Archives for the month of: November, 2021

Mark Williams of The New Publishing Standard recently took me to task for suggesting that he was anti-publisher. Now he’s after publishers again: “For the many publisher [sic] who are still proudly wearing their 1990s blinkers and have convinced themselves the internet is undermining reading and the publishing industry, be aware of the following . . .”. This comes in the course of a piece about the sudden popularity of a book first published in 1934 (or maybe 1943; his headline says one, his text the other) — suddenly popular due to the activities of BookTok.

Mr Williams may know one or two publishers who have convinced themselves that the internet is “undermining reading and the publishing industry”, but I haven’t run up against any such. He may also have met one or two who think the world is flat not round, but again, I haven’t. He does instance Africa, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Indonesia “where it seems many publishers are still wedded to the idea that the internet is the enemy of reading and the enemy of publishing.” So maybe his strictures are addressed exclusively to those places? For American and British publishers, when over 50% of your sales are being made via the internet it would have to be a very odd person who believed that the internet was undermining their business.

What, by implication, Mr Williams seems to be suggesting is that publishers are crazy not to reprint everything they ever published, because, isn’t it obvious — any book at all can become wildly successful when social media pick it up? Think we haven’t thought about that? Maybe Mr Williams has a method of forecasting what is going to be the next TikTok sensation. Let it be pointed out that it took a blinkered publisher — OK, a crowdfunded publisher; though I’m not sure how that qualifier should make them any less a publisher — to reissue this book before TikTok could weave its magic. First the old book has to be reissued, then maybe social media lightning may strike — or may not.

Too many commentators use news of good outcomes as an excuse to criticize the parties involved for not creating even more good outcomes: this is a story about how the system worked, Mr Williams, not an example of something wrong.

1934 Gollancz edition

The book in question is Cain’s Jawbone, an oddball project: a mystery story originally published in a puzzle book. As The Bookseller tells us “Authored by the Observer’s first cryptic crossword setter, Edward Powys Mathers, Cain’s Jawbone was first published by Gollancz in 1934, under his pen name Torquemada. It was written with the pages deliberately out of order so readers are invited to solve the murder mystery by re-ordering the 100 pages.” Two people solved this apparently extraordinarily hard problem in 1935, and got prizes of £25. We are told “The number of possible combinations of individual pages generates a figure with 158 zeroes. It is full of red herrings and blind alleys.” The solution was believed to be lost but has been “discovered” by the Lawrence Sterne Trust, who are behind the republication. John Mitchinson of Unbound, the publisher, said: “It’s always nice when a publishing idea from another age suddenly finds itself fashionable again. Three years ago, I was sitting with my elderly father, enjoying tea and cake with Patrick Wildgust in Laurence Sterne’s study at Shandy Hall in Coxwold, North Yorkshire. Patrick, who is the live-in curator of that wonderful house, showed me his copy of The Torquemada Puzzle Book from 1934 which contained the text of Cain’s Jawbone and we both had the same idea.” Maybe all publishers have to go for tea at Shandy Hall.

See also TikTok, BookTok.

Later: on 2 December The Bookseller tells us Unbound has ordered a reprint of 70,000 copies of Cain’s Jawbone, which, rather impressively, they expect to reach bookstore mid-December.

Stephen Sondheim’s two-volume book of lyrics was a clear precursor of Paul McCartney’s.

The layout is less elegant: of course theatre lyrics require more space, so there’s a three-column layout. It’s a Knopf book, so we get more production details than with most books. It’s set in Berkeley Oldstyle composed at North Market Street Graphics in Lancaster, PA, and printed and bound by Quad/Graphics in Taunton, MA. Volume 1, Finishing the Hat was published in 2010, followed in 2011 by Volume 2: Look, I Made a Hat. There’s something a bit odd going on with bold face. Sometimes it’s used for footnotes, sometimes for commentary These books may, I guess, be a case where running feet are not altogether unjustifiable.

