Archives for category: Book publishing

TorrentFreak (link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing) tells us that a default judgement of $7.8 million has just been handed down in a lawsuit brought by Amazon Content Services, Penguin Random House and several authors including John Grisham, Lee Child, and R. L. Stine against ebook bargain sites Kissly.net, Wtffastspring.bid, Libly.net, and Cheap-Library.com. The sites, which operated under the “KISS Library” brand, sold pirated ebooks at bargain prices. The defendants in the suit spent more time dodging than addressing the complaint, and the judgement was handed down in their absence.

I suppose we expect to be able to collect, do we? Probably not, according to Publishers Weekly. It may also prove difficult to get the Ukrainian principals to cease and desist in this obviously highly profitable business. Maybe some potential customers (libraries) will pay attention.

I think we can all get behind the idea that a Ukrainian company (any company) should not be allowed rip off ebook authors in order to get ebooks cheaply to libraries.* But closer to home we have attacks on-going against the terms on which publishers supply ebooks to libraries. The basic problem is of course that everyone knows that ebooks cost nothing to produce — so why should we have to pay anything for them? Need I say that this is of course nonsense?

__________________

* Motivation, however plausibly noble, doesn’t matter. The law is the law. Theft is theft. Robin Hood was after all “an outlaw”. Cf. the Sci-Hub saga, and the lawsuit against the Internet Archive.

Ask a stupid question I responded to learning that The New York Times, as part of its celebration of a century and a quarter of its Book Review section, was asking its readers what the best book of the last 125 years might be.

Now the waiting is over; The Times has decided.

Well, there were certainly worse candidates on the short leet, so maybe we should be relieved that the winner is To Kill a Mockingbird. A well-loved book of course, a book read by lots and lots of schoolchildren in America (no doubt the reason for its vote-pull), but the best in any category other than “Books by Harper Lee“? At least it wasn’t A Gentleman in Moscow.

A disappointed Ulysses will just have to be content with whatever attention comes along with his centenary this year.

Once upon a time there was a Doubleday Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. There was another store further down which changed from Scribner’s to Rizzoli. These were bookstores, owned by publishing companies, which would sell books from any publisher, but presumably they’d have extra quick access to books published by their publishing wing. More specialized are the shops maintained by some university presses which sell books from their own press only.

(Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the picture.)

For many years Oxford University Press maintained a bookshop in Oxford — and now it’s gone. When I worked in Cambridge, Cambridge University Press didn’t have a bookshop*, but now they do — and they show every sign of keeping going, and of doing pretty well. Why can CUP but not OUP support a bookshop? Both locations are “downtown” and rents one might expect to be similarly high. Perhaps it’s no more than a timing thing: maybe OUP’s lease came up for renewal at a particularly bad moment.

Mr Dean calls in his letter shown above for an explanation from the Delegates, the committee of academics who manage OUP on behalf of the university (members of the corresponding group in Cambridge are more charmingly called Syndics — members of the Press Syndicate). I’m not sure Mr Dean should be holding his breath: explanation is unlikely to be forthcoming. Business decisions get made for lots of reasons, but one has to assume an element at least of “the cost of the operation is no longer worth the return”. To what extent is this retreat liable to have an adverse public relations effect? In so far as you believe Oxford University Press should aggressively support “the book” — and I sort of think they should — this will seem like a bad idea. Regular customers may miss it, but how many others will regard having to go to Blackwell’s as a serious inconvenience?

This may not be directly related to the recent decision by Oxford University Press to declare itself desirous of being seen as a digital company rather than as an old-fashioned book publisher, but it would at least seem to be a decision from the same drawer as their logo change.

But of course there is a longer-term trend here with the book business becoming less and less vertically integrated as time goes by. Originally a publishing office was effectively nothing other than the front room of a print works, which also acted as a retail bookstore. It took till the nineteenth century for “publishing” to become a business distinct from printing. Gradually of course we got to a place where there were book manufacturers, and book publishers, and booksellers, and literary agents, and we have become used to regarding these as separate distinct businesses. Of course this was never as clear-cut a picture as we like to think.

