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.