Archives for category: Book publishing

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” as radical writer X. Trapnel used to say. Even if not sitting there looking over the reader’s shoulder, an author must wish for a reader who will bring completion to the work offered up in hope.

In his cabin by Walden Pond Henry David Thoreau reflected that “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise . . . It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

To a large extent I look on my university education as a training for reading novels. Not that I was tasked with reading a single novel written in English while I was there: it’s just that “education” is/used to be all about beefing up your critical faculties. My education (and life) seem to me to have prepared me for little more than the reading of books. Not that I’m complaining: it’s nice work if you can get it  — just hard to find someone to pay you a large wage for it. Obviously work in a publisher’s office is a good option: I can remember rubbing my hands together and giggling to myself “They’re paying me to read books; and before anyone else is able to read them too!” One is overwhelmed by the sight of a publisher’s reader like Edward Garnett directing the likes of Conrad and Lawrence to make this or that cut, such and such a rearrangement in the first drafts of texts which are now iconic. And they’d meekly follow his direction! Of course a hundred years makes a big difference in the fame and authority of an artist — Conrad and Lawrence had yet to become giants — but still . . .

Readers, even readers long after publication, can be said to have a role in creating the work of art: an intelligent, sensitive reading will make a novel come alive in ways it never could if just read through for the story only, or more extremely, just left unopened! Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto this. In “The American Scholar” he tells us “There is then a creative reading as well as a creative writing.” Kurt Vonnegut neatly described reading as “the only art form in which the audience plays the score”. John Cheever said “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone”. The reader is an essential part of the tale. Almost inevitably there’s now a branch of literary theory called reader-response criticism which maintains that only when the reader engages with the text is its real existence activated. This critical stance would seem to demand that you consider a large number of independent works of art all budding forth from the author’s single root stock: one for every creative reader. This must make the writing of criticism quite difficult, as you would logically need to talk to everyone who’s ever engaged with the text before you can confidently assert what it is!

But should the reader’s role extend back into the writing process? Here’s a piece by Vanessa Lafay about using readers’ reactions to inform the writing process. Crowdsourcing is easy enough nowadays, but is it a good idea when it comes to the creative arts? Yes, no doubt, if your primary motivation is to write a book which will sell more copies; probably not if you hope for literary immortality, though lightning can of course strike in the most unlikely places.


Since they’ve been incorporated into the Common Core documentation, Lexile scores are being printed on more and more children’s books as a supposedly value-free method of indicating reading level. As the Lexile website says “In order to Lexile a book or article, text is split into 125-word slices. Each slice is compared to the nearly 600-million word Lexile corpus – taken from a variety of sources and genres – and words in each sentence are counted. The sentence length and difficulty of the vocabulary is examined throughout the book. These calculations are put into the Lexile equation. Then, each slice’s resulting Lexile measure is applied to the Rasch psychometric model to determine the Lexile measure for the entire text.” (The use of “Lexile” as a verb perhaps reduces one’s confidence in the ability of these guys to adjudicate on reading.)

The difficulty of a book may not just be down to its sentence length and vocabulary, which is what Lexile measure, though they are quite up-front about this. The Digital Reader calls the whole thing into question because of some admittedly fairly surprising results. Still a guide is just a guide. There may be features other than Lexile score which might lead a teacher to assign To Kill a Mockingbird over Mr Popper’s Penguins.


I suppose this is all valuable in some sort of way. Standardizing our assessment tools is a laudable aim. But I can’t buck the feeling that a teacher, a parent, a friend, reading with a child will be liable to know just as much about that child’s reading abilities as any amount of scientific-looking analysis can tell them. On an idiot level: if you only read stuff Lexile tells you you can read, how do you ever progress to reading something more complicated? Struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary is something we all cope with, regardless of our age and experience. Still, we live in an age where having teachers think for themselves is seen as a danger: we appear to need to control everything.