Who recognizes the name Wolvercote? The paper mill in Wolvercote, a village north of Oxford, had supplied paper to Oxford University Press from 1672 onward when the Delegates bought it in 1772. The benefits of OUP’s owning a paper mill never outweighed the costs and ultimately the mill was sold in the 1970s. Wolvercote’s fortunes did not improve after the sale and production ceased in 1997. Oxford stopped printing their own books in 1989, and just shut down the last vestiges of their printing services this year. Cambridge never had a paper mill and didn’t get out of the book manufacturing business till the last few years.

Lots of other university presses had their own printing departments. I suspect none now do. Here’s an old picture of Princeton’s composing room.

Now of course we should not overlook the fact that the largest trade publisher in the world is owned by a printing company. Bertelsmann is big in printing and in book clubs. Of course nobody would claim that Penguin Random House “owns their own printing house” — here the ownership is in the opposite direction. The temptation needs to be resisted to over-compartmentalize things. We know, don’t we, that bookshops can publish books, libraries can publish books, authors can publish books, magazines can publish books (e.g. Reader’s Digest), printers (and here’s another link) can publish books, and we know that several printers set up book clubs which would efficiently utilize their machinery? Dover Books is a striking example of a printer-owned publishing company, having been acquired many years ago by Murray Printing Company, now part of LSC.

Publishing is not a very difficult business to get into: we can all do anything, so don’t be surprised when we do. But allow publishers to do a little book manufacturing and book retailing too.

__________________

* For many years, when I first started in the business, there was a stated reluctance on the part of publishers to by-pass the retail bookstore business and sell direct to the public. This was part of the settlement represented by the Net Book Agreement. We used to sell university publications (exam papers, The University Reporter, Statutes and Ordinances etc.) in our Euston Road office, but would resolutely refuse to sell any books, directing customers to Dillon’s, the nearest bookshop. The Agreement is gone, and gradually so too is evaporating that direct-sales reluctance.

A year ago on 6 January I wrote a piece entitled Motiveless Theft? Now, exactly one year later, here comes Publishers Lunch with a resolution:

The FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, 29, on Wednesday afternoon when he landed at JFK Airport in New York, and unsealed an indictment, in a long overdue deal,  charging him with with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Bernardini is accused of conducting “a multi-year scheme to impersonate individuals involved in the publishing industry in order to fraudulently obtain hundreds of prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books.”

Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York FBI office Michael Driscoll said in a news release: “We allege Mr. Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses, and literary scouts. Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”

According to his LinkedIn page Bernardini has worked in the rights department at Simon & Schuster UK since October 2019, a “junior staffer” if you will, and previously had interned at Mira Trenchard Literary Scouting and Andrew Nurnberg Associates). He is an Italian citizen, living and working in London. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges that, “Beginning in at least August 2016, Bernardini, who was based in London and worked in the publishing industry, began impersonating agents, editors, and other individuals involved in publishing to fraudulently obtain prepublication manuscripts.”

Simon & Schuster said in a statement it was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations against Bernardini, who has been suspended pending further information. “The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator.”

Bernardini is said to have created fake email accounts at more than 160 internet domains and “impersonated hundreds of distinct people and engaged in hundreds of unique efforts to fraudulently obtain electronic copies of manuscripts that he was not entitled to.”

He is also accused of “a phishing scheme to surreptitiously gain access to a database maintained by a New York City-based literary scouting company” in 2020. The indictment says he acquired login credentials to two client accounts, and used those for unauthorized access to the scouting company’s site.

Vulture has a round up piece giving details of several victims.

“Motiveless theft” is how I referred to it last year, and I’m still puzzled about motivation, as it seems is everyone. The FBI says “Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.” Well, OK, in a way, but . . . If that was really his motivation wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just to go to the library or read book reviews — it’s not possible to keep plots and ideas locked up inside books after all. Stealing manuscripts might have been a business plan forty years ago when they were either handwritten or typed out: you might even have been able to demand a ransom for a unique copy of a handwritten original, but there would have been a black market for manuscripts of questionable origin. Now surely all you’re getting is a duplicate copy of an electronic file. I suppose it’s theft, but I can’t see that he stole anything really worth stealing — though I guess the FBI wouldn’t nab him if there wasn’t a crime going on.

