Archives for the month of: June, 2022

Here’s a trip down memory lane for anyone who made their living Xacto knife in hand. The London Review of Books describe this as the “lost art” of paste-up. But I insist it’s not lost as long as it lives in my muscle memory. This sort of correction making was so satisfying — for reprint corrections we’d do it on a set of unbound sheets which I’d always insist we retained for every book we printed, for exactly this reason — so we could cheaply cut in corrections on a reprint. I’d put the tape on the back using it to adhere the bits of type to. I always thought tape over the top would darken up the image below it and make the corrected lines stand proud. (Of course I could suggest that we book people had to maintain a higher standard! But would that be too contentious? Maybe it’s just that the printers used by academic presses could be relied on to be more careful with fragile copy.)

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. This LRB paste-up video comes from Open Culture via Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I guess I always loved this part of the job because variety is what I always craved. You’re sitting there figuring out whether it’s going to be 10/12 Bembo x 26 picas or maybe 11/13 Ehrhardt x 27 picas, then suddenly you’re trying to get the printer to drop their price by a couple of hundred dollars so you can make your budget, and then you’re putting together a jacket design, now bitching at the editor that the ms is late, next a schedule needs tightening, then the total physical bliss-out of cutting in a few lines of corrections just as we see in this video. Variety: spice.

Well, should I tempt providence by claiming never to have detected the action of bookworms in any of the many, many books I have been surrounded with all my life? Indeed I had wondered if it wasn’t all really an old-wife’s tale based on a metaphor. But Wikipedia gives us a distressingly long list of contenders for the “bookworm” title, and they have the pictures to back it up. There’s even one called the booklouse. And who’d have imagined there was a creature called the museum beetle, or worse the drugstore beetle or even the cigarette beetle? Silverfish and cockroaches can also become avid devourers of books.

Book worm, book worm,
Measuring the paperbacks,
Could it be, you stop and see
How beautiful they are.

— always loved Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen.

Maybe I really didn’t have the misfortune to host a bookworm, but I did once own a book dog, a Rottweiler who as a puppy developed a selective taste for bookbindings.

Rottweilers are intelligent, placid dogs, and are easy to train — and it’s important to train a dog that big who will control you on the street if not trained to answer your command — so when she was told not to eat books, she changed her diet forthwith.

I read recently that Eric Carle apparently originally wanted his Hungry Caterpillar to be a hungry bookworm. Sounds like a unlikely scenario though: a mite metamorphosing into a lesser grain borer is, when compared to caterpillar/butterfly, a bit, well, boring.

I think bookworm may be unusual in being a word more frequently met with in its metaphorical usage than in its base meaning. We live in a world where any child who reads more than two or three books runs the risk of being categorized as a bookworm. Such bookworms are of course served by lots of bookstores rejoicing in the same name. I find that Merriam-Webster has one definition of the term: “a person unusually devoted to reading and study”. The Oxford English Dictionary prioritizes the same definition, but gets to insects in its second definition, commenting thereon “A number of insects damage books in various ways, but the only ones that actually bore through the paper are the larvae of wood-boring beetles. Compare booklouse n.,  book mite n.

Market Hill in 1841*

Nice to know that four hundred years ago Cantabrigians seem to have valued books about as much as they do today.

In 1602 Margaret Cotton who lived on Market Hill in Cambridge with her husband Henry, a pewterer, was accused of stealing a book from her neighbor Ralph Hyde, a draper. Nobody says out and out what the book was. It might or might not have been a Bible, or The Secrets of Alexis, a sort of contemporary self-help volume, or a sixpenny pamphlet (you’ll find sixpence written vid, which is 6d). Cunningly Ms Cotton seems to have counter-charged that Hyde was also a thief, having stolen her reputation by coming into her house, grabbing her keys, and “discovering” the book in a cupboard. Heather Wolfe examines the event at The Collation, providing a surprisingly large amount of detail on testimony and witnesses.

As a time-traveling sympathetic witness for Ms Cotton I could testify that I still get the occasional hot flush of embarrassment when I remember a book which I borrowed at the age of nine from Kathleen Walker, and “forgot” to return. She was a classmate at Gala Academy, and as I left the school that June and started at St Mary’s School, Melrose in September, I kept forgetting to take it to her home — ominously right next to the police station. Eventually it became so ridiculous that I took the book, a beige colored cloth-bound hardback novel for kids with red and brown stamping, and threw it into the unfinished corner of our remotest attic — where it probably lies to this day covered in seventy years of dust. Did I steal it? I guess so.

