Archives for the month of: February, 2022

It sometimes seems like crooked dealing in books began with the development of the internet, but of course we were clever enough to be able to cheat people in an analog world too. It’s just a lot easier now. We should resist the temptation to think Amazon’s the cause of this problem. It’s just that they are so big that it’s really impossible to stay on top of all the moles which need whacking.

Bookjacking refers to the business of offering for sale books you don’t own, usually at hugely elevated prices, and cashing in on the incautious book buyer. Once you hook a punter you go and buy the book from a legit site and send it on to your gull. You then laugh your way to the bank and deposit the difference between what you conned your customer into paying and what you were able to get the book for — which can often be amazingly large. There seem to be way too many people who faced with two examples of the same thing will assume that the one priced higher must be better than the cheaper one. This of course is occasionally true, but there are lots of dealers wiling to exploit this “fact”.

Rare and used bookseller Zubal Books gives us a valuable two-part rundown on the business of bookjacking: Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. (Link via a tweet from Neglected Books last October.)

How to avoid a bookjacker? Take your time, and don’t just click “Buy” on the first offering you come upon. The absence of an ISBN for instance may be a giveaway. The articles lists book dealers indulging in this deceit, and show examples of books used by bookjackers from a variety of publishers. Quite a few of these links don’t work. This may simply mean that the set up has been detected and corrected by Amazon. It’s not obvious how long ago Zubal’s posts were done. Needless to say of course, the scam lives on.

At a recent webinar, “The Powerful Case for U.S. Book Manufacturing in the Face of Global Supply Chain Challenges, Paper Shortages, and Rising Distribution Costs”, Bill Rojack, VP at Midland Paper warned us that although the paper market has always had cycles, our current supply problems result from something more troubling. “The paper business has been consolidating for years and will continue to consolidate,” and the pandemic had expedited the process. Book paper represents only about 5-7% of the total paper market (including paper for catalogs and magazines), and in spite of an increase in demand by book publishers, overall paper demand has fallen 50% in recent years. In response many mills have switched from printing papers to other products where they can make more money — such as corrugated boxes and other packaging materials. Thus on current trends, it looks like the paper crunch for books is likely to get worse before it gets better. Once plants have invested millions of dollars converting their factories, retooling back to paper is prohibitively expensive. So even if the packaging market does become saturated it will take a long time for demand to rebalance supply. (See Publishers Weekly‘s report.)

Though this may seem like a tail-wagging-dog situation, speakers at the webinar suggested that part of the solution will be for publishers to modify their behavior. How many copies we hoped to sell, how long we were willing to inventory books, considerations of the aesthetic details of paper appearance and quality, preferences for certain “house” trim sizes, the fixation on unit cost — all these will have to give way as we work with our printers to overcome shortages of materials. (Shortages of labor will probably cure themselves before paper picks up). Our future strategy will have to be to manufacture on a sort of programmatic basis, taking in only the “right” number of copies for our printers given the supply conditions applying at the time of ordering — the number of copies they are able print at that time — and allowing them the flexibility to print more copies for us whenever they can fit the job in. This is not an utterly unheard of methodology — we were already operating a small but growing auto-ordering system at Oxford University Press at least a decade ago, and this is merely a logical extension of that. It sort of represents an extension of the publisher’s inventory control department into the book manufacturer’s back office. Working together to fulfill demand will become a much more collaborative activity.

The important thing will be to avoid killing the golden goose. Demand for printed books is robust, and this has exacerbated the effect of paper shortages. It would be mad for publishers not to compromise on paper choice and print scheduling if that were to lead to the public’s abandoning the printed book out of frustration.

Let it be admitted that a world with only ebooks would still be a perfectly decent book world. Ebooks have the potential to be more profitable than printed books anyway, but a majority of the reading public still prefers a paper book. Pity to have their preference blocked off by stubbornness.