Did Filippo want to be a published author, making use of plagiarized texts? There is one Filippo Bernardini listed at Amazon, but as his book was published in 1929, I suspect this is a different person, as no doubt is the man after whom Via Filippo Bernardini in Rome is named. So if he didn’t want to be an author, did he want to be a publisher? Apparently not, otherwise that would surely have happened already, and nobody seems to have reported duplicate publications of the “hundreds of unpublished manuscripts” involved, even under noms de plume. A victimless crime? He is being charged with wire fraud and identity theft. It’s clearly not “right” to do this sort of thing, but really who has been harmed? The indictment states that Mr Bernardini shall “forfeit to the United States . . . any and all property, real and personal, that constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense, including but not limited to a sum of money in United States currency representing the amount of proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense.” So maybe there were some proceeds, but neither the indictment, nor the press release provide any details. A bit of wasted time would seem to me to be the “cost” for the authors and agents involved. At Defector Kelsey McKinney shares my puzzlement as to Mr Bernardini’s motives: she inclines to think he must have done it just for fun. Maybe it just goes to show that Simon & Schuster failed to keep a smart employee fully busy. Mr Bernardini has been released on bail.

On 2 September The New Yorker published an article about ebooks in libraries. This was basically a portrait of OverDrive, a major force in the market. (Link via BookRiot.)

“Last year, more than a hundred library systems checked out a million or more books each from OverDrive’s catalogue, and the company reported a staggering four hundred and thirty million checkouts, up a third from the year before. (Barnes & Noble, which has more retail locations than any other bookseller in the U.S., has said that it sells about a hundred and fifty-five million print books a year.)” Digital purchases are consuming a bigger and bigger part of library budgets (taxpayer money) as time goes by. At the same time it becomes more and more common to “blame” publishers for something or other.

How do libraries buy ebooks and audiobooks? It varies, and of course they are not really “buying” ebooks: they are just licensing access to ebooks. By and large public libraries do not make deals with publishers: the publishers subcontract the right to sell access to their ebooks to a handful of companies, the largest of which is OverDrive. Amazon doesn’t sell to libraries either, and indeed they didn’t allow access to their ebooks for libraries until last May when they struck a deal with Digital Public Library of America. Academic books are often supplied to libraries in digital format as a subscription to a collection of books from one or a group of publishers. There may be a few such subscriptions at public library systems, but this publisher-library-direct business tends to be focussed on college and academic libraries.

Books are supplied to public libraries on a variety of terms, none of which seem entirely satisfactory to all parties:

  • One copy, one user
  • 26 check-outs, then rebuy
  • 2-year license with unlimited borrowing
  • Perpetual license
  • Multiple pay-per-use licenses

Maybe the one thing we can confidently predict is that the ultimate pricing model for library ebook purchases will not be a unitary one-size-has-to-fit-all deal: it will provide a variety of options which can be exercised now and then, on this or that title, in these or those conditions.

One of the problems with the boom in lending that took place during the pandemic is its cost. The New Yorker gives an example provided by the New York Public Library, which revealed “its January, 2021, figures for ‘A Promised Land’, the memoir by Barack Obama that had been published a few months earlier by Penguin Random House. At that point, the library system had purchased three hundred and ten perpetual audiobook licenses at ninety-five dollars each, for a total of $29,450, and had bought six hundred and thirty-nine one- and two-year licenses for the e-book, for a total of $22,512. Taken together, these digital rights cost about as much as three thousand copies of the consumer e-book, which they could get for about eighteen dollars per copy. As of August, 2021, the library has spent less than ten thousand dollars on two hundred and twenty-six copies of the hardcover edition, which has a list price of forty-five dollars but sells for $23.23 on Amazon.”

