Archives for category: Book publishing

99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn has been denied landmark status.

Sure it’s not very beautiful, but still, of the fifteen addresses Walt Whitman had in Brooklyn, this is the only one still there, underneath the vinyl siding, and with an added third floor. His birthplace on Long Island, and the house where he died in Camden, NJ have been preserved. Sure he didn’t live here long, but there aren’t any others, and surely New York should memorialize the poet who claims to be rubbing shoulders with us all as we walk the streets of our city today.

“What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.”


See the story at Gothamist, where there’s a link to WNYC’s radio report about the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision. Maybe we can get them to reconsider in time for the celebration of Walt’s 200th birthday next year — on May 31st. Surely landmarks need not all be handsome, perfectly preserved buildings.

Scare headlines, fuzzy analysis: we see them all too often when the commentariat gets going. Gabriella Page-Fort, who has a dog in this fight of course, should know better than to allow them to entitle her piece at Literary Hub Why Do Americans Read so Few Books in Translation. As she’s head of a translation-only imprint, I guess she can be said to be doing what she can. However, despite all the lucubrations of the Three-Percenters, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of reading done by most Americans today was of translations — well, of one in particular, the Bible.

But there isn’t really anything particularly virtuous in reading a translation — well for some, I guess, reading the Bible may count as virtuous. One might claim there was some good in simply reading a book, any book; but whether it’s by a Bulgarian, a blonde, a bottle-washer, or a bastard doesn’t make the virtue any greater. If we don’t read more translations, I would argue that’s because we have more than enough non-translations available to us. The choice doesn’t seem to me to be between translated books and non-translated books, any more than it’s a choice between books with blue covers and books with black ones. Publishers will publish books on which they can look forward to making a profit. There has to be a limit to the number of books which can be economically published in any one year. We don’t not publish translations because we think publishing translations is a bad thing to do: it happens because we have invested our funds in lots and lots of books written in English, and to flood the market with more titles would lead to losses. To accuse Americans of ignoring other cultures is just silly at a time when we must be more familiar with the other side of the moon than at any time in our existence. So Germans read more books in translation.* They also drink more beer, eat more sausages, and drive faster on their autobahns, and nobody seems to think we need to be shamed into matching their performance in these areas. It’s all just stuff to say and sound like you are engaging seriously. God, if only Americans would read more books written in English!

Still it’s always nice to tell others off about something. Here, to represent the other side of the coin is a BBC piece about how shockingly and dangerously monoglot we Americans are. Maybe we need to stamp out these subversive translations, and make folk read their Proust in the original.

On a more practical note: it is apparently Women in Translation Month. Go ahead and help the cause by reading a book.


* Numbers can be made to say pretty much whatever you want. If you divide population by number of books published we find that Germany annually publishes 884 books per head of population. Surprisingly the US, despite our sinful disregard of translations, puts out 1,075 titles annually per head of population. For anyone who cares, the number for the UK is 359. (These are all very rough-and-ready calculations, and no-one should put too much weight on them. They are based on Wikipedia numbers for population and for books published annually. There’s no consistent year base. Frankly I’m surprised at the relationship between the US and UK numbers.)

Dare one also suggest that Anglophone culture is just more significant for the German speaker than the reverse. Even Britain keeps falling deeper and deeper into the American cultural ambit. To the hegemon go the spoils.

I know that sales numbers about books are all incomplete, inconsistent, potentially misleading, and subject to definition, but life’s ultimately too short to try to track down “the truth” about book sales — even if such a thing were ultimately available to the eager researcher.

But I’d like to point out a report in Publishers Weekly (tainted as it may be in the eyes of the commentariat as yet another fake news booster of traditional publishing) that sales of printed books rose 2% in the first half of 2018 — 4% for adult non-fiction books. (Link via Book Business Magazine.) Now, there’s really no way, however cynical you want to be, to regard this as bad news*.

Are thanks for this development paradoxically due to our aggressively anti-book president? May he have done more for reading and book sales than his super-literate predecessor — who is still sending us lists of recommended reading?


* Except of course if you are one of these dedicated to the death of publishing under the juggernaut wheels of the free (or almost free) ebook, and liberty in the shape of self publishing.

A clay tablet, containing a bit of the Odyssey has been discovered at Olympia.

Photo provided by the Greek Culture Ministry on Tuesday, July 10, 2018 showing a slab inscribed with 13 verses from the Odyssey’s Book 14 that was found near the Olympia sanctuary, dating to the Roman period, possibly before the 3rd century. Greece’s Culture Ministry says the inscription unearthed at the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games could be the oldest written excerpt ever discovered of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. (Greek Culture Ministry via AP)

Reading the entire Odyssey on clay tablets must have been quite a commitment — you probably had to have an ox-drawn cart following you around on your visit to the Olympic Games.

