Archives for category: Book publishing

I suspect many of us are inclined to regard the whole idea of BISAC* subject headings and keywords as a bit of a bother, even rather a waste of time. Unfortunately for our self-regard this is nonsense. In the olden days when the system was just getting going the allocation of subject codes perhaps did have merely marginal value — maybe you’d manage to get a couple more books sold to libraries — but since we became internet slaves, these categorization tools have become very important; in fact the correct word is — key.

If your book contains information on the Portinari Altarpiece you need to get these words out there, so that anyone searching for this term will find your book near the top of the search results page(s).  Hugo van der Goes and the Procedures of Art and Salvation is a title which gets part of the way there in that it does give the artist’s name, but as the book is actually about the Altarpiece itself “Portinari” and “Altarpiece” as well, no doubt, as “Portinari Altarpiece” would be essential keywords here. The publisher, Brepols, doesn’t appear to have done their keyword homework, though there’s a limit to the number of pages of results I’m willing to scan in order to check this.

Digital Book World provides solid practical advice with its piece Generate More Book Sales with a Keyword-Powered Blurb by Beth Bacon.


* Book Industry Standards and Communications. It is a subcommittee of the Book Industry Study Group which was founded in 1975 at the Book Manufacturers Institute annual meeting. Their subject codes can be inspected at their website, here. You could go crazy trying to apply these accurately and comprehensively. Maybe publishers should ask authors to do the job for them! Penguin Random Houses’s News for Authors site has a good description of the system.

Tom Phillips says of his work “I do it, you know; you can’t really be interested in what you do” which I find to ring true. If I do it, then it’s just something people do. What on earth can be interesting in such ordinary activity?

What Tom Phillips does is obsessively edit the pages of an old book by painting over much of it and leaving a few selected words connected by little rivers, establishing a new text. Some of the pages are starkly geometric and abstract in their treatment, and others, like page 50, illustrated above, are impressively realistic. He’s been at it for 50 years, so he clearly enjoys it, and in one way that is enough. Obviously others want to enjoy it too, and Thames & Hudson has just come out with a sixth recension.

As his website puts itA Humument has been a work in progress since 1966 when Tom Phillips set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques to create an entirely new version. He found his threepenny novel in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, South London. This was an 1892 Victorian obscurity titled A Human Document by W.H. Mallock whose title was altered to A Humument [by folding the title page to exclude the letters in the middle] for the remade book. The earliest printed version took the form of sets of boxed pages issued by the Tetrad Press between 1971 and 1976. The first trade edition was published by Thames & Hudson in association with Hansjorg Mayer in 1980 and this was followed by revised editions in 1987, 1998, 2004 and 2012 before the sixth and final edition was published in 2016. Each edition contains at least 50 new pages which replace their earlier selves in a process whose goal is acheived in the final edition in which no page of the earliest version survives.”

I can see it would be fun to do, but I’m not sure that the resulting text has much to say to us really. It’s art, no doubt, but it mostly comes across to me as a bit obsessive — but I guess that’s art, isn’t it? Mr Phillips’ website includes a 2½ hour reading of the sixth version of the work. There’s also a generous selection of page images there too — I think it may be the complete book.

Jonathan Safran Foer has done an analogous, if non-graphic, job on Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. His version is called Tree of Codes and is printed as originally laid out with the excised words die-cut away (or omitted) so that you end up reading a layered text which must have been a nightmare to print and die-cut, as well as “write”. The publisher’s website shows some other sample pages, though this picture tells the story pretty well. They also have a brief video showing the printing and die-cutting process. No wonder the book is currently out of stock: it’s not an item you can reprint on demand. The book was perfect bound: trying to fold and gather die-cut sheets like that would have been almost impossible.

The Times Literary Supplement of 31 March reviews the latest iteration of A Humument. You’ll need a subscription to read more than the first few lines though. One reflection that strikes me is whether these books are “written” by Phillips and Foer, or by Mallock and Schultz? If I cut up The Heart of Darkness into single words and drop them at random around the streets of New York, is a text resulting from your happening along later and picking up a number of bits of paper a text by you, me, Joseph Conrad, the west wind, or nobody?


Twitter (who else) has told us the exciting news that our president has actually enjoyed a book. The man who claims to be too smart to need to read books has tweeted his appreciation of one — Reasons to Vote Democrat by Michael J. Knowles. The joke of course is that this is a blank book. Ha, ha, ha; or as he puts it “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, perhaps trying to elbow in on Santa-Clausian ratings. As The Guardian says in its “review” of this and other examples of the satirical-wannabe genre, “These blank books make the Ladybird parodies, and the Blyton-spoof Five on Brexit Island, look like Jonathan Swift.”

