Archives for the month of: January, 2023

Seems a bit of a storm in a teacup, though we know from bitter experience that it’s often the smallest issues that are most hotly debated. Thus the State Department’s decision to change its official typeface from Times New Roman to Calibri has been causing controversy. Mashable brings the story.

The justification is officially that Calibri is easier to read on a computer screen, and especially for the partially sighted, than is Times New Roman and that allegedly Calibri works better with OCR. There is a vanishingly small amount of research on readability, at all, and assertions that this or that typeface is more or less readable are usually based on little more than font-familiarity and personal prejudice. That sans is more readable than serifed type is “backed up” (by Mashable, not the State Department, I think) by a research paper which starts out “Texts are a collection of letters and words which are printed or displayed in a particular style and size.” This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but I suppose you do have to define your terms when you’re writing an academic paper.

Another bit of research they cite comes down wobblily on the side of sans as being more readable than serif type, although “Traditionally, serif fonts have been considered easier to read than sans serif fonts, but prior empirical evidence is scarce and inconclusive.” Sorry, but the research on which this paper is based also seems to me “scarce and inconclusive”. What the research actually shows is that 14pt Lucida Sans was adjudged by twenty students to be marginally more “readable” on a collection of 320 words than 14pt Lucida Bright (a serif font). “The present data demonstrate that serifs do not facilitate the process of visual-word identification; instead, the presence of serifs may (if anything) hinder lexical access.”

The case seems utterly unarguable to me: a serif type is less ambiguous than a sans serif font. One bit of text that’ll cause difficulty in Calibri and other sans serif fonts (like the one used in this blog, whose identity I’m not utterly sure about) is “Ill”. I bang up against the indistinguishability of Cap eye and lower case ell whenever I go on about Artificial Intelligence — looks like I’m talking about my chum big Al. This feature of many sans serif faces is an open invitation to OCR to get ahold of the wrong end of the stick. In your serif/sans serif research project you could of course “control” for this problem by excluding words which include this combination of characters. Maybe the State Department uses “sick” instead of “ill”, and has standing orders to spell out Artificial Intelligence whenever it’s referred to. Hope so. At least in Calibri the number 1 has serifs to distinguish 1 from I and l.

But of course, who really cares what typeface the Department of State uses? Even the reasons for the choice are hard to get too worked up about. I suppose it does make sense that everyone in the organization should use the same format, though I have always rather wondered why. The most significant finding in the paper may be the admission that “the default font in Microsoft Word is no longer a serif font (Times New Roman) but a sans serif font (Calibri).”

Conspiracy theorists will no doubt jump on this as showing an undue influence of the tech industry on our international diplomacy.

At LitHub Helen Betya Rubinstein suggests in a piece entitled Against Copyediting that copyediting does more damage than good. She suggests that it should be viewed as “a white supremacist project” and that we’d all be better off without it!

She references Lee A. Tonouchi’s “Da State of Pidgin Address” which is written in Hawaiian Creole English, or Pidgin, and tells us that the article asks “whether what ‘dey say’ is true: ‘dat da perception is dat da standard english talker is going automatically be perceive fo’ be mo’ intelligent than da Pidgin talker regardless wot dey talking, jus from HOW dey talking.’” This is quite interesting but surely utterly irrelevant to copyediting. The answer Mr Tonouchi’s question should be “No” — we don’t. But I guess we do grow up with a tendency to assume that someone talking in a way which we’ve been educated into thinking of as wrong cannot be talking wisdom: I remember my own teenage moment of realizing that someone taking broad Scots could also be talking intense good sense! Kids may think this way I dare say, but by the time we’ve gotten old enough to be employed as a copyeditor by a book publisher we ought to have outgrown such childish assumptions. That lazy thinking may mislead some of us into false judgements is surely no justification for condemning copyediting as a function. Most writers strive to make their manuscripts read like standard English: copyeditors are not involved in suppression, they’re facilitators.

One wonders how many books written in Hawaiian Pidgin or any other non-standard English did Ms Rubinstein work on in her five years of copyediting? Zero, I’d wager. I suspect that any “esteemed publisher” receiving a manuscript written throughout in consistent Hawaiian Pidgin, which the author wanted to have published that way in order to make a point, would go ahead. Maybe they’d go ahead a bit reluctantly, worrying about whether Pidgin might restrict the sale, but ahead I bet they’d go. (One of the problems would be finding a copyeditor!) Book publishers earn their money as agents of the author, taking their manuscript, and on their behalf editing it, making it look good, and offering it for sale to the marketplace to which they have established access. It’s always the author’s book, and what the author demands is almost always what the author’ll get.* This is unlikely to include a demand for no copyediting or proofreading.