Sondheim is interested in teaching, and his books work almost like a college self-supervision. He’s eager to show us where he went wrong, and to explain why he made this or that decision. Musical theater lyrics, and popular song lyrics are a bit different of course, but much of what he says translates I’m sure.

“Lyrics, [for the musical theater] even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort.” “Music straightjackets a poem and prevents it breathing on its own, while it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.”

When you read the lyrics here or in McCartney’s book, you cannot avoid hearing the melody as you read them. And this points up the requirement placed upon the lyricist to allow the music to call the shots — if the music stresses the “wrong” word the performer has to resist the temptation to overemphasize “and” rather than “think”. To illustrate this point here’s a zany 1989 arrangement of a Sondheim song, triumphantly sung (OK, it is a bit mannered), showing the power of the material to overcome the Pet Shop Boys’ arrangement.

Stephen Sondheim (born 22 March 1930) died on Friday 26 November. What a loss! Two of his shows are currently being performed in New York. Sondheim can’t have been right when he wrote (in his introduction to these volumes) “I used to think that the need for live theater would never die. I fear I was wrong.” His body of work is part of the conclusive argument against.

Costs $100, and has been chosen by Barnes & Noble as its book of the year. Well timed for Christmas, obviously.

As Shelf Awareness tells us: “B&N CEO James Daunt commented: ‘The Lyrics is an extraordinary book. It is stunningly beautiful and a masterpiece of book design. Paul McCartney has fashioned, through the explorations of his songs with the poet Paul Muldoon, a fascinating insight into his life and creative genius. No wonder the booksellers of Barnes & Noble have hailed this magnificent and deeply original book.'”

It is indeed a nicely designed book, but unfortunately Volume 1 opens with a design boo-boo. Page vii is blank. You are not allowed to leave a right hand page (recto) with nothing on it once you have started putting ink on the pages. You can begin the book with as many blanks as you can get away with, but as soon as you’ve printed anything on a recto — usually the half-title will be the first such item — you cannot leave any other recto blank until you get to the end of the book, after the index etc., where once again you can leave as many pages blank as you’d like.

Who is it that makes this rule? Not sure. It’s convention, but convention so rigid that everyone in the business seems to have silently internalized it, and looking at the spread above immediately recognizes that something’s wrong. Maybe it began in the same sort of way as the half-title convention did, so that you’d not have a blank on the outside of a section after it had been folded. Such a blank could lead to the possibility of the section being included at the wrong place in the gathered book block, whereas if it showed a bit of text and a page number it couldn’t (as easily) be gathered in the wrong sequence.

The Lyrics error is so “obvious” that it would seem that it had to be a mix-up. The epigraph on page vi must have been intended for p. vii. With a book of this magnitude it’s surprising that this was missed in proof or even at f&gs stage. Maybe they did notice it in f&gs and couldn’t reprint the sig (as most publishers would want to do) because of supply chain problems — scarce press time, or more likely paper backlogs.

I might have preferred to see this pair of lines dropped a bit lower on the page, a comment which would also apply to the dedication on the preceding page, which is aligned flush right. It’s no big deal, but they both look a bit lonely way up there. Having said that, I have to reflect that the alignment of this pair of lines, both flush left, rather militates against my contention that this was just a mix-up. If these lines had been intended for the following page, they would have been aligned at the right hand end of the second line. Maybe there was once something else on this page and it got dropped at the last moment?

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize there was a pretty chaotic and inadequate effort by his publisher to make his newly hallowed lyrics available to an eager public. Paul McCartney has been brilliantly served by his publisher, Liverright (a division of W. W. Norton), and by his editor, Paul Muldoon who contributes a critical essay. The 154 songs, not just Beatles’ songs of course, are printed in alphabetical order each with a substantial and informative commentary by McCartney including lots of four-color photos. Perhaps almost over-cutely the book is set in a specially designed typeface “Rigby” — but even this turns out to be a success.