The fact that we are able to persuade people to hand over cash for this sort of thing (a remark which might of course apply to much of trade publishing) is a tribute to the publishing industry’s ability to make money out of moonshine. Of course a blank book does give you something in which to draw pictures, write a diary or commonplace book, take lecture notes, or in the case of my own crazy Dynasts project,* write out a fair-copy of a classic text.

Publishers used to make up dummy copies of many (maybe most) of their books so that they could make sure the jacket would fit. These dummies consisted of blank pages, in the paper and number required for by the book waiting to be printed, bound in a case using some bit of cloth left over in the bindery. Usually you wouldn’t waste time stamping the spine, so it would only be a hand-written annotation in the front that would tell what book this dummy was representing. Many of them were rather nice objects, and I have over the years accumulated quite a collection of them, many of which were passed on to granddaughters as pastime projects. (I fear they showed signs of inhibition when faced with a leather-bound volume stamped Holy Bible on the spine.) Unfortunately publishers have now managed to figure out that measuring carefully works just as well as making a full dummy and costs a lot less.

Blank books have been a staple of the marketplace since the later years of last century. Moleskine appeals to the top end of this market, where customers seem to think that writing in a Moleskine will make them write like Hemingway. But buying one of these “satirical” books with a jokey title on its spine is perhaps a less than ideal way to acquire a notebook. It often seems that people have money to burn.


* For any who care I can now report I am about half way through, on page 359. We are up to 1809 (Part 2, Act II, Scene IV), and are now having to recognize that there may not be enough pages in my dummy OED volume to take us to the end of the drama. It’ll be a close run thing. The problem will have to be dealt with when we eventually get there. I’m having to resist the urge to use less and less illustration. Just drafted the bayonet charge of the English down the hill at Talavera. The pencil sketch is made from the camera lucida app, and then inked over, which has been half done here.

Publishing Perspectives tells us of 10 lucky “fellows” to visit Scotland for a week in August. The story even includes a link to a PDF of the New Books Scotland Spring/Summer 2017 catalog.

Perhaps not quite as exciting as going to the Frankfurt Book Fair, but still an opportunity to apply for next year . . .

Hurry. If you know any young(er) publishing people who can spend the first two weeks of October touring the Frankfurt Book Fair and book trade businesses in two other German cities, get them to apply for this fellowship. Expenses are paid, though the winner would have to pay for travel to and from Germany. Notice comes via Publishing Perspectives, and application can be made here at the Book Fair site. The deadline is 30 April.

It seems to be a bit of an overgeneralizing leap to slither from the closing of The University Bookseller in Plymouth to the contention that the academic print book is dying, but here is The Digital Reader last year racing off down that alley with The Bookseller keeping pace with him. His first paragraph has a link to an earlier piece of his “proving” the same point. I rather preferred Richard Fisher’s sober take on the issue.

But is there any reason to think that the online world, whether in its form of ebooks and database access, or in its sales aspect, is killing academic publishing. It’s true that more and more books are sold online, and specialized books are more likely to go this way than popular material — you’d be crazy to turn up at Barnes & Noble hoping to find a copy of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline. But of course a sale made via Amazon is still a sale.

Publishing Perspectives debates Academic Books and Digital Dynamics. We (or a subset of us) keep hoping that digital development is going to be the white knight galloping up to save the academic book. This assumes, of course, that the academic book needs saving. I question this assumption, while admitting that it is possible that a lemming-like capitulation could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was never (Never? Well, hardly ever) easy to publish monographs. They have always been expensive to produce, and by definition are directed at a small, specialized audience. So they are expensive to buy: Duh.

I do think that part of the problem has been the commercialization of the publishing business over the past half century or so. When big corporations buy publishing companies they expect returns, and publishers beaver away to deliver what they can. Maybe, however, most of the book business is by its nature a small-scale operation selling a few good books to a few good readers. Just because trade publishing can (almost) be turned into a branch of the entertainment industry doesn’t mean that this can be done to all publishing companies. But the temptation to grow is hard to resist: what boss is going to have the internal fortitude to say “No. We are not going to increase sales. We are going to make our books better, and if this means fewer and fewer people can afford them, that’s just the nature of the business”?

