Archives for category: Book publishing

Mohammad Sharaf created a cemetery of banned books, each headstone listing a different book banned by the government, and installed it near the site of the recent Kuwaiti Book Fair. Authorities removed it promptly. BookRiot sends a link to the story at Euronews.

Shelf Awareness reports on possible consolidation in the book wholesaling world. Apparently the FTC is mulling over the possibility of the purchase of Baker & Taylor by Ingram.

Reaction from the world of independent bookselling is predictably nervous. And rich in wishful thinking. “It is also intriguing to see how Barnes & Noble will find their future in relation to this topic”, Hiroshi Sogo, director of Books Kinokuniya, quoted at Shelf Awareness on 5 December, speculates. “As commonly known, the Barnes and the Folletts families were originally working together in Chicago before William Barnes moved to New York and tied up with G. C. Noble to set up the B&N business. In a way, it may be seen as a reunion of the parties after a hundred years or so.” (I for one didn’t know that.)

I’d imagine B&N has enough on its plate right now without worrying about preserving diversity in the wholesale business. Still, vertical integration is often an attractive option, and they do already publish books, so why not wholesale them too? They already have a network of warehouses around the country which would be an asset for a wholesaler. We’ve become so used to agonizing about Barnes & Noble’s future that a surprise like this might be seized upon as really good news.

In the olden days when book production involved Letraset, X-acto knives, screen finders, loupes, Pentel pens, and pica rules I used to ask interviewees if they sewed.

While I’m not a mad-keen sempster (or seamster according to the Oxford English Dictionary) I can do it. I grew up in a wool town, where the putting together of garments was not regarded as any kind of a mystery. I’ve made an overcoat, shirts, skirts, chair-covers, and most recently curtains. My last batch of curtains, made with rather expensive fabric, ended up with just enough material left over to cover a little stool, 12″ x 20″. Now there’s purchasing management for you!

Cost estimating is an essential skill of the book production person, and this calls for confidence and accuracy with numbers and with measurements. Sewing things for yourself suggests a somewhat parsimonious attitude towards life, and the doggedness needed to bring a job to its conclusion — both qualities to be valued in book production. Sewing is not just a matter of measure twice, cut once, or pinning a paper pattern to a bit of cloth and chopping away (caution is another good quality for the production person): there’s also an aesthetic element involved. Visualizing how this material will look in that pattern is an essential part of the parcel. For book making we (should) value aesthetic judgement. Perhaps most obviously sewing involves manual dexterity, something which, before computers, we were all called upon to exercise daily in putting a book together.

Maybe I’m now just a tearful old carpenter standing by the sea wondering if those seven maids with their seven mops can still get it done.

Via Book Business Magazine we receive this tale of woe originating at The Bookseller.

Peter Donaldson, managing director of Red Lion Books in Colchester, relates

“A few days ago, a customer approached our counter. She had in her hand the just published, new edition of that wonderful reference work Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Endlessly fascinating, it is an idiosyncratic treasure trove of word history, culture, folk lore and legend—and one of my favourite books. At £45, the price was more than our customer was expecting. I encouraged her saying that running to 1,600 pages it’s a monster of a book and one that will be used time and time again. For the right person it will become a loved friend in the bookshelf for a lifetime. Looked at in those terms, the £45 seems less daunting; more an investment and lifetime resource.

However, it seems a less worthwhile investment when The Book People and Amazon are selling it for £12.99.

I am well aware that since the demise of the Net Book Agreement every retailer can set their own prices for all books. I also recognise that, like supermarkets, some retailers of books might sometimes choose to sell at an unrealistic price as a “loss leader”. However, we also all know that there is some relationship between the discount a publisher gives and the price that a company can realistically sell at.

I think it is clear that selling a new book at over 70% discount (plus free postage on a heavy book) is way beyond normal discounting of new titles and one can only presume that the publisher, Hachette’s John Murray, has given a discount which enables this. If so, then surely it is short-sighted. It undermines sales through high street shops, which are under enough pressure anyway. Shops that support and sell across the range of John Murray’s books.

If you consider the publisher’s earned income from a title across different market sectors, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that, in reality, high street bookshops are subsidising the discounts given to online and direct-to-consumer operations like The Book People.

We and our customers are treated as mugs.

Brewer’s might be a relatively recent addition to the list, but I believe at least six generations of John Murrays will be turning in their graves!”