A rather more radical solution to the pricing of ebooks (basically just taking them) was discussed in Suing the Internet Archive, a law suit which still rolls on. And the States of Maryland and New York have also just legislated that ebooks must be made available to libraries “on reasonable terms”. Of course that means almost nothing: one man’s reasonable may be another man’s extortionate. Of course from a publisher’s point of view the big problem is that everyone knows that ebooks cost nothing to produce, and so almost any price north of zero must axiomatically be unreasonable!

Publishers Weekly reports on possible action in Congress. I suppose questions do have to be asked. Chunks of taxpayer money devoted to libraries (relatively small chunks it’s true) do have to be accounted for. There’s a fair (reasonable) deal out there waiting to be made, but it’s not going to be a deal which just appropriates the property of authors and publishers and gives it away to library patrons for free. The states are stirring. New York State has followed Maryland’s lead and voted to make licensing of ebooks to libraries “on reasonable terms” a legal requirement: though the bill has just been vetoed by Governor Hochul. The Publishers Association has also sued to counter Maryland’s law.

There is an argument to be made that ebooks sold to libraries are being sold too cheaply! And it’s not just an argument from greed. The costs involved in making a book — notably the author’s work in writing it and the publishers’ in whipping it into salable shape — do have to be recovered. Look at the figures above for the Obama book. 310 audiobooks and 639 ebooks bought for the same amount as 3,000 copies of the physical book would have cost. One would need to know how many New Yorkers had borrowed the audiobook or the ebook to know for sure, but 3,000 physical books might well not have been able to satisfy demand without long waiting lists. To go to a more recherché example — it might be possible to satisfy almost all the demand there was for Advanced Studies in Calabi-Yau Manifolds with half a dozen ebooks, maybe even a single one, so what becomes the reasonable price for such a thing? The author may have spent decades acquiring the knowledge of the subject and writing it down. Nobody can suggest that $9.95 might be the reasonable price — more like $9,999.95 which of course no library could afford. But, as I said, there’s a fair deal out there waiting to be made — different types of book will obviously require different terms of sale and pricing levels.

See also Mandatory ebook licenses for libraries? which was about the Maryland decision.

Photo Stephen Bond

Cambridge University Press (Printing Division) would produce a gift volume for presentation to important people each year at Christmas. I guess I should feel grateful that for a single year I was important enough to get one, but it was just for the one year, the year in which it all came to an end. No doubt the gift list was extra-wide in 1974 for the valedictory survey volume A Printer’s Christmas Books.

Perhaps it’s surprising that the Press never kept a full set themselves, though this is not too surprising if you devote a couple of minutes of thought to just what you’d do when you get a book for Christmas — returning it to the publisher after a couple of years is certainly not high on the list of options. And if you’ve got a couple of them lying around the office when you retire, where do you think they are going to end up? However, the Press has now managed to accumulate a full sequence of their own Christmas books, which runs from 1930 to 1973.

The BBC has the story, along with several pictures. (Link thanks to Jeremy.)

R. R. Donnelley did the same thing. Their series is named Lakeside Classics, and started publication in 1903. It still continues.

Why do the Brits talk about orders for books they are unable to supply as dues?*

Dues, according to the ever-helpful Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Anglo-Norman dues or duez meaning an obligatory payment or tax, no doubt going back etymologically to the past participle of devoir. It all has a bit of a feudal ring to it. There’s a hint of “duty” in there too. So we, the publishers, have committed ourselves to you, honored customer, to deliver up to you six copies of our book which unfortunately we can’t supply at this moment because the book’s not been published yet, or has sold out and is being reprinted. We’ll take the order, and supply the books as soon as possible. We all humbly acknowledge that these books are due you. (See Answers for the shorthand messages we developed for these situations.)

In America we often make a bit of a semantic distinction. “Back orders” tends to refer to orders received after publication, after the book has run out of stock. Before publication orders received would just be orders — in Amazon’s world they’d be pre-orders, a slightly confused term. This semantic distinction has the useful effect that the term back-ordered becomes a synonym for out of stock — and obviously you can’t be out of stock until you have once been in stock. As an additional benefit for a bookseller describing the book as back-ordered obviously shifts the blame onto the publisher — you’ve done all you can. Out of stock might just mean you’d forgotten to do anything about it.