We all continue to wrestle with the increasing costs of everything, and work away at balancing our books. What has changed in the debate is the arrival of the ebook with its marginal cost of (virtually) zero. This Siren-call has beguiled a proportion of us into thinking that this tool can magically transform the economics of the specialized book. But if, as Kathy Christian asserts, it costs $25,000 to publish an academic book, the fact that the second copy you sell costs you $12,500 + $0 doesn’t put you in a much better place than a printed copy costing you $12,500 + $3.75. The marginal cost benefit only begins to mean something once you have sold enough copies to have amortized your $25,000 up-front cost. The point at which this will happen will depend on what price you’ve put on the book, plus several other variables. (See: Costing.)

Ithaka S+R reports on a study the cost of publishing monographs. (Link via Jose Afonso Furtado). I have commented on this report previously.

The key issue in the future of the academic monograph is however always, always, always what the academic community wants. Publishers, I keep on saying, do not make policy, establish trends, create policy; they are a conduit bringing what their authors write to interested readers. As long as academic discourse takes the form of the monograph (which probably means as long as a PhD requires a thesis) there will be publishers ready to bring the product out and hopeful of making some money by doing so. The question of what format the monograph should take is a separate one. Perhaps unsurprisingly the academic usage profile appears to match the sort of general level of ebook vs. print book sales. Academics find reference searches easier with a digital book, but prefer reading the resultant reference in a print book.

2015Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R writes a thoughtful piece at The Scholarly Kitchen. Their latest research shows academics preference for print books in most areas continues, and indeed has increased over the past three years. Researching for a particular topic remains the area where digital scores heavily. There seems to me to be no real problem with this. It does increase your origination costs to have to originate for both digital and print, but we have almost all been biting this bullet for quite a few years now.

At such time as faculty review boards stop using monographs, in print, and journal publication records as the measure for assessing academics when it comes to hiring and tenure decisions, then perhaps we’ll see academics stopping writing monographs. Maybe there could be a different way of communicating academic research: it’s not for the publishing industry to come up with that idea. We just serve our public. And what they want (albeit in smaller quantities that they did a few years ago) appears to be what we are doing.


If Ray Kurzweil says it’s possible who am I to disagree? Cathy O’Neil’s piece at reports on an interview of Kurzweil by Neil deGrasse Tyson in which the claim is made that books may well one day be directly uploaded to your brain via some tricky nano-bots floating around in your bloodstream.

But I’m not sure the examples given are the right ones. Uploading The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace directly to your brain would of course save a lot of reading time — but then so too would not starting them in the first place. Is what we get from these books, or any novel, the sort of thing that would be provided by the entire text suddenly appearing in your mind? One has to assume that the entire text would be instantly and completely available to you upon upload, something which is not my experience with the conventional method of upload, reading. By the time you’ve reached chapter 100 you may hate that character you loved at the start, and you may now be a little hazy about what went on in chapter 2. If it was an important thing this might necessitate a refresher return to the beginning. Nothing wrong with this: it’s just how it is, and is part of the pleasure of reading. Our minds cannot remember everything all of the time, and our attitude towards people develops as we get to know them better, or indeed as we see more or less of them. As you read through a book you develop expectations, hopes and fears concerning the characters and the events to which they are exposed. A nano-robotic one-off upload would bypass all this and leave you with the whole thing, just sitting there. With any story it’s more about the journey than it is about the arrival.

Now if direct upload isn’t the way we want to interact with fiction, it may well be better suited to things like The Driver’s Handbook, The Elements of Electronics, How to Win at Poker, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plumbing Repair, Sibley’s Guide to Birds. Just imagine living with someone who had ingested the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Talk about a know-it-all — though we probably wouldn’t, because by then knowing everything would no doubt be boringly commonplace.

Link via The Digital Reader.

See also Direct to consumer

We tend to think of online publishing as meaning large reference projects to which, if you are lucky, your library subscribes. Things like Oxford Scholarship Online which makes electronic versions of 13,000 scholarly monographs available to the subscriber. Or the Oxford English Dictionary. OSO is the basis for University Press Scholarship Online, a collection of content from 25 academic presses around the world who are using Oxford’s platform to distribute their online content.

Notable by its absence from this list is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Cambridge University Press. Their equivalent, Cambridge Core offers content from 360 journals, and an impressive 30,000 ebooks, again on a subscription basis.

But massive databases, accessible only by an expensive subscription, are not of course the only kind of online publishing, even for academic books. In one way one might think of ebooks as directed at the end-user, the retail customer, and online offerings as selling via subscription to libraries, but there’s really a shading of one group into the other. Terminology is still evolving, but I suggest that the terms we might end up with ought perhaps to contain a distinction between work published in electronic form only and work published first in print and then converted to digital formats. Obviously a large proportion of the huge output of self-publishing is available only in ebook form: many self-published authors don’t want to fill their homes with cartons of books which they then have to sell off. Though it remains unusual for the traditional publishing company to publish in digital format only, experimentation is taking place. Academic publishers are also beginning to use the halfway house which is ebook + the option of print-on-demand.

