Archives for category: Book publishing

Another force pushing us towards a single world market in the book business may be identified in the internationalization of book manufacturing and distribution. Now of course publishers have been ordering printing from overseas for years, especially since World War II. High quality color? Go to Italy. Price problems? Or lots of hand work — add-ons? Hong Kong here we come. When I was first in New York, working for Cambridge University Press, it was quite obvious that the tidal flow of manufacturing was governed by £/$ exchange rate fluctuations: now it would be cheaper in the USA, then it would switch back to favor Britain. Work would follow: publishers are always looking for the cheapest way to make their books. The development of digital printing, primarily of print on demand manufacturing, accelerated these options. One of the incidental implications of print on demand is that you can minimize shipping costs by printing a book as close to the ultimate customer as possible. This cost saving may not look like much when you think of one book, but over a year it mounts up to a significant sum.

Local territorial markets be damned! Ingram‘s Vice President of Content Acquisition, Kelly Gallagher, tells us “Sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent of a publisher’s Ingram wholesale can be to non-US addresses. That’s also very glass half-empty, half-full, because it’s a pressure point for the local retailers and distributors in those countries who used to have a corner on getting books into their market.” From a Publishing Perspectives interview.

Amazon lies at the heart of all this. Amazon’s distribution system is amazingly slick. They fulfill an order in the most efficient (cost and timing) method possible. There’s a cascade of options, which involves answering a series of questions including:

  • Are there several books in this order?
  • If so, where is each of them best sourced —
  • from our inventory,
  • which warehouse is that inventory in,
  • is it here or overseas,
  • or should it come from Ingram’s inventory,
  • from the publisher’s inventory,
  • from any other wholesaler’s inventory,
  • by using POD,
  • and if POD then POD at our own facilities
  • or at one of Lightning Source (part of Ingram)?

All all these steps the algorithm focusses on optimal proximity to the customer and speed of delivery. Amazon is heavily dependent on (or makes extensive use of) Ingram’s services. In many ways Ingram’s stock can be regarded as an extension of Amazon’s stock, as can all the print-on-demand files that Lightning Source maintains. The cascade, regardless of where the book ends up being shipped from, will always result in the books arriving on your doorstep in a grinning Amazon carton. Your order may be split into two or more separate packages — the cascade will have determined which is optimal.

Now this system is beyond impressive: Amazon can get most books to most people overnight. I sympathize with the old guard bookstores, but is it really right to go after a company for having developed a system that’s so efficient that almost everyone wants to use it? Doesn’t monopoly require a certain amount of unfair advantage: using your market power to destroy the opposition. Amazon is merely guilty of designing such an efficient system that nobody else can match it. Surely that shouldn’t be a crime, should it?

Given what’s been going on for the last year one’s reaction to a recent story from Publishers Weekly headlined Bookstore Sales Fell 28.3% in 2020 might be “Just 28.3%?”.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. As the report Covid-19 and Book Publishing puts it “Book retail is really a set of businesses. First, it’s both physical and digital. More than half of book retail takes place online (with Amazon accounting for at least half of those sales). Physical retail, on its own, has several components, broadly speaking: chain bookstores, independent bookstores, big box retailers like Costco, and “newsstands” at drug and grocery stores, airport stores, etc.” It goes without saying that different bits of this business have been differently affected. Online’s going gangbusters, while, say, if nobody’s taking flights, business at airport stores isn’t going to be booming. There have been closures of bookstores (and openings too). Many a local independent bookstore was already walking a knife-edge before we got into shutdowns. It remains a disgrace that the landlord remains the only player in the retail system who seems always to be kept whole. Now that our government is no longer headed by a failed real estate tycoon, maybe we can get some sort of reform going. Sarah McNally’s suggestion of rents tied to sales would help to share the risk.

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen twin market changes during the crisis — towards online buying, and towards ebooks. I suspect the e-to-print ratio will eventually return to preexisting norms (not that that really matters to publishers), but online purchasing — of all sorts of product — seems likely to survive. Maybe bricks-and-mortar retail will end up as more of a show-rooming situation: try on that jacket and then have it shipped to your home after the sleeves have been taken up ½”. has made a good start on integrating independent bookstores into the digital marketplace, but individual stores need to be proactive in widening their methods of getting books to buyers. Many have already. They need to keep the innovations they’ve made and think of others. We’ve not lived for a long time in a world where the only way you could get a book was to go on down to your local bookstore and buy it.

