Archives for category: Book publishing

You occasionally see the author’s moral right being asserted on the imprints page of a book in English. This is something which happens more with British books than with their US editions. For example I’m sitting looking at both the UK paperback and the US paperback of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (don’t ask!) — the UK version tells us on the copyright page, that “Julian Barnes has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work”. The US edition, described as the international edition, doesn’t mess about with any of that stuff. I have another book from a Penguin imprint which just says “The moral right of the authors has been asserted”, which isn’t giving much away. No doubt that Act says you’ve got to say something, without exactly specifying what. Oxford University Press, in a book originating in Britain, Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World, goes a tiny bit further by saying “The moral rights of the author have been asserted”. The reasons for differences in approach are buried in the different developmental histories of legal systems based upon common law as opposed to civil law. This legal concern with moral issues, which originated in 16th century France, was no doubt a factor in the decision of some Leave voters: they didn’t like Brussels telling them to do anything, even if it was the right thing.

When the USA signed up for the Berne Convention in 1989 it took on the obligation to protect an author’s moral rights. U.S. Copyright law tends to regard such matters as adequately protected by other laws, though some states have indeed introduced different sorts of moral right laws. According to the Register of Copyrights (the Director of the U.S. Copyright Office) “the term ‘moral rights’ generally refers to certain non-economic rights that are considered personal to an author. Central to the idea of moral rights is the idea that a creative work, such as a song or book, actually expresses the personality of the author”.

The most basic moral rights are the right to be identified as the author (the right of attribution), and the right to prevent prejudicial distortion of the copyrighted work (the right of integrity). Additional moral rights include

  • the right of withdrawal, or droit de repentir, which allows authors to retract works from public circulation that they feel no longer represent them or their views;
  • the right of divulgation, through which an author can control the public disclosure of their work, and which supports the economic right of first publication;
  • the right of the author to have access to the original copy of a work in order to “exercise his author’s rights”;
  • the right to prevent others from associating one’s work with an undesirable “product, service, cause or institution”;
  • the right to pseudonymity or anonymity; and
  • the right of an author to compel the completion of a commissioned work of art.

The Passive Voice, powered by a lawyer, has given us a pretty thorough piece on Moral Rights. As he comments, if you read this piece you will know more about moral rights than 99.99% of the authors in the United States.

It is probably not going too far to suggest that this appeal to a moral right by the French and their neighbors is just the sort of thing we crass Anglo-Saxons like to leave to the workings of the market, or to property rights. More narrowly we could say it is the sort of thing that happens in civil law regimes rather than common law systems. We continue to muddle through.

See also Le droit d’auteur.

OK, you’ll probably want to argue with this, especially the nearer it gets to the present day. I can’t believe A Sand County Almanac. OK OUP has a couple of editions, and I did order the 27th printing of one of them a few years ago, but most popular? And Beloved; beloved no doubt, but again, most popular?

Of course things like this are really just conversation starters, even if like so much book talk the discussion is mainly internal.

Link via The Digital Reader. Source: Global English Editing.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that academics love to study the prospects of university presses and other academic publishers. It’s obviously a subject near to their hearts. Publishing people as well as academics like to talk about the future at conferences because it gives them free rein to say whatever they want — nobody can prove or disprove assertions about the future, and by the time we actually get there, everyone will have forgotten what you said years ago anyway. Also of course, if you are a publisher, in talking about the future, you don’t actually have to disclose anything meaningful about any clever activities you are currently up to. Publishing Perspectives told us in 2016 about a conference in Britain called “The University Press in the 21st Century”, a knee-weakening title. But anyway, here’s their report.

One interesting point in the conference report is the news that The American Association of University Presses is planning to set up a collaborative website “inspired by the National Academies Press’s Academy Scope. The site will act not only as a discovery engine and sales site for its members’ books, but also as a hub allowing closer collaboration between publishers.” Now this seems like a very good idea, albeit one which we have constantly shied away from in the past because of the Robinson-Patman Act’s forbidding of anti-competitive acts among industry players. Presumably this is in addition to the AAUP’s already existing Books for Understanding, where potential book buyers are directed to their local bookstore or to Amazon. What we really need is the guts to sell direct.

