Archives for the month of: September, 2021

We all know papyrus — it’s in the Bible isn’t it? It’s a sort of paper used by ancient Egyptians, isn’t it? But we are probably all a little vague about what it actually is.

Well it’s made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus. Slice it thin, soak it, then lay out a double layer of strips at right angles to each other, press the resultant web to dry it, and there you have it, a sheet you can write on.

Open Culture, via Shelf Awareness for Readers, sends us this charming video story about papyrus. It takes you through all the steps of papyrus making and goes on to give a bit of history as well as a look at current (tourist-driven) demand.

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

I discover I already wrote about papyrus four years ago: Papyrus, with a different video.

Publishing has proved to be an ideal business for in-home working. This would not have been true twenty years ago. I can remember a disgruntled commuter in the eighties being pissed off that I wouldn’t let her work from home using her land-line phone and the mailbox. Might have worked for an editor even then, but for book manufacturing in an analog age, clearly a non-starter. Now if rather than send another email an office worker gets up and walks across the office for face-to-face contact, this tends to be nothing more than an opportunity to get up from your desk to stretch your legs. Now that we’ve streamlined computer systems this means that working from home functions pretty much exactly like working in the office, just with a different background to your Zoom picture. Now that books fly digitally from author to editor, to copyeditor, to production department, to printer, home working works almost as smoothly as office working.

Goofing off might be seen as the main potential problem. Not that you couldn’t always walk past people’s pods in the office and observe sudden screen refreshing as that social media or shopping site was hurriedly replaced by the inventory statistics from the warehouse, but if workers are at home, you can’t be sure they are not calling you from the beach, can you? My observation however is that productivity must have gone up during home working. Emails arrive at 5am, and weekends are still labelled Saturday and Sunday, but are otherwise pretty indistinguishable from weekdays. Despite initial despair more books that before have been published, and sales have also boomed.

Most publishers are holding off on demanding workers return to the office. Many offices are “open” without (m)any staff present. Packages can be received and people may go in periodically to arrange shipping out a package or two. Lots of people already had laptops, and many have been bought by employers. IT systems were already getting much slicker before the pandemic, and now are by and large clicking along. Of course it’s possible that this energetic working from home will turn out to be a temporary phenomenon, and people will start unilaterally cutting their hours. I’m not sure it’d be uniformly true but I suspect that a sharp reduction in home working hours would fairly quickly become obvious. But maybe it’s not a problem at all: maybe people actually do prefer working from home and will strive to keep bosses happy too. It is tough for new employees to find out just how to do things, something which they used to pick up from colleagues in a usually informal way. There’s the social side of things too, and I hear that it’s younger employees who have been going into the office. I wonder if we’ll ever get back to full 9-5 5-day a week working in the office. Most places will be allowing for days in office and days working from home.

Here, from Publishers Lunch of 21 September is a rundown of the big New York publishers’ plans.

The plan is to reopen facilities in New York, Princeton, and Montage, PA on October 4, with employees working there 2-3 days per week. “We are moving ahead with the next phase of our gradual return to in-person work beginning the week of October 4. This is a pilot period during which we hope to learn more about how hybrid work functions at HarperCollins. Coming into the office during this interim period is not mandatory.”

“While working from the office is officially voluntary, some employees report that they will be expected to be there in person.” HarperCollins is the only one of the five largest trade publishers without a vaccine mandate. Unvaccinated employees must have a negative covid test result within the previous 7 days. Masks are required at all times for those who aren’t vaccinated, and recommended for vaccinated staff in common areas. Social distancing measures will be in effect

Penguin Random House
The PRH office reopened on Sept 13, though working there remains entirely optional. Vaccination is required for all staff and visitors to the office, and the company requires employees to wear masks “at all times and in all areas, including inside offices.”

Macmillan’s offices will open partially on October 18, with full reopening planned for January 10, 2022 or later. During the partial opening attendance is optional, visitors are not permitted, and vaccination is required. Masks are mandatory except when alone in a meeting room or while eating.