Despite all the trouble small businesses face, it may turn out to be local bookstores who ultimately manage to make it through. As the report says “many consumers view small, independent stores in their neighborhood as much-loved places to shop”. Barnes and Noble, undergoing reorg before Covid, must be especially challenged. They started out with an idea of how to “reinvent themselves”, but immediately had to put on the brakes because of coronavirus lockdowns. Now they are moving forward again. They are faced with the same sort of challenges that all big retailers are, particularly as so many malls, where lots of their stores are located, appear to be in the process of collapse. It is noticeable that big retailers who have prospered over the past year have been the ones who were able quickly to beef up their online business. Is B&N going to be able to match that?

In the end, whether customers’ love of their local store will be enough to ensure survival will have to be seen. My observation of past crises is that collapse tends to happen after the crisis is over, when we have all heaved that sigh of relief and turned our faces towards better times. Then, bang, bang; here come the bankruptcies: finding money for re-expansion seems to be the problem. Maybe all the government support we’ve seen will make things different this time.

An odd quiz set by Mary Zaborskis at Public Books. Its title, Which academic press are you?, sets the tone. However, answer seven questions and you’ll find out which press you “are”. Turns out I’m Duke University Press. Respect!

With all this working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, is the gig economy what we are going have to look forward to? Certainly the internet has facilitated this form of labor — think no further than Uber. So maybe we will have to get yet more familiar with the word “gig”.

Anatoly Liberman speculates at his fascinating OUP blog post “Gig” and its kin on the origins of the word “gig”. He tells us “Over the centuries, English gig has been recorded with the following senses: ‘a flighty girl,’ ‘whipping top,’ ‘whim,’ ‘fun,’ ‘odd person,’ ‘fool,’ and ‘a one-horse carriage’. Those senses probably appeared independently of one another and have been referred by etymologists to the idea of light or quick movement. All gigs (as it were) are ‘flighty.'” He ends up being forced into accepting a somewhat indelicate origin for the word.

The sense of “gig” as a freelance job has moved into widespread currency these days, arriving by way of the music business. This sort of “flighty” employment status does appear to be ever more likely in our future. Of course we in book publishing have been using freelance labor for years — but there’s always further to go! Make all your staff freelance and have them work from home, possibly maintaining a single conference room in town for the occasional morale-boosting get-together — so much more satisfying than those eternal Zoom meetings — and bingo, lots of nasty costs go away. You may have to provide enhanced online services — but you’d need to have done that anyway; everyone’s got to constantly update their IT systems — but getting rid of your office building, not to mention the office manager, the cleaners, the coffee machine, and lots of insurance coverage will make this sort of change almost irresistible. Of course, if, like Random House say, you’ve recently paid for a huge building just down from Columbus Circle, you may be reluctant to abandon (or have some difficulty offloading) your white elephant, given that everyone else will be eager to downsize too. This might well affect your view of the situation.

One precondition for the widespread adoption of the gig economy ought to be some resolution of the healthcare situation in America. Being a gig worker in Britain is one thing, but it takes on a whole extra dimension of uncertainty in the USA in the absence of a National Health Service. I know we always fear the unknown, but really, basing healthcare on employers and insurance companies (not to mention privately owned hospitals) isn’t a great idea. It just increases the overall cost of medical care by adding their costs and profit margins to the total, and also leaves anyone who doesn’t have a regular 9-5 job without medical coverage. If there wasn’t such an operation in place already, would our current system be what any rational human being would come up with? But we can’t start from scratch, nor apparently are most of us able to see past today’s system in order to think about anything better. Democratic Presidents have wrestled: Clinton ran aground on it; Obama got through a sort of halfway plan; surely Biden won’t try to do healthcare, unless as part of a triumphant second term lap of honor. Still, maybe if everyone ends up with a freelance job, the demand from the people will convince reluctant legislators.


Nowadays the publisher’s traditional market begins to look like it means less and less. Crudely we used to carve up the world market for English language books into the USA, the British traditional market (by and large the old Empire) and the rest of the world. The digital world has made this harder to discern and enforce. As an example, if a book is published in Britain in late 2020, and US rights are sold to an American publisher who won’t bring out the book till the second half of 2021, then in the interim any US enquiries about the book at Amazon will elicit an offer of the UK edition. You can recognize these occurrences by the odd retail price quoted: no publisher is going to price their book at $23.67 — that’s just the result of a conversion from sterling using the current exchange rate. Frustratingly Amazon maintains that their policy in this area is entirely algorithm-driven, and they will direct all enquiries wherever they come from to the best-selling version. They always want to be able to say they offer the customer the best deal, even if as in this case it’s low-level illegal.

