interaction with authors/academics.

Lewis Mitchell died earlier this year. He retired from M&H Type (part of the Arion Press set up in the Presidio, San Francisco) in 2014, the year before I visited the Press.

Type casting is the business end of hot metal typesetting: it’s the part where a squirt of molten metal is injected into a mould to create a sort, a piece of type. Mr Mitchell ran the machines that did this at the M&H foundry for many years.

Here Mr Mitchell walks you through the process in a City Exposed video:

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

As a reminder: there are three aspects of hot metal typesetting: keyboarding, creating the type, and arranging the type in the proper order. With hand setting you get lots of little bits of type which someone else has cast for you, and then select in the correct order the letters called for by the copy. Mechanization of hot metal typesetting took two broadly different directions. Monotype chose to keyboard the entire work onto a roll of punched tape, and then rerun it though a casting/setting machine which would output the entire job in individual characters arranged in lines of predetermined length. Linotype integrated things a bit more having the keyboard operator sit at the same machine that cast the letters into lines of characters, not individual letters. You could make a Monotype caster output all the same character, as no doubt Mr Mitchell often did at M&H as part of their foundry business supplying type fonts to other printer customers.

Here’s a box for you to open on Boxing Day. This quiz seems almost impossible to me — I obviously don’t live in the right literary world — but good luck with The Guardian‘s Can You Crack It? Bumper Book Quiz of 2020.

For those for whom December 26th isn’t actually called Boxing Day, maybe a small explanation is in order. It’ll have to be small as nobody seems to know how the term originated. We used to be told it was the day you’d take your Christmas gift haul to show off to your neighbors — a pretty awful idea which thankfully never happened. The Oxford English Dictionary, which we would tend to trust above most sources, says it is “The first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box”, which sounds reasonable, though I never knew anyone, on either end of such a transaction, who behaved thus. The OED‘s earliest quote mentioning Boxing Day is from 1833, narrowly pipping the granddaddy of Christmas, Charles Dickens, to the post: he first got it out in Pickwick Papers in 1837.

But of course the OED definition means that today isn’t actually Boxing Day at all — we’d need to wait till Monday this year. Confusion reigns, as I’m told that the UK government has decreed that various places (e.g. Cambridge) will go into Tier Four lockdown at the end of Boxing Day. What’s a social animal to do? Of course I suppose it is possible that Saturday is really a week-day in the world of utterly unconfused lawmakers.

A new concierge service introduced by New York Public library. Tell them what your interested in and they’ll recommend five books. This is the sort of thing libraries should be doing in a world where their regular customers are unable to visit them.

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

Here NYPL solicits our donations to help with this service. And for those who want to know, here they reveal their top ten checkouts for the year almost done with.

For myself I’m not in love with the idea of online recommendation sites: especially for books to read — my problem tends to be having too many books in the “read-me-next” pile, not too few. However, I guess I’d feel better about advice from NYPL or National Public Radio the US attempt to mimic BBC radio. Here’s the NPR 2020 Book Concierge offering.

They explain the rationale behind their year-end book selector at their website. You can select from 33 different categories, narrowing the search by layering a second and third category on top of your first, till you get to the ideal book for you. Well, that’s the theory anyway. See how it goes for you. They’ve been providing this service since 2013, and you can access these previous years’ data at the same link. There are buttons allowing you to purchase the books at Amazon or IndieBound, as well as a link to your local library.

See also Curation.

Although they use a “western” QWERTY keyboard for their computers there are people in-putting Chinese characters who are actually able to type much faster than those for whom the keyboard was designed. This represents an incredible turnaround. When computers first arrived in China they appeared to present an overwhelming challenge to the very existence of Chinese script. No way could you get 70,000 characters onto a keyboard with space for about 70. Clearly getting the efficiencies offered by computers would involve adopting an alphabet, wouldn’t it?

To avoid this loss of heritage, the key turned out to be to “spell Chinese characters, not by sound, but by shape”. Professor Wang Yongmin broke the structure of Chinese characters down into 125 elements. Think of early mobile phones with numbers-only keypads on which you could access letters by hitting each number key once, twice, thrice and selecting the letter you wanted when it was displayed — using this technique for all the keys on the QWERTY keyboard Professor Wang managed to create a working computer QWERTY keyboard for his 125 Chinese character elements: select the first element you need for the character you require, then move on to the second element and so on. He demo-ed his keyboard at the UN in 1984, to general incredulity.

