Archives for the month of: April, 2021

At least in the UK the sales gap between ebooks and p-books (print books) appears to have narrowed. The New Publishing Standard sends us a report that the Publishers Association’s latest sales numbers for 2020 show an overall annual increase of 2%. Print sales were down 6% to £3.4 billion, while digital sales rose 12% to £3 billion: only a £400,000,000 gap. NPS provides more detail, though he does allow a little distortion by discussing sometimes total sales and sometimes trade sales only.

Perspective demands that one note that these numbers represent one year’s data, and for most of the period reported on bookshops were actually shut or running a sort of skeleton operation, making it much easier to get hold of an ebook than its physical manifestation. But a change is a change, and we have to take note of it. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that the proportion of ebook to print-book sales had remained fairly steady during the pandemic (in America). Thus this British evidence should provoke some rethinking. Should we rush to the conclusion that the print book is dead?

The idea that publishers don’t want to sell ebooks seems deeply entrenched in the mind of the commentariat. As long as publishers “have to” print physical copies, we will remain fixated on selling them: ebooks don’t represent a tying up of your capital in inventory which, if it doesn’t move out of the warehouse, has the potential ultimately to bring you down. Publishers don’t print physical books because they hate ebooks: they print p-books because the majority of their customers prefer them. Given this capital consumption, it cannot be surprising that publishers appear fixated on printed books. Is change a-coming? Nobody could argue that 2020 was typical in any way — so this data comes from a pretty cloudy source.

Nevertheless this is the first suggestion for years that the relative popularity of ebooks might actually be increasing. Will this trend continue? Wait and see is about all I can say.

Jonathan Karp’s letter to staff justifying Simon & Schuster’s decision not to distribute The Fight for Truth: The Inside Story Behind the Breonna Taylor Tragedy may be found at that link.

“We first became aware of the publishing deal with [Louisville police officer Jonathan] Mattingly through news reports, social media posts and press queries, beginning around 12 p.m. [Thursday]. We had no prior knowledge of the book and had not been informed by our distribution partner that it was in the works. By last night we had decided that we could not distribute this book, and after informing Post Hill Press we issued an announcement.”

“Although all of us involved in this decision shared an immediate and strong consensus about not wanting any role whatsoever in the distribution of this particular book, we are mindful of the unsustainable precedent of rendering our judgment on the thousands of titles from independent publishers whose books we distribute to our accounts, but whose acquisitions we do not control.”

To me these two paragraphs are the key to potential disagreement with the decision. 1. they haven’t had time to read the book, and 2. it’s a book from a distribution partner “whose acquisitions we do not control.”

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Well, above all, we do have to assert that any publisher must be free to publish (or decide not to publish) any book which they want or don’t want to publish.

Should it make any difference that the publisher is a distribution client, and the book won’t be being “published” by Simon & Schuster? I kind of think it maybe should: after all as Mr Karp says S&S don’t have any say in Post Hill Press’s acquisitions policy. And should it make a difference that the distributing publisher has published many a right wing tome? — Regnery is a Simon & Schuster imprint which exists to publish books by conservatives. Of course we (and I guess S&S) have no idea whether Mr Mattingly has written a right-wing tome, indeed what line he takes on the Louisville no-knock-warrant raid. I guess we can assume, can we, a certain amount of self justification? Whatever, is Jonathan Mattingly “worse” than Milo Yiannopoulos?

Mr Karp returns to the fray (as he’ll no doubt have to do many times) with this statement also reported by Publishers Weekly. Not sure he convinces me — but once you embark on this slope it becomes ever more slippery. The reality is we (publishers) retain the right to do whatever the heck we want. I hasten to point out again that I don’t regard this as in any way “a bad thing”, however indiscrete it may be just to state it that baldly. What else can we do? There can be no requirements that a particular publisher must publish this or that book (even option clauses in authors’ contracts committing to the next book allow for an out based on timing or quality). The decision to invest your money in this project and not in that one is fundamental to the freedom of action any business has. S&S may have signed Mike Pence, but they did cancel Josh Hawley’s contract. Staff are asking them to cancel Pence too.