Get it for Christmas. Shop early. The book’s printed in China, so they won’t be restocking this year.

Robert Gray reports at Shelf Awareness about Addison del Mastro’s research into the reuse of the retail locations which were left vacant when Borders, the bookstore chain, went bust. (Scroll down to the bottom for his story.) Mr Del Mastro’s piece was published at The Bulwark.

I think it’s still a bit too soon to be definite about this, but the world of retail does appear to be in the middle (at the start?) of a fundamental change. A century ago shops used to be little establishments, with a few Selfridge-descended department stores in big cities. I grew up in the Borders, like South Wales a madhouse of rugby football, where we used to have only small, local, shops: the only national chain in sight was the John Menzies kiosk at the railway station. I used to spend many an afternoon after school in Mr McCrirrick’s Ladies’ & Gent.’s Outfitters [gotta love that precise punctuation] chatting with the proprietor about Gala rugby players of a previous generation.

Here’s a bill from him from 1946, which tells its own story.

Mr McCrirrick was slight and precise, with thinning hair, always dressed in dark suit, white shirt and sober tie, and looking at you through National Health spectacles. Except for the fact that he was a really nice man, he channels Uriah Heep in the memory. He’d be found standing behind the dark, polished wood counter that spanned two-thirds of the back part of his little shop just down from Bank Street Brae. I never knew whether he was R or M: he was always and only just Mr McCrirrick. The counter space was framed, again in mahogany, with shelves and discreet drawers, which also covered the wall behind him, surrounding and symbolically protecting the unfailingly polite shopkeeper. Little if any merchandise was on anything as vulgar as display. I would sit on one of the two bent-wood chairs provided for customers of which there seem to have been few in my memory. When someone did enter — the bell hanging on a bent metal spring would tinkle, and I’d move aside into a corner. A drawer would be pulled out, a little cardboard box removed, and the lid raised to display a few pairs of dark grey woolen socks. Quiet serious words would be exchanged and a few shillings rung up in the till. And then we could start to talk about T. P. Carruthers and Tom Dorward again.

When was it that such one-on-one retail establishments went the way of all flesh? Well of course we still have bodegas and a few local hardware stores in our City, but real merchandise — clothing, food, appliances — is sold in bigger, slicker establishments. But starting in the eighties people began to believe that expansion was the royal road to business success. The big box store developed in step with the shopping mall — suburban shoppers would drive to the mall and load up. This model of retailing was in retreat before the arrival of Covid, but everyone’s recent reluctance to go out has certainly accelerated the changeover to whatever the new model’s going to be. Delivery is now much more the driver.

About five years ago we were able, by dint of local action to save our supermarket from being turned into an unnecessary large chain pharmacy. Neighborhoods, we are beginning to acknowledge, need food shops and other local merchants. Just how this will balance out against the huge growth of delivery of all sorts of merchandise is not yet clear.

Borders, started in 1971 in Ann Arbor, MI., was a successful high street bookseller until they succumbed to the expansion bug and branched out hugely. When they shut down in 2009, Borders left behind more than 500 empty, large, retail locations. Most of these, in anti-Goldilocks mode, were just the wrong size — too large, and yet not large enough. A few have been subdivided, but 12% of them remain vacant.

Binc is Borders’ real legacy (though Barnes & Noble bought the name). Binc stands for Book Industry Charitable Foundation, and it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Binc, as Mr Gray tells us in his article, “was founded in 1996 as the Borders Group Foundation, with funding from company executives, staff payroll contributions, publishers and vendors. During that period, Borders employees donated an average of $4.17 per paycheck. From the beginning, the foundation’s aim was to help booksellers in need and to provide scholarships. The foundation was built ‘by book people for book people,’ [executive director] Pamela French says.” Unsurprisingly demand/need has increased during the pandemic, but as LitHub reported last year so too have contributions.

