Archives for the month of: March, 2021

Last year Richard Fisher, a former co-worker, addressed the question “What are academic book publishers for?” in a two-part piece at The Scholarly Kitchen. (Part 1 here; Part 2 here.)

I’m not altogether sure he nails it though. He tells us lots about what academic publishers do and how they do it, but rather slides past the why and wherefore of their mission. (It is of course possible that the title was served up by The Scholarly Kitchen after they got the piece and doesn’t really represent what Richard was writing about.) In thinking about reasons for the existence of academic publishers it would seem fundamental to me, if perhaps simplistic, to assert that academic publishing houses earn their money by making the results of scholarship, research, and academic discussion available to the widest possible audience — obviously the teachers, scholars and students in universities and schools and the libraries they use, but also as many members of the general public as can be induced to care. University Presses as departments of the university are part of the academic community: perhaps rather in the way that a lab assistant is part of the academic community, but nevertheless in a way essential to the smooth functioning of the whole. 

Publishers are the ones who decide what it is they’ll publish. It’s not some random process of dealing with the flood of manuscripts coming in over the transom — though all university presses have to cope with a slush pile. They don’t just sit there and wait for Professor Smith to turn up with his dusty manuscript — though of course you know he will. Academic publishers determine which subject areas they will publish in, a choice which may have something to do with what their parent institution is good at, or was good at a few years back. Then they have to pursue the best material they can attract in those fields. Publishers have to select the best manuscripts they can find, whip them into authoritative shape, make them available in the most appropriate format(s), and persuade interested people to buy the books. Editorial selection is the princess of the process, but the boring nuts and bolts of the basics, printer contacts, freelance contacts, marketing routines, sales penetration and distribution, efficient accounting, are what pay for the princess’ gown and tiara. 

As Richard says, “It’s also worth stating, quietly, that the fact that most academic book publishers perform the same basic functions doesn’t mean that each performs each of them equally well”. It is perhaps worth stating a little louder that what distinguishes Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press from their confraternity is not just that they are big, or that people love to watch the Boat Race and are used to cheering for light or dark blue. Oxford and Cambridge have been working at getting academic publishing right for upwards of 500 years: it takes time — OK not 500 years, but not a few either. They both publish in many subject areas, but there are areas which they have chosen not to colonize. It needs to be said that they are rather good at what they do.

An aside: Oxford University Press is much bigger than Cambridge. The basic reason for this is that about a hundred years ago the Delegates (the board of academics appointed by the university to manage the press — in Cambridge they are called Syndics) delegated authority to sign up some types of books to their London Manager. This policy, now expanded around the world, was rather successful and such books now outnumber those the Delegates consider at their meetings in Oxford. All the books Cambridge University Press publishes still go through a Syndicate Meeting, though volume has necessitated some selectivity over what books are actually discussed at any length.

Richard reminds us that, in his days anyway, Cambridge’s list in politics was regarded as the yardstick by which others were judged. This is the way it goes in a sort of ever turning cycle. Today it’s politics, tomorrow philosophy or physics or whatever. The reason for one Press’ being perceived as the brand leader in this or that subject results from a combination of things: a good editor, more importantly good advisors (or an editor able to recognize and latch onto good advisors maybe), the effect of one big book acting as a magnet for other good projects, the fact that someone you admire publishes there, and the prominence of the press in your daily reading. A strong department in the university with a tradition of publishing locally helps. I was fortunate as editor for anthropology that Cambridge had a strong department of social anthropology which had been publishing with CUP for aeons. I was also blessed with a strong advisor (who happened to have been my director of studies when I was an undergraduate). The strength of the list while I was running it had nothing to do with me. The best I can claim is to have kept out of the way and done no harm.

The editor’s impact on the strength of the list can effectively be no more active than encouraging the best authors to publish with you. (Judgement about what’s good and bad is here taken as given.) The ability to detect up-and-coming subject areas is an important qualification — I witnessed Cambridge’s early colonization of the new subject of linguistics under the initiative of Michael Black. Occasionally an editor may marry a topic needing coverage with an author ideal to write about it but as yet reluctant or unaware that this is what they’re born to do. Even more rarely an editor may affect the discipline by coming up with an idea nobody’s thought of, and talking someone into writing the missing book. Such insights will be the result of lots of conversations with lots of people with good ideas though. I made a couple of attempts at shifting the way the subject was taught, one in social anthropology, and the other in archaeology. Neither made any ripples in the pool of pedagogy: but you can but try. And every now and then something will take hold.