In 2006 a book entitled Useless America, listing Jim Crace as the author, appeared in Amazon’s on-line store. Once there it started accumulating sales (as pre-orders) and even a number of Amazon customer reviews. However such a book never existed. It seems to have gotten into the system via a misheard or mistyped preliminary title for a real novel, The Pesthouse, which Mr Crace was indeed writing, but for which he had, at the time the contract was signed, not fixed on a title. The placeholder title, This used to be America, got to Amazon as Useless America via the Viking-Penguin book feed and there took on a life of its own, despite the fact that it never existed — except that it does. Although Mr Crace never wrote a word of the book a joke edition of 75 copies of Useless America was subsequently produced by Crace’s American publisher as a blank book with a cover reminiscent of The Pesthouse.

This blank book, signed by the alleged author, can be yours for a mere £442.43 ($600 in USA)  at AbeBooks. Doubtless there’s no royalty for Mr Crace, who recounts the story at The Guardian.


Mr Crace is in any case a bit of a trickster, so this mix up couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate author. What the story does show is the size of the pinch of salt which you need by you as you read those on-line reviews* which appear below the listing of the book in Amazon: a rave about a book which was never written can’t increase your confidence in all the rest of them.  We hope and trust Amazon’s systems have improved in the last 12 years — but how would one know how many ghostly works there are out there?


* Not that you need permission to do  reviews at Amazon, but if you love it maybe you’d also like to review for the Online Book Club who just sent me a tweet encouraging me to sign up. Sounds superficially quite attractive.

For a discussion of the ethics of payment for reviews see Book reviewing.


In another sensible piece at The Scholarly Kitchen, Joe Esposito looks at publishing (as I wish all the commentariat would occasionally do) as a bunch of different businesses all with a different relationship to the print/digital continuum.

There are lots of things digital publication can enable, but just because the computer can do X doesn’t mean that doing X would be a good (profitable) idea. As Mr Esposito asks, “Do you believe your business can flourish if you sell journals by the article or books by the chapter? Does that even remotely support the size of the investment?” Would the price we’d have to put on individual chapters and the quantity we’d sell be enough to deliver a profit without scaring off potential purchasers? I know there’s been a lot of talk about enabling the sale of books in bits, but maybe it’s not such a great idea. If you liked Chapter 17 why wouldn’t you also quite like Chapters 1-16 and any following 18? How would you find out that Chapter 17 was actually the one you wanted without being able to take a look at Chapter 17, which one might suspect could remove your need to buy it?

Simon Appleby’s Bookseller essay, The A-bomb, divides our industry into two parts: narrative and information publishing. Information publishing produces material which wants to be chunked — stuff people refer to, look up, dip into, but rarely want to read from start to finish, and so will be ready to buy in chunks. There’s a validity to this, and Mr Appleby is right to point out the fuzziness of our usual ways of dividing up publishing: trade/academic, conglomerate/independent, print/digital, fiction/non-fiction. But the world we live in happens to be fuzzy, and while his view-point does provide a good perspective, it still ends up battling the fog. Are Wiley, Cambridge University Press, Simon & Schuster narrative or information publishers? They are all both. He does recognize the problem, and suggests solving it by rationalizing imprints to reflect this divide. Dream on! We’ll all continue doing whatever it is we think we can make a little money at. All this chunking may not be as amenable to suitable charging as assumed.

Nevertheless the experimentation continues. Oxford University Press is partnering with the Copyright Clearance Center to offer chapters of their books on a pay-per-view basis. The story is told in the OUP blog. I suppose there’s really no reason not to give selling chapters a try. If it looks like becoming too popular and debasing your margin mix, you can always reconsider, or jack up the per-chapter price.