Inclusive access is the name for a cunning new idea of how to get money transferred from students’ pockets (or their parents, or their state grants) straight to textbook publishers. Just get the college to collect the money for you, upfront, as part of their fees for the course! As the site Inclusive tells us “Inclusive Access, also known as automatic textbook billing, is a sales model for college textbooks that adds the cost of digital course content into students’ tuition and fees.” “Digital content is delivered to students by the first day of their course, often through a learning management system.” When their course is over the students will in all probability lose access to their “books”. This is all part of our revised, more cost-efficient attitude to education, one where books are nothing more than tools enabling students to get a job. Once this is achieved the tools are clearly regarded as no longer of any use.

Naomi S. Baron, at her talk to The New York Book Forum (video link at my post Reading digitally) tells us that the push towards the increasing use of digital materials in education at all levels has originated with the publishers. Maybe; maybe not. I think it may really have been an idea grasped at in desperation by textbook publishers as a solution to a preexisting problem: that they were meeting sales resistance. State authorities could no longer afford to buy school textbooks, and college students were increasingly sharing, borrowing, renting textbooks or buying used copies. No doubt part of the push results from the assumption by all and sundry (except for those in the business) that digital books cost nothing, or at worst next-to-nothing to produce.

All of our pandemic-induced isolating seems to have accelerated the digitization of education. Universities look almost like they are determined to become job-training factories. Students are at risk of interacting with their computer keyboards more than they do with a real teacher or fellow students. Learning management systems, surprise, surprise, manage learning on your computer. They include the delivery, administration, automation, and analytics of the learning process. Just press the start button and keep going till you print out your degree! E-Student tells us that 99% of educational institutions are already using learning management systems to some extent. This may not be unconnected with the obvious current trend for textbook publishers to make investments in digital companies!

I wrote about Inclusive access a bit more pessimistically few years ago.

In a tweet linking to it Joe Esposito manages to find this story, “How a Book is Made”, from The New York Times, objectionable. Just ignore him, and follow the link to see a really good — and brief —demonstration of the manufacture of a book and its jacket.

I can’t figure out what Mr Esposito’s problem is — he describes the story as “An article that is so wholly ignorant that it will result in brain hemorrhages for people who actually understand this stuff. There is nothing here about how the printing enterprise is set up, the plans, the plant siting, the financing, the business. The myth that management does nothing is pernicious and the lifeblood of the current editorship of the NY Times.” This is all so absurd that I suspect it has to be based on some animus against the Times. It’s just silly to criticize a piece which is explicitly about the printing of one particular book for failing to tell us anything about the establishment and financing of Coral Graphics, or R. R. Donnelley/ LSC/ Lakeside Book — though in the latter case there is of course a story — just a different story. Hey, it didn’t tell us anything about ink making either, or which trees to plant for your paper!

So, reading the article with its copious illustrations and gifs will perhaps not qualify you for the job of running a printing company, but I cannot see where there’s any misleading going on — apart from Mr Esposito’s comment and the reaction of a couple of his readers at Twitter. For an industry outsider, and many industry insiders whose day-to-day job doesn’t involve dealing with printers, this is an excellent explanation.

George R. R. Martin was born George Raymond Martin in 1948. According to Wikipedia, when he was 13 he adopted the additional name Richard upon his confirmation — though I prefer to suspect it was because he’d just read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whatever, let it be quietly said that A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot better than Lord of the Rings.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon teacher in Oxford where he’d hang out with a group of kindred spirits, who rather preciously called themselves the Inklings: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams J. A. W. Bennett, Owen Barfield, Neville Coghill, Richard Lancelyn Green and others. One cringes at the thought of what the conversation over a pint must have been like — as they apparently met in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen pints may not have been in question; it was probably amontillado.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was such a success that it was followed up by what on the face of it looks like a pretty non-commercial novel. Three volumes! Volumes 1 and 2 were first published in 1954, Volume 3 in 1955. My copies, the original George Allen and Unwin set, had suffered some water damage — just a general dampening resulting in a musty smell — no doubt as a result of being stored, like King Arthur’s Knights, for some time in a barn in deepest Somerset. A couple of years in the apparently book-friendly aridity of a New York apartment seem to have cured the problem.