Now of course he’s right, isn’t he? Not necessarily I fear. The whole tale seems a little odd. As far as I can see, John Murray doesn’t in fact publish an edition of Brewer — though several other publishers do. It’s one of these popular reference books which has largely migrated to the special markets/promotional/remainder-table market, and all sorts of publishers compete for the lowest denominator buck. No doubt Mr Donaldson is referring to the Chambers 20th Edition of the book which was published on 1 November this year at £45 in hardback. (Chambers is also part of Hodder & Stoughton, which in turn is part of Hachette — acquisitions make for messy structures, so who knows whether Red Lion Books may not be ordering their Chambers books from the Murray rep?)

The Book People do indeed have a Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable for £18 but it’s a paperback of the 19th Edition, also listed as coming from Hodder & Stoughton. Amazon UK offers this edition at £13.93, while they do indeed show an offering of Mr Donaldson’s £45 hardback for £12.99. However if you drill down to the next level you’ll find that all the copies Amazon UK is offering are from partner sites, book dealers, and while there is indeed one copy offered at £12.99 most of them are over £30. Indeed one intrepid seller in Germany is trying to tempt you with a price of £51.09 (these odd looking prices on Amazon are usually translations from a different currency). It almost looks like Amazon hasn’t ordered this edition at all. Chambers published it a month ago, so it can’t be a matter of the books not having arrived yet. Maybe Amazon have decided that the market for Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is just too capricious to play in, and have decided just to leave it to the remainder-table market.*

One can sympathize with Mr Donaldson, clearly a fan of the book. A well-stocked bookstore should no doubt represent this book.  Maybe in addition to his £45 copy he might buy for 1 penny a “good” used copy of the 1981 edition as a discounted alternative.

The problem appears not to be with Chambers’ or Hodder & Stoughton’s discounting policies, and certainly not with John Murray’s. The problem is the modernization of the book market, enabling people to access books “slightly used” or allegedly “new” at all sorts of prices. Sure things were simpler with the Net Book Agreement. I used to like it when the telephone was tied to the wall, and you didn’t have to remember to take it with you, but now we just have to play along.


* This explanation becomes rather less probable when one finds Amazon US offering the £45 book, as a regular Amazon-stocked item. They show their discounted price of $37.39 as being reduced from a published price of $59.95, consistent with a £45 UK price. This entry is just what one would expect from any regular book stocked by Amazon. It is a bit odd too though. Amazon lists publication date as 5 March 2019. The ISBN they show is the same ISBN as Chambers is using in the USA. The publisher who they say will be supplying this book in March next year is Teach Yourself, yet another imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

However, as of today, you can buy a new copy of this book from Amazon US but you can’t get one from Amazon UK, where you can only get it from a partner dealer. Can it just be that Amazon UK is out of stock temporarily? If they cannot supply a book, Amazon will take down the publisher’s information leaving only any partner offerings there may be. If this is the correct explanation, it’ll be interesting to see what price they ask when/if it comes back into stock. However the book is currently available for instance from Waterstones at £45, and from W. H. Smith at (sorry Mr Donaldson) £29.25. Brave new world that has such discounts in it!

Why does everyone love to over-interpret everything? I suppose writers aim to make a splash. After all a story saying “a little bit of something I can’t quite identify may possibly be beginning to happen” doesn’t really command the headlines. Here’s The New York Times warning us that the end of the novel is nigh yet again, though they do sensibly take refuge behind a question mark. The Digital Reader calls them out.

Of course we can say that sales of fiction are declining. We can say sales of fiction are rising. We can say whatever we want, but it doesn’t have to mean anything. We are unable to make pronouncements of any value about global book sales of any category since we simply don’t have any comprehensive data about books sales. Members of the commentariat love to dis traditional publishing people for their alleged inability to see the beam in their eye which is the self publishing industry. But here’s that organ of traditional publishing, Publishers Weekly, pointing out that the appearance of fiction’s losing its appeal is only there if you close your eyes to independent publishing. Hey guys we all know this, so lay off us please.

We do tend to talk about the AAP’s sales numbers as if they had a general application, which of course they do, but their general application is only to the world of traditional book publishing. People who work in this business often fail to consider that this does not represent the entire universe: to us it is of vital and fascinating interest. Sales data for self-published books are, almost by definition, not available. So the AAP numbers say (and we all know this) nothing about books sales in general. That we forget to say this every time we talk about sales is perhaps understandable because for so many years we didn’t have any meaningful self-publishing business to take into consideration. Not an excuse; just a reason for a failure to think things through.

