Archives for the month of: February, 2021

LitHub brings this quiz involving recognizing quotations from 100 works. Their headline describes them as “the 100 most famous passages in literature”. OK. Many of them no doubt are, but the definition of famous may have to wander about a little for this to be really so across the entire one hundred. Each no doubt is famous in its own line.

Appears to be on 4th of March this year despite what Google may tell you.

Wait for it: only a few days now. Meanwhile visit their site which tells you how to get books for a £.

This is a UK celebration despite the title, so don’t go breaking coronavirus restrictions in California hoping to join in the festivities. World Book Day is funded by contributing publishers and sponsored by National Book Tokens Ltd and other supporters, as well as participating booksellers.

Here MC Grammar tells you all about their vouchers. He’ll make readers of us all.

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I noticed World Book Days in 2020 and 2013 too.

LATER: “More than 110,000 people in the U.K. tuned into World Book Day‘s Share a Story Live digital events program over three days, far exceeding the 10,000-person attendance recorded for live events in previous years, theBookseller reported” — reported to us by Shelf Awareness on 9 March

Another force pushing us towards a single world market in the book business may be identified in the internationalization of book manufacturing and distribution. Now of course publishers have been ordering printing from overseas for years, especially since World War II. High quality color? Go to Italy. Price problems? Or lots of hand work — add-ons? Hong Kong here we come. When I was first in New York, working for Cambridge University Press, it was quite obvious that the tidal flow of manufacturing was governed by £/$ exchange rate fluctuations: now it would be cheaper in the USA, then it would switch back to favor Britain. Work would follow: publishers are always looking for the cheapest way to make their books. The development of digital printing, primarily of print on demand manufacturing, accelerated these options. One of the incidental implications of print on demand is that you can minimize shipping costs by printing a book as close to the ultimate customer as possible. This cost saving may not look like much when you think of one book, but over a year it mounts up to a significant sum.

Local territorial markets be damned! Ingram‘s Vice President of Content Acquisition, Kelly Gallagher, tells us “Sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent of a publisher’s Ingram wholesale can be to non-US addresses. That’s also very glass half-empty, half-full, because it’s a pressure point for the local retailers and distributors in those countries who used to have a corner on getting books into their market.” From a Publishing Perspectives interview.

Amazon lies at the heart of all this. Amazon’s distribution system is amazingly slick. They fulfill an order in the most efficient (cost and timing) method possible. There’s a cascade of options, which involves answering a series of questions including:

  • Are there several books in this order?
  • If so, where is each of them best sourced —
  • from our inventory,
  • which warehouse is that inventory in,
  • is it here or overseas,
  • or should it come from Ingram’s inventory,
  • from the publisher’s inventory,
  • from any other wholesaler’s inventory,
  • by using POD,
  • and if POD then POD at our own facilities
  • or at one of Lightning Source (part of Ingram)?

All all these steps the algorithm focusses on optimal proximity to the customer and speed of delivery. Amazon is heavily dependent on (or makes extensive use of) Ingram’s services. In many ways Ingram’s stock can be regarded as an extension of Amazon’s stock, as can all the print-on-demand files that Lightning Source maintains. The cascade, regardless of where the book ends up being shipped from, will always result in the books arriving on your doorstep in a grinning Amazon carton. Your order may be split into two or more separate packages — the cascade will have determined which is optimal.

Now this system is beyond impressive: Amazon can get most books to most people overnight. I sympathize with the old guard bookstores, but is it really right to go after a company for having developed a system that’s so efficient that almost everyone wants to use it? Doesn’t monopoly require a certain amount of unfair advantage: using your market power to destroy the opposition. Amazon is merely guilty of designing such an efficient system that nobody else can match it. Surely that shouldn’t be a crime, should it?

The classic would be McCain side sewing. This became the standard way of binding school books. An essential part of the educational process seems to be constant research by young pupils into new ways to destroy a book. A McCain-sewn book was virtually indestructible — without resorting to tearing the pages out, an approach which the ethics of this international research project seem to have ruled out.

The book block, obviously in need of jogging.