Now comes the news that, “following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at the author”, W. W. Norton have decided to withdraw Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth as well as a memoir he published with them in 2014. Both books are now out of print. According to BookScan the Roth biography had already sold 11,000 copies, so Norton will at least have recovered most of their production investment in the book even though they did print 50,000. The unearned portion of the advance against royalties they will of course sacrifice, and, as Publishers Weekly tells us, they are making a donation of the same size as the full advance “to organizations that fight against sexual assault or harassment and work to protect survivors”.

Whether you are for or against Mattingly, Pence, Bailey et al., it remains true that publishers are free to publish whatever they like/choose. You can’t have all of your staff out demonstrating in the street against your publishing policy, as Hachette did in the Woody Allen fiasco, and nobody would ever imagine decisions of this kind are easy. Still, a publisher will publish what a publisher decides to publish: at the end of the day if any employee objects to this or that decision their recourse can only be to move to another company. Ditto for prospective authors.

To my mind the best response to speech you disapprove of is more speech. I have to think Simon & Schuster would have done better to get someone to write another book answering whatever it is Mr Mattingly may have gotten “wrong”. Cancel culture is surely something publishers should be working against.

See also Prior restraint.

David Gaughran (link via The Passive Voice) provides a hugely detailed description of how Amazon’s recommendation and “People who bought this also bought that” systems work in their online store. “Other retailers do have rudimentary recommendation engines, but Amazon is quite literally years ahead of the competition.” They also use the technique in stocking and displaying the books their quasi-showcase bricks-and-mortar shops.

Mr Gaughran has written a book entitled Amazon Decoded from which much of this is no doubt derived. His focus is on self-publishing and how the self publisher can best adapt to Amazon’s algorithms. Surprise, surprise metadata is important.

How much of an effect does this sort of remorselessly placing books and more books in front of your customers actually have? If Amazon does it, I think we can assume it has an effect.

I recently wondered if these automated recommendation systems might actually be the reason for last year’s uptick in backlist as against new book sales. Any book you choose must be able to provoke the thought, if you liked A you might like B, and the algorithm putting this into action is bound to work with books which have sales large enough to register as good candidates — this means books already published and sold; i.e. backlist. Someone browsing in a store is, on the other hand, more likely to find the new book they are looking at surrounded by other new books. In so far as it’s in the shop, the backlist will be spine-out on a nearby shelf.

See also If you liked the previous post you’ll love this one.

Claude Garamont (c.1510-61) worked in Paris as a punchcutter during a time of rapid development in typeface design. The typeface which bears his name, Garamond, is characterized by a light elegance, and with its low x-height, a fairly compact look. His italic is less favored than his Roman, and indeed sometimes the italic cut by Robert Granjon (1513-1589 or 1590) is used in conjunction with Garamond’s Roman.* Garamond was one of the earliest type designers to insist that Italic Caps should be slanted like the lower case characters.

As an elegant, classy typeface Garamond was often favored by designers for literary topics. When first introduced it represented a shake-up in the world of type design, taking over as it did from the much heavier, German-influenced typefaces. It achieved lots of imitators, among them Caslon which ended up being used for the Declaration of Independence. Bear in mind that back then copying a typeface wasn’t as straightforward as it is today. You had to get down to it, get out your loupe and graver, and duplicate the work of the original punchcutter in metal. No surprise that your version might differ a little from Mr Garamont’s original. Some would differ more than others, and would in their turn generate different family lines of faces.

In the illustration below who can wonder why they chose to emphasize that lower case g? This must be as close as we can get to perfection of g. (I have to hang my head in shame at the version of that letter provided by the face used by this blog.)

Mental Floss brings us the startling news that the D.C. Circuit Court has written to lawyers telling them not to use Garamond in their filings. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.)This anti-Garamondism appears to have nothing to do with that flurry of anti-French sentiment a few years back which saw French fries having to be renamed Freedom fries — it’s apparently all to do with size. The court claims that Garamond “appears smaller” and alleges that using it allows lawyers to exceed length limits on their briefs. Surely they could just switch to a word count limit rather than a page count.