Simon & Schuster
Following parent company ViacomCBS, most employees won’t return to the office until October 18 at the earliest, and that will be a hybrid work model. Any employee who returns before that must be vaccinated, though the company has not announced whether vaccination will be required in October. All employees are required to wear a mask while indoors.

After postponing their September reopening, HBG has not rescheduled an official office return but they have said it won’t be until 2022. They will give employees at least four weeks notice. As of August 9, any employee who does go into the office must be vaccinated and masked “unless you are alone in a conference room or at your desk without anyone in an adjoining cubicle.”

For a view from a year ago please see Reopening publishing.

People who love ebooks seem completely unable to accept that any other opinion is tenable: ebooks are self-evidently better. The fact that the market for ebooks in America is stalled at below 20% must be proof of some plot by publishers seeking to force us all into reading books on paper just like we always did.

Among these irrationalists is The New Publishing Standard, a site which provides a great deal of good information about the world book market, yet seems unable to see the wood for the e-trees. The reason publishers sell printed books is that book buyers want to buy them. Book buyers are not being forced to go into bookshops because they were unable to get an ebook and had to settle for a lousy printed version. You might as well complain that there’s no paperback edition and you had to buy a hardback. Just wait and it’ll come to you.

Even the most uninformed person can surely figure out that it’s a lot more profitable to sell an ebook than a printed book. If publishers were to get together and plot anything, wouldn’t you think it would be to make people buy only ebooks, not the opposite? There’s no parallel publishing universe in which publishers are trying to suppress ebooks — there’s a parallel universe in which commentators look at pseudo-evidence and see imaginary plots.

Maybe we should regret the inability of some publishers to stay true to their product — see Mr Williams’ latest post for instance reporting dead-pan on Bloomsbury’s statement that “streaming . . .  represents a core strand in our strategic growth plans”, and Oxford University Press’s recent embarrassing logo change motivated by their leaders’ desire to look “modern”.

In this month’s column at Publishing Perspectives Richard Charkin talks sense about Open Access in academic publishing. He cautions about all-or-nothing answers; and there’s no doubt going to continue to be a variety of ways to pay for access to research work.

It perhaps needs to be noted that when we talk about Open Access (free) publishing we are really talking about journals publishing, not monograph or other book publishing, though it is of course theoretically possible that Open Access could be extended up the monograph mountain.

In a way it’s perhaps surprising how academic publishers have gone along with the idea of Open Access. After all, it’s not to be expected is it, that any business would welcome a distribution model which guaranteed everyone free access to their product? Cynically I suspect that publishers initially went along with the idea because their source of product (authors) was all for it, and to object would make them look like a non-team player, and a house to be shunned because of Luddite leanings. Of course it quickly got to the point where free access was understood just to mean free to the reader, not really free, without cost. So now the authors pay not the libraries, and on we go. The money gets to the publisher; just from a different direction.

It has never seemed unambiguously clear to me why having the author pay publication costs is better than having the ultimate purchaser, usually a library, pay the publisher for the costs involved in getting the work to the public (plus a bit of profit of course). Authors now have to raise the money for their publishing charges, which usually takes place as some part of the funding used to finance their original research. This tends to favor scientists, since funding for reading and thinking about The Canterbury Tales is not usually widely available, and unsurprisingly there’s less talk of Open Access in the humanities.

© V. Tracz

The old way of doing things — author submits article to journal editor; editor sends it out to his/her peer review team; journal eventually agrees to publish; puts article in queue for publication; when eventually its turn comes, article is typeset and proofed; journal is printed and mailed to subscribers — did certainly take a long time. Maybe we did once live in more leisurely times, but a six-to-twelve-month delay in publication cannot really be said to be “a good thing”. Publishing right away, unedited, unrevised obviously carries with it the risk of error. If it was all good one way there’d be no debate. An additional wrinkle comes from the fact that publication is a necessary mode of validation: promotion comes to those who publish much in good journals.