A McCain machine would start with a book block and drill holes vertically all the way through it near the spine folds and parallel to the spine edge. It would then stitch the whole thing together all the way down the spine edge, making it about as strong as it’s possible for a binding to be. Sure, you could get a knife and cut the threads, but anything approaching normal schoolroom wear and tear would fall to destroy the book.

For a thin pamphlet you could just run the thing through a Singer sewing machine, leaving a line of stitching parallel to the spine. Such side stitching might also be done using wire staples: see Binding styles 4.

Printing Impressions brings us a comprehensive story about printing on wood. In the past this has been an expensive process, involving high set-up costs, including normally the engraving of a gravure cylinder. Furthermore the gravure system limited the pattern repeat to the diameter of the gravure roll. Digital printing frees us from these restrictions and also enables us to print 3-dimensional patterning. By reducing the set-up cost so much, digital printing allows for the production of very short runs, almost customized printing.

The Economist recently ran a story about the use of engineered timber in construction. By laminating different types of wood together you can create a material with incredible strength. So strong that we now see that it can be used to construct multi-storey buildings. The proposed River Beech Tower in Chicago will, at 228 metres (about 748 feet), be the world’s tallest wooden building. The current record, a mere 85 metres, is held by the Mjøstårnet building in Norway (below).

The manufacture of two of our most common building materials, steel and concrete, generate around 8% of the world’s anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions. But when trees grow they take carbon out of the atmosphere, locking it up in their wood. Wood construction keeps that carbon there. Engineered timber with its different layers can be designed to meet the requirements of specific components and it will have fire resistance engineered in. Clearly this material which is prefabricated into larger units in the factory could also be printed to give it any appearance we want — chose your wallpaper pattern before your walls are constructed.

Here’s Michael Ramage of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge talking about the idea:

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At the other end of the telescope I was struck by another story from The Economist, telling us about The Baltimore Wood Project. The wood used in the nineteenth century building boom in Baltimore was old-growth, and is thus stronger and better-looking than our current wood-farmed product. Great to be able to reuse a lot of it.

In a quantum leap down this alternative-approaches rabbit hole The Economist, ever alert to 3-D printing developments, tells us this week about Alt-Steak™, a 3-D printed plant-based meat. Here’s the story from Foodnavigator. The originator, Redefine Meat, worked with “leading butchers, chefs and food technologists — as well as leveraging ‘close collaboration’ with flavors expert Givaudin — to digitally map more than 70 sensorial parameters into its Alt Steak product. These include the texture, juiciness, fat distribution and mouthfeel of ‘premium beef cuts’.” Apparently the Alt-Steak will be road-tested in “high-end restaurants” later this year. Can’t wait to test those sensorial parameters. Goodbye methane!


Given what’s been going on for the last year one’s reaction to a recent story from Publishers Weekly headlined Bookstore Sales Fell 28.3% in 2020 might be “Just 28.3%?”.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. As the report Covid-19 and Book Publishing puts it “Book retail is really a set of businesses. First, it’s both physical and digital. More than half of book retail takes place online (with Amazon accounting for at least half of those sales). Physical retail, on its own, has several components, broadly speaking: chain bookstores, independent bookstores, big box retailers like Costco, and “newsstands” at drug and grocery stores, airport stores, etc.” It goes without saying that different bits of this business have been differently affected. Online’s going gangbusters, while, say, if nobody’s taking flights, business at airport stores isn’t going to be booming. There have been closures of bookstores (and openings too). Many a local independent bookstore was already walking a knife-edge before we got into shutdowns. It remains a disgrace that the landlord remains the only player in the retail system who seems always to be kept whole. Now that our government is no longer headed by a failed real estate tycoon, maybe we can get some sort of reform going. Sarah McNally’s suggestion of rents tied to sales would help to share the risk.

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen twin market changes during the crisis — towards online buying, and towards ebooks. I suspect the e-to-print ratio will eventually return to preexisting norms (not that that really matters to publishers), but online purchasing — of all sorts of product — seems likely to survive. Maybe bricks-and-mortar retail will end up as more of a show-rooming situation: try on that jacket and then have it shipped to your home after the sleeves have been taken up ½”. has made a good start on integrating independent bookstores into the digital marketplace, but individual stores need to be proactive in widening their methods of getting books to buyers. Many have already. They need to keep the innovations they’ve made and think of others. We’ve not lived for a long time in a world where the only way you could get a book was to go on down to your local bookstore and buy it.