Let us dismiss the idea that Ms Rubinstein, now a creative writing teacher, writes this essay just to get an article or a book published: striking an attitude sells better than balancing on a fence. She’s done her time. She worked for five years at “an esteemed book publisher” which was acquired in 2008 by a “big five” house — “I was just a few months out of college when I landed that position, at a rate of $14 and eventually $22 an hour.” She focusses her criticisms on the fixing of manuscript trivia which can indeed come along with the job of copyediting, and glosses over the undeniable fact that authors almost all value, and would refuse to go without, the work of a copyeditor in helping them avoid solecisms and errors of grammar, semantics, structure and sense. Ms Rubinstein’s basic problem is that she looks at copyediting as a copyeditor who’s moved on to “better things”, rather than as an author. She’s got a book Feels Like Trouble: Transgressive Takes on Teaching, Writing, and Publishing forthcoming from the University of New Orleans Press. LitHub doesn’t say, but I assume that this piece may be an extract from that book. I wonder if Ms Rubinstein refused to let UNO Press have a copyeditor work on her manuscript.


* There are of course cases when author and publisher disagree about some fundamental issue. If agreement cannot be reached, the contract will be cancelled and the author will be free to approach another publishing house. Any advance payment which the author has already received will not be due for repayment.

Richard Serra’s Hand catching lead might be a good metaphor for a trade publishing editor’s process of trying to catch the next bestseller — except that the hand’s success rate is quite high.

© Richard Serra 1971

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

A former trade editorial colleague referred to her job as swinging for a home run with every book she signed. Sluggers know that most of the time they’ll whiff and end up striking out, but home runs are what they’re all about, and home runs are what they’ll keep aiming for.

For the most part the students wait their turn very patiently. To stand and wait while someone examines white disks is soothing. The umbrella will certainly be found. But the fact leads you on all day through Macaulay, Hobbes, Gibbon; through octavos, quartos, folios; sinks deeper and deeper through ivory pages and Morocco bindings into this density of thought, this conglomeration of knowledge.

Jacob’s walking-stick was like all the others; they had muddled the pigeon-holes perhaps.

There is in the British Museum an enormous mind. Consider that Plato is there cheek by jowl with Aristotle; and Shakespeare with Marlowe. This great mind is hoarded beyond the power of any single mind to possess it. Nevertheless (as they take so long finding one’s walking-stick) one can’t help thinking how one might come with a notebook, sit at a desk, and read it all through. A learned man is the most venerable of all — a man like Huxtable of Trinity, who writes all his letters in Greek, they say, and could have kept his end up with Bentley. And then there is science, pictures, architecture, — an enormous mind.

From Virginia Woolf: Jacob’s Room Ch. IX. Non-Brits may need to be reminded that “keeping your end up” is a cricketing metaphor, describing the task of allowing a batter of superior ability to continue to score runs while you stolidly defend your wicket and try to avoid getting out by eschewing any fancy and over-ambitious strokes. In multi-day cricket matches such a batter may be described as the night-watchman.

An almost 180-degree view of “the enormous mind”, from Wikipedia. Apparently the ceiling is made of papier mâché.

Bear in mind that since Jacob’s Room was published, in 1922, the Library has moved out of the British Museum. In 1997 it was shifted into a custom-built space on Euston Road next to St Pancras, about a mile north. The old circular reading room, opened in 1857, was built in the central court of the original Museum. It is currently closed as administrators mull over what it might be now best used for.

A recent Bookseller headline shouts “Booksellers report more customers switching to paperbacks as household budgets tighten” (only accessible to subscribers though).

Used to be a book would be published in hardback, and if it did at all well, a paperback edition would be follow a year later. Have you noticed a recent fashion of just walking past that first bit, and publishing initially in paperback (and ebook)? It’s by no means a majority of traditionally published books which are coming out just as paperbacks, but a growing number of publishers are playing around with this idea.

We may not be about to see the demise of the printed book, but it does seem quite possible that the hardback will drop by the wayside. Let’s face it, the reason we have hardbacks (beyond the grip of tradition) is that publishers can charge much more for them while spending little more to make them. Sure there’s a bit of token rhetoric around strength and survivability, but given that a hardback is nowadays really nothing but a paperback stuck between board covers with a jacket wrapped around it, the strength argument hardly stands much scrutiny. (The earliest paperbacks were presented by the book trade as disposable items, but when it comes down to it a modern trade paperback is almost identical to the hardback in terms of quality of manufacture and durability.)

Once upon a time people might have felt that when they were buying a book as a gift it would look a bit cheesy if they bought a paperback rather than the hardback edition, but this attitude now looks decidedly old-fashioned.

