Archives for the month of: January, 2021

Why do books usually have prices printed on them? Most items don’t. Janet Nguyen at Marketplace has a go at explaining this. Thanks to Daniel Pereira at the SHARP listserv for this link.

I would have assumed that the Net Book Agreement, starting in 1900, would have had something to do with this, but Ms Nguyen shows us a book jacket from 1830 with a price printed on it, and a few minutes thought makes you aware that the practice of printing prices on books started well before the twentieth century. The Net Book Agreement does indeed have something to do with the matter, but in a retrospective mode, codifying established practice, rather than making any changes. Books had prices printed on them because the publisher wanted (was able) to control the pricing decision.

Today we can express surprise about a product with a price printed on it because most of the items we buy in supermarkets and drug stores don’t. But these kinds of retail store are a quite recent development. When I was a child I can remember going into the grocer’s shop where they’d dig out a slab of butter from a cask, pat it square between two wooden boards, wrap it in greaseproof paper, weigh it, and calculate the price you’d pay. And so it went with flour, sugar, tea, raisins, rice whatever. Here the grocer was setting his own prices: he knew what he paid for a cask of butter, and worked out the margin he’d need to make to pay rent, staff, insurance and so on.

Bookstores originally didn’t exist. If you wanted a book you’d go to the printer, who’d probably have a sort of showroom out front. There you’d buy a set of sheets which you’d take to your bookbinder to have bound up for you. Straightforward: the printer set the price. This way of business was well established when in the first half of the nineteenth century the first independent bookshops began to appear. Many of these grew out of agencies which the big printers had set up in outlying cities, and they inherited a trading format which was already well established. They bought at a discount off the price set, as always before, by the printer/publisher.

Because the publisher (and in the early days of the trade this tended to be synonymous with printer and with bookseller) set the price, it would seem an obvious step just to print the price on the book, rather than to have constantly to answer customer enquiries. Inflation is a twentieth century invention, and in the Victorian trade if you printed 12 shillings on a book, 12 shillings would be the “right” price for the lifetime of your inventory. In this example we see the pricing confidence extend into the printing of the text: here is the opening page of a volume I’ve written about before, confidently telling you how much you’ll pay for the next George Eliot book you buy.

In the late twentieth century we learned that printing prices in the text of a book was crazy, while even putting it on the jacket was risky, as inflation might make you have to increase your prices almost as soon as the book was published. Thus we invented stickering. Now it is simpler to deal with the issue, partly because inflation has cooled down, but also because at each printing, our inventory management systems make us print more cautiously if more frequently.

So we print prices on books because publishers want everyone to know that we set the price. As you all know retailers are at liberty to offer customers a discount. But what the publisher (and by extension the author) receives for each copy remains constant.

See also Prices on covers.

When I wrote about the serialized novel in 2015, I was focussing on printing books in chapter lots. I wasn’t thinking that there was going to be an app designed to deliver books to you in 20 minute segments. Mashable, via The Digital Reader, now tells us about Serial Reader. Once we get back to commuting, this sort of episode-based reading might well be attractive. If you have a twenty-minute journey maybe this service would fit the bill, though most people’s commutes are I suspect longer than that — and then you’ve got the journey home too. Still I guess I could see reading a book one way on the subway every morning without getting too impatient for the next installment.

Publishing books in installments has of course got a long history, but we keep discussing it as if it was a gift brought to us by the wonders of the internet. See for instance Wired‘s article about Serial Box, an audiobook equivalent, delivered via Book Business Magazine. Do we not remember that Dickens’ novels were published in weekly installments, as was The Turn of the Screw (in Colliers Weekly)? Just because we do things one way now, doesn’t mean we were unable to figure out other ways in the past.

A year ago, when coronavirus was just something we’d heard about happening in Wuhan, we were already wondering about capacity issues in book manufacturing. The business has been undergoing radical changes for decades, and the problems were coming to a head with plant closures and paper shortages.

Then on top of this came coronavirus lockdowns, and for a minute it looked like the whole shebang might fall apart: if there were to be no books to manufacture, then there’d be no manufacturers of books left. But not so fast: although publishers initially delayed a lot of books, after a short time we found out that we were actually able to keep on selling books despite all the problems we were facing. There were a few minutes there where States scratched their heads as to whether printing books was in fact “essential” or not, but that went away as we slid by on the basis that printing many things was obviously essential and it was deemed a good idea to allow all printers to keep on going in to work.