Alien is another word which we have inherited from the French, who in turn got it from Rome. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s etymology really goes to town on the word: “classical Latin aliēnus (adjective) of or belonging to others, unnatural, unusual, unconnected, separate, of another country, foreign, unrelated, of a different variety or species, unfamiliar, strange, unfriendly, unsympathetic, unfavourable, inappropriate, incompatible, distasteful, repugnant, (noun) person or slave belonging to another person, foreigner, stranger, outsider “. With a bundle of signification like that dragging along in the background, it’s not too surprising that “alien” might be a word that needs some rehabilitation.

Now comes, via Publishers Weekly, the liberating news that alien is being dumped from the Library of Congress cataloging system’s subject heading list. “Aliens” and “Illegal Aliens” will be replaced by “Noncitizens” and “Illegal immigration”. Does this mark another step down the road of reserving the term “aliens” for those little green men who keep visiting us in their UFOs?

Everyone wants to shout about the merger;
"You gone about as fer as you should go".
They think that things were better
When publishers didn't grow,
When Random was a cottage
And S&S lay low . . .

The merger/acquisition will of course make a difference. If Random House buys Simon & Schuster they will together make up a huge company. It’ll be different — but that doesn’t have to mean it’ll be worse. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the merger is based upon competitive harm to authors.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch says that the lawsuit comes twenty years too late. She harks back to a day when there were many big publishers. I think she undersells herself: we’ve been merging and acquisitioning for ever, but especially since the last quarter of the last century. Why claim just twenty years? — make it fifty, make it five hundred, make a real statement! When I started in publishing Longman was (I think) the biggest publisher around. They had a long history and had prospered by a move into educational publishing. Who’s heard of them now? — though they do still exist, as part of Pearson. Back then there were lots of publishers, almost all with less than a dozen editors, and books managed to get published — both good ones and we have to admit, bad ones. There were hundreds of little bookshops — one in every little town, the rear-view mirror suggests — and everyone cared about books. Nonsense — books are much easier to obtain now, literacy rates are much higher today, many more books are available, and while books buyers are still a minority, they are now a much bigger minority than they were back in the nineteenth century.

Now there are of course still lots of publishing houses — it’s just that many of them are actually owned by bigger ones. Penguin Random House has nearly 275 of them, each (in principle) running an independent editorial policy, with their own dedicated staff, all sharing sales, distribution, accounting and the back office services. Publishers don’t acquire other imprints in order to squeeze authors — they seek “efficiencies” in these shared publishing areas. There seem to still be economic arguments in favor of such consolidation — or we wouldn’t keep doing it — whatever the commentariat may think, publishers are not stupid.

Ms Rusch’s main motive for her regret seems to be that “In the 1990s, my books routinely went to auction, and we always got a higher price for the books than the initial offer.” I don’t know when the concept of an auction in the signing of books* took root, but I don’t believe we had dreamt of it in the nineteen-sixties. Of course Britain, back then, was a more reticent society than it is today (and than USA always was) and it would have been considered “bad form” to dicker too publicly about money. But I suspect the system got under way in the late eighties. Unfortunately for Ms Rusch she may have lived through the golden (financial) age of popular literature. Advances will be continuing of a downward track whether there are five or five hundred publishers: you can’t survive as a business if you keep pissing away money needlessly.

Authors and agents ought to want more and more competition between more and more publishers at more and more rights auctions. Thus are advances bid up. Publishers ought to want fewer of these occasions on which their competitive enthusiasm may run a way with them, making them overbid. From the authors’ point of view the great thing about advances is that they are a bird in the hand, and often a rather larger bird than turns up at your bird feeder. As I keep on saying most advances don’t earn out — in other words most book advances are for more money than the book ever makes in royalties. This isn’t a good business plan if you are a publisher — exactly the opposite if you are an author. The DoJ is weighing in on the side of the authors, in what I suspect will end up proving a rather weak case.

