Archives for the month of: December, 2021

On 26 November Shelf Awareness for Readers brought us the news that Cambridge Dictionary‘s Word of the Year 2021 is “perseverance”. In light of the fact that it’s Oxford towards which everyone directs their eyes for news of the year’s word, it shows admirable perseverance to offer up the Fenland choice yet again.

Merriam-Webster plumps for “vaccine” and Oxford itself (intent as they are on becoming ever hipper) opts for “vax”. provides an international round-up of words of the year. They tell us along the way that the tradition started in Germany in 1971 when the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (German Language Society) chose the first Wort des Jahres, which was aufmüpfig, an Austrian/Bavarian word meaning refractory. This year’s word for them is Wellenbrecher (breakwater), which only makes sense once you understand that this is the word used in Germany when reporting on anti-Covid regulation.

The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark! The herald angels sing” was written by Felix Mendelssohn as part of Festgesang zum Gutenbergfest, (Celebratory song at the Gutenberg festival) — or to give it its full title, Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säcularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst auf dem Marktplatz zu Leipzig stattfindenden Feierlichkeiten*) an oratorio composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable types. The work, for male chorus and two brass orchestras, was first performed in the Leipzig market square on 20 June 1840. The second section of the oratorio, with the melody of the Christmas carol, goes by the “title” Vaterland in deinen Gauen — the first four words of its text by Adolf Eduard Proelss (1803–1882). The text may be found at Wikipedia.

Vaterland, in deinen Gauen
brach der goldne Tag einst an.
Deutschland, deine Völker sahn
seinen Schimmer niedertauen.
Gutenberg, der deutsche Mann,
zündete die Fackel an.
                  which may be said to mean
Fatherland, in thy precincts
the golden day once dawned.
Germany, your people saw
the dew of its brilliance shimmer down.
Gutenberg, that German man,
Had ignited the torch.

The text we now recognize as “Hark! The herald angels sing” was written by John Wesley as “Hark how all the welkin rings”, and was published in 1739 in his Hymns and Sacred Poems. The herald angels were incorporated in 1758 by George Whitefield. In 1855 William Hayman Cummings adapted Mendelssohn’s melody from Festgesang to fit the Wesley/Whitefield text. Thus every December do we unwittingly pay tribute to the importance of printing.

I find it hard to believe this but such is the success of Mr Cummings’ adaptation that it seems to have completely crowded out the original on the internet. Search under “Vaterland in deinen Gauen”, “Festgesang zum Gutenbergfest” or “WoO 9, MWV D 4” with or without Mendelssohn, and you won’t find a single recorded version using the original German text. All you’ll get is “Hark! The Herald Angels” whatever the label may say — so here you are: you’ll just have to substitute the German text as you sing along.

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

As far as I know Mendelssohn (1809-47) has not been reached for comment on this move from secular to sacred.


* Anglice: Celebratory song for the inauguration which will take place on the first day of the festival marking the fourth centenary of the discovery of the art of book printing, celebration of which will take place on the market place at Leipzig.

Catchy title!

Why do the Brits talk about orders for books they are unable to supply as dues?*

Dues, according to the ever-helpful Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Anglo-Norman dues or duez meaning an obligatory payment or tax, no doubt going back etymologically to the past participle of devoir. It all has a bit of a feudal ring to it. There’s a hint of “duty” in there too. So we, the publishers, have committed ourselves to you, honored customer, to deliver up to you six copies of our book which unfortunately we can’t supply at this moment because the book’s not been published yet, or has sold out and is being reprinted. We’ll take the order, and supply the books as soon as possible. We all humbly acknowledge that these books are due you. (See Answers for the shorthand messages we developed for these situations.)

In America we often make a bit of a semantic distinction. “Back orders” tends to refer to orders received after publication, after the book has run out of stock. Before publication orders received would just be orders — in Amazon’s world they’d be pre-orders, a slightly confused term. This semantic distinction has the useful effect that the term back-ordered becomes a synonym for out of stock — and obviously you can’t be out of stock until you have once been in stock. As an additional benefit for a bookseller describing the book as back-ordered obviously shifts the blame onto the publisher — you’ve done all you can. Out of stock might just mean you’d forgotten to do anything about it.


* More prosaically they also often refer to them as recorded orders.