Dr Wolfe does indicate that her tale is “to be continued” but after six months Part 2 has still not been forthcoming.


* Maybe 1841, maybe not: there’s some ambiguity about when this or that structure was removed. Market Hill surely doesn’t strike you at first as a hill, though it must actually be several feet above the water level in the River Cam at the Backs, behind Kings College Chapel which appears in the background of this picture. I bet that if you pour out a bucket of water on Market Hill at the point of origin of this picture, it’d run down Petty Cury behind you to puddle just inside Christs College where the King’s Ditch used to run (crawl more likely) on its journey round the town center. A hill yes, but nothing compared to Castle Hill, yet big enough to have Great St Mary’s, the university church, built on its top. The reason you can’t see Great St Mary’s on the right of the engraving is that until relatively recently there were buildings in the place where today the market stalls are set up, so the orientation then of the market was more east-west right in front of the Guildhall and around the corner in Peas Hill than today’s north-south alignment.

The elaborate construction in the foreground is the terminus of Hobson’s Conduit, a channel which brought clean water into the city from the high ground near Great Shelford to the south. In 1631 Thomas Hobson, a livery man who made money from transporting goods to and from London, bequeathed land to fund and maintain this public water supply. (He it is who is the cause and origin of the expression “Hobson’s choice”.) This fancy structure may now be found at the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street whence the water flows in gutters on both sides of Trumpington Street, to stop in front of the Pitt Building. Where does it go from there? Probably leftward into a pipe towards the river down Silver Street in a remnant of the King’s Ditch which used to bring “fresh” water to downtown Cambridge, running in a grand circle passing in front of Christ’s, behind the Round Church and back into the river on Jesus Green.

Here’s a photo of the same scene today (well a few weeks ago) looking a little more north of west than the one above — taken more or less from the bottom left hand corner of the engraving.

The Hobson’s Conduit terminus would have been about ten feet in front of you, in the shadow of the Guildhall to the left. Kings College Chapel is behind the tall buildings fronting Peas Hill beyond. Just to the north of Great St Mary’s, and in front of the tower of Caius College (which we pronounce “Keys”) you can see the top story of Cambridge University Press’s bookshop directly above the head of the white-haired guy with the bike. This site has been used to sell books since 1581. Maybe Mr Hyde bought the stolen book there?

In 1964 UNESCO, an organization clearly craving clarity and consensus, defined a book as a “non-periodical publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in the country and made available to the public”. This definition is reproduced in Emma Smith’s Portable Magic, and I’ve been unable to find the UNESCO original. This leaves me speculating that the reference to “published in the country” is not an instance of prejudice in favor of rural publishers, but something to do with the start of the publication of their definition threshing around in an “in a particular country . . .” sort of formulation.

In one particular country, the UK, for tax purposes (books are exempt from VAT, so this matters) books will “normally consist of text or illustrations, bound in a cover stiffer than their pages. They may be printed in any language or characters (including Braille or shorthand*), photocopied, typed or handwritten, so long as they are found in book or booklet form.” As Dr Smith points out this definition means that for tax purposes the original serial publication of Charles Dickens’ novels would not have counted as books; and of course we can all think of books bound in booklet form which have a cover no stiffer than their text pages, so I would imagine the UK taxman is open to a conversation on the point. Even the first Highway Code wouldn’t have counted as a book. When I was a child, many a popular magazine was referred to by its readers as a “book”, and I suppose one just has to accept that a book is everything and is nothing — but we all know one when we see it.

See also What is a book? What is a word cloud.


* Never occurred to me that there might be books published in shorthand. (Wouldn’t they run the risk of coming in too short to count as a book?) However The Gregg Publishing Company published some — the website Wonders and Marvels tells us about them and carries links to a couple of examples in the Internet Archive. Here’s a spread from The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Can anyone under the age of sixty still read and write shorthand? When I started work there was a young lady always hovering nearby, steno pad in hand, awaiting the gems that might drop from my lips: that didn’t last long!

A nicely written account from The Guardian of one author’s self-propelled 500-mile book tour of 32 bookshops from Corbridge to London. The book is Lean Fall Stand, the author Jon McGregor.

“A thrilling and propulsive novel of an Antarctica expedition gone wrong and its far-reaching consequences for the explorers and their families” Amazon (thus the publisher) describes it. Here is a link to The Guardian‘s review.