No, it’s not 1 April: The Guardian really is telling us that some books are selling well, specifically intelligent non-fiction. We may find this hard to believe in the face of all these doom and gloom pieces about the end of reading, the loss of attention span, the dumbing down of the electorate. The publisher of John Murray Press is quoted as saying “We’re living in a world that suddenly seems less certain than it did even two years ago, and the natural reaction is for people to try and find out as much about it as possible. People have a hunger both for information and facts, and for nuanced exploration of issues, of a sort that books are in a prime position to provide.”

Maybe. It’s always a temptation to extrapolate from current affairs to the performance of your business. But haven’t people always bought rather serious books? Notorious for being more bought than read is always A Brief History of Time. Popularizations of science played a significant role in Cambridge University Press’ publishing between the wars: Jeans, Eddington et al. Academic publishers, at least, have always been alive to the potential sales value of serious popularization of science, history and almost any other academic discipline. The difficulty has always been finding people who are able to command the material while communicating it clearly to a non-specialist audience.

Bookstore promotions do have an effect, and the article reports on Waterstone’s efforts, which have surely helped. But it would seem to me that this holds true across a whole range of subject matter — and that there are just more people (the demographic effect) buying books of all sorts, and, with increasing education levels, more egg-head tomes in particular. Short-term bumps in the numbers are less significant than long-term trends. Increases in the numbers of people going to university trump the effects of political uncertainty.

At the really intelligent non-fiction end of the spectrum, Cambridge University Press specified , in reporting on improved sales and profit numbers for the year 2017-18, “Academic had a strong year for book sales worldwide, particularly in the North American market. The good results came in the face of continuing change across the industry, as academic publishers grapple with the effects of squeezed library budgets, price sensitivity in the higher education textbook market, and threats to copyright posed by the illegal sharing of academic papers online. “

But in a rather odd story Slate assures us the academic books are not written to be read. (Link via The Passive Voice.) What this disguises is the two (at least) ways in which academics will use books. Many are read through by people in the discipline who have to know what the author (a potential rival) is saying, while most are quickly referred to in an effort to discover references to the topic they are themselves researching. The non-fiction readers in The Guardian article cited above will no doubt include many academics, reading for pleasure, general information, self-education or whatever. Reading for a graduate seminar is clearly a specialized subset of the reading of academic texts.

We can all heave a sigh of relief: we are free once again to use the word “cocky” in our book titles. Fallena Hopkins has apparently agreed to cancel her trademarking of the word. The decision is announced by The Cocky Collective as shown. See Inqusitr.

Until Ms Hopkins speaks though, a little breath-holding may still be in order.

See What a cock up for an account of the original trouble.

Let us hope this is the last we have to hear about this silliness — and I mean at both ends. Who’d want to use the word cocky in a book title, and who’d want to gain exclusive access to such a thing? Still, a victory for free speech is always nice.

The Atlantic (via The Passive Voice) seems to be trying to fool us with a headline suggesting that microfilm was invented around the same time as Gutenberg’s successors were getting the moveable type and letterpress printing business going. However their title “Microfilm lasts half a millennium” is in fact forward looking, referring to the durability of microfilm as an archiving medium. The National Archives assure us that they continue to microfilm records, despite the lure of the digital. Microfilm is a low-cost, reliable, long-term, standardized image storage medium and has a life expectancy of hundreds of years. All you need to view microfilm images is light and magnification — presumably likely to be available long after there’s nobody left who’s even heard of iOS or Windows.

Microfilm was patented in France in 1859 by René Dagron who built on earlier work by John Benjamin Dancer. It remained a clever but unneeded technology until it was used during the Franco-Prussian War to enable pigeons to carry miniature messages into besieged Paris. In 1906 a couple of Belgians suggested that microfilm might be used as a means of space saving space in libraries, though it took till the 1930s for this to get going as an archiving strategy. Navigation remains clunky — see the video below — but everything involves trade offs. Secure and clunky or fast and ephemeral: you probably want both. Indexing will help, but a) it’s expensive, and b) you still have to turn the wheels to get to your target.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

Atlas Obscura’s story includes the link to the Geena Davis, Chevy Chase video clip.

I hadn’t realized that a belly band was really a sartorial item, reputed to ease lower back pain especially during pregnancy. This band of cloth around the belly puts me in mind of a cummerbund, something I’m more familiar with. I’d always assumed it had something to to with Kummer, German for worries, care, grief: as in “Why is it I’m so fat?”. It doesn’t. It actually comes from the Urdu, Kammar-band meaning a loin band according to The Oxford English Dictionary. They also remind us that a belly band may be found on a horse pulling a cart, on a sail, or a kite.