Of course all your good ideas are subject to authors, academics by and large, and their willingness to put pen to paper. Lots of authors will sign lots of book contracts and never find the time to write the books. Academic books tend not to attract any advance on royalties so the guilting-out power of having taken the money isn’t there. I worked on one manuscript which came in fifty years after the contract had been signed. Some took even longer: Mathematics for Archaeologists was a great idea in the 1970s, and every time I saw George he assured me he was making progress — not enough that any editor ever saw a page of it though. The ability to get the author to do the work should also be listed as one of the qualities of a good editor.

There’a a lot of talk these days about online publishing of academic books. We’ve just lived through an explosion of Open Access publishing of research related to Coronavirus, and many, including many in authority, see free online publishing as “the way forward”. However we aren’t there yet. Academic publishers still find demand from their customers for physical, printed books. Academic publishers aren’t there to set policy for education and research: we do what the academic community wants. Publishers are merely the agents of the authors they publish: if nobody wants to publish in this or that way, then there will cease to be publishers working in this or that way. Of course people crave insight into the future, but in this regard all we can say is that publishers will do what their customers (both providers of manuscripts and buyers of the final product) continue to want them to do. It was ever thus.

I was struck, on a recent trip down the New Jersey Turnpike, by the unexpectedly good letterspacing on the electronic warning signs.

I expect the “letterspacing” isn’t really the result of a typographical designer’s involvement, but rather a technological dictate representing the minimum distance allowable between an on or an off LED “pixel”. It’s hard to find too much detail about the specs for such signs — obviously the market is not the general consumer, but I thought it was an excellent sign. It’s made by Daktronics (I think — you can’t really slow down in the middle if I95 to check this sort of detail). The sign appears to say Daktronics in the middle — it’s that tiny white line below WRECK, but I did manage to notice that it also says Vanguard at the bottom right. I initially read Daktronics as Datatronics, but they seem to be involved in all things magnetic. Vanguard is apparently the controller. Helpfully the Daktronics website tells us, anent Vanguard, that “The VFC– 3000 is a state-of-the-art VMS controller”, but they do not reveal what VFC or VMS mean. I don’t think we can complain: if you need a VFC or VMS controller I suppose you know what they are: all industries use their own jargon just as we in book manufacturing do. No doubt the New Jersey Highways Department would be mystified by picas or sigs.

You’ve got to admire the effortless use of two type sizes, and of course New Jersey’s decision to address us in verse.*

On a related topic here’s video about the typefaces chosen for road signs: the fixed ones only. Doubtless the digital LED signs introduce yet more variation into the picture. I have had a go at letterspacing of road signs before.

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


* New Jersey did have a poet laureate from 2000 to 2003, but as it was a life-time appointment the legislature found itself in a bind when LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the second incumbent, created a controversy-storm with the public reading his poem “Somebody Blew Up America”. This reaction to the 9/11 attacks infuriated many New Jerseans by implying that Israel was involved in the bombing, and that Jewish workers had been warned to stay away from work that day. Baraka refused to resign. The Gordian solution: the position was cancelled.

Photo: Donald Judge

The Oxford Companion to the Book makes less of a meal of this term than do most reference sources seem like to. They define printer’s devil simply as a “Jocose term for young apprentices in a printing office, so called because they often became daubed with ink when removing sheets from the tympan”.

Atlas Obscura brings us this photo and others in their article, “Printer’s Devil, York, England”. Although in the early days of printing Stonegate was where Yorkers would go to find a printer, times have brought change, and the printing shop is now an old men’s clothing store. They have wisely retained the old printer’s trade sign. Although an old guy who uses clothing I am surprised that this is a business model that seems to have thrived. “Old Guys Rule” was established in the USA in 2003 as a tribute to surfer Doug Craig of whom this remark was made after some cunning surfing move. The company expanded to England in 2008.

Apparently printer’s devils were originally called fly boys. One of the alternative explanations for the devilish name does have an apparent basis in logic of the PR variety: if there was a devil in your workshop this would obviously account for any typos that might be made: couldn’t possibly be you who got it wrong could it? — Frank Steinman, wiser perhaps, attributes these errors to God not the devil.

Photo:, from The Karachiite

Apparently they’ve been around since 2015. Morioka Shoten is a bookshop in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It’s small and utterly exclusive — it sells one book only (in multiple copies though). This ultimate in curation sees a different book selected for sale each week: if you don’t like this week’s book, come back in a few days and see if you like that one any better.

For those of you fluent in Japanese it will come as no surprise to learn that the founder of the bookshop is Yoshiyuki Morioka — shoten means just bookstore. Mr Morioka explains in The Guardian “Before opening this bookstore in Ginza, I had been running another one in Kayabacho for 10 years. There, I had around 200 books as stock, and used to organise several book launches per year. During such events, a lot of people visited the store for the sake of a single book. As I experienced this for some time, I started to believe that perhaps with only one book, a bookstore could be managed.” 