Obviously the US publisher, who has paid something for a license to publish the book in the USA will not be delighted to see their main customer referring potential purchasers to an edition unlicensed for their market. This redirection will continue even when the US publisher’s edition goes on sale — it probably won’t have sold more copies at Amazon than the other edition for some time. Because the system is all algorithm-driven Amazon claims that there’s nothing they can do about it. Until the US edition has sold more than the UK edition it won’t come up first in response to an Amazon search. You can usually find the missing US edition by digging on Amazon’s site, but it’s far from obvious and you have to know it’s there so you can search for it — which probably means it’s only the angry American publisher whose doing it, reacting to an early rave review in The Wall Street Journal, rather than a book buyer just looking for a good read. Infuriating to see the sales resulting from a review you managed to achieve all going to another publisher. The situation is also complicated by secondary sellers on Amazon. Of course, one has to admit that the opposite effect is in operation if the US edition is published before the UK one, which probably means nobody’s going to take any action on this. For the big internationally owned trade houses there’s large amount of one hand washing the other, making the cost of a lawsuit even less appealing. Smaller publishers are the real losers. Moral: always publish your edition simultaneously with overseas editions. Yeah. Just try that one!

I aim not to reference every one of Richard Charkin’s monthly posts at Publishing Perspectives — but I rarely succeed. They are almost always relevant and interesting. Here he discusses territoriality in the context of Brexit. His solution is “It’s about time that trade book publishers took the plunge and offered their authors genuine worldwide support through their extensive infrastructures. And it’s about time that literary agents focused on their authors’ careers rather than the next big advance.” Sounds good, and it really is a bit anachronistic to base your business on agreements which have their origin in a world in which manufacturing (and publishing) were much more centralized, and goods used to be transferred around the world in ships, taking months en route.

We live in a world where online connectivity makes national or regional market restrictions wildly difficult to control. We might wish to move to the idea of a single market where the publisher of a book is the publisher of that book regardless of where the publisher may be based or the buyer located. However the main losers under such a system would be authors and agents. If you can sell foreign rights for your book for a certain sum, you get to bank that money even if the overseas editions don’t sell as well as expected. The agent ditto. Plus the agent gets to demonstrate to the author their negotiating chops by landing a good deal, which of course leads to more business for them.

Would a single worldwide market impact translations? If you are the publisher of the book, would you be the publisher in all languages? Would you necessarily be in any position to serve the market in all countries? Publishers exist, let us remember, to serve authors and readers by bringing them together. As long as selling local rights earns an author more money — as I suspect it usually will — then trade publishers’ desires for a worldwide license are likely to remain just pipe dreams. Parenthetically one might note that lots and lots of books are sold to publishers as assignments of world rights. Academic and university press habitually work this way. In some cases the publisher who has been granted worldwide rights may sublease a local edition in this or that market.

Here, at Jane Friedman’s blog, two agents discuss the issue of foreign rights and the international book market. The book business is irrevocably international. Agents thrive, as should authors, by balkanizing this international market for trade books. The problem of a few lost sales for a publisher doesn’t really affect author or agent — so the status quo will surely remain.

See also Traditional market breakdownBreakdown of the traditional market.

Covid has been a disaster. But its effects on book publishing finances have been surprisingly benign* as this bar chart shows. Benigner for some categories than for others of course.

A balanced and sensible status report has been issued. COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021 by Cliff Guren, Thad McIlroy and Steve Sieck has been reviewed by Mike Shatzkin. You can download a PDF or an ebook at the link to the title. Here’s the Contents list.

Everyone concerned with the book business will benefit from reading this state-of-play report. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. Striking, if ultimately unsurprising, is the difference between the effects on various types of business. One constant is that trends which were already at work have been accelerated by the pandemic. We might now say that ordering online has taken over from standing on line. Subscription services have been apparently effortlessly successful. Streaming: good. Physical: OK as long as delivered to your door. Just what higher education is going to look like in the future is hard to discern — beyond the almost inevitable “very different”. Will this affect university presses? Sure; but it may not turn out to be too bad an effect.


* Money, yes; people, no. Many, including my friend, colleague, and neighbor Hector Gonzalez, will be missed for ever.

Jeff Peachey posted this image yesterday.