One possible justification for the decision is the fact that Garamond doesn’t render particularly well on a computer screen. Here’s a post from Design for hackers which explains this.

The Court should perhaps be careful about the expression of its motivation. I once spent hours going through type books figuring out what the tightest setting typeface would be — and Garamond was not the winner. The typeface allowing you to cram most characters onto a page turns out to be (maybe was then) Weidemann. We did use the Weidemann in a Bible — this may not be the most elegant Bible ever printed, but it must be a contender for the fewest pages for the largest type. It might, I suppose, be argued that Garamond’s low x-height allows you to use less leading than other faces demand, thus fitting a line or two more onto any given type area.

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*However Garamond’s Italic ampersand is something to behold, and should never be lost.

Fortunately this extravagant flight of fancy is preserved in Matthew Carter’s Galliard Italic. Galliard was introduced in 1978 and is the typeface used in the Library of America volumes. Carter followed Granjon in designing his Galliard, and I speculate whether this ampersand was actually Granjon’s not Garamond’s, incorporated into the design for Monotype Garamond Italic in the 1920s when so many “lost” typefaces were reintroduced to the world of printing.

In Chapter XI of The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope expatiates on book reviewing, a subject on which he may be expected to have been quite well informed:

“There is the review intended to sell a book, — which comes out immediately after the appearance of the book, or sometimes before it; the review which gives reputation, but does not affect the sale, and which comes a little later; the review which snuffs a book out quietly; the review which is to raise or lower the author a single peg, or two pegs, as the case may be; the review which is suddenly to make an author, and the review which is to crush him. An exuberant Jones [Trollope’s generic reviewer-for-hire] has been known before now to declare aloud that he would crush a man, and a self-confident Jones has been known to declare that he has accomplished the deed. Of all reviews the crushing review is the most popular, as being the most readable. When the rumour goes abroad that some notable man has been actually crushed — been positively driven over by an entire Juggernaut’s car of criticism till his body be a mere amorphous mass, — then real success has been achieved, and the Alf [the Editor of the “Evening Pulpit” newspaper] of the day has done a great thing; but even the crushing of a poor Lady Carbury, if it be absolute, is effective. Such a review will not make all the world call for the ‘Evening Pulpit,’ but it will cause those who do take the paper to be satisfied with their bargain. Whenever the circulation of such a paper begins to slacken, the proprietors should, as a matter of course, admonish their Alf to add a little power to the crushing department.”

Later he gives us insight into the methods of composition of many a book review: “The composition of the review, together with the reading of the book, consumed altogether perhaps an hour of Mr. Booker’s time. He made no attempt to cut the pages, but here and there read those that were open. He had done this kind of thing so often, that he knew well what he was about. He could have reviewed such a book when he was three parts asleep.”

I recently read of an apprentice journalist, asked to review a book which he did after a couple of hours. When he gave it to the editor it was immediately thrown out, and he was shown how such things ought to be done. The editor took up some scissors, clipped off the front flap of the jacket, pasted it onto a sheet of paper and sent that through to the composing department for setting in type. Now that there is ever less space to be filled by book reviews, I think we can perhaps assume that such copy creation methods are firmly in the past.

Trollope has the publisher of Lady Carbury’s book reassure her in terms I have often used myself, if less well expressed, “Anything is better than indifference, Lady Carbury. A great many people remember simply that the book has been noticed, but carry away nothing as to the purport of the review. It’s a very good advertisement.” Difficult to accept of course, but no less wise than the advice often given of never responding publicly to a bad review — it’s hard to avoid looking needy and pathetic in such a response. A few noble souls may manage to avoid ever reading a review of their work: those who cannot avoid yielding to the temptation should try to take everything they read with as large a pinch of salt as they can muster.

One might want to add here something about Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” written in response to a bad review of his first book, Hours of Idleness, in The Edinburgh Review, but in the poem the bard really just lays about him in all directions, without making too much of a case for “better” reviewing. It was published in 1809, and by 1812 Byron had decided to withdraw it because of its attacks on his fellow poets. To some extent the controversy Byron’s outburst caused was the making of him. See: there’s no such thing as a bad review, though usually the author would be wise to resist replying to it. Still, if you are Lord Byron, all bets are off.