See an earlier reference to a “pedestrian” poet, a laureate at that.

Thanks to Annabel for the original link.

Anyone who likes this blog will love Emma Smith’s Portable Magic: The History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022; to be published in USA by Knopf in November with an appalling cover design.

Readers of this blog will find that almost all the subjects touched on in Dr Smith’s book have already been covered here, so they’ll be welcoming familiar tropes. I approached Portable Magic with considerable enthusiasm, assuming I’d find myriad topics to expand upon in this blog. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that not only were almost all the topics touched on by Dr Smith subjects which had already been discussed in Making Book, but Dr Smith had in fact covered them all in greater detail, at greater length, and much more skillfully than I had. If two people talk about the physical side of the book business inevitably they will end up talking about the same thing sooner or later.

As the author herself puts it “Portable Magic is an alternative, sometimes sideways, history of the book in human hands”. The title apparently originates from a memoir by Stephen King where he refers to the book as “a uniquely portable magic”. She adds, perhaps a bit contentiously, “And a book’s magic always inheres in its form, including that portability, as much as in its content”. She is not however in any way an enemy of ebooks and audiobooks.

The book has no illustrations; something which I regretted at several junctures.

Nevertheless I recommend the book unreservedly — it might turn out to be the sort of book which you will dip into from time to time, reading a chapter here and a chapter there. This disconnected connectedness is ultimately what appeals to me in the blog form. There’s no logical development required to take us from pixels to libraries, from book sales to paper supply; every day’s a fresh slate depending on little more than personal preference, even whim. Dr Smith’s book bounces about with a similar elan.

This legal interlude, fantasizing about library terms of supply, all provided a nice little flurry of fun. And now it’s over.

Publishers Weekly reports on the end of Association of American Publishers’ lawsuit against the State of Maryland about their law attempting to force publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at discounted prices. The judge decided not to bother to issue an injunction forbidding Maryland from doing this: that the “State never enforced the law and represents it will not enforce it in the future is an important factor bearing on whether the Court should take the additional step to enjoin the State from enforcing the Act. The Court has declared the Maryland Act unconstitutional and may reasonably assume the State will abide by the declaration.” I suppose if the State changes its mind and really tries to make publishers sell ebooks cheaply to libraries, an injunction can easily be obtained.

Now the court has ruled in favor of the AAP, indicating that Maryland, or any state, cannot just decide to override laws passed by Congress — in this case the copyright law — one can perhaps imagine that this would be the end of such legislation. But as Publishers Weekly told us in February “Library e-book bills are now pending in five state legislatures, MassachusettsRhode Island, IllinoisTennessee, and Missouri, and such bills have already passed unanimously in Maryland and New York.” Subsequently Connecticut joined the queue. The Governor of New York already vetoed that bill, and I don’t know where the other states stand, as well as any others who may have found the ebook bandwagon irresistible, but basic equity seems pretty clear. Prices are determined by the seller: if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

Now of course you can see why legislators would favor bills like this, whatever their chances of success. Makes them look like they are sticking up for the rights of their constituents without much chance of their having to do anything about it. But to me, any law or lawsuit based upon the words “reasonable prices” must be doomed: one man’s reasonable is another man’s exorbitant, is another man’s way too cheap. Pricing of ebooks for libraries still remains in flux: it hasn’t been all that many years after all. A solution needs to be negotiated not litigated or legislated or enforced. If librarians want their customers to be able to borrow ebooks, then the price they pay for them has (obviously) got to be a price publishers and authors are willing to receive. You can’t in any price negotiation say “This is ridiculous, I refuse to pay more than this much”. Well of course you can, but you have to expect your negotiating partner to walk away from the table, which just leaves you high and dry.

Let us take for an instant the extreme position — how damaging to the world would it actually be if ebooks could not be borrowed from libraries at all? To publishers? Not a bit: or if at all, very little. After all, the publisher would in theory rather that every reader should buy their own copy (even of a printed book — though of course everyone has bought in on the social desirability of a library system where barriers to reading are at least not financial). To authors? Maybe a little: it’s always nice to have another reader, even one who’s a non-buyer. To libraries? Maybe a bit annoying, especially if many people protest and start bending the librarian’s ear. To readers and library users? It’s just a matter of money. If I have to pay, will I nevertheless still read? Well of course that depends — and there always remains the free physical library book as an option. But in no way does the world as we know it cease to function if I can’t get a free ebook from the library. I am not advocating such a position. Nor is the publishing industry even thinking of such a thing, although it might reduce tensions between publishers and an important market segment.