People use the information in journals, and monographs, in different ways: not just different people using them differently, but each person using the journals in different ways at different times for different reasons. Academic publishers, having grasped the nettle of on-line access have discovered that having digital information available free of charge doesn’t lead to an absence (even necessarily a decline) of sales. For their different uses academics seems happy to buy the printed book, as well as to be able to access it on-line for free (or as part of their library’s subscription array). A physical book is needed for some uses, while quick reference to an on-line resource works better in other instances.

Still, it does seem that the OA ball is rolling down this hill with unstoppable velocity, at least as far as journals in the sciences are concerned, and that the funding model for journals publishing is changing for good, whether that’s for the best or not. I dare say that in a few years all science articles will be available to all free on-line without the involvement of publishers, while humanities journals will remain in print, looking more and more like serious magazines. Along the way we will have worked out a method of being able to quickly tell a good on-line free article from a worthless one. Vitek Tracz’s F1000 shows one way forward: he talks about this in the video accompanying Mr Charkin’s piece.

See also Knowledge wants to be free? especially for the link to the Aaron Swartz video.

Printing: a gift from the heavens

Mental Floss tells us what eight old books smell like. Whether they believe that this smell would be the same in a different copy of the book isn’t altogether clear — but I suspect not. But it might be a nice idea to have your books printed with inks which were scented in some appropriate way. My boss used to receive an advance copy of any book by cracking it open and smelling it. This was done out of a love for the smell of paper and ink combined with glue which any new book has. But imagine if each one was unique. Thus a mechanics text might be redolent of machine oil, or would that be reserved for car repair manuals? Horses smell good: why shouldn’t books about them? You could just open any copy of War and Peace, take a sniff of gunpowder and night roses, and have the whole story flash before you. I suppose we’d want to have all Tolstoy within the same scent family, while George Eliot say would be located in a different, more buckram-bound area of the aroma map. The National Institutes of Health reveal that we humans can allegedly identify more than a trillion smells, so while we might not be able to cover every book ever published now or in the future, we could make a brave new start on this enterprise.

This research project is not to be confused with The scent of a book.

If your old (and valuable) book is so loose it’s almost falling out of its case, then you need to take it apart, resew it and put it into a new set of covers.

This process is referred to as disbind-rebind. Too bad in a way that our language allows us ugly word formations like disbind, though it is quite clear what it means. You can follow step by step the reconstruction of an old and damaged book at The Folger Library via this story at The Collation. The account is so thorough and detailed that at the end you’ll think you could do the job yourself.

On a similar topic: it’s nice just to look at this video recounting the refurbishment (another unfortunate word) of another old volume. This one includes touching up damaged foil stamping and the recreation of a missing first sig.

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

The story comes from a LitHub post., and features Sophia Bogle of Save Your Books.

One of the unfortunate consequences of our modern super-efficient book manufacturing processes is that future bibliophiles will not be able to carry out this sort of repair on the books we buy in bookstores today. The logic of manufacturing development spurs us on to the point where replacement becomes more efficient than repair. Who turns collars or even darns socks nowadays? Let’s hope there will be some kind of non-digital replacement copies of our best books available for purchase in 100 years. I expect there will be because as a business becomes more and more efficient, so simultaneously grows up alongside it a sort of craft nostalgia equivalent creating more expensive products done in the old way. Craft beer for example, and of course all the small letterpress print shops around the world.

Via The Passive Voice comes this reflection from The Atlantic on the ebook vs p-book disagreement.