One consequence of this method is that different people can use different keys to carry different information based upon their speciality. Chinese QWERTY keyboards, many of which don’t even have any symbols on them, can be and are programmed in a variety of different layouts. Predictive text and auto completion arrived on Chinese computers before we got them — when you type a text message or do a Google search, you get these prompts suggesting to you what word the computer thinks you’re trying to type, and even the next word which you’ll come up with. A bit annoying perhaps, like the related Auto-correct “service”, but an efficient use of artificial intelligence. They were already doing this in China in the 1980s: key in a bit of a character shape, and the machine will suggest how you might want to complete it. Select the correct suggested target and Bob’s your uncle.

By the 1990s the Chinese government had decreed a move to Pinyin transliteration of Chinese, and many computer keyboards now work using Pinyin. However lots of people are still using the Chinese character keyboard — which is more universal than the Pinyin one. Pinyin which is a transliteration of sounds, will look different in different dialects. These dialects/languages use the same script system but pronounce the characters differently, so output from a keyboard with character generation will look the same all across the country, where Pinyin-generated text may be regionally incomprehensible. Another of script input’s big advantages turns out, paradoxically, to be speed. Using the multiple-elements-per-key technology allied to autocompletion and predictive suggestion has resulted in a typist being able to “type” 244 characters/words per minute at a 2016 input contest in Beijing. An extraordinary typist in English can get to 100wpm.

National Public Radio’s Radiolab program tells the story at The Wubi Effect. You can listen to the broadcast there, or, via a tab, go to a transcript of the program.

Do we have to make some allowance in such typing speed trials for the fact that many Chinese words are represented by a single character, whereas the average length of an English word is 4.7 characters? Some maybe, but probably not all that much since the characters are of course the problem: they’re rather complex, and probably more complex than that average 4.7 letter long word.

I wonder if speed is sufficiently important for us to try to emulate the Chinese by coming up with a more efficient method of keyboard entry. We know that when we read rapidly we are tending to recognize word-shapes rather than the individual letters which make up the word. Just because we have an alphabet doesn’t have to mean that the alphabet is the best way to reach any reading or writing destination, does it? But do we need to tread carefully? If you just use predictive text you might go fast, but would you be typing what you wanted or what the cloud thought you should want to say?

See also Setting Chinese, and Chinese typewriter.

The unit cost, the cost of manufacturing a single copy of a book, consists of two elements: the fixed costs and the variable, running costs.

Fixed costs

The fixed costs are those that you incur whether you print one copy or one million. These include typesetting, copyediting, design, permissions fees for quotations and illustrations, drawing interior and cover art, proofreading, making an index, printing ARCs. Printer origination, including file manipulation, platemaking and press makeready, might be included here (it is invariable). However it is often just left as part of the printing cost, which makes up the running cost along with paper, binding, jacketing, cartoning, and, if it is included in unit cost rather than overhead as it usually is, the cost of shipping to the warehouse. Once your book is on press you begin incurring running costs — the cost of presswork, paper, binding etc.

Running costs

Running costs when looked at per copy are relatively small — little quarters and dimes running along to the printer’s bank account — whereas that wad of Benjamins representing the fixed costs always looks pretty significant. The economics of book manufacturing mandate that the longer the machines run the lower the cost per copy, and it is this mechanical and marketing quirk which tempts publishers to run more and more copies in order to bring their unit costs down. This is of course a mathematical illusion. If you run a million copies your running cost will indeed be less per copy than if you print a thousand — but it doesn’t take an Einstein to recognize that you’ll have spent more money. If you never sell those 999,000 additional copies — problem!

The really important numbers in book publishing are

  1. the ideal retail price and
  2. the number of copies you can expect to sell.

The unit cost — the cost of making each single copy, the running cost added to the fixed costs divided by print run — is however the number which has acquired an overwhelming importance in the minds of book publishers. I personally think this is because the really important numbers are very difficult to calculate (maybe impossible to calculate), so publishers indulge in unit cost manipulations as a sort of displacement activity in order to make themselves look like they are being rational and scientific about things — thus disguising the fact that they are ultimately just going on hunches about the really important numbers.