_______________

* More prosaically they also often refer to them as recorded orders.

Hard to know where the expression “reading line” came from. It doesn’t have any obvious reference — but in fact a reading line, as helpfully defined by Robertson Publishing in the image below is “a line of text giving the reader detailed information about the contents of the book”.

The commonest reading line, which you must see on three out of four books which you pick up, is “A Novel”, as in Wuthering Heights, A Novel. This is just in case you are beguiled into believing that here at last is that guidebook you’ve been seeking for your hiking trip in the Yorkshire Dales. The difference between a subtitle and a reading line is that the reading line (probably) isn’t on the title page; it is something added by the publisher in the interest of making sales. In theory at least, if it’s on the title page the author will have put it there. Thus Possession: A Romance is how A. S. Byatt entitled her book: A Romance is the subtitle and appears everywhere. With Thinner, Blonder, Whiter by Liz Maguire, “A Novel” on the jacket is a reading line — it’s not there on the title page.

Wry, author generated takes on the “Novel” reading line include George Singleton’s Novel: A Novel, A. J. Perry’s Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess, and Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, a novel written apparently entirely in questions. These come from Vox‘s piece on the subject.

A reading line on a non-fiction book is a much rarer occurrence. This is no doubt because non-fiction titles tend to be a bit more directly declarative. Here however is one example. The words “From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry” are not a subtitle; they do not appear on the title page. I expect Mr Filler, the nicest of authors, was in total agreement with these words appearing on the jacket, but of course there will always be authors blind-sided by the unexpected appearance of a reading line, which they may see as a silly subtitle foisted on them by a meddlesome publisher. The publisher response cited by Jeremy in a comment on my last post is certainly none too diplomatic: the aim in publisher communication ought always to be to carry the author with you.

Given that Mr Filler’s book has now evolved into volume one of a three-volume series, each with the title Makers of Modern Architecture, what was a reading line when the book was first published 2007 now needs to be regarded as a real subtitle! And thus it is now being handled by all.

Just what the distinction between a “Reading line” and a “Copy line” might be, I’ve no idea. I’d bet (if Robertson’s website didn’t give me the lie) that they were just house specific local names for the same thing.

This is a first — for me anyway.

The Economist hyphenates a three-letter word in their issue of 18 December: see the end of the third line. Hart’s Rules, the Oxford Bible of all composition apprentices, doesn’t actually forbid you to take over a single letter — because nobody would dream of doing such a thing. Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing, the Cambridge style bible, tells us that American comps generally follow the hyphenation shown in Webster’s Dictionaries (where of course splitting “the” after the “h” isn’t proposed). The Chicago Manual of Style implies disapproval by telling us we shouldn’t carry over two characters to the next line. It’s one of those things you just don’t do — everyone knows it, except for carelessly programmed computer systems.

The reason you break words is to keep the spacing on every line more or less even. The shorter the measure (line length) the harder this becomes, so word division and spacing tolerances in newspapers can be more daring than in book work. In this case word spacing on that third line is perhaps as tight as reasonable, while on the line below it’s pretty loose. Probably taking over the “th” to the fourth line would have loosened up line three, but not that much more than line four as it stands. But anyway, just look at the “the” at the end of the second line, and I think you’ll agree that pulling back that “e” could have been done at the expense of a tiny bit of space before the “w”following the comma. It’s not that they didn’t want to have to break “Zimbabwe” a couple of lines later — they are perfectly content to do so at the bottom of the paragraph. Any number of simple editorial changes would also have cured the trouble — they just had to look for opportunity. For instance, instead of “In 2019 he became” write “In 2019 he was”, or get rid of “a prestigious gong”* — nothing but a gain in my book — and so on and so on.

Clearly they forgot to tell their software developer that it wasn’t allowed to break such short words, and then didn’t notice the problem in proof reading.

See also Word-breaks.