At Against the Grain, academic Nancy K. Heather tells us about our industry: Part 1 and Part 2 (Linked to by Jose Afonso Furtado). Also The Chronicle of Higher Education features academic comment on the burning issue of press survival. Much of this is behind a paywall, but you can read some sections.

There’s even an organization in Britain called The Academic Book of the Future, which started off as a two-year research project which ended in 2016. The organization refuses to die. They have published a couple of reports which can be downloaded at their site. At Publishing Perspectives Alastair Horne reported in 2017 on the presentation of their reports at a conference in London. They plan to keep Academic Book Week going, holding a meeting every other year into the future. The next occasion on which to celebrate the academic book will be 9-13 March 2020.

The Scholarly Kitchen has weighed in with “Seven things every researcher should know about academic publishing”. The problem with university press publishing is of course that if you publish specialized books you cannot expect non-specialized sales.* However, technological developments have helped to alleviate this basic problem. You can now publish a book without having to invest in any inventory: an ebook or a print-on-demand set up enables you to publish without stock. Of course the university press still faces the problem of estimating how many copies of any individual book they will sell, so that they can divide the cost of production etc. by that number in order to recover their costs when they have sold their anticipated quantity. As numbers go down prices go up. This balancing act still seems to remain viable.

Here’s Springer Nature, via STM Publishing News, assuring us that the future of scholarly books is Open Access. Maybe. I would prefer to change “is” to “could be” though. While the opinion of 2,542 authors may be interesting, there are surely a few steps between the wish and the act. If I surveyed you with the question should ice cream cost $5 or be free, I think I know what the outcome would be.

Maybe there’s value in having some university press employees think about the future. In my experience nobody in publishing had enough time to think beyond the next deadline which was generally just behind you, but it seems difficult to stop the speculation. The boss class (what in Scotland we call the high hied yins) may have an obligation to look like they are in control of future events, but when all’s said and done all we can really do is keep doing what we have been doing until the world makes it clear to us that it doesn’t want us to do it any more. I doubt if this ultimatum is at all imminent. Nobody sat around in the eighties strategizing about what we’d do when digital printing began to take over from offset: when that happened we just dealt with it. Ditto ebooks, online database publication, Open Access etc., etc. Nobody remembers what “the future of the book” guys were predicting in the eighties, because even then it was irrelevant.


* A complicating problem is the fact that most universities get some sort of subsidization from their parent universities. It’s perfectly reasonable for a university to fund a publishing arm — getting the research work of their academics out to the public is ultimately a necessary part of the academic process. Sure, there are other university presses where your professors might get their work published (and no university press will publish work which is substandard just because the author works down the corridor) but universities have regarded it almost as a matter of pride to have a university press. This subsidization is a touchy topic. Ideally, obviously, a press should work towards reducing its dependence on the subsidy — because it can always be withdrawn. It’s easy to say don’t be dependent on the subsidy, but as a policy that’s extremely difficult to implement.



Alan Harvey, embattled Director of Stanford University Press, said he didn’t think it’d sell a single copy more, but Yewno did, by a factor of seven. So there!

Photo: Paul Guinnessy, via Twitter.

Clearly there was more than one person in the audience at the Society for Scholarly Publishing 2019 Meeting when Alan spoke about SUP’s success with Yewno — after all someone took the photo! Why do people always crowd to the back of the room? Does everyone want to be first on line at the bathrooms afterwards? They probably want to be able to sneak out inconspicuously in the middle of the talk if it turns boring.

The trouble with the relationship between computer companies and book publishers boils down I think to language. We value elegance, they value accuracy, or whatever it is that surely doesn’t lead to elegance.

Exactly what Yewno does is, to my stubbornly analog mind, obscured rather than clarified by this piece from a couple of years ago at The Scholarly Kitchen. I find it hard to see how T. S. Eliot’s “Rock Choruses” gets dragged in to support Yewno’s efforts, but they do. It all apparently has to do with artificial intelligence and the making available of book content to an enquiring audience.