Mike Shatzkin is more realistic in his piece Doubts about the Department of Justice’s objection . . . . He suggests that unearned advance payments are in effect a way for publishers to pay higher royalties to favored authors without paying higher royalties to all of them. Without access to the minds of trade publishers, it’s hard to know whether or not this is right — but it does have a look of plausibility. He sees only one or two hundred of the biggest authors as being affected by the change the DoJ seems intent on saving all authors from, and indeed foresees an ultimate reduction in royalty terms to all but the biggest-selling authors. I rather doubt that such an intention (or possibility) exists. Whether your competitors are half your size or nearly the same size as you are, they can still sell books, especially nowadays when the ability to pack every bookstore in the country with your book on publication day has become less and less important as online sales have taken over so much of the retail market. Nobody is suggesting that a combined PRH + S&S would have the power to outsell every less large publisher. A book that can sell a million copies will sell a million copies regardless of who the publisher is — nobody out there, except for other publishers, cares who the publisher of a book might be. What buyers want is the book. Thus I can see no motive for an author to accept a lower royalty from anyone. Trim your offerings too much and self publishing beckons.

The logic of the business does appear to be pushing us towards a single gigantic book distribution system served by a multiplicity of little service companies and freelancers involved in “content creation”.


* There’s no fundamental difference in “selling” your book to a publisher after a quiet discussion or two, or setting up a time-limited auction where you get a few publishers under time constraint to bid competitively. As Karen Dionne tells us at Huffington Post “When a [book] project goes to auction, agents select a convenient date for all involved and establish the rules. Most auctions are conducted as round-robins by the agent. After the initial bids are received from interested editors by phone, fax, or e-mail, the lowest bidder is given the opportunity to outbid the highest. Then it’s the next-lowest bidder’s turn, and the auction proceeds in this manner until one bid stands and the auction ends.” The auction raises the excitement level in the hope that excited publishers will bid more than they would have if they’d had the chance to take their time and calmly think it through.

How do you print those 3-D images which materialize alongside the goal in televised international football matches? We also see images printed on the grass of some sports fields, a technique more favored at televised rugby games. We rugger buggers always loved getting mud and dirt all over ourselves, so paint just adds another dimension. Here we see a large box advertising BT at a recent World Cup qualifier game featuring multiple goals from Harry Kane:

From the second photo, with the camera at a different elevation, you can see that the apparent BT box is actually just a flat mat, cunningly printed, lying there just over the goal line.

Now, the temptation to view this advertising method as some sort of high-tech magic should be resisted. It’s just anamorphic perspective, as used in 1533 by Hans Holbein The Younger in his painting The Ambassadors to be found in The National Gallery in London.

At the bottom observe the heavily distorted skull, which if viewed from the “correct” viewpoint looks like this:

Advertisers know that when the football game is televised the vast majority of the action will be followed by cameras in the stands, and as these are all at the same height from the pitch the distortion needed to make the flat image appear to be standing up is a known amount. There are also cameras placed low-down in order to show corner kicks and other goal-mouth detail. Only when these lower-level cameras are in operation will the 3-D object be seen to collapse into flat reality. Nicest, which I wasn’t able to photograph, is when a player walks across the printed mat, making it appear as if he’s magically walking through a hoarding.

Anamorphosis goes even further back. Alcamenes and Phidias 5th century BC sculptors allegedly competed to create an image of Minerva. Alcamenes’ sculpture was seen as beautiful, while Phidias’ was out of proportion. However once they had both been mounted on tall pillars, it was seen that the different viewpoint reversed the judgement.

The process is analogous to the Ames Room effect, where, when viewed through a peephole the room appears in perfect perspective, while it in fact consists of irregular trapezoids. Such rooms are used in film making, where they can be used to distort proportions making Alice really large or absolutely tiny.

I’m always going on about how book design should be invisible. (OK, I’m a Stanley Morison fan.) Over-elaboration is a constant temptation for the book designer. After all if you sit there all day, every day, doing the same thing over and over, you get dull if you can’t introduce a flutter of fun every now and then. So you look for something clever for your display type.