For years we have been encountering paperbacks in libraries.

The world and the business have moved on. There was once a time when it would have been crazy for a librarian to think “If I buy the paperback for $5, rather than spending $20 on the hardback edition; if the paperback falls apart after 50 borrowings, I can always buy another one”. Fifty years ago books, while not quite like milk, did have a sort of sell-by date. When a book came out in 1965, if you really wanted a copy it behooved you to get up off your backside and buy one. Waiting would almost inevitably result in disappointment, because back then it was rather expensive to reprint a book which wasn’t selling in large numbers. As a result most books went through a single printing and then disappeared into the world of OP. Now that we can rely on digital printing, and especially print-on-demand, to make a book available “for ever” buying the cheaper paperback becomes a reasonable library acquisition policy.

This story can kill two birds with a single stone. In the first video you may observe the printing of pressure-sensitive adhesive labels, as well as receive a good introduction to flexographic printing. Now labels can of course be printed by any method, not just flexography (letterpress). The secret sauce consists in the paper stock and in the post-imaging processing, die-cutting, slitting into rolls and so on. Lithography and gravure are responsible for a large proportion of the labels you’ll encounter. More customized labels (shorter runs) will probably have been printed on a digital press.

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

The second video shows the detail of how the labels are applied — although in this video the operator is taking each label by hand. You can see how the adhesive labels are carried on a shiny paper carrier. The labels have been die-cut to shape immediately after printing, and the background paper simultaneously removed. When the carrier sheet (which has avoided the die cut and now carries only the labels) takes that final 300º or so bend out of the way the label continues straight on to where it meets up with its target, a bottle, a carton, an apple, or in this case the operator’s fingers.

The picture below shows the die-cut adhesive paper being separated from the carrier sheet, after the die-stamping which has just taken place in the unit to the right of the picture.

Avery’s website gives you a “recipe” for the construction of their adhesive label paper:

Here the face stock represents the label, and the liner is what I was referring to as the carrier sheet.

The HarperCollins strike has been going on since 10 November: impressive solidarity. Power to the workers, we might cry, but I fear that the longer the strike goes on the less likely it is that the employees will benefit very much. There are just too many freelance workers out there, and doubtless workload is down a bit as sympathetic agents and authors hold back manuscript. Publishers Weekly has a round-up piece, including lawyerly opinion.

It has always seemed to me a little odd that in such a liberal profession as book publishing — and liberal it is, even though there are obviously quite a few very conservative folks in its ranks — there is an almost universal objection to unionization. Surely liberals should all support the idea that the workers should get fair pay and as good benefits as can be afforded. If that’s what you want, get over the concern that only you should be empowered to make decisions about policy. If the finances of the organization won’t support million dollar salaries, just talk about that frankly and openly, and your not-unintelligent staff will understand, won’t they? I think there’s a bit of “We’re so liberal that you’ll never be able to get any more than what we’re ready and eager to give you”. If management really thinks that, what do they imagine they risk by welcoming the union? Control, or the feeling of control is probably it. Research might reveal a tendency for conservative folks to make it into management positions, or at least more financially aware types whose focus might be less on the people and more on the money, even if the money isn’t the sort of money “real” businesses might be concerned with. Still, as I say in my earlier post Unions, even if it’s not a very large one there’s still a cake to be divided.

When I took part in the unionization of a publishing company, I was a bit surprised to be met with a disarming reaction along the lines of “That’s great. We’d welcome employee involvement in these discussions. See you next week.” But of course that was in another country and at another time, as well as, possibly relevantly, at a not-for-profit publishing house staffed up and down by highly intelligent people. Our union’s major tangible achievement in wage negotiations, I always used to claim, was to have gotten a fridge installed where we could keep our lunches! Thus is glory achieved.

Of course HarperCollins (and its predecessor Harper & Row) has had a union for over sixty years, so their problem isn’t recognition of the union; it’s getting management to negotiate “in good faith”. The union claims that the management is refusing to talk to them. La lutte continue.

Three days later: Both sides have agreed to mediation.

Michele Santelia now holds the important Guinness world record for typing books in reverse. Mr Santelia, an Italian accountant from Campobasso, cites Leonardo da Vinci as the inspiration behind his decision to pursue mirror typing. “It is to his enlightened mind that I, with great humility, attempt to compare [myself] in order to try to understand his mysteries, his secrets and ancient virtues!” Mr Santelia types his books backwards, in their original languages, using four blank keyboards simultaneously, which to me seems the rather more impressive aspect of his hobby. (You can see a photo of his keyboard set-up at the link above. He assigns values to each key before starting.) The Guinness World Records site assures us that Mr Santelia never looks up at the screen to double check his work. It is not disclosed whether there’s also a neighboring reverse proof reader who’s checking to see there are no typos and omissions, or do I mean snoissimo dna sopyt?