This earlier article from The Scholarly Kitchen may make things a bit clearer to those not fluent in computer-speak. Essentially the system improves your searching, taking what you request and amplifying the results with what you didn’t say but probably meant.

Does it not begin to look more and more likely that large parts (if not all) of the publishing industry will evolve into a direct-to-customer sales model? It just makes sense. It’s always nice to see an advanced-level monograph in a bookstore, but you don’t really go there expecting to find it. Maybe we will move beyond sales to subscription/rental for our products. Beavering away getting these books out makes it hard to find the time to raise ones eyes and think what might be if what is were not what had always been. The power that Yewno brings to a small part of the relationship between author/publisher/reader surely suggests that there’s more to come.

So now you know about Yewno; or as an ancient schoolmaster of mine would triumphantly trot out as the punchline for a joke he’d told to generations of schoolboys, “Ye ken noo”.

Richard Charkin’s Mensch Publishing has reached its first anniversary. They published one book, well received and sold, and Mr Charkin asks “If a book as successful as this only just manages to cover its costs over time, what’s going wrong in our industry?”

Mensch sold 3,270 copies of Guy Kennaway’s Time To Go earning £16,389. This almost covered costs, and future sales will probably get there.

Mr Charkin reports that, on UK sales he got about £7 a copy; and as he put it “In other words, the retailer is on average receiving a potential, before discounting, of £9 a copy, by far the largest element of the value chain with no stock risk attached.  Can this be right? Can it be sustained? Can our industry afford for it not to be sustained?”

Not easy questions to answer, though right and wrong probably don’t come into it. Surely to suggest that something has changed and has started “going wrong in our industry” is historically inaccurate. Hasn’t it always been like this? Most of the books which get published will lose some money; many, like Mensch’s one, will break even, and a select few will breakout and pay the rent. If you only have one book it’d be nice to think it might become a bestseller, but as there’s probably something less than a 1% chance this happening, it’s not too surprising that it doesn’t. Publishing has never been an easy way to make money: it can of course happen, but it’s hard to plan for continuous bonanza. We work on the basis of throwing masses of spaghetti at the wall and hoping some of it will stick. I once worked for a company where the call come down from senior management that we should publish fewer books and they should be only bestsellers. You need not ask how that went.

Sure, the man in the street assumes that the publisher gets the vast majority of the money the punter spends when buying a book, but this, as we in the game all know, is just miles from the truth. It is what it is. If bookstores start going under the situation will only get worse, as Amazon grows from its current 50% (?) of the retail book market towards 100%. That way just guarantees demands for bigger and bigger discounts. Maybe we need to go back to the beginnings of our industry where him as printed it sold it. Sure it’d be a loss to give up all the showroom space provided by bookstores around the world, but making the retail sale yourself does have a dramatic effect on the profitability of the sale.

See also Start your own publishing house.

Publishing people get asked this all the time. It’s a toughie: your acquaintance might have written a masterpiece but the odds are the manuscript is not that good, or at least unsuited for any publisher you know. But without looking at it how can you know? We’ve all evolved temporizing answers, most of which, like the Penguin Random House example shown below, tend to take cover behind a literary agent. I’ve never come across a piece of paper like this before, but it makes perfect sense that PRH would feel the need for something they can thrust into the hands of anyone who asks them the dreaded question. The document obviously originates in the UK, but PRH had a stack of them at the recent BookExpo America exhibition in the Javits Center.

“Our company policy is to not accept [boldly split infinitive] unsolicited manuscripts or synopses and we cannot enter into correspondence about unpublished work.” A bit harsh? Not really — it costs a lot to deal with such correspondence and a target as big as Penguin Random House must get boatloads of it. More efficient to focus on your regular source of supply, the literary agency world, rather than rush off down dark alleyways. Sure you may miss the odd wonder, but as a percentage play it’s hard to argue against. Of course as a public relations move it might be seen as a bit less successful.

This sort of document is exactly the sort of thing the commentariat loves to latch onto. Didn’t we tell you those fat cats in their New York ivory towers don’t care about innovative new work or the people who produce it? Just see how they treat aspiring authors — and it’s their job to publish books. Amazing!