Although I’ve not met him, Mr Peachey, a bookbinder and restorer (and a fairly close neighbor) doesn’t look from his photo to be at all lank-haired and crooked-backed. (Roger Payne might better fit the mould. And I dare say the printer and publisher had plenty of models close to hand.) Back then, book manufacturing was a tough business, and took its toll on the bodies of its workers: for examples see my posts Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis. This verse makes the poor bookbinder seem a rather undesirable mate — the writer implies that he’ll never get to kiss his “admirer”. In the last line there has to be a typo surely. “Press to pour chops” doesn’t mean anything to me. The damage to the “p” hints at a more logical “y” where “chops” would take on its meaning of face, cheeks, mouth. Might this represent a last-minute on-press correction: just hammer part of the “p” away to make it look a bit like a “y”?

The image comes from a self-help book for the nervous Valentine composer, Everybody’s Valentine Writer (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Printed and Published by W. R. Walker, ca. 1850). (I suppose the poor bookbinder has to count as one of the “comic Valentines”.) Note the show-through on page 24: You almost think you might be able to decipher “To a Gentleman” on the back of this page. Page 23 may in fact be read at Typelark. The book must have been printed on a pretty thin, absorbent sheet, and have been over-inked significantly — though it is show-through, not offsetting* that we see, as confirmed by the Typelark image of the back-up page, so over-inking may be less of a problem.

When was the Valentine invented? PBS tells us the earliest real Valentine’s cards (hand made) date “from the late 18th century, and they already resemble the modern valentine: frilly verses punctuated with cute pet names like ‘Turtle Dove,’ written on folded paper and decorated with pink and red hearts.” According to History Cooperative “The first commercially printed Valentine’s Day card was produced in 1913 by Hallmark, known as Hall Brothers at that time.” The presses have kept on rolling: apparently more than 150 million are sold each year.


* Offsetting in this context refers to the inadvertent transfer of an image from one sheet to its neighbor, usually as a result of sheets having been stacked before the ink has dried.

Not sure why I should care, but Shelf Awareness for Readers brings us a link to this story from the Inverness Press and Journal about a local bookstore’s discovery of a 110-year-old set of Jane Austen amongst their stock. Maybe the most remarkable aspect of this story is that the set is still traveling together after all those years.

Photo: Leakey’s, 02/02/2021

Here, supported by two local rocks is the title page spread for Sense and Sensibility, Volume I — obviously a fairly lavish layout to require more than one volume for Sense and Sensibility! The set is in twelve volumes. The books were published, as you may see, by John Grant in Edinburgh. The article doesn’t reveal the printer.

The article includes a photo showing Leakey’s Bookshop interior with these books in the foreground. It looks like a great place. Missed it on our only visit to Inverness four years ago. (Strangely, and irrelevantly, Inverness was the first place I ever saw a charging station for electric cars.)

But hang on a minute — my own five-volume set of Austen is 119 years old — and I am not feeling any resentment about my local paper’s failure to write this up! I got it from my aunt, who got it from her godmother and first cousin by marriage once removed (is that really a kinship status?). The books were originally given to godmama Agnes M. Jennings on her 21st birthday in 1904.

My books are smaller format, but are also printed in two colors. In my set the red is used for a box around the title etc. and around the frontispiece engraving facing. It was published by Macmillan which at that time could still set its imprint up as “London: Macmillan and Co., Limited” and then on a separate line “New York: The Macmillan Company”. The books were also printed in Edinburgh, at R. & R. Clarke, Limited, a company from which I had the honor of ordering some work in my early days. The binding is half bound leather, as can be seen at my post of that title. Great great cousin Agnes Jennings wrought a cunning chemise for her books: a picture of which may be found here.

The past may look far off, but it’s actually always closer than we’d think.

Well of course a digital record of a book or document may well be better than no record, but by no means can the two be held to be equivalent. The problem instanced at the end of Jill O’Neill’s Revisiting Nicholson Baker and Retention of Print at The Scholarly Kitchen isn’t (ever?) going to go away.

If you are a librarian you are going to be subject to conflicting forces. Yes, part of you wants to keep everything. And yes, part of you recognizes that funds to build ever more shelving and the buildings to hold it, cannot be infinite. Something’s got to give. Obviously it’s easier just to throw out the books after having scanned them.