Bite your tongue ye commentators, and be patient: a pricing solution will be reached. Surely it’s obvious that futile lawsuits are not a great way to win friends and influence your suppliers. I’m no lawyer, and have to assume that lawyers must have advised all these states that there’s some ground for proceeding, mustn’t they? — but just what ground that is I’ve no idea. Just because I wrote a book and people would like to read it for free, why must I be made to supply it at a cheap price to my local library? This doesn’t seem to me any more reasonable than that because eating is important to the public, farmers should be required to sell meat and milk at discounted prices. Now of course we have to recognize, yet again, that this “movement” is all based upon the erroneous “common knowledge” that ebooks cost nothing to produce! THEY DON’T.

In Libraries and ebooks I previously beat the drum of getting ebooks out of the library and having publishers “rent” them to readers.

See also Mandatory ebook licenses for libraries?.

The Freelance Isn’t Free Act has been passed by the New York State legislature, as Publishers Weekly reports here. New York City has had such a law since 2017, and this now extends protections to the entire state.

I find it quite hard to imagine that there are operators out there who are willing to use a freelancer’s work without paying for it, but apparently such businesses do exist. My own experience would suggest that payment problems for freelances would result more from incompetence than from malice. I tried always to process every invoice promptly — even if you are dealing not with an individual, but with the largest of corporations, there is a tendency on the part of suppliers to believe that being paid promptly is highly desirable. (At a minimum, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a printer who knows they are likely to have to wait months for payment of any invoice will be less likely to help out a customer with some special schedule or price break.)

One knows of colleagues who found processing invoices to be a burden. You’ve got to check the estimates and see that the charges invoiced match up. This isn’t hard, but it’s almost inevitably a diversion from what your main focus now is — the next book you’re on to. The invoice will arrive a week or two after the job’s delivered, and will have a pay-by-date a month or so in the future; so it looks like you’ve got time. Also if you find a discrepancy, you’ve got to ask what’s up — maybe that conversation was what many buyers shied away from, but you just have to ask, and after all there are errors in billing that can happen for the most innocent of reasons. So some buyers would resist invoice processing. One, having left the company, was discovered to have a large drawer full of unprocessed invoices, many months old.

But even if you can bring yourself to delay payment to a printer, how can you countenance stiffing a freelancer who you’ve probably sat with discussing the job when it was originally commissioned? The law calls for a contract — obviously it’s a good idea for both parties to know ahead of time what it is you expect to pay for this jacket design, that proofreading job or whatever. “The law requires . . . that those freelancers be paid by the agreed-upon date or within 30 days of the completion of the work.” We shouldn’t need such laws, but given what people are like it’s just as well that we do.

If you hit Command C and copy someone else’s words, then paste them, and go through the quote and edit it into “your own words”, are you in fact indulging in plagiarism? PlagiarismToday says yes in their post “Why you can’t make someone else’s words your own”. Jonathan Bailey has devised a procedure called Cleanroom which is designed to help writers avoid plagiarism. Given that the main edict is “don’t copy and paste” this might seem a bit circular. Mr Bailey’s point about avoiding copying and pasting is that it’s copying not writing. OK. More importantly, more riskily, if you do a lot of it you will almost inevitably miss changing some of your pastings into “your own words”. These sentences, even if you do remember to edit them, will of course not really be “your own words” — they are someone else’s thoughts, disguised so they can pass as your own.

Notwithstanding, I have to confess to doing this from time to time. I do believe that what I copy and edit are always fairly short bits: maybe a full sentence. I believe that I do it so that I won’t get the argument wrong more than just to reproduce the thought. I think (and hope) that my editing is always pretty extensive. Oftentimes, if it just looks like it’ll be too much of a hassle to change it all, I do enclose the resultant paste in quotation marks, and attribute it — which is obviously the “right” thing to do.

Copy and paste is almost certainly what led to a steady increase in the length of manuscripts submitted to publishers (at least to academic publishers) towards the end of the last century. In the olden days if you added a couple of sentences in the middle of Chapter Three, then you had to retype the entire chapter to accommodate the insertion: one would try to make a balancing deletion in order to avoid having to retype the whole damn thing. As soon as we got word processors we could shunt paragraphs around and add lots of second thoughts without any need to delete first ones. First thoughts plus second thoughts equal longer books.