Hard to know where the expression “reading line” came from. It doesn’t have any obvious reference — but in fact a reading line, as helpfully defined by Robertson Publishing in the image below is “a line of text giving the reader detailed information about the contents of the book”.

The commonest reading line, which you must see on three out of four books which you pick up, is “A Novel”, as in Wuthering Heights, A Novel. This is just in case you are beguiled into believing that here at last is that guidebook you’ve been seeking for your hiking trip in the Yorkshire Dales. The difference between a subtitle and a reading line is that the reading line (probably) isn’t on the title page; it is something added by the publisher in the interest of making sales. In theory at least, if it’s on the title page the author will have put it there. Thus Possession: A Romance is how A. S. Byatt entitled her book: A Romance is the subtitle and appears everywhere. With Thinner, Blonder, Whiter by Liz Maguire, “A Novel” on the jacket is a reading line — it’s not there on the title page.

Wry, author generated takes on the “Novel” reading line include George Singleton’s Novel: A Novel, A. J. Perry’s Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess, and Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, a novel written apparently entirely in questions. These come from Vox‘s piece on the subject.

A reading line on a non-fiction book is a much rarer occurrence. This is no doubt because non-fiction titles tend to be a bit more directly declarative. Here however is one example. The words “From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry” are not a subtitle; they do not appear on the title page. I expect Mr Filler, the nicest of authors, was in total agreement with these words appearing on the jacket, but of course there will always be authors blind-sided by the unexpected appearance of a reading line, which they may see as a silly subtitle foisted on them by a meddlesome publisher. The publisher response cited by Jeremy in a comment on my last post is certainly none too diplomatic: the aim in publisher communication ought always to be to carry the author with you.

Given that Mr Filler’s book has now evolved into volume one of a three-volume series, each with the title Makers of Modern Architecture, what was a reading line when the book was first published 2007 now needs to be regarded as a real subtitle! And thus it is now being handled by all.

Just what the distinction between a “Reading line” and a “Copy line” might be, I’ve no idea. I’d bet (if Robertson’s website didn’t give me the lie) that they were just house specific local names for the same thing.

Don’t ever do this.

OK, with a title made up of four letters we can see there was maybe a temptation to align them vertically, but damn it, it’s surely not much of a temptation to overcome. The Romans knew that SPQR could only be displayed in one way. The Roman army was a ruthless, efficient killing machine, but they did it with typographical style: they’d never have gone into battle with a standard showing SPQ and R aligned vertically.

If someone’s holding a gun to your head forcing you to align the title vertically, at least insist on a typeface where the characters are of as similar width as possible, and don’t go for the swashed version of any of them. Here the swashed Q is about twice as wide as the S. But the rule is — don’t do it anyway.

The only exception to this rule is when you are doing the job with a paint brush in hand, and are able to “force” all the characters into the same width. For example MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) works, but only because army painters were able to use a stencil designed so that Cap M would be the same width as all the other letters. If there’d been a Cap I there, they’d have given it massive block serifs so it was almost like an H rotated 90°.

Here’s another example where they just about get away with it: maybe digits are more forgiving than letters, though the typeface used is a sort of military-look stencil-based design, and can be given a rather uniform width by the use of generous slab serifs.

Let’s face it we don’t read stuff from top to bottom. If you’re Chinese you can do this — their script is designed to be read vertically, and each character occupies a similar amount of horizontal space, so the symbols look right one below the other. They also look right aligned horizontally — take up your complaint with the ancient Phoenicians. In an alphabet where different characters occupy different amounts of space you can’t align stuff vertically — it just looks


While we are looking at the SPQR cover, maybe we should comment on the front cover, which is a letterspacing mishmash; actually a general mishmash. The foil-stamped bestseller lines and the subtitle are quite well letterspaced, though ROME needs a bit of attention I think. But if you’re going to letterspace MARY that generously (though I’d ideally like a little more space between R and Y), then you have to inject a little more space into BEARD. The space on either side of the A, establishes the pattern, and the other locations require similar space to save the day. More letterspacing will mean that the size of the author’s name needs to come down. Reduce it about 10% to fit it onto the cover front once it’s been properly letterspaced, and it’ll look better. Yes. Yes, the author is the selling point, I know, but let the title be a little larger, especially as it’s only four letters long.