Stop and think you windbags. If you were to run a publishing company would one of your priorities be to employ a couple of people, skilled people, who had no tasks other than to write letters to hopeful authors who have invested a postage stamp in sending you their latest stories? Well, you might, but if you’d ever worked in any publishing house where despite such disclaimers unsolicited manuscripts do inevitably creep across the transom, you’d know from bitter experience that the likelihood of an unsolicited manuscript actually being publishable are vanishingly small. Sure it happens, but on no cost-benefit analysis is it worthwhile setting up your acquisition department to focus on the slush pile. Everyone in a publishing house is already doing huge amounts of work with the books they’ve actually solicited. It would be idiocy to wander the streets scouring through local trash bins in the hope of finding another brilliant manuscript. Even in our ivory towers the day has only got 24 hours in it. And while we love to publish books, there can never be (pace the commentariat) a duty to publish every book ever written. So, you have to deflect.

Now, if your name is Ian McEwan you know they’d enter into correspondence with you about anything, unpublished or published: but of course the bit of paper isn’t meant for the likes of him — and PRH already employs someone whose job it is to keep after their authors about unpublished work.

If you hire a sharp-elbowed businessman you shouldn’t be too amazed when he uses business tools to attempt to solve his problems. Are you able to add to the cost burden of your competitor? Do it: can’t fail to put you at an advantage. The imposition of tariffs as a substitute for diplomacy is now pretty well established.

Books imported into the USA from China and Mexico will now be subject to import duties. These countries were both at one time looked on as sources of cheap manufacturing by US publishers, though over time the cost advantage has narrowed. The Hong Kong print industry has evolved from what thirty or so years ago was basically a labor-intensive, slightly old-fashioned print business into a slick modern one now with efficiency increases keeping step with rising wages. True you had to wait four weeks or so to get a book across the Pacific but the reduced cost made the deal a good one.

A recent post noted that at a Book Industry Study Group meeting in April it was suggested that publishers deploy international connections to alleviate the capacity problems in the current US book manufacturing industry. Well, that just got a bit harder, didn’t it? There has always been a European option. Italy always had the reputation of printing a handsome book but at a relatively high price. As far as I know France and Germany don’t seem to fish in transatlantic waters. Great Britain has the advantage of speaking the same language as we do. When I was working for British publishers there tended to be a tidal effect under way at almost all times: sometimes books originated here might be printed there, while at other times the opposite effect was under way. The variable was always the £/$ exchange rate. Brexit chaos has surely tipped the price/exchange rate scale in favor of UK manufacturing. Of course, I have no idea what their own capacity problems may look like. Surely there have been plant closures there too.

No tax on knowledge they used to cry, though nowadays in most places sales tax will be added to the price of that book you buy. So why not a tariff too? We’ll all get used to paying more as we wave goodbye to free trade.

Cataloging in Publication data is the bibliographic record that is (usually) printed on the verso of the book’s title page. It is an abbreviated version of the MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) record in the Library of Congress’ database which is distributed to libraries and book vendors. In Britain the data comes from the British Library. In 1986 I was lucky enough to have both!

Since its introduction in 1971 this form of LOC/BL catalog information has been printed in most books. As soon as the book’s manuscript and title have been finalized, and an ISBN has been obtained, the publisher may submit an application for a CIP record, filling out a form and enclosing either proofs of the book, or sufficient material from the manuscript for the Library to determine what the book is about so they can classify it. Nowadays this is substantially completed on-line. If application is made too late it’s always possible (if less helpful) to print “A catalog record for this book is available”. The Library of Congress offers a separate portal for self publishers as well.

The aim of CIP is that this will make it straightforwardly unambiguous that a potential customer (librarian principally) is looking at the correct book when they consult catalogs. In the olden days there were many fewer books  (and book purchasing agents) and it was possible to get by with identifying a book as Jones: Electronics. If the book you got turned out to be by the wrong Jones, you could always send it back. With so many books now, it becomes hopelessly inefficient to conduct business in such a random method. I kind of miss my early days in publishing where a shout might go up in the warehouse “Two Jones Electronics” and a picker would scurry off into the shelves to get them for you. Now the shout, in the rare cases where a book can be picked without a computer-generated order, is more likely to be “306450” — everyone works off the ISBN now. It’s amazing how quickly workers are able to remember quite a lot of ISBNs which kind of take over as the personality of a book in common demand.