Now the fact that traditional publishers are selling less fiction than in the past is a perfectly reasonable trend to study, especially if you are a traditional publisher of fiction. But quit going beyond the facts to speculate whether this means humans are evolving to a non-story-loving state, becoming capable of ever shorter and shorter attention spans, or moving into a non-fiction-buying evolutionary stage. There’s no data to confirm or deny such fantasies. Does such navel gazing stuff really help sell the publications in which it appears? I’d have thought everyone was pretty bored with the same old story about the death of the book, a story which we’ve been hearing ever since the world began (well, maybe just since the book began).

  • A. We don’t know whether less fiction is being sold
  • B. Even if it were, we’ve no evidence of what the significance of that might be
  • C. We can perhaps say that lower prices will tend to capture more sales than higher ones


Running a bookstore is obviously not quite the same thing as running any other business. I suppose there may be the odd ironmonger fascinated by those ancient pliers lurking in the back corner, but booksellers are surely more at risk of having strong feelings about their inventory than any other retailers. Still, if you open a bookshop and insist on stocking it only with books you love, you risk disappointment culminating in early financial embarrassment. On the other hand the reason why local independent bookstores are currently doing better than big chains is precisely this feeling of the stock being selected by someone with likes and dislikes, and who is there to talk about their choices.

NPR tells about the tweet storm (maybe just a tweet weather incident) consequent upon Southport, UK bookseller Broadhurst’s Bookshop‘s announcement “I have just sold a book that we have had in stock since May 1991. We always knew its day would come.” Their tweet is followed by several comments which are worth seeing.

Now, if Broadhurst’s were to inventory only books which they had held in stock for 25 years, they would of course not be doing too well. No business can afford to keep its capital tied up for that length of time — as book publishers have been forced to acknowledge over the last fifty years. It would make for an interesting study to work out the average age (time since it was printed) of books sold by publishers over the last century. I’d guess that nowadays the answer would be less than one year, whereas back in the sixties it might have been near two: obviously new books will always tend to sell more than back-list, so looking only at back-list one might find numbers more like 2-3 years today and 5-10 back then. We publishers used to love to hang onto those objects we so loved and had lavished such care and investment dollars on creating. I can remember in my early days in this business finding in the “slow-moving stock” part of the warehouse books which had been printed in the 18th century. We’d even wrap up slightly damaged books and keep them so we could sell them off years into the future when we’d begun to run out of stock. These were called first copies. All publishers overprinted in those days; there was a letterpress technological determinant driving this, and we went along with it happily. These books looked so good; we all cared deeply about them; and laying down a few years’ stock made us feel warm and virtuous. Just not a really good business plan, as we were eventually forced to recognize.

The tightly managed bookshop nowadays cannot afford to hold their inventory for too long; probably something like one year would be considered too long. Sitting on the sidelines one often gets the impression that large bookselling accounts are settling their bills with publishers by returning for credit books which they’d ordered a year ago. In this way they come close to acting like a consignment supplier — taking a cut on the sale of inventory which is actually owned by the publisher. Rigorous inventory control and profitability are (unfortunately for the sentimental bookman/booklady) essential to business survival. There’s a certain Quixoticism involved with 25-year old inventory, and the romantics among us should perhaps do whatever we can to encourage such behavior.

I particularly like the proposal of one of the respondents to the Broadhurst tweet who plans to go into bookshops and buy the book which has been in stock for the longest time. Such regular randomness should result in a fascinating collection of books: inevitably some of them will be good, won’t they? It’s sort of like hanging about in second-hand bookshops.

Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the link.

When I wrote about the dwarsligger® format a couple of weeks ago I received a comment from Gordon Johnson pointing out that Cambridge University Press had in fact published a dwarsligger edition of the Bible in 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James translation. They gave this book as a keepsake at a feast held in the Stationers’ Company’s Hall in London on 25 May that year. The edition is still available for sale, and Gordon has now arranged for a copy to be sent to me, so now I can better see how the books are engineered.

The book is 1824 pages long, with the pages counted in the conventional way — i.e. each spread is actually counted as two pages. The only folios printed are those on the recto page, and are thus odd numbers throughout the volume. The book consists of nineteen 96-page signatures, and measures 3¼” x 4¾”, x 1-3/16″ thick. It is set in 7 on 8pt Karmina Sans, and is actually surprisingly readable.


