Archives for category: Book publishing

. . . went up 21% in the second half of 2020. Publishers Weekly shares the joyous news.

The information comes from The Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey.

Of course we should be happy about so much more reading, but during shutdowns what else was anyone going to be doing anyway? And, just to keep us grounded, if not fully buried, the report goes on to confess “The data shows [sic] that reading of all kinds increased from just under 17 minutes per day in 2019 in the same timeframe to just over 20 minutes in the comparable period last year.” Hardly enough time to open the book and find your place.

And prepare to be depressed when you discover that the survey shows that television watching increased during the same time period by 19 minutes for an average total of 3.1 hours a day. Think how many book sales that amount of time spent reading might imply. Still business is booming on 20 minutes. Thank you.

Reporting on an Oxfam survey of readers’ preferences as between ebooks and printed books, Study Finds tells us that only 16% of the (2,000, UK) respondents prefer an ebook. They admit that “over a third of respondents (35%) enjoy buying paper books because that allows them to proudly display them on their bookshelf as a background during Zoom meetings.” (Link via The Passive Voice.)

This seems to me to be highly suggestive sign of our times. Behavior in online meetings is still evolving. Making a good impression is obviously an important element — we have to break into a house-cleaning frenzy before any such online dates. You want folks to think you are on top of things, and of course, really smart. It was ever thus: a potent motive for your book collection has always been the casual displaying to your amazed visitors of the breadth and depth of your interests. I remember my ex-boss surveying our bookshelves as he walked into my apartment — “Ah ha, I see you’ve got a first edition of The Cantos” he intoned after a couple of minutes of silent scrutiny before he could even be introduced to anyone else. (I didn’t and don’t). But you can’t help checking out a bookcase-full of books, can you? In our dining-room one wall is covered in bookshelves, and there always seems to be someone with their gaze apparently fixed in the middle distance ignoring everyone else, screwing up their eyes to read yet another title. I’m often sneaking a look at my fellow travelers’ books on the subway; not that I care, but it’s just interesting to know what others are reading. And seeing a book you helped make being read on the A train is a huge dopamine boost. Encountering a Kindle or an iPhone makes such snooping almost impossible. This might even be advanced as another reason to disparage ebooks!

Now that so many television broadcasters have been working from home it’s become obvious that they spend a good deal of care and attention fixing up the bookshelves which appear behind them. It seems to have become acceptable (though personally I wonder) to display your own recent book face out right behind your left shoulder. A nice little vase of color-coordinated flowers is another popular element. And some really abstruse academic tome is often a nice touch: oh, he cares about Boolean algebra! I spend a good deal of time trying to identify their books, though Public Television’s fuzzy-screens, designed to make everyone look less old, do tend to make this tough.

I wonder if publishers have twigged to the product-placement implications of all this. We pay for bookstore premium space, as in end-caps and front-of-store tables, so why not during the television news? And broadcasters can of course figure out that their workers don’t have to be working from home in order to have interesting, revenue generating products peeking over their shoulders.

One does have to be wary about talking about sales growth this year as compared to last. Last year’s book sales did end up strong, but at the beginning of the pandemic the book industry was in shutdown chaos. That the recovery was so quick and so strong is impressive, but makes year-on-year comparisons difficult. Compare the first six months of 2021 with the first six months of 2020 and what do you think the outcome will be? Comparing the first half of 2021 with the first half of 2019 would be a more meaningful thing to do, but of course that’s not what we usually get.

Here’s Publishers Weekly‘s graph (based on BookScan data) showing various scenarios for 2021 sales outcomes: consensus is they’ll be up by 2% or 8%, or some number in between. The thin dotted black line at the bottom is 2020’s performance. Bear in mind these “numbers” are percentage increase over the previous year, on a week-by-week basis. You can see that last year the rate of sales declined (went below the zero line) in April/May, and then made steady improvement for the rest of the year, as the retail book trade figured out means by which people could pick up books kerb-side and so on. Somewhat sickly, it seems the book industry’s prospects may be tied to the pandemic prospects — the more shutdowns the better for books sales!

Via Technology • Innovation • Publishing, here’s Velocity of Content, the Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast, telling us that sales of graphic novels have surged in 2021, growing from 9.3% of adult fiction sales in 2020 to 20% this year. I believe that a comparison like this of the break-down of the total sales rather than just the gross numbers does have the potential to be meaningful. Velocity of Content does tell us that “Unit sales soared 178.5% in the first six month of this year. With 16.2 million copies sold, graphic novels are now the second-largest adult fiction subcategory.”

