Archives for the month of: May, 2021

Thad McIlroy seems to be puzzled about the origin of the terms backlist and front list. (Yes, I believe that one is one word and the other two words.) The origin seems pretty clear to me: front list refers books displayed in the front of a bookshop: backlist the opposite.

Mr McIlroy’s piece is immensely long, and he often seems intent on straining at gnats. Front/backlist has nothing to do with sales volume, so why waste space talking about it. Cambridge University Press’s bestselling front list could never rack up sales numbers that’d come within miles of Godfrey & Siddons Four-Figure Tables, but nobody got confused about what they were doing. That book’s still there, selling away — no doubt less well than it used to when every teenager in Britain needed a copy because the cell phone hadn’t been invented and you couldn’t afford (weren’t allowed) a calculator.

Publishers love backlist sales because they are sales made (one hopes) after all the set-up costs involved in getting a book produced have been earned out, and so are relatively profitable. Bennet Cerf, founder of Random House, opined “backlist is like reaching down and picking up gold from the sidewalk”. But promoting backlist is almost a contradiction in terms — backlist books sell because people want/need them, not because the publisher is bringing the books to their attention. High-priced executives have from time to time exhorted their employees to publish for the backlist. This is only marginally less crazy than those other execs who insisted their guys should only sign bestsellers. Backlisting is inevitable. When this year’s front list comes out and gets all the marketing and sales attention, last year’s old front list gets added to the backlist. When publishers say backlist is valuable, they are of course referring to backlist that sells in large numbers without any activity on the part of the publisher other than packing and shipping the books. Backlist that doesn’t sell at all is a horse of a different color.

About the best promotion-type activity you can do with your backlist nowadays is to beef up the metadata. Most metadata for backlist was done years ago, when we were innocents in this regard; so improving discoverability by expanding metadata should be relatively easy. Of course this sort of work costs money, and is hard to tie directly to any sales data — so almost nobody does it.

Keeping an old book in print used to be much harder than it is today. In order to justify the cost of reprinting you used to have to be able to predict a reasonable number of sales, invest the money, and wait for your prediction to pan out. This meant that many books which might well have sold a few more copies never got the chance to do so because a reprint looked too risky. Nowadays when we can print tiny numbers, even down to one copy, backlist need never go away.* Out-of-print is a vanishing state. This, along with all the other speculation about how readers “discover” books, is the main reason for higher book sales in the backlist category: there’s just more of it.


*Many authors and agents are not happy about this, as publishers’ contracts usually specify that they will retain rights until the book goes out of print. Some form of contract terminology allowing for the reversion of copyright to the author at some sensible point is needed. I assume that many authors are already getting such language into their contracts.

Via Scottish Book Trust’s tweet, we receive this picture by Aleen Shinnie of her son and his pal deep in a book.

Brings to mind Marx’s bon mot, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (See Our best friend for doubts about the attribution.)

Once with head as high as ever 
Johnny walked beside the river.
Johnny watched the swallows trying
Which was cleverest at flying.

by Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-94)
from Struwwelpeter.


According to Shelf Awareness of 25 May, Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House, told the audience at the US Book Show that print has won the race against ebooks and audiobooks. He went on to list six reasons why this is “the best time in publishing since Gutenberg”:

  • 1) the global book market, with a revenue pool that was up double digits in the U.S. and around the world in 2020 and thus far in 2021;
  • 2) robust business models;
  • 3) healthy coexistence between print and digital (a ratio of 80/20);
  • 4) the “addressable audience” is growing, with population up 3%-4% and literacy rates rising;
  • 5) children’s books are the fastest-growing category for the past 25 years, since the publication of Harry Potter, creating more and more new readers; and
  • 6) with the popularity of audiobooks, “we gain reading and listening minutes.”

This is such hubristic talk that one might expect any day now to see Markus-Head-in-Air step blithely over the bulkhead in Riverside Park right into the Hudson River.

But, but. . . He is in a position to know about this sort of thing, and big talk doesn’t have to result in getting cut down to size. Certainly 2020 was a good year for most book publishers, and 2021 seems to be following along. Maybe things are on an upswing.