Apparently the store was advertised as being based on the philosophy of ‘Issatu Issatu’, roughly translated as ‘A Single Room, A Single Book’. Tough to keep up with all the new philosophies! This one seems to be working.

When I was a youth bookshops used to stick little labels inside the back cover of the books they had in stock so you knew which shop you’d bought it at. My impression is that every shop did this, but I can’t find evidence for this, and almost all my books don’t have any such label. I did find a couple.

The Holliday Bookshop opened in 1920. They continued book-dealing till 1951, having moved in 1925 to 49th Street. University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center site The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door has a short remembrance. The book involved is a quasi-collectible edition of some Austin Dobson verses published by Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, and printed in in 1895 in Edinburgh at The Ballantine Press. The Story of Rosina and Other Verses has lots of nice line illustrations by Hugh Thomson, (Who also did the illustrations for my Jane Austen books.)

The second one is significant (to me anyway). It is inside the back cover of Thomas Mann’s Tristan in the Reclam paperback edition, and shows that I paid 65 Pfennig for it (0.65 deuschmarks), which was pretty cheap — probably too cheap to warrant the time spent pasting your little label in it. I bought it in March 1961, and am relieved to say I finally got around to reading it almost exactly sixty years later. The book is in amazingly good shape. Although a groundwood sheet was used it has browned very little. The perfect binding is still “perfect”. Not sure how the book would fare in English translation. It’s written in a rather Biblical idiom, old-fashioned and elaborate, and the rhythm of the German seems spot-on in the passage where the heroine, “Herr Klöterjahns Gattin” (Mr. K’s spouse/helpmeet as she is constantly referred to) orgiastically and fatally plays a piano transcription of Tristan und Isolde. It’s almost as if Wagner had been the author of the accompanying text.

I bought the book at Beier Books & Stationery in Murnau in Ober-Bayern where I spent some time (1 month?) at The Goethe Institute ostensibly improving my German, but mostly chatting in English with the other foreign students. I remember a few Egyptians, at least one Lebanese, as well as one French youth you used to stride about cussing “sonne avez biche” under his breath all the time. Not sure, but I think I may have lived above Beier’s: I remember the door up an alley off the main drag, with a view from my window of the top of the church’s onion dome spire. Murnau am Staffelsee was the center of the Blaue Reiter movement, and one could (anachronistically) imagine bumping into Wassily Kandinsky or Gabriele Münter round the next corner. Like the painters it seems that Beier’s is gone.

Reclam, a most estimable publishing house if you are a student of German, announced its Universal-Bibliothek in the 13 November 1867 issue of the Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel. The company was founded in 1828. Apparently there were quite a few cheap-book imprints back then, but Reclam’s the one that survived. Their success depended on the early adoption of stereotyping. By 1942 the Universal Library consisted of 7,500 titles priced at “2 Silber-groschen” each. (The Silber-groschen was eventually replaced by the 10 Pfennig piece.) No. 1 and No. 2 in the series, both of which I happen to own, are, appropriately Goethe’s Faust, Parts one and two. The books weren’t all short ones either: No. 153, E. T. A. Hoffman’s Kater Murr clocks in at 520pp. The firebombing of Leipzig in 1943 and 1944 destroyed this inventory, but the grandsons of the founder reestablished the company in Stuttgart, where they are still active, claiming 3,000 backlist titles.

Here’s a third bookshop sticker, this one at the front, from Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge (now the CUP bookshop).

I still have half a dozen or so of my Reclam books, but I appear to have ditched the French equivalents, the Classiques Larousse. Why don’t Britain or America have an equivalent cheap-o series of literary classics? I think it’s economics. (I don’t count Oxford’s World Classics as really cheap.) If you devote a section of your bookshop/warehouse/publishing program to little cheap books, you’ll find it harder to pay the rent! It requires an almost evangelical cultural commitment to the belief that cheap books are good for us all to make such a series available. In the English-speaking world we seem to have tangled up value and money into one sticky mass.

No doubt the reason bookshops don’t stick labels in their books any more is that they are now quite likely to want to return the book for credit when they fail to sell it. Such a label would result in the hurting of the book.

The tympan is part of a hand press. It is a frame, usually covered with a taut parchment, onto which a sheet of paper is placed so that it can be folded down to bring the paper into contact with the inked forme of type. The paper on the tympan is usually protected by a frisket.

In this picture, after the frisket and tympan have been folded together and then down on top of the type, the press bed is moved to the left under the platen which the operator, by pulling on the lever, forces down onto tympan + paper + frisket + forme, causing the ink to transfer from the type onto the paper with a good clean impression. (Goldilocks as press operator — not too much pressure; not too little; just the right amount.) Turn that crank at the bottom the other way to bring the print bed back to the position shown in the picture, raise the frisket, remove the printed sheet, and start once more from the top.