But the title is a problem with its little golden tripods interfering with the layout. There’s a lot of gold stamping on this cover: no expense spared. I suppose it was inevitable the designer should go for that maximally swashed Q — after all if you’ve got it, flaunt it — but it really screws up the balance of the title. That counter on the Q represents by far and away the greatest amount of space in the whole line. Without getting my ruler out I’d guess we need almost 12 points more space between S and P, 9 points between P and Q (you always have to mind them), and maybe 4 points before the R — maybe more in order to keep its left leg sufficiently clear of the swashed tail of the Q. I expect we can exonerate the cover designer from responsibility for that silly author photo, ruining the alignment and nafly proclaiming “As seen on TV”. Are there really people out there who are impressed that Professor Beard has appeared on television? The skimpy border at top and bottom adds nothing other than slight confusion.

Still, the book was a great success — no doubt still is — which just goes to show how much less important design is than authorship.

This is a first — for me anyway.

The Economist hyphenates a three-letter word in their issue of 18 December: see the end of the third line. Hart’s Rules, the Oxford Bible of all composition apprentices, doesn’t actually forbid you to take over a single letter — because nobody would dream of doing such a thing. Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing, the Cambridge style bible, tells us that American comps generally follow the hyphenation shown in Webster’s Dictionaries (where of course splitting “the” after the “h” isn’t proposed). The Chicago Manual of Style implies disapproval by telling us we shouldn’t carry over two characters to the next line. It’s one of those things you just don’t do — everyone knows it, except for carelessly programmed computer systems.

The reason you break words is to keep the spacing on every line more or less even. The shorter the measure (line length) the harder this becomes, so word division and spacing tolerances in newspapers can be more daring than in book work. In this case word spacing on that third line is perhaps as tight as reasonable, while on the line below it’s pretty loose. Probably taking over the “th” to the fourth line would have loosened up line three, but not that much more than line four as it stands. But anyway, just look at the “the” at the end of the second line, and I think you’ll agree that pulling back that “e” could have been done at the expense of a tiny bit of space before the “w”following the comma. It’s not that they didn’t want to have to break “Zimbabwe” a couple of lines later — they are perfectly content to do so at the bottom of the paragraph. Any number of simple editorial changes would also have cured the trouble — they just had to look for opportunity. For instance, instead of “In 2019 he became” write “In 2019 he was”, or get rid of “a prestigious gong”* — nothing but a gain in my book — and so on and so on.

Clearly they forgot to tell their software developer that it wasn’t allowed to break such short words, and then didn’t notice the problem in proof reading.

See also Word-breaks.


* Antiquity is an accessible scholarly journal of archaeology, founded in 1927 by O. G. S. Crawford. In my day it was run by Glyn Daniel, and was an exemplification of the common-sensical Cambridge approach to archaeology. Since 1963 the journal has been owned by a charitable trust. It is now published by Cambridge University Press. (I did ask, but Professor Daniel would never play ball.) “The Antiquity Prize was created in 1994 by Editor Christopher Chippindale and the Antiquity Editorial Board in recognition of the fact that research funding was becoming increasingly competitive, the time to write difficult to find, and really good writing is ‘as rare and precious as ever’. They created the prize to honour and support the author(s) of the best contribution to each volume of Antiquity.” Whether any “gong” changes hands or not is not clear.

Well, you can’t pretend you’re surprised that we have a color of the year can you? Printing Impressions breaks the super-exciting news that

“Pantone has revealed its 2022 Color of the Year: Very Peri, a bluish purple that Pantone says “displays a carefree confidence and a daring curiosity that animates our creative spirit.”

“As with every other year, the Pantone Color of the Year is a hue that the Pantone Color Institute believes encapsulates the general theme or feeling of society going into the year. Previous years have touched on changing gender norms and contrasting feelings during the pandemic.

“This year, Pantone says that Very Peri “helps us embrace this altered landscape of possibilities, opening us up to a new vision as we rewrite our lives.”

And here it is.

Very Peri

Feeling carefree confidence and daring curiosity?