__________________

* Antiquity is an accessible scholarly journal of archaeology, founded in 1927 by O. G. S. Crawford. In my day it was run by Glyn Daniel, and was an exemplification of the common-sensical Cambridge approach to archaeology. Since 1963 the journal has been owned by a charitable trust. It is now published by Cambridge University Press. (I did ask, but Professor Daniel would never play ball.) “The Antiquity Prize was created in 1994 by Editor Christopher Chippindale and the Antiquity Editorial Board in recognition of the fact that research funding was becoming increasingly competitive, the time to write difficult to find, and really good writing is ‘as rare and precious as ever’. They created the prize to honour and support the author(s) of the best contribution to each volume of Antiquity.” Whether any “gong” changes hands or not is not clear.

We in book publishing are so lucky — we have a large stable of commentators constantly giving us advice. They know how stupid we all are, and selflessly stand ready to try to steer us right.

Now it’s The New York Times giving us the benefit of their wisdom in their issue of 13 December. “Follower Counts Are Unreliable Metric for Book Sales” they tell us in a story which points out to us the many books we have overpaid for, because, simpletons that we are, we thought that just because the writer had a massive social media following, their books would sell millions.

The point they make is that huge advances often yield rather disappointing sales — did you ever hear of such a thing? And clearly you just know that if Billie Eilish has lots of Instagram fans that will mean to gullible publishers that any book by Billie Eilish will sell lots of copies. Everybody knows that publishers determine sales forecasts, therefore advance amounts and print runs on the basis of numbers like social media followers. They seem to imagine we work off a magic formula — divide the number of Tik-Tok and Instagram followers by some secret factor and that’s what you’ll sell. So: what else are we meant to do? In my day we used to figure out sales forecasts with a complicated calculation involving the average number of letters the author received in the mail over the preceding four years. Attempts to include telephone calls were always staunchly resisted because writing was seen as a better guide to print runs than the spoken word. It worked almost all of the time, though the staunch traditionalists who insisted on going with the age-old method of a spit-dampened finger held up in the wind were often able to perform with comparable accuracy.

In the course of ticking us off The Times does admit “It’s difficult to predict whether a book will be a hit. A jar of tomato sauce doesn’t change that much from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable. But every book is different, an individual work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry tries to forecast demand for new titles, it is, however thoughtfully, guessing.” This is true, but not quite as careless as it might sound at first blush. Any sales forecast has to be a guess, by definition, but in this case the people doing the guessing have considerable experience in the art, and some scraps of evidence to support their guesses. Most importantly you know how similar books you previously published have performed, and you can find information about books published by others. You’ve got access to information about broad retail trends. You will be able to talk to booksellers who, working at the coal face, can be regarded as having insight into the mood of retail customers. You’ll suss out whether there are any similar big books due to come out at the same time — which might not always be a negative: perhaps a major publication has expressed an interest in publicizing the books together. You’ll know whether the author has a “platform” and the number of their social media followers — and this might affect the willingness of media outlets to give the book a mention, maybe even a puff. Optimism is a requirement for the job, so it’s not surprising that we often overestimate sales, and thus end up overprinting: it’s really lucky that we are not dealing with something like tomato sauce which can rot, otherwise we’d manage to spoil most of our inventory, wouldn’t we?

Here are the books instanced by The Times:

AuthorPublisherAdvanceInstagram
followers
Twitter
followers
SalesSince
Billie
Eilish
Hachette$1 million +97 million6 million64,000May 21
Justin
Timberlake
Harper$1 million +53 million?100,0002018
Ilhan Omar
(politician)
Harper$0.25 million?1.3 million3 million26,000May 20
Tamika
Mallory
S & S$1 million +
for 2 books
1 million +?26,000May 20
Piers
Morgan
Harper?1.8 million8 million5,650
(in USA)
Oct 20

And another recent controversial case:

AuthorPublisherAdvanceInstagram
followers
Twitter
followers
SalesSince
Andrew
Cuomo
PRH $5.1 million ?? but lots ? but lots 50,000? Oct 20

Having shared these numbers (other than the Cuomo ones) they sagely wag their head “It’s difficult to know why this happens”.