But there’s no reason it shouldn’t work well to publish directly into an online format. Last year Publishing Perspectives told the story of CNET’s plan to publish “books” online under the label Technically Literate. The stories stream, so you need a connection, but if you want to read them in the subway (which seems the ideal place to me) you can download to your Kindle or Kindle app. I suspect author pressure may lead to a wider range of formats being made available, but experimentation has got to be a good idea.

I thought the first story Technically Literate published, The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley, was pretty good.

See also BuzzFeedDigital book, digital format, and The future of electronic literature.


Well of course we should all regret the decision of Duquesne University to close their press. Having a press is a sort of badge of seriousness for a university, though the idea many outsiders have, that a university will establish a press in order to publish the books written by its own faculty, is just wrong. Professors at university ABC will happily publish at the press of university DEF, especially as different presses have different strengths. Furthermore there is no fall-back right for academics at university XYZ to have their home press publish their books — though there’s often a great deal of embarrassment in declining the work of a colleague and friend. Any book has to be good enough to be published anywhere. Nevertheless shutting your press down must represent some kind of admission of failure, though I can’t help reflecting that no person or organization is under any requirement to be a publisher. It’s not a moral issue, and nor is it, as the AAUP’s statement strives to imply, a matter of choosing between sports and learning.

“The Association of American University Presses denounces the decision last week by the administration of Duquesne University rejecting the efforts of the association, the university’s faculty, the staff of its Press, and even some members of the administration itself to identify alternatives to the closure of Duquesne University Press. Despite a robust list of alternatives that would reduce cost while retaining quality, the university confirmed its intention to withdraw support and close its press. The decision was announced the same week as the hiring of a new men’s basketball coach with a seven-figure annual salary, and shortly after the unveiling of plans to invest $40 million in the refurbishing of the basketball arena. In AAUP’s view — and indeed in the view of many other observers both on- and off-campus — these consumption choices seem inconsistent with the institutional mission and aspirations of a national research university.” — Part of the AAUP’s statement yesterday concerning Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pa., and its press.

From Shelf Awareness, 6 April 2017.

On an idiot level it’s hard to argue against the fact that college sports earn universities large sums of money — and no doubt a successful basketball team means more to most people in the world out there than a record of publishing great monographs most of which no doubt struggle to sell 1,000 copies each. Personally I deplore the decision, and of course the AAUP’s got to stand up and be counted — that’s what they’re there for — and they don’t want to lose a member press either.

The university claims their annual subsidy to the press is of the order of $300,000. While this is indeed next to nothing compared to the cost of a new basketball stadium, it is surely within the rights of the university to decide that it is more than they wish to continue to invest. It’s all very unfortunate, but there are arguments on both sides. Closing a press probably doesn’t actually reduce the access of scholars to avenues of publication. Duquesne is a fairly small press. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it publishes 10 books a year, though in some years it looks to be one or two fewer. Other university presses will no doubt be ready and able to take over the flow of manuscripts, so one can’t really run the argument that scholarship is going to be affected by the closure. Sure, a well-curated publishing program can support or even, in rare instances, stimulate an avenue of academic enquiry, but ultimately a good book will always be able to find a home. Duquesne has a niche in Milton studies, and indeed publishes the annual hardback volume Milton Studies. But of course other presses publish books about Milton, and no doubt homes will be found for future work.

New manuscripts may end up facing some delays, but should transition fairly successfully. The back list is where the main problem lies. Authors will no doubt get rights-reversions and many will be able to get other publishers to take on their books. No doubt however there will be several books which will just become unavailable joining the ranks of orphan books despite actually having a parent!

The real sufferers however will be the five staff members. Not only are they losing their jobs, but they are probably facing the necessity of changing either career or domicile; Pittsburgh is unlikely to be bursting with publishing jobs. Being laid off is always traumatic, even in the fertile ground which is New York City. It’s no immediate consolation to be assured that the shake-up of an enforced job change almost always ends up being “a good thing”. Being forced out of that rut does tend to work out to be ultimately invigorating.

Grammar Girl, via The Passive Voice, brings us the news of a sensible change at Associated Press. The AP Style Manual now embraces a bit more gender neutrality:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

I see from the piece that it was 2011 already that AP decreed email should lose its hyphen. I will have to try to comply.