But ik am oold, me list not pley for age,
Gras tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage;
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers 
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers, 
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree. 
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten kan we nat be rype;
We hoppen alwey whil the world wol pype.

Here, in the Prologue to The Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer rhymes open-ers (the medlar) with worse, Think of that name for the Irish or Scottish Gaelic language, Erse. Well, maybe you need to be from Scotland to get the full flavor of this fruit’s name, since that is indeed how we pronounce “ass”, anglice “arse”.

BBC Future has an extensive story about the medlar, formerly given that purgative moniker.

As Will Bonsall tells us at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, the medlar “is a typical pome, with an apple-like core containing five or more hard seeds, each about the size of a large corn kernel. With large and persistent sepals, it reminds me of a rosehip crossed with a crab apple.”

The fruit, which needs to rot before it can be enjoyed, has fallen out of favor: it’s a tough sell for a supermarket or a fruiterer to say “Don’t eat these till they are rotten”. The word used for this rotting process, to blet was imported in 1835 from the French where blet, slightly disappointingly, means simply over-ripe. General opinion, including the Oxford English Dictionary, seems to be that the name originates in the physical shape of the fruit. This looks rather unlikely to my common-sensical eye. I’d bet the fruit’s naming relates to the fact that if you eat it before it is properly rotted you’ll get violent diarrhoea. On the other hand, the OED does give as one seventeenth-century slang meaning for the medlar “The female genitals. Also: a prostitute; a disreputable woman.” Shakespeare is quoted twice. So there’s one in the common-sensical eye for me. I guess demand for euphemisms is well established.

The medlar has been used as a metaphor for the transience of beauty, in a sort of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” sort of way: Women are like medlars, no sooner ripe but rotten”, writes Thomas Dekker in The Honest Whore. Chaucer’s reeve has it the other way — old men are no use until they are rotten, by which time it’s no doubt too late.

I can’t think why medlar is a word I know. Maybe it’s because the Government encouraged us during World War II to go out and forage for medlars. The tree is grown in English gardens for its seasonally changing colors. I would like to try a medlar, despite the alleged opinion of some medieval writer that “the medlar is not . . . worth a turd until it’s ripe, and then it tastes like shit”.

The Passive Voice is written by a lawyer, so advice about contracts is right in his wheelhouse. Here’s Part 1 of “The Nine Worst Features in Your Publishing Contract”, dealing with the life of the contract, and Part 2 about sales performance standards. There may be future installments — he says his revisit will focus on the most toxic contract provisions, and here he’s dealt with but two.

Do bear in mind that if you care — if you are seriously thinking about making money off your writing — you have to have a lawyer look at your contract before you sign it. But of course bear in mind that lawyers exist to find things wrong in such situations, and you may get into a bit of a tangle which might result in trivial benefit to you, but lots of bad feelings on the other side of the table.

For myself, I wouldn’t be too concerned about lots of the legal things The Passive Voice routinely worries about, but then I’m not someone whose job description would ever be author. (And in my experience the publisher was fundamentally “on the author’s side”.) The contract lasts for the life of the copyright (which as we know is a long time)? So what? If the book’s not selling the copyright is virtually valueless anyway, and almost any publisher will be happy to revert the rights to you. You just need to ask. In my own case I didn’t even have to ask — they as good as said here it is, take it, we don’t need it anymore. (Nor of course did I.) Still, if you are writing a Hunt for Red October, and want to make bigger and bigger bucks off the movie franchise and novel sequels, then caution about being legally assured of being able to get your rights back might be a good idea. If your book is likely to be worth next to nothing in say ten years, then nobody loses anything by such a clause. If on the other hand if the book is still worth lots of money in ten years, the main loser, if no such clause exists, is likely to be you. A book like Hunt for Red October was no doubt worth a good deal more ten years after first publication than it was back in the early days. If your work might follow such a trajectory — caveat scriptor.