The books were published before the dawn of the ISBN, though of course they have them now! There’s only a discursive copyright notice, but as you can read this was during the reign of the Berne Convention which was a bit less prescriptive than the Universal Copyright Convention when it comes to the © symbol. Included also is information about the printer, and this is required by copyright law in Britain, so that the printer may easily be sued for libel and obscenity along with publisher, author, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Thus we learn that the books were set in 10/11 Imprint at Jarrolds in Norwich.

The 11 point Imprint is serviceable without being beautiful — an altogether appropriate state for this job: typesetting should never draw attention to itself. And you can’t find much to criticize in the setting of the books. However I’d say the way this chapter title turnover was handled was an indication that the comp wasn’t paying much attention, though it’s probably more that Jarrolds’ house style didn’t rise to the level of caring overmuch about aesthetics. The comp has just keyed in the chapter title (nicely letterspaced it’s true) and when there was no more room in the measure, turned over to the next line, which to my eye makes COMPANY look a little lonely. (At least it wasn’t hyphenated CO-MPANY!)

A caring typesetter would have thought a) about aesthetics and b) about sense units, and would, I believe, have broken the line as I show in this chopped up copy.

To my eye this looks 100% better, although I did leave too little space between grey and company — I’m not as good at paste-up as I used to have to be. But of course stuff like this only triggers the most extreme typographical manias, and obviously had no effect on the sale!

Volume 2 has a quirky flaw which I’ve never encountered before. The middle two leaves of signature 8 have been missed in sewing and remain quite tightly held in the closed book but are easily removable as soon as you do anything as violent as turning the page. For this to have happened the sewing operative must have picked up the sig opening it at the wrong point rather than at the targeted center of the 32 page section. I suppose this must tell us something about the imposition scheme (folding pattern) as in order for the location of the center of the sig to be mistaken like this there would have to be no bolts at head or foot.

Eerily this loose 4-pager falls exactly at the middle of the entire 3-volume work — structurally not page count-wise. Each volume contains two books, and here you can see we are at the transition point from the first book of Volume 2 to the second, i.e. from the third of six to the fourth. I’m wondering whether I should take steps to ensure that this four-pager doesn’t fall out and get lost. All I can think to do is pass a thread down the spine hollow and bring it up in the middle of this fragment and knot it. Of course this loose pair of leaves has made it through more than half a century, so maybe I should just leave it alone, and trust to the good sense of my heirs and assigns.

For a novel this was a pretty lavish affair. There’s a tip-in 2-color map in the first volume, and in each of the three volumes, a folded map, also two-color, tipped to the front of the back fly leaf. The maps are folded and tipped in so that enthusiasts can read the book with the map open before them. The books are Medium Octavo, 5⅝” x 8¾” printed on a cream sheet with decent formation and reasonable opacity. They are bound in red cloth (not the red leather of the fictitious original by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, of which this presents itself as a sort of translation) with a red top stain, but no headbands — always rarer in Britain than in America. The jackets are printed by letterpress in three colors (black, red and “gold”) on a grey stock. The books include a few special sorts, and feature extracts in Elvish and other “Middle Earth” tongues — all of course made up by the author and his Inkling friends. There is even a series of appendices at the end of volume three treating with straight face such things as the “history” of royal families, chronologies, family trees, calendars, and languages — all of them fictitious although treated here as if in an academic monograph. Don humor!

With all these complexities the books were priced at 25 shillings each when I bought them in 1966, so the whole thing would set you back £3.15.0. The first volume is in its fifteenth printing, whereas volumes two and three are in their eleventh printings. All a huge success — as well as a reminder that many people will read volume one without ever going on to two and three.

Later: Today’s Shelf Awareness brings us the news that Bradley Hall has issued a three-hour “metal” musical version of The Fellowship of the Ring. You can find links to the work at MentalFloss. It all starts with a plea to right holders to be gentle with this adaptation. Mr Hall works from the movie version, and swears he will not give the same treatment to The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Naomi Baron reports, in a talk to the New York Book Forum, that during the pandemic there has been a shift in students’ attitudes toward reading on screen. 23 minutes into her video talk she tells us that two thirds of responders said they get tired reading a lot on a digital screen and 53% missed reading more print.