The binding is not Ota-Bind as I speculated. I hadn’t appreciated that the little books are hardback, using a case made of a thin (non-flexible) board covered by a preprinted case. The book block, trimmed to almost the same dimensions as the case, is secured to the back board only leaving the spine and front board free to fold away from the pages. This does make reading the pages much easier, as the internal book block, with the pages held in an almost conventional notch-bound paperback binding can flex easily on the tape spine. The book is printed in two colors on a 27gsm thin paper (c.18 pound basis weight), made by Bolloré Thin Papers*. This company was founded in France in 1822, and has grown by acquisition, including Paperteries Braunstein, the company which supplied the 14# paper I referred to in my post on Bible manufacturing. The rep for Braunstein, Patrick Creuzet, was a good friend, cut down all too soon in a small plane accident.

Cambridge tells us “The dwarsligger® is a book concept developed by Jongbloed bv, Heerenveen, The Netherlands” and adds “Patent pending: EP 07 768892.” This presumably knocks on the head my suggestion in the first post that printers in America would be able to print dwarsliggers domestically.

CUP refers to their dwarsligger as the Transetto Text Edition, as does Amazon. Not sure where this term comes from; nor does it appear to have gone anywhere. Maybe it was an attempt to render dwarsligger into “English” — transverse setting? the “o” at the end though pulls the word right next to the Italian word for transept; ecclesiastical perhaps but not really helpful.


* The CUP Bible says the paper used is called Indolux, but I wonder if it is actually Indopaque. Indolux appears to be a cast-coated cover board, not I think made by Bolloré. The fact that there’s a spelling error in their reference to the paper manufacturer raises suspicion about everything else! That’s really the problem with typos: not that the reader misunderstands the word misspelled, but that one error raises doubts about the reliability of all the rest of the information.

Amazon, as we all know, has opted to place its second headquarters in two places: Long Island City in New York City and Crystal City adjacent to Washington, DC. Nobody (except presumably Amazon people) yet knows what’ll go here and what there. Apparently DC is richer in computer programmers, while NYC is the center of book publishing and media, retailing, advertising, and finance.

Shelf Awareness carries a report on reactions in the book community, which reads in part “In strongly worded letters to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ABA CEO Oren Teicher wrote that ‘it is unconscionable that state tax dollars paid by [New Yorkers & Virginians] would be redirected to subsidize one of the world’s largest — and most profitable — companies, which, among other things, has a history of doing whatever it can to drive competitors out of business and to avoid paying its fair share of taxes.’

Teicher added: ‘It is simply bad public policy to direct public money away from infrastructure, first responders, and public schools — which benefit all [New Yorkers & Virginians] — and, instead, to direct that money to a single international mega-corporation with a market capitalization that dwarfs virtually every other company. . . Local businesses are the backbone of our state’s fiscal health. The news of such massive public subsidies to one of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations is contrary to the long-term interests of all [New Yorkers & Virginians].'”

Fair enough I guess: that’s Oren Teicher’s job. However I can’t really see why Amazon’s having HQ 2.1 in the city really carries any more of a threat to local booksellers that their being based in Seattle did. If they want to build a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, Amazon will build a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Does anyone really think that by putting staff into the Citicorp Jackson Avenue building, Amazon will suddenly realize that this is just where they should have had a bookstore all along. Of course as they move more and more high-paying jobs into the area they will inevitably improve the outlook for local retail businesses, but I assume they have pretty sophisticated analysis of where they might place new stores, and don’t just watch their employees flooding out of the building to buy their lunch.

There’s lots of knee jerking going on over this issue. NYC has managed to prevent Walmart’s setting up stores in the city, so some ask, what’s the difference between Walmart and Amazon. Well, rather obviously, the difference is that Amazon is bringing headquarters staff jobs, not retail stores which would directly negatively impact local shops. (Of course, one can argue that Amazon does indeed represent a threat to local retailers anyway; but that on-line retail threat would exist whether their headquarters were in Walla Walla or Long Island City.)

I have heard it claimed that the tax subsidy in New York City amounts to about 7¢ on every $1 of salary paid. The mayor says that the city will be getting $13.5 billion in tax revenue over the 25 year life span of the deal. Obviously such estimates are based on assumptions about staffing and salary levels. There will apparently be 25,000 new jobs over 10 years, with “most being paid $150,000”. The job total may rise to 40,000 over 15 years. I can’t really see how this is a bad deal for the city. Sure, it could have been 6¢ or less — but surely the city’s tax take from income taxes earned from good paying jobs which didn’t exist yesterday is worth a lot more than that. And there will be tax benefits from the extra consumption of new employees. Even before this deal $2 billion had already been committed in infrastructure in the already growing area of LIC. Amazon is donating part of their site for a school. Of course Jeff Bezos doesn’t really need any subsidy, but all of the subsidies offered to Amazon are subsidies available to any company. In other words, according to the mayor, NYC refused to fashion any tailor-made incentives for Amazon. One can deplore the common practice of states and cities providing subsidies to bring jobs to their communities, but, if everyone’s doing it, refusing to take part obviously guarantees failure. City boosters who claim that even if NYC had refused to talk to them Amazon would have come here anyway are just whistling Dixie. If the purists had prevailed in their insistence that no subsidies should have been offered to a company run by the world’s richest man, the end result would no doubt have been that 100% of HQ2 ended up going to Crystal City or somewhere else. Seems like a reasonable sprat to catch a rather large mackerel.