The Passive Voice‘s advice that you insist on a clause stating an end date for the contract might well be worth following. Many contracts do have a reversion clause specifying that once the book goes “out of print”, rights can revert to the author.  But now that we have invented POD, a publisher can keep a book “in print” for ever. This is great for many academic books — demand was small anyway and now it can keep on being filled even though there are no books sitting in the warehouse. But the further we get from the academic monograph, the more thought the author might need to give to this situation.

LitHub links to this Washington Post story about how independent bookstores have fared during the pandemic. Overall the answer has to be better than feared, I think. US bookstore sales were down about a third over the year before. The threat however isn’t just the loss of a third of your sales — the bigger risk is that customers may have become accustomed to getting their books by other means. We all could assume Amazon would prosper in such a world, but who’d have forecast that Target and Walmart would have become major book outlets?

Kerbside pickup, mailing books to buyers, and other dodges helped to preserve a significant portion of the market. After reopening things seem to be looking up a bit. James Daunt gave an upbeat report on Barnes & Noble’s progress at the IPBA conference: Publishers Weekly has the story. Of course it was only a week ago, on April 12th, that British bookshops were allowed to reopen at all — who knows what shaking out there may yet be? Early reactions are not discouraging.

One thing publishers have noticed (and remember that many/most publishers did rather well in 2020) is that sales of new books suffered while older books, backlist, picked up hugely. For example Amazon’s bestselling book for 2020 was a novel published in 2018: Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. Wannabe blockbuster books which were published in 2020 have no doubt missed their chance. The New York Times writes about the phenomenon and attributes the backlist surge to readers seeking the solace of the familiar. My bet is that this reliance on the old familiar had more to do with Amazon’s recommendation system — those messages where if you look for X they’ll tell you that people who liked X also loved Y. To get into this virtuous cycle of recommendation and counter-recommendation you have to sell a lot of copies. In a world where older books are the ones with the sales, it becomes harder and harder for a new book to break into this back-scratching circle. Maybe in this thought lies some encouragement for the bricks-and-mortar bookstore: in order to launch a moonshot we need lots of people to buy lots of copies in lots of bookstore outlets.

Are we all getting more scam calls during the pandemic, or is it that while we are sitting at home all the time it just feels like we are getting more of them? One of the craziest ones is the person who introduces himself as Jason from Amazon customer service and tells me that my order for something worth $576.85 has just gone to shipping. Wouldn’t anyone who’s dealing with Amazon just look at their order history rather than give Jace their credit card number in order to cancel the shipment? I guess you only have to hook one or two, and optimism is obviously a prerequisite of working this beat. I now recognize the voice of my trouble-prone “grandson” who calls periodically to ask for help to get out of this or that bind.

I never thought of pretending to be the winner of a literary prize and sending an email to collect the prize money! This has however apparently happened to the organizers of the Folio Prize. Publishers Lunch of 14 April alerts us to the news: “UK literary prizes report incidents of scammers trying to claim award money. In one case, the Folio Prize admits to having paid £30,000 via PayPal to someone posing as the actual winner, Valeria Luiselli. Executive director Minna Fry tells the Bookseller, ‘The lost funds were absorbed by cost savings elsewhere within the charity’,* and Luiselli received her full award. Other UK prizes report to the magazine fending off similar malicious attempts. The Baillie Gifford Prize, The Forward Prizes for Poetry, and the Society of Authors were all asked by suspicious emails to send prize money through PayPal.”

So I guess seekers of literary fame and fortune will now just got to buckle down and write a good book.

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*One wonders if that corresponds to the annual salary of the person who carried the can!

The 24th of April fast approaches. Get out and celebrate by buying lots of books. More details can be found at IndieBound’s website.

For the competitive, from April 17th till April 24th, Independent Bookstore Day will choose a random winner from posts about your local independent bookstore on Instagram, or Twitter. Include #BookstoreShoutOut and/or #IndieBookstoreDay. “Winners will receive an Independent Bookstores of the Unites States map from Pop-Chart, a 2021 IBD tote bag, and credit for free audiobooks courtesy of Libro.fm.”