After typing each book, Mr Santelia prints an enlarged version of the text onto large pages, which are then bound in a leather cover. Guinness tell us: “Over the years, Michele has gifted several of his books to prominent public figures, such as former US presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama; Popes Johannes Paul II and Benedict XVI; and former Italian presidents Carlo Ciampi and Giorgio Napolitano. Michele’s latest book, Das Nibelungenlied Backwards, a medieval German heroic epic, was typed in 2022. Michele dedicated it to ‘the disabled people of the whole world; to all those who suffer daily in a bigoted and clumsy society.’”

Here the proud tsipyt is shown with one of his volumes — no wonder he has to give them away — eighty-one would fill any house.

LitHub brings us the story of Mr Santelia’s back-to-front achievement. Thanks to Nate Hoffelder for the link.

I am forced to wonder whether Guinness should perhaps reflect that every Monotype keyboard operator’s no doubt able to knock off eighty-one books every month or so; — the Monotype keyboard yields a punched tape which contains the text of a book in reverse — though the operator does get to go forwards.

I’ve often wondered about these little stickers as I pick at a recalcitrant example on my apple. Obviously fruit growers have come to regard the cost of getting their label onto their fruit as worthwhile — I guess it’s easy enough to mix up melons from several growers and attribute the sale to the wrong one.

Here from Atlas Obscura is a story about a London designer who has been collecting these little stickers since the nineteen-nineties. Apparently the stickers include important information about the fruit. This is carried on the PLU code (Price Look Up) which is actually primarily there to tell the checkout clerk what price to charge you. The numbers in the PLU carry information about “commodity, variety, growing methodology (e.g., organic), and the size” but are really too small for the customer to be able to learn much from them, even if we were privy to the code. You can see an example of a PLU in the center of the second row above, and the second label in the third row. Information about the codes may be found at the IFPS site (International Federation for Produce Standards).

I’ve always been more interested in how these little stickers get there. It would seem hopelessly uneconomical for a picker (or any human) to be sticking them on, and of course that’s not what happens. This video shows the process on a variety of fruits:

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Surprising to relate, I guess, but when I was a young man, you’d still go to a tailor if you needed a new jacket, and he’d cut it out from a bolt of cloth and sew it up to fit you. Of course I lived in a wool town so such practices may have gone on a bit longer there.

In a post by Abner Aldarondo the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, introduces us to a sixteenth century Spanish manual of tailoring by master tailor Diego de Freyle, Geometria y traça para el oficio de los sastres (Geometry and patterns for the trade of tailoring) — which all looks nostalgically familiar to me. A digitized version of the book can be found here.

Here is the tailor in his workshop — OK the clothes did look a bit different in my youth, but what’s going on is what went on then. The tailor in the middle is holding a pair of dividers and a Spanish yardstick: la vara. (You can enlarge the image by clicking on it.) Obviously patterns were cut, and we are here given 48 of them. Below is one for a cape and doublet.

The book was printed in Seville in 1588 by Fernando Diaz. The format is unusual: it’s landscape, 10 x 29 cms. almost 4″ x 11½”, no doubt because they needed to accommodate all these woodcuts along with scant text. Mr Aldarondo also suggests that the format helped to keep the book open. The pages are numbered in leaves, so that folio 7 recto is followed by folio 7 verso, and also show signature marks at the bottom right. The 72-page book was probably printed two pages to view, four per sheet, so presumably the sheet was something like 8½” x 11¾” with two sheets gathered together to make a signature. I haven’t managed to figure out why four pages (folios 7 and 8) are printed so that only a diagonal chunk of text is shown. Here’s folio 7 recto:

It’s not like it’s some press error, for example having a loose sheet of paper lying on top of the forme and taking the ink intended for the book, because the running heads show up in the expected location, and you can see the signature mark C3 in the bottom right hand corner. It’s almost like you’d want to fold the page back in order to see something below — but there just doesn’t seem any target which would make sense of this. This page does seem to be a listing of yardage cloth requirements — maybe you were meant to cut off the blank part of the page, or write your annotations here. I still don’t get it though. Let’s assume the introduction explains it all.

Freyle advises tailors to sit with their backs straight on a stool half a vara high, and to push needles outwards away from their nose and cheek! You are told how many yards (varas) of material you would need for each pattern, though presumably this would vary depending on the dimensions of your customer. Apparently sixteenth century Spain was the center of the European fashion trade and there was some disquiet among the world of haute couture espagnole that by publishing such books all their trading advantage might evaporate — which of course it ultimately did.