When all’s said and done publishers have the capability of choosing what it is they want to do. At the lowest level one has to accept that if you’re investing your money, you can/should/must invest it in something you want to do. If there are people out there who are keen on issuing books in which every word, as you get to it, turns into a picture, or changes to a different color — let them invest their own money in making their dream come true. Hard as it may be for the commentariat to accept, it is perfectly reasonable for a particular publisher to decide how they will invest their funds, whether to issue their publications in paper only (or perhaps less controversially in digital form only), in part or in whole. The issue is between them and their authors — no one else. Any real potentially profitable demand out there will inevitably be satisfied.


The Digital Reader brings us an escape from the box. Guest writer Matt Blind, in a piece originally published at Rocket Bomber in 2012 and now updated, suggests that as it stands, Barnes & Noble (whose outlook continues bad to dire) has both too much and too little: too many stores, too few books. He suggests their best way forward is not their plan to open smaller, cuter stores. Salvation he suggests is to be found in consolidation. With 10 massive stores located in Orlando, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Philadelphia, Boston, Columbus, Chicago, San Diego, San Jose, and Portland they would be able to serve a large proportion of the US population. In this context massive means massive. Practically every book anyone might want would be there in each mega-store, and, if customers don’t want to go there and pick up the book after phoning in to check availability, 220,000,000 of them would be within 1-day delivery range of these 10 store/distribution centers.

This may sound like Amazon opening up the front doors of their distribution centers and allowing individual customers to drop by and pick up and pay for the book they want. Of course Amazon didn’t chose the locations of their distribution centers with any such plan in mind, so they are not exactly in ideal retail locations. However that Mr Blind’s plan is a good idea may be confirmed by Amazon’s opening of more bricks-and-mortar stores. I do think that the only way to get a piece of the business of one-day-delivery book sales is to give it a try. B & N can just quietly fade away, or they can give it the good old college try and attempt to get a bit of the big-box-book business.

Independent bookstores are another kettle of fish: more boutique than H & M or Zara’s. The difference between Amazon and the independent bookstores might be seen as analogous to the difference between big trade publishing, and small independent publishers. You can’t do both well. Barnes & Noble needs to jump one way or the other: going back to being a small independent bookstore on 4th Avenue isn’t an option.

I pause to wonder who it is who’d get to fund the massive inventory cost these massive Barnes & Noble stores would incur. My pause isn’t long though: the answer is obviously the publishers. As we all know publishers are not interested in money, and in any case have tons of it. The charitable opportunity to fill up 10 giant warehouses around the country is just the cash drain any publisher will welcome with open arms! Despite my sarcasm, I have no doubt that something can be worked out.

Is there such a job title any more? Are there such people any more?

Edward Garnett, publisher’s reader for T. Fisher Unwin, got a bit fed up when he reflected that he was being asked to read and report on 700 manuscripts a year. Given his salary of £350, this works out to 10/- a book. Of course ten shillings in 1899 was a decent amount of money*: it’s the 700 books a year that boggles the mind. Reading an average of two books a day, every day, seems physically impossible. And Garnett was reviewing other books for newspapers and journals too.

Of course it has often been said that an editor can usually tell whether a book is worth looking at by simply reading the first and the last paragraphs of the manuscript. Helen Smith’s biography of Garnett, An Uncommon Reader, slips in, around 1920, a glimpse of such dodges when she writes “He insisted on reading every manuscript that was submitted, [to the newly established firm of Jonathan Cape] initially running his eye over a few pages to discover whether or not it was worth putting aside for the weekly parcel that was sent to Pond Place [Garnett’s flat] for closer scrutiny. On average the package contained eight to ten manuscripts, which Edward usually reported on at the next Wednesday meeting.” As he was spending just half a day in the office, one has to assume that that running of the eye was all the reading those mss which didn’t get into the parcel ever got. Even for this smaller number he was still not making his ten bob a book though.