This is the full text of an email received on the SHARP listserv in response to a request for members’ favorite statements by printers about printing.

My favourite has to be this take on ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ by the John Wilkes-esque proprietor/publisher/printer of India’s first newspaper, James Augustus Hicky of the Bengal Gazette.  The original spelling has been preserved.

The Printer’s Soliloqui – A Parody of Hamlet’s Soliloqui
To print – or not to print – that is the question.  Whether it is nobler for a man to suffer the threats and anger of the S-p—e C—n—l or to defy them and the B—d of 
C—m—e, and by opposing tease them!  But to stop to print – no more – and by that stept to end all quabbles, and the thousand cursed plagues a printer’s heir to – ti’s a consumation by cowards to be wished.  To cease to print my Gazette is perchance to starve – startling thoughts for in that idle state what cares may come when I have printed off my last Gazette, must give us pause – There’s the respect that makes the Bengall Gazette so long lived.  For who wou’d bear the insults of the time, the C—n—les frown, and D—es contumely – the pangs of weekly toil sorting types – laws array, the damn’d Post Office, and the spurns a patient printer of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make by breaking up his press, – who wou’d bow, and cringe, and fawne obsequeous at a Great Man’s Breakfast, but that the dread of this same cursed starving, that land of famine from whose fell gripe no victim e’er returns – puzzels the will, and makes the printer bear his present ills, and induces him to continue to print his Original Bengal Gazette than fly to projects that he knows not yet. – Thus famine doth make cowards of us all, and thus the boldest son of resolution … is sicklied o’er by such pale starving thoughts, and Bengal Gazettes of great wit and spirit without roast beef and claret, die away and lose their circulation.
From Hicky’s Bengal Gazette 16th-23rd December 1780.
The words only partially spelt out are Hicky’s “enemies”: the Supreme Council, the Board of Commerce, the Council again, and Mr. Simeon Droz who in November 1780 lodged a complaint against Hicky with the Governor-General Warren Hastings (‘The Great Man’).  The Post Office was ‘damned’ in Hicky’s eyes because in November 1780 it refused to circulate his weekly. Famine was very much on Hicky’s mind because in November 1780 a rival weekly The India Gazette began publication, threatening his livelihood.
Graham Shaw
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London


“To print — or not to print” sounds reminiscent of current debates about ebooks as against print books. Evangelists for ebooks who grasp at every straw in any wind, now see the prospect for paper price increases as the death knell of the printed book. I assume that just as happens every time we come up against cost increases — something we haven’t really experienced for years — book prices will ratchet up to compensate. So? Such is life: prices go up. As publishers control the pricing of their ebooks too, their prices will go up by a similar amount. Publishers would be nuts to ignore ebook pricing in any general price review. Very few are the people who think that God really wanted the Ten Commandments to be disseminated in digital form and that the world has been holding its breath for eons awaiting the total transformation of reading into digital reading. Of course another price increase for ebooks (which the evangelists know to be absolutely free to produce) will just encourage them to scream louder and longer. Scream on.

Richard Charkin is, I suspect and hope, being a little faux naif in retailing at Publishing Perspectives the story of his establishing his own publishing company, Mensch Publishing. “Could anyone tell me how many publishing companies are founded every year worldwide?” he asks, and immediately replies: “I don’t know and couldn’t find out, but I’ll lay money it runs into the tens or hundreds of thousands. The reason is that we think the cost of entry is not unreasonably high—or so I thought.”

He then takes us through ten or so steps, which together he says have cost him £20,000. He has high hopes for his one book (which publisher doesn’t?) and if they come anywhere near being realized should make a bit of a dent in his debt.

The title of his piece is “How (Not) to Start a Publishing Company”, and this may be the real source of my troubled reaction. Of course I’ve never done it, but I don’t really see how better you could start a publishing company — other than starting off with more than a single title which would have helped amortize some of that £20,000 (but would of course also have added more title-based costs).