Of course the amount you pay to manufacture your books is an important factor in your business. This is best taken care of by a forceful negotiation with your suppliers over a contract covering an extended period. If your price picture is X, doing endless estimates involving different quantities just wastes time as the answer is always going to be a function of X. Of course, the more copies you print, the lower your unit cost will be. This means that doing endless unit cost calculations, solving for different unit costs will cause unit cost to look vitally important. However, apart from wasting a lot of time, these calculations can only have one result, which is to make you decide to print more and more copies. We all know that printing more copies than you can sell is the high road to Queer Street: tie all of your capital up in unsold inventory, and insolvency is just around the corner. Excessive costing is dangerous to corporate health.

Do they do this every year and I’ve just not noticed before? Whatever: Publishers Weekly has nominated a 2020 person of the year — and, the winner is . . . “The most important people in the book business in 2020 are not the powerhouse agents or the megabestselling authors or the Big Five CEOs. They are the booksellers, debut and midlist authors, editors, librarians, printers, publicists, sales representatives, and warehouse workers, to mention just a few—the workers, who have been the most important people in the business all along.”

Admire the depiction (PW‘s illustration is by Madeline Gobbo) of us all toiling away in the depths of the underground, mining books from recalcitrant deposits. I guess the folks decorating the tree are the sales and marketing staff; though if the picture actually shows the tree being undecorated, then they must be the ultimate book-buying customers. Nice for the diggers to be recognized, but don’t these working conditions need looking at? Makes you think of the opening of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland “The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree”.

Personally I think the ones who really deserve the accolade are the warehouse workers. (It’s true they are included; I think that must be them below that top lefthand root, decked out in white hazmat suits.) Office staff got to work from home — which has been such a success we may never go back 100% to the status quo ante — and this might be looked on as a sort of pay bonus — no commuting (time or cost), no restaurant meals for lunch, no cleaner bills for your office-wear, but yet your regular salary. Warehouse staff have had to battle their way, often via public transport, to the same old coalface in times when just turning up could put people at risk. They‘re not going to get paid if they stay safe at home! Warehouse workers kept at it and got so many books out the door that publishing has been having a banner year. We find out who our essential workers are in such times of stress.

The Economist brings the news that IKEA have decided to stop distributing their printed catalog. They used to distribute 200 million copies of their book in 32 languages. A nice print order! They’ve been printing a catalog for seventy years but will now rely on online services, though their website does offer a printed copy to those who request one, so clearly some printing will be done. Their online service is pretty good — see the video at my 2014 post Alternative reality is coming closer.

Other retailers abandoning print include Argos whose catalog, a staple of Christmas, was once, The Economist tells us “Europe’s most widely printed publication, vying with the Bible for the title of most-read book in Britain.”

The grand-daddy of them all, the Sears catalog, was however last printed in 1993.

Sears Roebuck helped make the wild west a lot less wild, capitalizing on the growth of the railroad network and the establishment of rural free delivery of mail. Sears mailed their first printed adverts in 1888 when still named The R. W. Sears Watch Company. Their first general catalog dates from 1894. The company provides an exhaustive record at its archive. The Economist‘s 1843 magazine has recently published an article (this may be paywalled) about Sears and their catalog which reveals that Sears even sold a build-your-own house kit, which they assured customers could be assembled in less than 90 days! Eventually they offered 447 different models. IKEA take note.

The first phone book, that other relic of gigantism in print, was in fact a single sheet issued in 1878 listing the numbers of the 50 phone suscribers in New Haven, CT.. The first general phone directory was published in Britain in 1880. The Reuben H. Donnelley Company claims to have printed the first classified directory (yellow pages) in Chicago in 1896. The good times have however ceased to roll, as have the presses feeding them. Verizon suspended delivery of phone books in New York City in 2016, and most other cities have banned them now. Nobody’s noticed — cell phone numbers weren’t included.

The telephone directory has left its mark on our industry. In 1938 AT&T commissioned a new typeface, Bell Gothic, designed for legibility in small sizes when printed on newsprint. Perhaps not the most elegant typeface available, but available it is. Bell Gothic was replaced in 1978 by Bell Centennial, designed by Matthew Carter. The design increased the x-height of lowercase characters, slightly condensed the character width, and gave many characters larger bowls, so it would perform even better in directories.

Coronavirus has accelerated several trends which were already under way. These changes to online search should all free up a bit of print capacity — or to put it another way, will no doubt lead to a number of bankruptcies in the printing industry.