Garnett’s skill set clearly involved a huge dominance of the critical faculties over the creative. He did write a few novels, but one suspects that his critical mind frustrated the creative process: if you are constantly editing yourself it must be difficult to get a full sentence down. Most editors will, I think, freely admit to a similar mind-set. Garnett’s creative involvement with those authors whom he considered worthwhile was intense and time-consuming. If a writer showed promise Garnett would badger him (they were almost all men) until he was writing in the right way, not in the easy way. He tended to move on once his Conrad, his Galsworthy, his D. H. Lawrence, his W. H. Hudson, his Edward Thomas, his T.E. Lawrence, his Henry Green was on track, and switch his focus to the next discovery from the slush pile.

I dare say publishers still have some freelance readers, but I’ve never come up against one or indeed detected evidence of their existence. The appropriate job title would now be editor, though of course there are other functions to that task. The increase in importance of the literary agent has to a large extent moved the process of manuscript evaluation upstream and out of the trade publisher’s office, and this has reduced the significance of the slush pile. Reading unsolicited submissions in a publisher’s office is a task which now seems to have devolved pretty much onto interns and junior editorial assistants. The risk nowadays of missing a great book which has arrived over the transom is negligible for a trade publisher, an insight Mr Unwin may have been working towards. (His company survived till 1926 when it merged with Ernest Benn Ltd.) Academic publishers, whose dealings with agents are less common, do still keep an eye on that transom though, and quite a few university press successes arrive unsolicited.


* Least you import modern day values into your thinking about this, I am here to tell you that I was offered an annual salary of £300 in 1964 or 1965 as an editorial assistant at Cassells. I did not take the job, and responded to the offer by saying that if I were planning on not eating anything for the entire year that might be just enough. They were perhaps offering half, maybe slightly less than half, of the average starting salary in publishing at that time, and were clearly looking for someone living at home with Mummy and Daddy: sort of like the equivalent of today’s intern I suppose.

The point is though, that Garnett’s £350 should not be looked on as derisory seventy years earlier.

Here’s a 2016 repost from The Passive Voice, “How the mid-list died”. This was originally published at Cemetery Dance Online, and is in that “self publishing great, traditional publishing wicked” mode. And of course it’s nonsense.

We are told “Once upon a time, Dorchester Publishing was America’s oldest mass-market paperback publisher. They published horror, romance, western, adventure, mystery, and other genres. When they imploded a few years ago, most of the mid-list collapsed with them.” Dorchester was never the oldest mass-market publisher — they claimed to be the first independent one. Their death in 2011-12 had nothing to do with mid-list. Dorchester was a mass market imprint, and in that market what the author describes about tearing off the cover and returning just that was indeed the business model. The books were so cheap there was no point in returning them as the shipping cost would be more than the value of the book. Such arrangements do not ever apply to mid-list books.

For the sake of accuracy mid-list can be regarded as designating books published by a trade publisher which are not expected to become bestsellers. They will tend to have first printings in the 5,000 range rather than five- or six-figure print runs. They are published to generate sales volume by selling fewer copies over many titles. Some of them may surprise their publishers and become bestsellers despite the initial vote of non-confidence. A self-described mass-market publisher is going to have nothing to do with these books, though of course they might buy paperback rights for the more successful among them later on.

Now, it is true that we often tug on our beards in anxiety over the fate of the mid-list. It is feared that economics are forcing trade publishers into an ever increasing focus on bestsellers. You’d need to be working inside one of these behemoths to be able to pass any judgement on whether this is the case or not, but let’s assume that it is. Books which a big trade house thinks can sell 5,000 copies look pretty unexciting to them, but to smaller publishers such a sale is a potential bonanza. I remember working at a university press where we would acquire rights to books which Harper & Row (as they then were) were putting out of print because they could no longer sell 4,000 copies a year. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven: 4,000 — a year!

The mid-list in other words is in my view in no danger at all. What’s affected is the mid-list author. Big trade houses pay big advances against royalties: that’s their business model. Because of this they no doubt in the past often paid mid-list authors much more than a smaller publisher could afford. These advances, many/most of which never earned out, tended to get buried in the large numbers in the accounts of big houses. Smaller publishers can not look away from such sore thumbs. Thus most of the angst about mid-list is in fact angst about how the authors are going to survive while they write their books. This, for authors, is of course not a trivial matter. Solutions are being attempted.