The Passive Voice sends us a story from The Guardian about Goodreads. Myself, I’ve never found Goodreads to be much use, but I can’t see any reason to get very excited about it. As I never look at it it never bothers me, so why should I bother about it? I have to delete the odd email is all. People who feel a need for the support of others in their journey though life should be allowed to share their thoughts about what they’ve liked to read and might like to read next. Just because you are not one of that group is no reason to disallow it.

Reading isn’t a contest, even a contest against yourself. So you read 50 books last year? So what? Doesn’t mean you must read 51 this year. (I have to admit the page count of a book has crossed my mind when in December I’ve just finished a book and could possibly squeeze in another during the year. But I insist I’ve always managed to withstand the novella temptation. Still, if you record your reading, there’s always that temptation lurking there.) Some reading is for information or education of course, but by and large we read to be entertained. You are a sorry victim of competitiveness if part of the entertainment consists of the number of titles, pages, words you’ve read.

That said, there are 4,038,924 participants in Goodreads’ 2021 Reading Challenge. They have pledged to read an average of 49 books each during the year for a total of 203,872,985 books. Hard to disparage that sort of market potential!

The Passive Voice reprints extracts from The New Statesman‘s jaundiced views of Bookshop’s performance in Britain. Don’t we have to wonder at the testimony of one James Daunt, described as “founder of the independent book chain Daunt Books and managing director of high street bookseller Waterstones”, but of course now the saviour-in-chief of Barnes and Noble, who, if they had a decent website, could be a huge competitor of not to say Amazon?

It seems to me to take a peculiarly twisted mind to believe that because there are no numbers available, must be cannibalizing independent bookstore sales, rather than eating into Amazon’s slice of the pie. The evidence presented by The New Statesman is surely questionable. Have they really unearthed a publisher who’s just giving a 40% discount to Amazon?

But of course the entire premise is faulty. Nobody imagines that was created in order to see off Amazon. It does provide independent bookstores with a mechanism whereby they can compete with the online behemoth: but nobody expected Amazon to even notice the fly pricks such a service could generate. Some people who buy books will always go for the bigger discounts available at Amazon, but if your local bookstore has an online presence there are some punters who’ll support them by buying online when they are unable to go in person. As The New Statesman puts it “ works by enabling independent bookshops to create their own virtual shopfronts on their site. Bookshops receive 30 per cent of a book’s cover price for each sale made through their shopfront. If a customer buys a book without going through a specific shop, 10 per cent of that book’s cover price is put into a central pot split among all participating shops.” Any bookseller who thinks a deal like this is going to enable them to sit back and wait for the money to roll in would seem to have an excessively large slice of the optimism required to get into bookselling in the first place.

Nonsensically The Passive Voice tells us that “, despite the non-profit .org extension, is effectively a front for Ingram in the United States, where started. Ingram is a huge printer/book fulfillment organization that is very dedicated to earning a lot of money for its owners.” His need to find a conspiracy behind every book makes him overlook the rather obvious fact that Ingram, as the largest book wholesaler around, is the obvious and only place for to source its books with any hope of success. Ingram, like any business, is no doubt interested in the idea of making a lot of money for its owners, but would you think they should service Bookshop’s orders for nothing? You might as well describe this or that builder as a front for the local cement company, because you are always seeing their cement trucks lined up at building sites. Book wholesaling and book retailing are separate businesses, as of course in book publishing too.

Reading this heading at Atlas Obscura I at first assumed this had something to do with the New York Yankees. Michael Kay starts his broadcast of every game by describing the Yankees uniform, specifically the interlocking NY on their chest and cap. For New Yorkers (well maybe I should say many New Yorkers) the Yankees are the archetypical team — which of course they are. The Yankees haven’t been as dominant over the past few years as they are used to — but they remain as arrogant as ever. They are the only team which never prints the names of their players on the back of their shirts — we assume that everyone, everywhere will recognize all our players.

But no, letterlocking refers to folded communications. Mass produced envelopes weren’t manufactured till the 1830s, and before that each correspondent would need to devise their own method of folding a letter so that it would arrive safely, without having been read, into the hands of the addressee. Atlas Obscura provides an account of letterlocking, as it appears to be being called.