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

Professor Baron’s research shows not only that comprehension and test results are better when print-based, but that students also prefer print to screen reading. I’m delighted to accept her findings, and to suppress my suspicions that if you ask students about how they’d prefer to read their study materials the answer will always be in some way, any way, please, please, any way which is different from the way we now have to do it! Best would be not having to read at all, or even better, study at all!

But what the optimal methodology may or may not be is probably irrelevant. I dare say sitting with a philosopher, well let’s not tip-toe around the issue, sitting there with Aristotle himself and going through the text of Nicomachean Ethics word by word with him might be the “best” way to understand the work, but frustratingly this methodology isn’t available to most of us. At the end of the day we study what we study in the ways we can. And if we can study Nicomachean Ethics by accessing it free online instead of going out in the wind and rain and plonking down a few dollars to buy a printed copy, I suspect that’s what most of us are going to do. We don’t live in a “chose the ideal” world, we live in a “whatever works” one. And nobody can argue that reading Aristotle in any which way is better than refusing to read Aristotle because you can’t persuade him to sit with you, or because you don’t own a copy of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy edition.

I’ve written about Professor Baron’s research before.

Jason Epstein at his home in Sag Harbor, New York, circa mid-1980s. (Susan Wood/Getty Images)

“Publishing is more comparable to what priests and teachers and some doctors do than to what people who become lawyers or businessmen or Wall Street brokers — what they do. It is a vocation, you feel you’re doing something extremely important, and it’s worth sacrificing for, because without books we wouldn’t know who we were.”

Jason Epstein in a 2000 interview on the PBS program “The Open Mind”. Quoted in his obituary in The New York Times of 5 February 2022.

Not sure about that last clause, but I’m shy of arguing with the founder of both The New York Review of Books and Library of America. Could certainly accept “we wouldn’t know nearly as much about who we were”. And of course the vocation bit is true, true, true.

It’s getting harder and harder to get your books printed — we were all hoping that the new year would bring a bit of relief, but not yet apparently. There are book manufacturers who are refusing to accept any more orders for books to be delivered during 2022! Those that will accept an order keep slipping their dates.

I suspect that the problem is affecting different publishers differently. Purchasing power has always been a determinant of service — as a supplier you don’t want to be pissing off a customer who can remove a quarter of your capacity if pushed. Over the past decades there has been a tendency for large publishers to sign contracts with a few book manufacturing companies: “in return for these pricing breaks, we promise to send you this number of books every year which you will produce on such and such a schedule”. Clearly if you as a manufacturer have committed to such a deal, honoring it isn’t really an option — thus all available resources have to be devoted to getting out books from Big Publisher A, which means Small Publisher Z will just have to wait, or slouch off elsewhere — if anywhere else can be found.

I always used to hate these sorts of contracts, though I have worked with plenty of them. In an ideal world I always wanted my staff to be able to negotiate their own deals on a book-by-book basis, and learn how to be adaptable and quick on their feet. But under the current circumstances I cannot but agree that publishers who work under such agreements are the beneficiaries of the wisdom of their past managers.

So smaller publishers are scrambling right now. Cheryl Teh reveals at Yahoo!News, that our ex-president’s new book, a photo album about his term in office, has also been delayed. His proud publisher (Don Junior) pays tribute to what I think we can all agree is extraordinary authorial commitment by telling us “My father picked every single photo in this book, wrote all the captions, including some by hand.”

I suspect that the resolution of all this clogging up of supply chains will turn out to be sudden. When enough people have come back to work, one Monday morning we’ll discover that our book manufacturing operation has got more free capacity than orders, and we’ll have to whip our sales force out to beat those bushes. I may forecast this, but I cannot forecast on which Monday it will happen. Let’s hope it’s a Spring-time Monday.