I’ve only once before noted this important event, in 2014. Here are recent colors which have brightened your life:

The fundraising campaign to save the Honresfield Library, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, has succeeded in raising all the needed funds. I got notification from two quarters, one The Bookseller, which headlines it as the saving of a Brontë manuscript collection; the other The National Library of Scotland which tells me we’ve saved manuscripts of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns from exportation.*

The organization Friends of the National Libraries organized the appeal and had persuaded Sotheby’s to delay their scheduled auction. The largest donation came from Sir Leonard Blavatnik, who gave £7.5 million. In recognition of this record donation the collection will now be known as the Blavatnik Honresfield Library. Len, as he seems to like to be called, is Britain’s richest man, and has a website which explains that he made his money by transforming companies “into market leaders”. Delightful that he has decided to take some of his wealth and create a noble monument of real meaning and value. Other large donors included the National Heritage Memorial Fund which contributed a grant of £4m, and a contribution of £1.2m from the British Library.

“The collection has now been entrusted to the British Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth and the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. This ensures that all readers, scholars and members of the public can access the works.”


* I wonder how we’ll sort this out once Scotland gets its independence.

Hyperallergic reviews and presents pictures from a new book, Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Joshua O’Driscoll, published by D Giles Limited. The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York has an exhibition under the same name which continues through January 23, 2022. Here’s a promotional video with many book views:

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. At the link above you can follow the Morgan’s “Explore the Exhibition” link which takes you through many books with explanation and illustration.

I can’t imagine reading a manuscript book like the ones you can see in this exhibition: they are certainly beautiful, but overwhelmingly so. How could you risk touching such a thing, even if you were a Prince-Elector or even an Emperor. In the end the piece which impressed me most was this little drawing preparatory for an engraving: even someone as skilled as this draftsman would not disdain the grid pattern as an aid to the enlargement and transfer of a little picture.

We in book publishing are so lucky — we have a large stable of commentators constantly giving us advice. They know how stupid we all are, and selflessly stand ready to try to steer us right.

Now it’s The New York Times giving us the benefit of their wisdom in their issue of 13 December. “Follower Counts Are Unreliable Metric for Book Sales” they tell us in a story which points out to us the many books we have overpaid for, because, simpletons that we are, we thought that just because the writer had a massive social media following, their books would sell millions.

The point they make is that huge advances often yield rather disappointing sales — did you ever hear of such a thing? And clearly you just know that if Billie Eilish has lots of Instagram fans that will mean to gullible publishers that any book by Billie Eilish will sell lots of copies. Everybody knows that publishers determine sales forecasts, therefore advance amounts and print runs on the basis of numbers like social media followers. They seem to imagine we work off a magic formula — divide the number of Tik-Tok and Instagram followers by some secret factor and that’s what you’ll sell. So: what else are we meant to do? In my day we used to figure out sales forecasts with a complicated calculation involving the average number of letters the author received in the mail over the preceding four years. Attempts to include telephone calls were always staunchly resisted because writing was seen as a better guide to print runs than the spoken word. It worked almost all of the time, though the staunch traditionalists who insisted on going with the age-old method of a spit-dampened finger held up in the wind were often able to perform with comparable accuracy. (That’s a rather heavy-handed joke.)

In the course of ticking us off The Times does admit “It’s difficult to predict whether a book will be a hit. A jar of tomato sauce doesn’t change that much from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable. But every book is different, an individual work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry tries to forecast demand for new titles, it is, however thoughtfully, guessing.” This is true, but not quite as careless as it might sound at first blush. Any sales forecast has to be a guess, by definition, but in this case the people doing the guessing have considerable experience in the art, and some scraps of evidence to support their guesses. Most importantly you know how similar books you previously published have performed, and you can find information about books published by others. You’ve got access to information about broad retail trends. You will be able to talk to booksellers who, working at the coal face, can be regarded as having insight into the mood of retail customers. You’ll suss out whether there are any similar big books due to come out at the same time — which might not always be a negative: perhaps a major publication has expressed an interest in publicizing the books together. You’ll know whether the author has a “platform” and the number of their social media followers — and this might affect the willingness of media outlets to give the book a mention, maybe even a puff. Optimism is a requirement for the job, so it’s not surprising that we often overestimate sales, and thus end up overprinting: it’s really lucky that we are not dealing with something like tomato sauce which can rot, otherwise we’d manage to spoil most of our inventory, wouldn’t we?