It’s hard to research this subject, as letters, if they even survive, are generally opened, read and stored flat, so that over time any evidence of cunning folds is lost over the years. However the Dutch postal museum in The Hague has a correspondence goldmine in the shape of a 17th century trunk containing 2,600 folded letters which couldn’t be delivered, and were held by the dead letter office in the hope of eventually achieving delivery.

A 17th-century trunk of letters bequeathed to the Dutch postal museum in The Hague contains an extraordinary archive of 2,600 “locked” letters sent from all over Europe. COURTESY BRIENNE COLLECTION, SOUND AND VISION, THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS

Back in those days postage was paid by the recipient, so hanging onto undelivered mail in the hope of getting paid is easily understandable. They now are worth so much more as a research project — and they are being read without being opened by use of “an X-ray machine located in Queen Mary University of London’s dental school. Built by researchers David Mills and Graham Davis, it’s an extremely powerful imaging machine that can detect minute changes in the composition of a tooth or bone.” The machine can also pick up the metal in the inks used in those days. “Most ink from the early modern period contained metal, particularly iron, which shows up as bright patches on the scan. With careful scanning, it can be used to recreate the text of the letter. The scans have also revealed watermarks, wormholes, and even bits of crushed eggshells or sand, which were often sprinkled on a freshly-written page to dry the ink.”

Using the information thus gained researchers have been able to reconstruct letters without ever opening them.

The letter designated DB-1627 is still sealed and unopened, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from reading it. COURTESY BRIENNE COLLECTION, SOUND AND VISION, THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS

LATER: Atlas Obscura has done a piece on letterlocking which provides detailed instructions on how to lock your letters in three different ways. They have videos to show you it’s possible.

This sort of thing just gets my goat. If you are going to allow your author to display his learning by letting us know that the German for thought experiment is Gedankenexperiment, at least insist that he get it right. Nobody is helped by the gratuitous interpolation at the end of the third line, but if you, publisher, are going to indulge the author here, do save him from error. German nouns start with a capital letter, and while the author’s native language does form its plurals by adding an -s, this is not the case in German. Make it Gedankenexperimenten, (and break the word properly, between its two component parts, not just at random because your text processing system doesn’t contain rules for German word breaks); or preferably delete the two words altogether. And who refers to thought experiments as “thought” experiments anyway? It’s hardly a controversial coinage. The rest of the paragraph is pretty much redundant too — not only do we not need to be told the German for the word, but we don’t need that tortuous last sentence either.

The author fails in what I’d have thought a primary requirement for a general account of the development of quantum theory — the requirement that he make a difficult topic comprehensible. His technique seems to be just to baldly state the mathematics and move on — that footnote is typical of his style of explanation. Don’t waste your time leafing back to find out just what the significance of h/4π is. You’ll just find more of the same.*

The culprits in all this inadequacy — and they really should know better — are Oxford University Press, UK. The book is The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments by Jim Baggott, 2011. (While they were at it they might have ditched that subtitle too. “Wittily” the book does contain 40 chapters. Duh!) When academic publishers get hold of what they think of as a trade book, they seem to lose their minds. Just because you hope to sell it to a lot of non-specialist, general readers, does not mean that you don’t have to edit the book to make sure it’s accurate and appropriate. Sure they’ll never know, but isn’t that the point? Aren’t you publishing the book so they may learn. OUP has a longish history of publishing trade books — maybe they are determined to abandon this strand of their publishing program? If you just want a narrative account of the development of quantum theory, which is effectively all Mr Baggott at great length gives you, you’ll be better served by the much shorter, slightly fictionalized account by Chilean author Benjamin Labatut, When we cease to understand the world (Translated by Adrian Nathan West, and published by Pushkin Press 2020, New York Review Books 2021).


*Years ago I read a Cambridge University Press book which did a much better job of explaining this sort of stuff to the layman: David Mermin’s Boojums all the way through (1990).

On 1 April 1977 The Guardian published a 7-page travel supplement on the Islands of San Seriffe which I am only finding out about now, because Alan Harvey tweeted a link. The entire supplement may be viewed here.