The book manufacturing industry could be said to be “suffering” from three interrelated long-term shifts —

  • a sharp reduction in print runs. Over the last five or ten years publishers have finally figured out (and print technology has enabled them) that printing fewer than a life-time’s supply of a book might not be altogether crazy. Demand planning and supply chain management are no longer just topics in books we publish. We are now reading those books.
  • a reduction in paper making capacity for book papers. You can probably make more money off making a less demanding grade of paper than book paper. Investments in paper making are immense, and tend to fall into cycles which lag the business cycle by a year or two. There are many fewer book paper manufacturers nowadays than when I started out in the business.
  • a technological changeover to digital from offset lithography. Just as lithography represents a productivity boost as against letterpress, so digital takes productivity further. But if you have a plant full of offset presses, you do face a difficult set of investment choices. Any technological change will take years to work its way through the industry as people continue to make money using fully-amortized “old” equipment.

I suspect there’s a pretty direct connection between these trends and the problems which have assailed LSC and Quad Graphics. In crude terms you could argue that such mega-companies were predicated on a regular supply of large print orders from big publishers. Obviously books like the Obama volumes still attract long print runs, but more and more books are being printed in shorter runs with more frequent reprints. Add to that the ease with which a publisher can now change printers: with a digital file as the start point for a printing, the up-front work on any printing is much simplified, and can in principle be done by any company. So if printer A who did the first printing can’t give you a good schedule, then off you go printer B. In the olden days, moving flats was a nightmare. Plants set up for the old dispensation of fewer and bigger printings are challenged.

One big change which coronavirus has brought about is a difference in the way a book is scaled out to the trade. Used to be you’d want to have stacks of books in every bookshop in the world on the day when you finally declared the book published. Doesn’t happen any more (at least not to the same degree) — if there aren’t crowds wandering into stores what’s the point of having piles of books there for them? Online ordering falls into a different pattern — perhaps not one we can define too precisely just yet. This must have a knock-on effect on the book manufacturers as demand for the product is extended over a longer timeframe. Further evidence of this change in sales patterns is provided by the frequent expressions of surprise at the greater and greater importance of back list sales.

Now there are those who believe that 2020-1 will represent the death knell of the print book. Such Jeremiahs will always leap to their favored conclusion. However I think what we have seen over the last year is just how  far people are willing to go to get a physical volume despite all the barriers social distancing impose. I hope I’m not guilty of leaping to my favored conclusion when I suggest that this scarcely seems evidence of people finally concluding that ebooks are the only way in which books should be supplied.

Printing Impressions has an article with the thoughts of four book manufacturers.

In 2015 I held forth on this topic.

Trinity College Library has a copy of Lexicon Alchemiae (1612) from Sir Isaac Newton’s collection. Examination of the book revealed some pretty extensive insect damage.

Their blog has a description of the steps taken in making this book look almost new: well, look more like an undamaged old book. Painstakingly cut-out pieces of paper were inserted into the holes left by the beetles. It’s interesting to note that restoration doesn’t go as far as inking in the missing type eaten by the bugs. Please check out the post: it’s a fascinating story.

Books aren’t the only Newtoniana they’e got at Trinity. They have an apple tree too: not the very one, but a graft from the actual Flower of Kent apple tree Newton would have sat under when gravity hit him in the head. Atlas Obscura has a brief piece about it.

To mark Burns’ night here’s a game from The Scottish Book Trust, via Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I’m always saying nobody outside America calls him Rabbie, but I guess I’m hereby proved wrong!

Two of Charles Darwin’s 1837 notebooks are missing from Cambridge University Library. They’ve actually been missing since 2001, but only now has the Library decided they must have been stolen. This has been reported to the Cambridgeshire police. The University Librarian asks us all to fess up if we have any information.

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

Needless to say the library continues to search for the missing books. They’ve got a lot of places in which to look. “Overall, the University Library is home to more than 210km (130 miles) of shelving, roughly the distance by road from Cambridge to Southampton.” Their Ely back office has another 65-miles-worth.

Before they went missing the two notebooks had been digitized. You can examine them here: (Notebook B and Notebook C). Thus not all is lost: nice to have the real things back though.

There’s a bit of a thematic connection here to last week’s post, E-library?

LATER: It is reported today, 5 April 2022, that the notebooks have been anonymously returned to the library. They are in good condition, so have obviously been carefully handled. The library plans to put them on display in July.

The Los Angeles Times tells us 250 writers, professors, agents and publishers have signed a letter seeking to have publishers refuse to publish books written by the ex-president or members of his administration.

Now I can object to stuff just as much as the next person, but just because I don’t agree with something doesn’t mean I have any business trying to suppress it. The best defense against bad arguments is always more and better argument. I always think appeals of this sort are more about the originators wanting us to know how good and honest they are, rather than any attempt to protect our innocent minds. I really don’t believe that reading a Pompeo puff or a Barr bombshell is going to damage my sensibilities, and the more I think about it the more I resent some do-gooders trying to save me from such a fate. Yes, yes — we all understand that you didn’t like the last four years: but just forgetting all about them isn’t an option. Frankly I think the more we find out, the better.