In 2015 the Library of Congress updated the CIP. It now includes a URL link to the Library’s record, and uses signposting labels identifying the various elements. It will also include information about other editions, notably electronic versions. Infodocket has a piece on the changes. Here’s an example, from The Library of Congress’s own book The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures. This should show how they really want it to appear:

I’ve sometimes wondered about the name. What does it mean when they say “in publication”? Wikipedia suggests that thinking of publication as a process is misleading here: think of it as “cataloging inside the book” and you get closer to the intention. It’s putting the cataloging information inside the publication — book, journal, pamphlet, whatever — not creating it during the process of publication.


Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

Jeff Koons’ sculpture of a rabbit has sold at auction for $91,075,000.

Criticism isn’t my bag, but I suspect that this price tells us more about investment strategy than it does about art as a creative endeavor.

The sculpture, which is 33 years old, is made of stainless steel: no doubt a source of relief to Robert E. Mnuchin’s friends who won’t have to worry about inadvertently sticking a pin into it. Mr Mnuchin is an art dealer: does he know of a customer who wants to pay even more for the thing?

It’s a bit like huge bestselling books. Because Tom Dick and Harry want the thing, I’ve got to too.

Hey, although the price of this bunny looks rather extreme, maybe we shouldn’t complain about the high prices paid for art by the wealthy. It all goes to buy lunch for a whole lot of support staff. Bestsellers may often be a bit dumb, but they power the entire business and enable us to bring out books which couldn’t be afforded otherwise. If people want to buy silly books or odd artworks, let’s just rejoice that they are circulating the money.

The case of Hitler’s Diaries was a  notorious scandal. In 1983 the German news magazine Stern paid 9.3 million Deutsche Marks (£2.33 million or $3.7 million) for the publication rights to recently “discovered” diaries ostensibly lost in the last plane transferring items from Hitler’s Berlin bunker to Berchtesgaden. This plane never arrived, having crashed in a forest near the Czechoslovakian border where it was picked over by locals before the SS cordoned it off. The Sunday Times bought English serial rights to the diaries for £250,000, but even before they were published suspicions as to their authenticity surfaced. The Independent has a nice account. Wikipedia has a very full entry.

Lord Dacre, Sir Hugh Trevor Roper that was, a director of the company at the time, vouched for the authenticity of the material The Sunday Times was about to publish, then had second thoughts, leading to Rupert Murdoch’s immortal courageous-publisher words “Fuck Dacre. Publish”. It turned out in the end that Konrad Kujau, a dealer in Nazi memorabilia, had in fact written the diaries himself using modern ink on sheets of paper stained with tea in order to make them look old. The Sunday Times had already in 1968 been involved in the purchase of Mussolini’s diaries which also were revealed to be fakes. WWII memorabilia is obviously a honey pot.

Kujau signing specimen pages from a cookbook (Photo: Reuters)


The fakery was in fact pretty obvious: the diary was presented between a set of covers embellished with Hitler’s initials, stuck on the front, but as Fraktur had gone out of current usage by 1976, the forger got it wrong and pasted FH on the front instead of AH. He used metal-looking plastic letters manufactured in Hong Kong! Superficially it looked all right but was obviously wrong to anyone who knew; which at that time must have been almost everybody. The use of Fraktur had been mandated by the Nazis. When I was learning German many of the books we used were still printed in black letter: almost everyone in Germany who could read, would, one would think, have noticed this boner. Obviously a lot of people desperately wanted these diaries to be real. The initials FH can be seen in this picture of Stern‘s announcement of the discovery: someone there must have surely been hit between the eyes by this obvious error, and decided to suppress the thought in the interest of a scoop.

Surely the times must be ripe for another run at a new “discovery”.