I’d no idea that I’d been involved in decades of paratext generation.

IGI, the publisher of Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture by Nadine Desrochers and Daniel Apollon, tells us “The paratext framework is now used in a variety of fields to assess, measure, analyze, and comprehend the elements that provide thresholds, allowing scholars to better understand digital objects. Researchers from many disciplines revisit paratextual theories in order to grasp what surrounds text in the digital age.” Amazing how easy it is to write simple stuff in a way nobody can understand!

Despite all the gobbledegook, paratext basically means all the stuff surrounding and supporting the text of a document, in the case of a book — the cover, title page, index etc.* There was a flurry on the SHARP listserv recently after someone asked for help locating studies of digital paratexts.

Books have those “paratextual” elements added to them by publishers because that’s what we’ve done to them for hundreds of years — and over hundreds of years such stuff has proved its use in navigating the book. People have come to expect it, and to some extent even to depend on it. Now, anyone working for a publishing company almost intuitively knows what bits need to be added to the author’s manuscript to make a proper (printed) book.

Then along comes the ebook. Just take the p-book and digitize it, and Bob’s your uncle. We’ve just taken the book and all its features over into the ebook format, even though there must be other, better things we might do. Trouble is it’s hard to imagine what these other things might be, and there’s just no money in rethinking the ebook format right now.

But it’s still early days. Eventually someone will discover the potential of the digital format to do this or that, and we’ll come up with a better way of dealing with this sort of material. These practices take a long time to establish — we didn’t even start to get page numbers on a regular basis until the end of the fifteenth century — so don’t go holding your breath in anticipation of any exciting change in the mechanics of the ebook. In fact, of course, the ebook as we know it is almost certain NOT going to be the format in which people access text in the future. We just haven’t come up with the better methodology yet — but of course we will I’m sure. Whatever traditionalists (like me) may think, paper will not be how most people access their reading material in a hundred years. (See also A different kettle of fish.) I am always struck by just how clunky and primitive the reading tablets in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series seem to have been, especially in comparison with the other technologies they’d been able to evolve. Surely we could do better with 20,000 or whatever years in which to try. Just takes imagination. Will Artificial Intelligence bail us out?

The Economist has an article on AI, which makes it all seem pretty ominous. Seems to me that it’s quite probable that we’ll develop an AI system that ends up being so much more “intelligent” than we are that humans will end up being disposable (if we survive global warming and nuclear war). AI already can take care of writing journalism and poetry: and it’s become a lot better at it than it was when I wrote about it four years ago. In a way there’s surely no essential difference between a “robot” called AI that paints a picture using the artificial aid of its programming, and an artist who paints a picture using the artificial aid of a paint brush. And why can’t we be excited about an expert AI tale-spinner rather than insisting on our stories being written by live authors with all the usual pains, problems and prejudices?

Of course, thinking like this just adds to the risks humankind faces — if we have an AI system that can do painting, novels and poetry better than humans, why should we expect Big AI to tolerate incompetents who have ignored global warming and nuclear arms build-ups. But still, it might actually work out pretty well: if we can continue to “exist” virtually, eliminating only our inefficient physical apparatus, could the world not be a better place? Program the system to steer clear of our bad habits and the world can keep on keeping on without the damage we humans have learnt to dump onto it. The sign will read “Last human to check out — do not interfere with Big AI’s programming, and leave the lights on.”

So, just what we might like to see “thresholding” our digital books is something some genius still needs to figure out. No doubt progress will be made in tiny fits and starts. As I say, part of the problem is that there’s no profit to be made in doing much to improve the ebook, so we just leave it as a straight conversion of a print book. It all ends up a bit chicken-and-eggy — until readers want better paratextual apparatus for ebooks we won’t be able to afford to create different paratexts. And until we make them, how’s anyone meant to be able to imagine what a better ebook might look like?

Coming back to earth, I have of course written over the years about many (most?) paratextual elements, such as bar codes, bibliographies, blurb, book jacket, CIP, colophon, copyright page, table of contents, errata, figure, fly-title, half-title, indexes, ISBN, page numbering, running head, running feet, and tables.


*The Oxford English Dictionary adds subdivisions to the word paratext, breaking it down into “the peritext, e.g. front cover, introduction, footnotes, etc.” —the stuff attached to the book, which they contrast with external thresholding: “the epitext, e.g. reviews, advertisements, interviews, etc.”.