I discover that I have written about mid-list before.

Peter Ginna’s book about this topic has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

There’s an hour-long video from C-Span available at this link showing a successful book event in January at Politics and Prose Bookshop in Washington DC. The presentation is divided into the three main bits of an editor’s job: acquisition, text development, promotion to the rest of the company. The second half hour of the video is given over to questions from the audience — many quite interesting.

I have always envisaged the editor as that self-confident person in the bow of the ship holding a big butterfly net with which he/she from time to time fishes out some kind of sea creature, passing it on to the guys down in the belly of the vessel who chop it up into suitable form while the editor is shouting to the marketing folks in the stern what it is that they are about to receive. When the engine room’s done with it, the people in the stern toss the product overboard, screaming things like “Seagulls: you’re going to love this”, “Dolphins, this one’s for you”, “The best thing you sharks have seen for years”.

Mike Shatzkin has caught the bug. His latest post at The Idea Logical Company is entitled “The written word is losing its power and will continue to”. What is it that makes these literate guys lose all hope in what they claim is such an important part of their world? Is Mr Shatzkin just feeling guilty about watching too much TV recently? Has he too become obsessed with curling?

David L. Ulin in his The Lost Art of Reading (a title fortunately contradicted by his text) quotes Nicholas Carr moaning “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” He doesn’t notice any incongruity in expressing this brain-dead claim in the course of writing a 300-page book, self deprecatingly called The Shallows. Come off it guys. Why is it only good to read in the way you were brought up reading? There is in fact much more reading going on today than ever before. Does it really matter how long the texts involved are, or what the words used are describing? Reading seems to me to be reading. If you want to complain that not enough kids are reading Swiss Family Robinson, go ahead: just don’t expect too many people to pay any attention to you.

The literal meaning of “the written word” does not have to mean just words written on paper — amazingly enough there’s writing on other things like . . . oh, I don’t know; maybe TV screens, busses, walls, sandy beaches, packages of lettuce, and of course the internet. According to Mr Ulin, “In December 2009, a study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego, found that, ‘in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day.’ One hundred thousand words is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel.”

Just let that sink in. The equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel. Every day. Everyone.

This has to be an exaggeration of course. A UC, San Diego discussion, where the report can be downloaded as a PDF, reveals that 67% of the bytes are consumed as games, while 41% of Americans’ “information hours” are spent watching TV, while 16% are spent on the internet. But just because it’s labelled “game” or “TV” doesn’t mean that there’s no reading involved. Still, we might cautiously see the daily word intake as a 300-page novel with 60% illustration, so it might look more like a 300-page graphic novel or a 120 page novel.

Human nature makes us react to that reduction from a 300-page novel to a 120-page novel by saying “I knew that was all nonsense”. But, hold on a minute: can you credit every American reading the equivalent of a 120-page novel every day? Reading has never had it so good.

Every generation grows old to bitch about the generations following after them who are, by doing things their own way, quite obviously doing things wrong. But notice over the last few days how quickly the #NeverAgain movement has gained momentum after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and become a real force simply by responsible use of social media — and all this achieved by those teenagers we’ve loved to write off as being totally lost to the world because they never take their faces out of their smart phones. And of course the curmudgeons all know that these kids never read, because reading text messages is not what they think of when they think of reading!