Here are the books instanced by The Times:

Hachette$1 million +97 million6 million64,000May 21
Harper$1 million +53 million?100,0002018
Ilhan Omar
Harper$0.25 million?1.3 million3 million26,000May 20
S & S$1 million +
for 2 books
1 million +?26,000May 20
Harper?1.8 million8 million5,650
(in USA)
Oct 20

And another recent controversial case:

PRH $5.1 million ?? but lots ? but lots 50,000? Oct 20

Having shared these numbers (other than the Cuomo ones) they sagely wag their head “It’s difficult to know why this happens”.

No — it’s not difficult at all. That’s the name of the game. Publishing, trade publishing anyway, is a notorious crap shoot. Every now and then you spike that landing after adding an extra twist; most often you land on your bum. Sometimes you do hit a home run; but more often you strike out or pop up. Your center back will insist on making that long hopeful pass, up, up, and upfield behind the line of defenders; but once in a while your wing back will get onto it, cross the ball to an ideally-placed striker, and bang you’ve got the sort of beautiful goal that keeps the fans coming back for more. It’s not hard to figure out why publishers so often see their optimistic hopes dashed on the reefs of reality: what is actually difficult to know is exactly the opposite — what it is that makes a book succeed, to catch fire and sell, sell, sell.

The fundamental difference between trade publishing and academic publishing is that academic publishers believe that they should not lose money on any book, knowing that they’ll make a decent profit on some. Trade publishers aim to make a fortune off every book, knowing that many of them will fail: not so many, they hope, as to prevent them going on with their high-stakes poker game.

Because social media followers are something you can quantify, you quantify them. No decisions are based on that number alone — at the very worst some people may allow Billie Eilish’s hundred million followers to tip the balance in a close-run debate. The numbers are comforting, but nobody’s thinking there’s a fixed proportion of Instagram followers who are going to turn into guaranteed book-buyers. All you can say is that there are a hundred million folks who will probably hear about any book by Billie Eilish — and that’s not unimportant. The book’s got to do its bit though and turn those listeners into buyers. Sometime, dare we say it, celebrity books do not rise to the hype, and turn out to be rubbish.

So how on earth could reasonable, intelligent people be so far off. Well of course they aren’t usually overoptimistic by such a large margin — the article doesn’t include any cases where the advance earned out, or even came close to earning out. There’s a lot of commentary these days suggesting that publishers are becoming more and more stingy in their advances, and no doubt this, despite wild variations, is the case. At my post More premature death notices I speculated that the Obamas’ advance of $60 million for two books implied that PRH thought they could sell ten million copies of each. I dare say that one has worked out OK. Oversimplified, and crudely stated, the calculation is

  • the book price will be $25
  • so the royalty will be $2.50
  • thus if we sell 400,000 the royalty due will be $1 million
  • of course we’ll sell 400,000 in a year
  • so let’s offer a million dollar advance.

As you can see Billie Eilish et al have quite a way to go to get to the point where this calculation looks anything other than embarrassing. Andrew Cuomo is facing an even more embarrassing situation quite apart from his having been forced to resign as New York State Governor in the face of sexual harassment charges. He allegedly used state employees for the compilation of data for and the writing of his book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID 19 Pandemic. Governor Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic was uniformly regarded as excellent, after a slow and stuttering start. He certainly had lots and lots of social media followers tuning in for his daily televised press conferences during the crisis. These were very well handled, and made for compulsive viewing — sounds like the book version adds nothing. The latest news is an order by the state attorney general to get some of this advance out of his hands and into state coffers. The Commissioner of The New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics, David McNamara, says: “Gov. Cuomo is not legally entitled to retain compensation . . . for any form of outside activity related to the book.” Crown, a division of Penguin Random House, would seem to be out of luck, although the full advance hasn’t all been paid over yet, and indeed they have stopped selling the book. Nobody’s suggesting there was any kind of political influence-peddling involved in the huge advance for his book, but it’s all irrelevant now as Mr Cuomo is unlikely to be hanging onto too much of it, and at least temporarily, is no longer a political force.

The case of Piers Morgan may be a little different from Eilish et al — he has managed to alienate so many over here that hearing he had written a book might be expected to keep people away from bookstores rather than draw them in. In Britain, where his stock apparently remains buoyant — or is it just timing? — his book has sold 190,000 copies.

Perhaps the main difference between social media marketing and a print advertisement is that with social media marketing you can to some extent quantify how little effect you are having. Persuading people to buy a book remains not a science, not even an art; it’s a magical mystery.