The islands, ruled over by General M. J. Pica, and whose shape is hauntingly reminiscent of the semicolon had by then been independent for ten years. Development had been rapid, and the island nation was alleged to be on the move, and scheduled to collide with Sri Lanka “at a velocity of 940 km an hour on January 3, 2011”. Luckily we must have been looking away on that particular day.

Regular readers doubtless require no elucidation, but a gloss of the offshore island of Ova Mata, intriguingly belonging still to Spain, as “over matter” (excess copy you can’t fit in) and the town of Nomp, presumably short for Nonpareil, 6 point type, might help. A few of the allusions I don’t get: e.g. Adze. We are told “English is the working language. Caslon is used on ceremonial occasions, and there is a language (Ki-flong) indigenous to the Flongs”. Appropriately the capital, Bodoni, is located in the Upper Caisse.

I often find myself suppressing the urge to use the word font when talking about typefaces. A typeface is a design for type — Times Roman is a typeface, as is Helvetica Neue, the typeface used here I believe. Properly speaking a font is all the Times Roman or Helevetica Neue characters needed for say 14 point setting. See Font for a clearer definition.

Here’s a sensible set of advice about text design from The Design Team. Under the heading The Type Snob they do actually include the advice to give up on that trivial vocabulary distinction. Well, I’ll try. 

It may not be immediately obvious to the outsider, but the first step the book designer needs to take is to decide what typeface (oops, font) will be used for the text. The text comprises the majority of the words in the book, so it’s appropriately basic. If you get wedded to a display face, you’ll probably struggle to get to a matching text font. Leave the fancy stuff for later. So how does the designer decide the text will be set in Times Roman or in Helvetica Neue? (In the case of this blog the decision comes as part and parcel with the layout template provided by WordPress.)

In the olden, hot-metal days the requirement that the printer you were going to use actually had the typeface you wanted was clearly fundamental. In a hot metal world you might find that Caslon was available at printer X only in 10, 12, and 18 point sizes for Roman and Italic, 10 and 12 for Bold, 10, 14, and 18pt for Bold Italic. If the book was going to have lots of footnotes, you’d need maybe an 8 point size — so either you changed printer or more likely changed typeface. This constraint continued into film setting days. Nowadays this is no longer an issue as the fonts travel in the computer files along with the text.

So back then there was much consulting of printers’ type books. The bigger printers would have many typefaces, so choice was not lacking. Certain faces were considered appropriate for certain subject matters — we might use Modern for science because the printer had an unrivaled array of mathematical sorts. Garamond, Bembo and such old style faces were considered appropriate for literary topics. We often inclined to Ehrhardt as it could squeeze a lot of text onto a page. Unless there’s a compelling reason you should avoid setting the text of a book in any sans serif face — the presence of a small serif improves readability, and sans should be reserved for headings (if you have to), signage and adverts. A further problem with most sans faces is the confusion potential between Cap “eye”, the number 1 and lower case “ell”. Under all circumstances fancy fonts like Comic Sans should be shunned.

The aim of good typography is that it should be invisible, operating at a subconscious level. You don’t want the reader stopping and exclaiming “What a beautiful W” or, worse, the opposite. The only communication which should be going on is between author and reader. Designers are not part of the conversation: they should aim to be just the air through which the sound waves travel..

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

T.S. Shanbhag, who once owned Premier Bookshop in Bengaluru (Bangalore) died May 2 at the age of 84, after contracting Covid-19. His Premier Bookshop, which carried only books in English, in splendid apparent confusion, had closed in 2009.

Robert Gray memorializes him in Shelf Awareness14 May issue. Ramachandra Guha writes about him at

The Economist, the world leader in obituaries, remembers him in their 15 May issue.  “On that day, 161 Bangaloreans died of the virus. He was probably among the most unassuming of them. But what had also died with him, many felt, was a rare part of old Bangalore, an unhurried place far distant from the slick and booming version, together with an old-fashioned style of quiet full-hearted service. In that small corner of the city he had made a sanctuary, along with Prem Koshy, whose coffee had kept him and the browsers going. Koshy’s was open as usual; the metal blinds came down only for lockdowns or personal bereavements. But inside Mr. Koshy sighed for ‘the angel of my books.’ ”