It’s a bit tortuous to argue that Son of Sam laws* apply here. When (and if) the ex-president or members of his administration are convicted of a crime, that might be more appropriate. Not allowing criminals to profit from their crimes by writing about them (and making money from that writing) is an understandable response, but is of questionable utility (and no doubt legality). Moreover I can think of lots of books by criminals which we’d all like to read. For instance an inside account of the “organization” which went into the insurrection on 6 January would be fascinating.

Is there any point in asking publishers to turn up an opportunity to make money off controversy? The letter vapors “our country is where it is in part because publishing has chased the money and notoriety of some pretty sketchy people” which is of course utter nonsense. I doubt if there are any book publishers sitting there regretting that the attempted coup failed. But just because they disapprove of promoting lies about an election and encouraging rioting doesn’t mean any publisher would refuse to publish anyone associated with the encourager in chief. Don’t we need to understand? Such a letter, in other words, is unlikely to cut much mustard. And besides, publishers come in all colors and shapes — even if compliance with this letter were to be gained among all the big trade houses, there are still hundreds and hundreds of smaller houses and indie publishers who will be happy to snap up scraps from the top table. Witness last week’s decision by Regnery Publishing to take on Senator Hawley’s book after S&S refused. (Regnery, ironically, is distributed overseas by Simon & Schuster, so having gotten out of it, they’re now back in it.) Also relevant here is the Apropos of Nothing saga discussed in my post Middle man. Arcade published Woody Allen’s memoir which Hachette had pulped.

At the other end of the telescope, those irredeemably “liberal” publishers are falling over themselves to sign up youthful Biden acolytes.

See also Prior restraint = no restraint?


* Son of Sam laws are laws designed to keep criminals from profiting from their crimes, for example by selling their stories to the newspapers or publishers. The class of laws takes its name from serial killer David Berkowitz, who used the moniker “Son of Sam” during his murder spree in mid-1970s New York. The Supreme Court has ruled the original New York State law unconstitutional, as a denial of free speech rights.

American Libraries Magazine brings us a brief report (via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.): “Overdrive reports that libraries all over the world collectively loaned more than 289 million ebooks in 2020, a 40% increase from 2019. Audiobooks also gained last year, but not as much as ebooks because people were commuting less. The report says 138 million audiobooks were checked out in 2020, a 20% increase from 2019.”

Now let us not be beguiled into over-interpreting this information, either as evidence of digital triumph or as presaging the death of print. Remember that most libraries were shut for most of the past year, and the library borrowing of physical books, in so far as it was allowed to take place, was hedged about with all sorts of restrictions. Thus we would expect people to have increased their borrowing of ebooks: it was just so much easier than getting hold of a printed library book. It does seem that reading qua reading had a bumper year in 2020 as we all looked around for things to do while stuck at home.

Whether this “preference” for ebooks will turn into a permanent change of behavior remains to be seen. No reason to fear such an outcome however — publishers are in the business of facilitating reading after all. And librarians always have storage problems for all those print books. Still, for myself, I suspect things will revert to the norm when we are all liberated.

It is true of course that book publishers are still feeling our way forward on the “right” terms under which they should supply ebooks to libraries. We can work it out.

The Wine Society advises us that RLS called wine “bottled poetry”. They provide a few literary wine references. No doubt you can come up with others.

“Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.”
Paulo CoelhoBrida

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

“Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil, and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current be felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me.”
Marguerite YourcenarMemoirs of Hadrian

“The fragrant odour of the wine, O how much more dainty, pleasant, laughing (Riant, priant, friant.), celestial and delicious it is, than that smell of oil! And I will glory as much when it is said of me, that I have spent more on wine than oil, as did Demosthenes, when it was told him, that his expense on oil was greater than on wine.”
François RabelaisGargantua & Pantagruel

“I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his.”
Evelyn WaughBrideshead Revisited

‘A Drinking Song’
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
W.B. Yeats

“. . . There’s wisdom in wine, goddam it!’ I yelled. ‘Have a shot!’”
Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I often wondered what Hippocrene was — though clearly not enough to look it up: it would appear that the dull brain perplexes and retards in this context too. (It’s actually a spring on Mount Helicon, sacred apparently to the muses.)

O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.

As far as I can discover Hippocrene doesn’t actually bubble forth in the form of red wine as Keats seems to imply.

If you want to get in on this book/wine, wine/book thing, maybe you (if female) could join the Book & Wine Club. They say they have groups in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh, and Toronto. I would imagine their activities are a bit restricted just now though.

This site might be good as a quizzy pastime, as well as a way to generate suggestions of different new books to read. Recommend me a book invites you to read the first page of a book and then guess what book it is. You can go on and on.

Actually I do think reading the first page is good way to recognize a book you might want to read. (I found a couple.) In dealing with the pile of manuscripts which would come in over the transom publishers often/usually would make their assessment on the basis of the first sentence — if it doesn’t make you want to read on, you don’t. If it does, you’d next look at the last page. Attention piqued? Back to page one and start in again.

Link via Book Riot.