We’re all still reeling a bit from Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry’s casually dropped judgement from his recent interview with Scroll, to the effect that “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.” However, reading on, I’m forced to the conclusion that what Mr Nourry really thinks is stupid is not the ebook itself so much as book publishers’ attempts to develop it; that the ebook as we’ve presented it is “unintelligent” — lacks the intelligence that the digital format so obviously invites. As he goes on to say: “I’m convinced there is something we can invent using our content and digital properties beyond ebooks but I reached the conclusion that we don’t really have the skills and talents in our companies because publishers and editors are accustomed to picking a manuscript and creating a design on a flat page. They don’t really know the full potential of 3-D and digital. So we acquired three video game companies in the last two years to attract talent from different industries and see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital. We need to offer different experiences to our consumers.” 

Now of course a man in charge of a world-wide media conglomerate should one might assume be able to express himself clearly and without ambiguity. To say the ebook is stupid is really no different from saying the paperback format is stupid. It just doesn’t have a lot of meaning. Worse, it provides a red rag to the commentariat who can read Mr Nourry’s remark as another example of publishers’ benighted prejudice against the digital hordes. So glaringly obvious is this “error” that one is tempted to assume that Mr Nourry may in fact have been misquoted: surely, whatever you might believe about the relative desirability of print and digital, it’s unlikely that “stupid” would be the word you’d choose.

It is true that the ebook hasn’t really changed anything much — access yes, but the basic experience, not so much. Reading an ebook or a print book ends up being basically the same experience: it’s the book that you’re reading, and the effect on you of War and Peace is liable to be very similar whether you read it on an iPhone, on a Kindle, as a hardback, as a paperback or even as an audiobook. The economics of TV and cinema make watching War and Peace quite different though, and what Mr Nourry is perhaps stumbling towards is a book-based product which differs from the original to a similar extent. Not sure I feel in need of such a thing, but of course I don’t really know what I’m talking about as it hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s not that people aren’t trying. “Between the web and social media, I read more than I ever have — and yet I read fewer books than ever. Reading over all my notes about the future of reading, I see I have reported it out of hope that books will evolve to repair what other technologies have started to break: my ability to concentrate over hundreds of pages.” Thus Casey Newton in his pean to Amazon on The Verge. His piece reports on developments under way at the Kindle lab in Sunnyvale, CA. I must admit that such changes as he mentions seem incremental rather than transformative. Transformative seems however to be what Craig Mod is after (and perhaps Mr Nourry). In his much referenced piece at Aeon Mr Mod blames Amazon for not developing the Kindle more than they have. Fiona Smith-Strickland echoes Mod’s complaint at Gizmodo. Mod shows (at the very end) one fairly dramatic ebook development at Bret Victor’s Communications Design Group research laboratory in San Francisco. But who is going to pay for this sort of work? These sorts of thing are always nice as R&D, but in the real world people probably just aren’t willing to fund them by paying more for their ebooks, are they? Not me, anyway.

Echoing Casey Newton’s plaint, Hugh McGuire says he now can’t read more than four books a year in this Medium piece. He defines his “problem” thus:

  1. I cannot read books because my brain has been trained to want a constant hit of dopamine, which a digital interruption will provide
  2. This digital dopamine addiction means I have trouble focusing: on books, work, family and friends.

People like to write this sort of stuff, but it doesn’t have to mean what they think it means. This inability to concentrate on a book is blamed by the writer on the internet and the pleasure hit he gets when he follows up a link. But there’s really a much simpler explanation: he has two daughters, aged four and two. What reasonable human being thinks there’s any chance of their reading more than four books a year under these conditions? Your focus (thank goodness, Hugh) is elsewhere. The solutions you propose for your supposed problem are radical (no TV after dinner? — What about the World Series?) and they will help, but not in the way you think. They’ll help because with kids you need more sleep.

Of course all this will have settled down and seem quaint when we have moved on and invented the “whizzblook” or whatever the as yet uninvented electronic extension of the book book turns out to be named. I’m sure the invention will happen, just as I’m sure it’ll have as little to do with books as movies do today. After the “whizzblook” has come along I suspect book publishers will get on with publishing their books pretty much as they do today in all the stupid formats we’ve learned to love: hardback, paperback, ebook, and anything else we will have dreamed up by then.