No — it’s not difficult at all. That’s the name of the game. Publishing, trade publishing anyway, is a notorious crap shoot. Every now and then you spike that landing after adding an extra twist; most often you land on your bum. Sometimes you do hit a home run; but more often you strike out or pop up. Your center back will insist on making that long hopeful pass, up, up, and upfield behind the line of defenders; but once in a while your wing back will get onto it, cross the ball to an ideally-placed striker, and bang you’ve got the sort of beautiful goal that keeps the fans coming back for more. It’s not hard to figure out why publishers so often see their optimistic hopes dashed on the reefs of reality: what is actually difficult to know is exactly the opposite — what it is that makes a book succeed, to catch fire and sell, sell, sell.

The fundamental difference between trade publishing and academic publishing is that academic publishers believe that they should not lose money on any book, knowing that they’ll make a decent profit on some. Trade publishers aim to make a fortune off every book, knowing that many of them will fail: not so many, they hope, as to prevent them going on with their high-stakes poker game.

Because social media followers are something you can quantify, you quantify them. No decisions are based on that number alone — at the very worst some people may allow Billie Eilish’s hundred million followers to tip the balance in a close-run debate. The numbers are comforting, but nobody’s thinking there’s a fixed proportion of Instagram followers who are going to turn into guaranteed book-buyers. All you can say is that there are a hundred million folks who will probably hear about any book by Billie Eilish — and that’s not unimportant. The book’s got to do its bit though and turn those listeners into buyers. Sometime, dare we say it, celebrity books do not rise to the hype, and turn out to be rubbish.

So how on earth could reasonable, intelligent people be so far off. Well of course they aren’t usually overoptimistic by such a large margin — the article doesn’t include any cases where the advance earned out, or even came close to earning out. There’s a lot of commentary these days suggesting that publishers are becoming more and more stingy in their advances, and no doubt this, despite wild variations, is the case. At my post More premature death notices I speculated that the Obamas’ advance of $60 million for two books implied that PRH thought they could sell ten million copies of each. I dare say that one has worked out OK. Oversimplified, and crudely stated, the calculation is

  • the book price will be $25
  • so the royalty will be $2.50
  • thus if we sell 400,000 the royalty due will be $1 million
  • of course we’ll sell 400,000 in a year
  • so let’s offer a million dollar advance.

As you can see Billie Eilish et al have quite a way to go to get to the point where this calculation looks anything other than embarrassing. Andrew Cuomo is facing an even more embarrassing situation quite apart from his having been forced to resign as New York State Governor in the face of sexual harassment charges. He allegedly used state employees for the compilation of data for and the writing of his book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID 19 Pandemic. Governor Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic was uniformly regarded as excellent, after a slow and stuttering start. He certainly had lots and lots of social media followers tuning in for his daily televised press conferences during the crisis. These were very well handled, and made for compulsive viewing — sounds like the book version adds nothing. The latest news is an order by the state attorney general to get some of this advance out of his hands and into state coffers. The Commissioner of The New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics, David McNamara, says: “Gov. Cuomo is not legally entitled to retain compensation . . . for any form of outside activity related to the book.” Crown, a division of Penguin Random House, would seem to be out of luck, although the full advance hasn’t all been paid over yet, and indeed they have stopped selling the book. Nobody’s suggesting there was any kind of political influence-peddling involved in the huge advance for his book, but it’s all irrelevant now as Mr Cuomo is unlikely to be hanging onto too much of it, and at least temporarily, is no longer a political force.

The case of Piers Morgan may be a little different from Eilish et al — he has managed to alienate so many over here that hearing he had written a book might be expected to keep people away from bookstores rather than draw them in. In Britain, where his stock apparently remains buoyant — or is it just timing? — his book has sold 190,000 copies.

Perhaps the main difference between social media marketing and a print advertisement is that with social media marketing you can to some extent quantify how little effect you are having. Persuading people to buy a book remains not a science, not even an art; it’s a magical mystery.