The parchment cover on the tympan relates the word to the drum (tympanum is Latin for drum — remember the tympani, simply the plural).

Jennifer WIlliams aims to give away 1 million books to people in Danville, Virginia. Since she started in 2017 she’s managed to give away more than 63,000 books already. It’s not altogether clear how this initiative is funded, though Ms Williams does receive occasional book donations from neighbors. (What about a generous publisher with a hurts problem?) CNN‘s story comes via BookRiot.

Apparently this sort of philanthropy is catching. CNN links to another story this one about an 8-year-old in Atlanta who’s targeting 2 million book give-aways.

It’s an exaggeration, but there’s something to it, that the world is on its way to becoming one big village. We certainly haven’t taken this idea totally on board yet, but we’ve always known that what drives book sales is really that invaluable, hard to create, word of mouth. Thus The New York Times can express mild surprise at the fact that two teenage sisters in Brighton can apparently effortlessly cause thousands of their followers to buy a copy of a book they particularly like. More specifically thousands of copies of a book which reduces them to tears — which effect they video and post on Tik-Tok. Apparently seeing someone cry at the end of a book triggers an irresistible impulse to experience the same emotion. Lots of young ladies are now doing the same kind of book reviewing — there seems to be an insatiable appetite.

The phenomenon has its own hashtag #BookTok — TikTok is better at moving books that other social media platforms. The book trade is paying attention. “Many Barnes & Noble locations around the United States have set up BookTok tables displaying titles like ‘They Both Die at the End,’ ‘The Cruel Prince,’ ‘A Little Life’ and others that have gone viral. There is no corresponding Instagram or Twitter table, however, because no other social-media platform seems to move copies the way TikTok does.”

Would you be surprised to learn that money is elbowing its way into the picture? “Now publishers are starting to catch on, contacting those with big followings to offer free books or payment in exchange for publicizing their titles.” Some opinion makers suggest fees of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Random House Children’s Books now “works with” about 100 TikTok reviewers.

No doubt cynicism will take over, as teenagers twig that some of the influencers are actually getting paid. Who does not approach Amazon reviews with large quantities of salt at the ready? Still, we used to be quite good at figuring out who in the village we should ignore when the gossip started.

Alloa Academy Library tweeted this Scottish Book Trust answer to the question, adding “Reading has the power to change your life and is one of the best ways to look after your health and wellbeing”:

What more need one say? Well, it can also be quite amusing. Or kill a few hours.

The health and wellbeing bit might need to be approached with a bit of caution: don’t go reading your health encyclopedia or, nach Wunsch, your Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as an alternative to getting the doctor to treat your broken arm. “Knowing the truth” doesn’t really hack it when it comes to setting bones, though Mary Baker Eddy may have been a pioneer of what we now call the placebo effect. I’m sure books have placebo effects.

Sales of Dr Seuss books tripled between 2020 and 2021. Publishing Perspectives brings us the news.

This sales jump might be compared to our national reaction to every school- (or any other mass-) shooting: an immediate sharp increase in gun sales. This isn’t of course because all these folks want to go out a-mass-murdering: it’s because they assume that in the face of such tragedies Congress will pass laws restricting the sale of guns. This despite the clear evidence from repeated such episodes that there’s no way our Congress will ever do any such thing as long as two features remain in place — the Senate’s filibuster rule, and the presence of at least forty Republican Senators — which basically means for ever unless the current rumblings about filibuster reform/removal can succeed.

Earlier this year Dr Seuss Enterprises, the company handling the estate of Theodore Geisel, announced that six lesser known Seuss titles would no longer be published. Geisel wrote 60 books, most under the Dr Seuss pseudonym. The six books in question are And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. The issue is that the books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”. The decision is perhaps eased by the fact that they are not among the best selling books in the Seussian stable.

Conservative commentary has focussed on the cancel culture aspect of the story, not on the merits of the case and has screamed at its right-wing audience that “they” are intent on taking Dr Seuss away from us. Has this threat caused mass purchasing? Senator Ted Cruz reportedly raised $125,000 in 24 hours in a campaign headed “Stand with Ted and Dr. Seuss against the cancel culture mob to claim your signed copy of Green Eggs and Ham.” (Signed by Cruz himself, not of course the author.) That Green Eggs and Ham isn’t one of the books in question is as irrelevant as the fact that there’s no cancel culture mob at work: this is the author’s representatives’ decision. Tucker Carlson warned us on Fox News that this will “have consequences that extend for generations,” adding “if we lose this battle, America is lost.” Much better to talk about cancel culture battles than about the real battle to take over of the Capitol in January:

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