The transition from letterpress to offset lithography for book manufacturing took maybe sixty years. The transition from offset to ink jet will end up being a lot quicker: indeed it may now to all intents and purposes be over. Printing Impressions sends us an update. (I’m not sure we know how long the transition from handwriting to letterpress took, but we all know it wasn’t by any means instantaneous.)

One trend in book manufacturing over the past twenty years has been a growing focus on printing shorter and shorter runs, and digital printing, whether by toner or ink jet, represents a huge leap forward in this regard, enabling even the economical manufacture of a single copy at a time. Speed of makeready has been our holy grail for so many years that it feels odd now to have just passed the grail by and to be racing off in pursuit of other goals.

Click on chart to enlarge

Long print runs have always been tied up with unit costs — the total production bill divided by the number of copies you get: the more you print the “cheaper” each copy becomes — except when you come to face the harsh reality that you’ve got to sell all those damn things. I do think that publishers have grown into the habit of scrutinizing unit costs simply because they are there. There are so few things in our business which can be accurately measured, and unit cost is one of them. Obviously it does have some crude relevance: if it costs you $10 to produce each copy of your book, you’d be dumb to sell it for $9.50. But if you priced it at $34.95, what would your profit be if your unit cost was $10? If that does present a problem the solution should never be to print more (unless you know you can sell them).

The unit cost of a book is divided into two notional halves 1) the basic paper, printing, binding etc. and 2) the frills you add on to the package like foil stamping on the jacket, heck, a jacket at all, a ribbon marker, “nice” paper, headbands, lavish design leading to a greater page count, and other optional add-ons. The nature of digital printing is that you can count on a unit cost of $4.78 today being a unit cost of $4.78 tomorrow*, so if you are happily selling the book at $34.95 you can, when you come to reprint it, count on still being able to sell it at $34.95. Fussing about with profit-and-loss calculation is nothing more than time wasting. Conservatism in business practices among publishers is a well established problem, and it’ll probably take a generation of stupid P&L costings before some notice that the answer is the same in every instance, and that there’s no point in asking the question.

See also Digital book printing and Ink jet.


* Well of course general price increases do happen from time to time.

Another victim of the pandemic. The social and educational society formerly called The Bookbinders Guild of New York, latterly Book Industry Guild of New York, has decided shut down. For a group based upon the idea of like-minded people getting together after work for a drink and a discussion, the pandemic has obviously presented a gigantic problem.

It seems just recently that the monthly meetings used to involve a sit-down dinner, but costs inevitably became a problem and for the last couple of decades the talks have been preceded by a cocktail hour only.

I was on the committee for a number of years and participated in the name change which I heartily agreed was necessary to reflect the wider interests of the group than had been the case when a bunch of book manufacturing employees set it up in 1925. When the group was still named Bookbinders Guild, prior to 2010, we used now and then to receive enquiries from people looking to get advice on the rebinding of their family bible, or some other binding issue. Back in the early years of the last century New York City was a huge printing center (see for example my post about H. Wolff). But by the time I hit town, in the mid seventies, that was all a relic of the past. Obviously an organization of book-bindery employees anxious to improve their knowledge of their business has wildly different aims and requirements from one serving book manufacturing employees in publishing companies and the sales representatives who’d call on them. As gradually publishing diversified out of town, an organization for just book manufacturing workers became less and less viable. Allied to the name change thus was a policy of making monthly meetings more about general publishing topics and less directly production directed, in the hope of attracting a wider range of publishing staff. To the extent that many attendees were accustomed to having their tickets bought for them by some sales representative or other, this was a slow process.

As Karen Romano’s letter tells us there is a newish organization, The New York Book Forum, which stands ready to take over the talking shop aspect of BIGNY while at the same time extending the outreach even further. NYBF has already taken over responsibility for the organization of the annual New York Book Show, an exhibition of books focused on their physical attributes rather than their content. NYBF is “born digital” and will face at some point the opposite problem from BIGNY’s when they consider how to become live.