To me, however, a belly band is a tiny jacket wrapped around a book outside the jacket which is already there — a meaning which the OED doesn’t acknowledge: but then their entry on this word hasn’t been updated since 1887.

Belly bands on books are actually rather a pain in the neck. As a reader do you feel you have to keep the belly band? If so, how to prevent its getting torn or lost? If not, what was the point in the first place? Why do publishers use them? Mostly, I believe, to make the book stand out. But if your reason is just point of sale impact, it’s got to be a big point, a great quote. With the one shown in the picture the publisher took the opportunity to define the title on the back of the belly band — but of course they could have done that more cheaply on the jacket itself.

Maybe you get a quote from the ideal booster at the last minute: though I’m not sure Gyles Brandreth’s words are likely to make anyone buy Christian Bök’s OULIPO-esque tour de force of five pieces each omitting one vowel. When you get this rave quote, life being what it is, the book is bound to be bound and already on its way to the warehouse. So we’ll give it a belly band. But that quote’s got to be really good to make a belly band worth doing. Quite apart from designing and printing the band itself, you’ve got to get it onto the books. Touching a book after it’s been delivered to the warehouse is staggeringly expensive these days: let’s say adding a belly band after completion is going to cost you approaching $2 for every copy. Adding one before completion will be less — apart from the trivial printing cost, it’ll only be the cost of wrapping a little second jacket, a matter of pennies. But pennies are pennies and for me at least are wasted in this instance. But then so too is the ribbon marker the publisher has provided. I’d much rather have had these pennies directed towards binding the book in a decent bit of cloth instead of the black paper they chose as case covering material. But then we all have our manias. Perhaps my main point is that my buying decision was not based on any frills like these — I bought it (secondhand and in mint condition) because it was recommended by Al Filreis in his ModPo* MOOC. So for me appearances were irrelevant: I suspect that’s probably true of most Eunoia purchasers.

It’s nice how it looks as if you’re seeing through the belly band to the dropped out vowels on the jacket. You aren’t; the vowels are dropped out of a grey tint on the belly band too. Obviously I was meant to align the thing a bit lower on the book to take my photo.

Despite all my disapproval I have to assume that Canongate knew what they were doing when they gave this book a belly band. I hope it worked — these sort of books have to be published. And if the bells and whistles really helped the books move off the shelves, great.

An unusual vertically aligned belly band may be seen here.


* See the footnote to this earlier post. A picture of page 30 of Bök’s book may be seen here.


Link via David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.

The video, which was pretty rude about Facebook, has been removed from YouTube, which carries the explanation that it is “no longer available due to a copyright claim by Novi Digital Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.” Sorry.

Michael Lewis says his next book/article will only be available in audio format, The New York Times reports. Which is fine, if that’s what he wants. But this factoid shouldn’t be read as if it was any kind of forecast of how things are going (or going to go).  If an audio publisher wants to buy exclusive rights we can applaud their enterprise, but we must resist the temptation to think that that it means anything for the future of print publication. Because what it means is nothing, beyond the individual instance.

Sure audio sales are increasing rapidly. Although we know it’s nonsense we all get carried away when we hear news of a large percentage increase in the sales of something, failing to reflect that a large percentage increase on a small number will in all likelihood be a smaller absolute number than a small percentage increase on a large number. If you wish to substitute in this sentence “audio” and “print”, who would I be to argue with you? We went through all this with ebooks, when we all allowed ourselves to get freaked by large percentage increases in the early years in rather small ebook sales. This did not, as we can now all see, mean that ebook sales were going to increase every year by the same percentage. As the sales total rose the percentage increase inevitably became less and less. We all have trouble judging percentages and proportions: and writers generally know this and will couch their accounts in whatever way allows the point they are making appear in the best light.

Nevertheless, refusing even to countenance print or ebook publication seems to me to be plain perverse. It’s a bit like insisting on producing all your books in Latin only. Sure, there are lots of people who enjoy reading Latin (perhaps fewer than enjoy listening to audio books) but why restrict your sale to them only? It’s not like issuing Mr Lewis’s piece as an ebook would hurt its performance in the audio market, surely. We have of course got books which are only available as ebooks, and others (only a few now) which are only available in print form. So why not audio too? We don’t find ourselves insisting that every paperback have a hardback, and vice versa, do we?

See also the case of audio-only The Starling Project mentioned in a post three years ago. Still no sign of a print edition despite my cynical take on the exclusively audio concept.