The author, Ian Bogost of Washington University in St Louis cites lack of care and attention to design and structure as one of his beefs with the ebook. This is fair enough but is only significant (to me anyway) when it comes to non-fiction. Reading a clunkily designed story isn’t really much different than reading a layout beauty, but endnotes, graphs, tables, maps, cross references — forget about it! Professor Bogost goes on to allow himself to be a bit too dismissive of the production standards of self-published books. There are lots of self-publishers who care (one at least of whom is a regular reader of these posts), and there are, one has to confess, lots and lots of traditionally published books which appear to have had no in-house attention. One sometimes gets the impression that you need to be a bestseller to get a copyeditor assigned to you in a trade house — not I hasten to add that bestsellers are uniformly well written, or that the special consideration always works.

Bookishness seems to be the explanation for such attitudes. But not so much the conventional view of bookishness — which I think of as denoting someone who’s always reading a book and always loves to tell you about it. It’s what your basic attitude towards the word “book”. If your inner idea of a book involves paper etc., then it’s unlikely you’re going to want to read everything on the Kindle. If you think of a book as something wider ranging, either as anything that can be read like the a newspaper or a theater program, or just as “content”, then medium is likely to become almost irrelevant.

One cannot repeat it often enough, but publishers are not engaged in any battle against ebooks. Their attitude towards this format is governed by the fact that most people still want to buy the paper thing. More profit is available from an ebook, because reproduction costs are minimal, so in principle publishers should favor them, but if people won’t buy the things, what are you meant to do? Will things change? Of course — we just don’t have any idea in which direction they’ll change.

Michael Holdsworth, late of Cambridge University Press, has died. At the age of 73, on holiday in France, he had a heart attack. What a shock.

Tributes to him have been springing up on Facebook and elsewhere. To me, the main feature of working with Michael was that he was always right. (Maybe what I mean is I always found myself agreeing with him.) People have stressed his positive alignment to print-on-demand, a novelty of the nineties, but I think it’s hard to find anyone (or at least anyone of our or later generations) in university press and academic publishing who wasn’t more or less positively aligned to POD. That he worked to make effective this one-off strategy is the real point: and he did. Probably the thing I’ve spent most time blessing him for is getting us Macs in the office, at a time when it was deemed right and proper to invest in PCs.

Here’s a link to The Bookseller‘s obituary.

It’s all a lot more straightforward getting a book ready for the printer than it used to be in the days of analog working. But computers are unforgiving — give them the wrong instruction and they’ll faithfully execute the flawed plan. No more good old compositor Bill glancing at it and seeing there’s something wrong which he can rectify quite simply, at worst by a phone call.

Printing Impressions has an informative article on the commonest errors in files submitted for printing. In order to make out that everything is ship-shape and Bristol fashion the printer will run a test on the files submitted by the publisher. This test is referred to as pre-flighting.

The most frequent pre-flight problems discovered in customer-supplied PDFs are

  • The resolution of images is too low
  • Use of incorrect or unwanted color spaces
  • Bleed is missing
  • Fonts are not embedded in the PDF
  • There are problems with transparency
  • The PDF file contains an incorrect number of spot colors
  • There is an issue with overprint
  • Total ink coverage is too high
  • Incorrect ICC profiles are used
  • The dimensions of the PDF do not match the requested size
  • There are issues with flattened transparency

So take care. Check-lists are always a good idea.

Unsurprisingly, substituting a book for a brick is not a sound construction principle.

If the book were to be brick-thick, and were printed on archival paper, we might well be able to construct an interesting castle using only copies of The Castle. I expect we could get archival paper that’d last as long as some bricks. The main trouble might be persuading your guards not to pry out a book brick to read while whiling away the night watch, though if you kept to multiple copes of the one book, this might only be a passing problem.

Jorge Méndez Blake – The Castle, 2007, Bricks, edition of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, 2300 x 1750 x 400 cm

Jorge Méndez Blake has elected to show us the impact of a book, The Castle, by building this wall, with nice buttresses behind it to help prevent its falling on Kafka fans. See Public Delivery for the story, which assures us that the artwork explores “the impact of external forces on architecture”.

In Book buildings I explored a few of these literary structures.