Despite all the trouble small businesses face, it may turn out to be local bookstores who ultimately manage to make it through. As the report says “many consumers view small, independent stores in their neighborhood as much-loved places to shop”. Barnes and Noble, undergoing reorg before Covid, must be especially challenged. They started out with an idea of how to “reinvent themselves”, but immediately had to put on the brakes because of coronavirus lockdowns. Now they are moving forward again. They are faced with the same sort of challenges that all big retailers are, particularly as so many malls, where lots of their stores are located, appear to be in the process of collapse. It is noticeable that big retailers who have prospered over the past year have been the ones who were able quickly to beef up their online business. Is B&N going to be able to match that?

In the end, whether customers’ love of their local store will be enough to ensure survival will have to be seen. My observation of past crises is that collapse tends to happen after the crisis is over, when we have all heaved that sigh of relief and turned our faces towards better times. Then, bang, bang; here come the bankruptcies: finding money for re-expansion seems to be the problem. Maybe all the government support we’ve seen will make things different this time.

An odd quiz set by Mary Zaborskis at Public Books. Its title, Which academic press are you?, sets the tone. However, answer seven questions and you’ll find out which press you “are”. Turns out I’m Duke University Press. Respect!

With all this working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, is the gig economy what we are going have to look forward to? Certainly the internet has facilitated this form of labor — think no further than Uber. So maybe we will have to get yet more familiar with the word “gig”.

Anatoly Liberman speculates at his fascinating OUP blog post “Gig” and its kin on the origins of the word “gig”. He tells us “Over the centuries, English gig has been recorded with the following senses: ‘a flighty girl,’ ‘whipping top,’ ‘whim,’ ‘fun,’ ‘odd person,’ ‘fool,’ and ‘a one-horse carriage’. Those senses probably appeared independently of one another and have been referred by etymologists to the idea of light or quick movement. All gigs (as it were) are ‘flighty.'” He ends up being forced into accepting a somewhat indelicate origin for the word.

The sense of “gig” as a freelance job has moved into widespread currency these days, arriving by way of the music business. This sort of “flighty” employment status does appear to be ever more likely in our future. Of course we in book publishing have been using freelance labor for years — but there’s always further to go! Make all your staff freelance and have them work from home, possibly maintaining a single conference room in town for the occasional morale-boosting get-together — so much more satisfying than those eternal Zoom meetings — and bingo, lots of nasty costs go away. You may have to provide enhanced online services — but you’d need to have done that anyway; everyone’s got to constantly update their IT systems — but getting rid of your office building, not to mention the office manager, the cleaners, the coffee machine, and lots of insurance coverage will make this sort of change almost irresistible. Of course, if, like Random House say, you’ve recently paid for a huge building just down from Columbus Circle, you may be reluctant to abandon (or have some difficulty offloading) your white elephant, given that everyone else will be eager to downsize too. This might well affect your view of the situation.

One precondition for the widespread adoption of the gig economy ought to be some resolution of the healthcare situation in America. Being a gig worker in Britain is one thing, but it takes on a whole extra dimension of uncertainty in the USA in the absence of a National Health Service. I know we always fear the unknown, but really, basing healthcare on employers and insurance companies (not to mention privately owned hospitals) isn’t a great idea. It just increases the overall cost of medical care by adding their costs and profit margins to the total, and also leaves anyone who doesn’t have a regular 9-5 job without medical coverage. If there wasn’t such an operation in place already, would our current system be what any rational human being would come up with? But we can’t start from scratch, nor apparently are most of us able to see past today’s system in order to think about anything better. Democratic Presidents have wrestled: Clinton ran aground on it; Obama got through a sort of halfway plan; surely Biden won’t try to do healthcare, unless as part of a triumphant second term lap of honor. Still, maybe if everyone ends up with a freelance job, the demand from the people will convince reluctant legislators.