Librarians buy many digital books from publishers, often on acrimonious terms which are really still to settle.* Many of these ebooks lack some pretty basic editorial functionality. Reading a straightforward ebook on my iPhone is absolutely fine for me, but as soon as you need too refer to an endnote, look at a table, flick back to that item a few pages earlier, or any other simple navigation task which we’ve been conditioned to find so easy in a printed book, well, then all hell breaks loose. If I wasn’t a fan of Steven Pinker I would have abandoned reading the ebook version of The better angels of our nature. As it was I had to leave aside some of the detailed arguments as they were just too hard to follow (and I don’t mean intellectually). Maybe it’s just that we as readers haven’t gotten comfortable with this navigation, and that as publishers we haven’t yet devised conventions for these sorts of maneuvers in an ebook.

But human nature being what we all know it to be, book publishers are probably never going to get their electronic books into a shape which might provide an equivalent of all the functionality which can be performed by a printed book. Going forward the outlook is a little less dire than looking back to books which were produced before we’d ever dreamed of an ebook. The sets of inadequacies Ms O’Neill discovered in Vintage’s ebook version of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold are inevitable and probably always going to be unavoidable. The grunts who get to do this sort of work can’t ever be paid enough to care. Thinking through how a book might possibly be used by a reader is something we as an industry have over the past five centuries become pretty good at — the copyeditor is our expert in this area — but our solutions are all print and paper based. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to engineer a book to allow for all possible future (or even current) technologies? Sorry, I just don’t think we are clever enough. (Nor, be it admitted, is there any immediate financial incentive to do so. Maybe in the long run we will get to a place where customers might be willing to pay more for a well-engineered ebook than for just an ebook.)

Nevertheless I do have to admit that even a hard-to-navigate digital version of a book is much better than no version. And in terms of the history of the ebook (and of course of the computer) it is still early days.


* Now from Publishers Weekly comes news that publishers are being drawn into an ebook price fixing lawsuit initially targeting Amazon only.

Expenditure on reading has again declined. Does this matter?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that for 2019 the average expenditure per household for all forms of entertainment reading (i.e. not textbooks, but including newspapers and magazines) was $92. Might we think that half of that $92 was spent on books? If so, I’d have thought that was a pretty decent sum all things being considered. There appear to have been 132,242 consumer units (what we’d call households) in America in 2019, so half of $92 multiplied by households would come to over $6 million.* Don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for that.

Many see the news as a cause for concern and believe that the publishing industry should do something about it. In a piece by David Rothman at TeleRead Thad McIlroy scolds, “The book publishing industry largely sells to the same well-heeled audience, year after year. The audience increases slightly as additional literate graduates enter the reading world — then declines with the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors.” Yes, yes, traditional book publishing is a mature industry. Might be nice if we could look for mass increases in our customer base, but there are certain barriers to entry — you have to want to read a book, and be able to do so ( — which doesn’t just mean being capable of reading. You’ve got to have a bit of peace and quiet and quite a fair serving of spare time, as well as the wish and ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Plus of course it calls for a bit of surplus income. Would that all these things were more widely distributed in our population.) The overall market for books isn’t infinitely expandable — in fact I suspect we’ve gone about as far as we can go. As (and if) education rates increase, new recruits will be constantly available, but don’t look for leaps and bounds. Obviously we always have to be ready for “the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors”.

What isn’t at all clear is whether the $92 cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes sales of self-published and indie-published books — I bet it doesn’t, as I don’t think there’s any real way to discover these numbers. Also the figures have, obviously, got to leave out of account reading of library books, borrowed books, found books, second-hand books, books you’ve owned for years and so on. They are reporting expenditures after all.

It’s always fun to have a go at publishing. It’s something you care about and it looks so inviting. But what is your target? What is publishing? When you address it there’s nobody there to hear. Publishing is made up of lots of individual companies, and each of these companies is made up of lots of different individual people. There’s no collective entity which can agree or disagree with your wish that publishing should do more market outreach, and thus no entity that can do anything about it. Does Mr McIlroy really think that Random House, The University of Chicago Press, The New Press, The American Chemical Society ,and so on should be spending money on outreach to non-readers? Why would they not focus their marketing expenditures on people who they think might e likely to buy their product. Industry associations do do a little outreach: Get Caught Reading still exists, though such initiatives really just end up preaching to the choir.

We’ll have to wait a year or so to get the 2020 numbers, but we all anticipate, don’t we, that expenditure on entertainment reading will have increased during our year of coronavirus?


* Oops. As all too frequently my grasp of large numbers manifests itself as a problem. As David Rothman gently points out in a comment “You need to add some zeros to when you talk about “132,242 consumer units” in the US. The correct number would be 132,242,000. Times $46, that would be $6.07 billion.” A somewhat bigger number! I once had a boss who used to tell me ” Don’t tell me it’s a large number of dollars — give me the number”.