I’m in the middle of reading The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. I think the title page is really quite attractive with its use of a rather extravagant swishy display face, It appears to be Venetian 301 with swashes added.

However, in the body of the book the designer is getting between me and the excellent text. I am rapidly developing a reluctance to turn the pages since I know I’ll be confronted by that coy, tickling fanciness at the top of every page. Just look at it:

You can click on the photo to enlarge it to get the full enormity of the running head.

It feels like every time you turn the page there’s the author, or worse, the Random House designer, the first thing you encounter on each verso, waving cheerfully at you and grinning “Have a nice day”!

Beware designers: it’s very easy to fall in love with a fancy typeface, but you have to THINK. What’s that face for? If you set the whole book in it your readers will throw up before they’ve made it through five pages. It’s a display font — use it for display. Anything fancy and elaborate cannot survive repetition: use it once, even twice, to get across the sense of delicate beauty (but is that really the soul of this book?) and then ditch it. The centered drop initial at the start of each chapter works — though, again, does it really communicate the appropriate feel for this fairly gritty story?

And page vii below looks like nothing more than an exercise in how to take a perfectly serious and pointed bit of poetry and kitschify it into incomprehensibility. Amazingly (and to my mind, quite instructively) setting that stanza from Auden’s The Shield of Achilles in fancy Venetian 301 italic type with massive interlinear spacing manages to trivialize it so much that it come across as if it were a stumbling, substandard greeting in a Hallmark card. It’s almost impossible to read like this.

Still the text page is OK: in my book you can’t miss with Bembo. (Well, I think it’s a version of Bembo though there’s something odd about the lower case e and the Italic Cap W.)

Why do people feel a running head is necessary in a novel? Running heads are useful in sign-posting where you are up to in a book — in a serious non-fiction book which requires navigational help. Being reminded on every page that you are reading The Vagrants, and that it’s by Yiyun Li, is information I can quite easily dispense with. If I really forget which book I’m reading it’s quite simple to close the damn thing and look at the cover! Get rid of the RH, and add another text line to each page and save a little paper please.

Odd chap Ezekiel, though perhaps not as odd as his Lord who delivers strange dietary directions. Here, in the Authorised Version (King James Version) is the start of The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapter 3.

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel. (2) So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll. (3) And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then I did eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.

This sounds a lot less strange than it really is, because of course we’re not here talking about a breakfast roll or a Tootsie roll. Roll actually means “scroll” which is how modern Bible translations tend to translate it. It’s obvious why you’d call a scroll a roll: you roll a scroll up after all. It seems that the French connection is once again responsible, with  Old French escrouele forming a point of origin.

Not really a square meal

Maybe we can detect a small trend in biblical book eating. In The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Chapter 10, St John is also instructed to eat up a book, though this time it’s a smaller titbit than a scroll might represent:

“And a voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take a little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standerth upon the sea and upon the earth. (9) And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, and it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. (10) And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.”

. . . as well you might expect. Cows, and other bovines presumably, can derive some nourishment from eating paper. We are not blessed with stomachs equipped to digest cellulose however, so we have to ingest our food for thought via our eyes or ears.

Here is Albrecht Dürer’s illustration of the event. Doesn’t really look like a little book, does it?

(Parenthetically, Jeremy points out in a comment that in the pictures I posted last week showing a book torn up by mice, the motive would more likely be nesting material rather than food.)

Bringing bibliophagy into the twenty-first century Plurabelle Books reports on a conference they organized in Cambridge, England, in 2011. There’s a certain amount of uncertainty about just how much of any particular book was consumed, despite suggestive photos, but they did have on the menu “bookwheat” bits.

To eat your words is a pretty odd expression too. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first reference to 1571 when John Calvin wrote (or more accurately his translator did) “God eateth not his word when he hath once spoken”. It seems to have arrived in its current idiomatic form by the early seventeenth century though, so it’s well established.

See also Codex.