Nowadays the publisher’s traditional market begins to look like it means less and less. Crudely we used to carve up the world market for English language books into the USA, the British traditional market (by and large the old Empire) and the rest of the world. The digital world has made this harder to discern and enforce. As an example, if a book is published in Britain in late 2020, and US rights are sold to an American publisher who won’t bring out the book till the second half of 2021, then in the interim any US enquiries about the book at Amazon will elicit an offer of the UK edition. You can recognize these occurrences by the odd retail price quoted: no publisher is going to price their book at $23.67 — that’s just the result of a conversion from sterling using the current exchange rate. Frustratingly Amazon maintains that their policy in this area is entirely algorithm-driven, and they will direct all enquiries wherever they come from to the best-selling version. They always want to be able to say they offer the customer the best deal, even if as in this case it’s low-level illegal.

Obviously the US publisher, who has paid something for a license to publish the book in the USA will not be delighted to see their main customer referring potential purchasers to an edition unlicensed for their market. This redirection will continue even when the US publisher’s edition goes on sale — it probably won’t have sold more copies at Amazon than the other edition for some time. Because the system is all algorithm-driven Amazon claims that there’s nothing they can do about it. Until the US edition has sold more than the UK edition it won’t come up first in response to an Amazon search. You can usually find the missing US edition by digging on Amazon’s site, but it’s far from obvious and you have to know it’s there so you can search for it — which probably means it’s only the angry American publisher whose doing it, reacting to an early rave review in The Wall Street Journal, rather than a book buyer just looking for a good read. Infuriating to see the sales resulting from a review you managed to achieve all going to another publisher. The situation is also complicated by secondary sellers on Amazon. Of course, one has to admit that the opposite effect is in operation if the US edition is published before the UK one, which probably means nobody’s going to take any action on this. For the big internationally owned trade houses there’s large amount of one hand washing the other, making the cost of a lawsuit even less appealing. Smaller publishers are the real losers. Moral: always publish your edition simultaneously with overseas editions. Yeah. Just try that one!

I aim not to reference every one of Richard Charkin’s monthly posts at Publishing Perspectives — but I rarely succeed. They are almost always relevant and interesting. Here he discusses territoriality in the context of Brexit. His solution is “It’s about time that trade book publishers took the plunge and offered their authors genuine worldwide support through their extensive infrastructures. And it’s about time that literary agents focused on their authors’ careers rather than the next big advance.” Sounds good, and it really is a bit anachronistic to base your business on agreements which have their origin in a world in which manufacturing (and publishing) were much more centralized, and goods used to be transferred around the world in ships, taking months en route.

We live in a world where online connectivity makes national or regional market restrictions wildly difficult to control. We might wish to move to the idea of a single market where the publisher of a book is the publisher of that book regardless of where the publisher may be based or the buyer located. However the main losers under such a system would be authors and agents. If you can sell foreign rights for your book for a certain sum, you get to bank that money even if the overseas editions don’t sell as well as expected. The agent ditto. Plus the agent gets to demonstrate to the author their negotiating chops by landing a good deal, which of course leads to more business for them.

Would a single worldwide market impact translations? If you are the publisher of the book, would you be the publisher in all languages? Would you necessarily be in any position to serve the market in all countries? Publishers exist, let us remember, to serve authors and readers by bringing them together. As long as selling local rights earns an author more money — as I suspect it usually will — then trade publishers’ desires for a worldwide license are likely to remain just pipe dreams. Parenthetically one might note that lots and lots of books are sold to publishers as assignments of world rights. Academic and university press habitually work this way. In some cases the publisher who has been granted worldwide rights may sublease a local edition in this or that market.

Here, at Jane Friedman’s blog, two agents discuss the issue of foreign rights and the international book market. The book business is irrevocably international. Agents thrive, as should authors, by balkanizing this international market for trade books. The problem of a few lost sales for a publisher doesn’t really affect author or agent — so the status quo will surely remain.

See also Traditional market breakdownBreakdown of the traditional market.

Today is the deadline for signing up for the 20th February virtual Trivia Night, part of the ABA’s Winter Institute. The $5 entry fee goes to benefit Binc, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. You’ll need Zoom to participate and the organizers will assign you to team.

Sign up here.