I wonder if this apparent move towards graphic fiction represents a growth in the overall book market with the addition of some “reluctant” readers, or whether long-time fiction readers have moved over to the graphic format? BookScan does suggest that the sales increases in graphic novels as well as in Young Adult fiction (another booming category) may indicate the participation of more young people in the book market.

Graphic novels tend to leave me a bit huh-huh, but in general terms, what makes so many think them so great? BookMachine‘s article (linked to by The Digital Reader) gives one woman’s answer — which doesn’t really nail it down for me. But there’s no question; they are quicker to read! From a production point of view these books seem to have become a kind of fetish object. Although when they were first published many comics were fairly crudely printed on newsprint, it seems that when we put them between book covers we have to lavish 100# matte coated paper on them and insist on the solidest of solid blacks (rather hard to achieve given the originals) as well as precise color matching. Seems like a part of the market may be a dilettante, collector group: almost an art book audience.

Apparently “The word ‘graphic novel’ first appeared in 1976 on the dust jacket of Bloodstar by Richard Corben (illustrator, USA) and Robert E. Howard (author, USA)” as Guinness World Records informs us. Britannica gives the palm to Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, 1978. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference comes from 1964 though. However what goes around always comes around. Even before Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, and the birth of the printed book, there were “graphic novels” galore: stories told in pictures carved into wood blocks and then printed. See Block books for an example (not a novel, it’s true) dating from 1474. More recently, in the nineteen-thirties, Lynd Ward made several graphic novels, six of which are available in a boxed set from Library of America. Ward takes the medium to the extreme, eschewing words! And of course, almost everyone of a certain age must be familiar with Classics Illustrated and their ilk which, for me, certainly fall within the definition of graphic novel, even if they were adaptations to the medium.

Still, even if they aren’t exactly the latest thing, we should rejoice that graphic novels are enjoying sales success.

A dramatic gif visualization of the shift of focus in 2020 of the scientific community’s virus research may be found at (Thanks to Sid Huttner on the SHARP listserv for the link.) Around 80,000 coronavirus-related articles were added to PubMed Central in 2020, a 1,600% increase over 2019. According to Nature, one database puts the number of coronavirus papers at more than 200,000. Many papers were posted as preprints — i.e. before peer review — though there is as yet no evidence of any greater proportion of withdrawals than normally.

Many publishers also made covid-relevant books available free of charge.

The Scholarly Kitchen brings this story by Todd Carpenter about the origin of the ebook, an event which took place fifty years ago already. The Declaration of Independence went online on 4 July 1971, having been typed in by Michael S. Hart. Thus began what turned into Project Gutenberg, masterminded by Mr Hart.

Michael S. Hart. Photo: Wikipedia

Project Gutenberg, a wondrous resource, has more than 60,000 works freely available. However “Project Gutenberg is hardly the world’s largest free book repository. The Internet Archive, by comparison contains some 2.3 million texts. HathiTrust contains 8,415,795 book titles.”

John Thompson’s The Book Wars recounts the recent digital revolution in the book business. This Scholarly Kitchen review suggests that academic publishing has blazed the trail through the digital developments, and that trade publishing is scrambling to catch up.

Nobody can doubt that the ebook has established itself as a fundamental part of the publishing scene. Contrary to many a commentary, publishers are not reluctant to sell ebooks: they are just reluctant to give them away in an unrestricted way. Clearly we have yet to work out what the right method of supplying ebooks to libraries might be. The conflict is between the “right” of readers to be able to borrow books from their library unrestrictedly, and the “right” of the author (and of course the publisher) to be remunerated for their work. From the reader’s perspective an ideal world might be one in which you could log on to your library’s website and borrow a digital version of any book you might want. After all, with the limitation that there has to be a copy there, this is how it works with library borrowing of physical books. When a publisher sells a physical book to a library they accept that the library will be able to lend this copy to as many people as want to see it, and can keep on lending it till it falls apart and they need to buy another copy. Doesn’t work like that with an ebook. Sell a library an ebook file and an infinity of readers can borrow it free of charge, simultaneously and for ever. Publishers want to sell ebooks to libraries, though some of the rhetoric you see might make you think the opposite. They just don’t want to sell ebooks to libraries in a way which is tantamount to making the book generally available free of charge online. A compromise is needed. Maybe we’ll get one.

As usual academic books present a completely different scene. Print sales of monographs continue to decline, and may well vanish fairly soon, in step with inevitable (and much needed) improvements in the digital presentation of academic material online. It’s possible, even probable, that the digital format will become the only format for the academic monograph; (though it will probably make sense to set your monographs up for print-on-demand manufacture too). However scholarly materials are usually accessed digitally as part of a subscription bundle — e.g. Oxford Scholarship Online. OUP’s Annual Report for 2021 tells us they have gotten 25,000 books online. This sort of subscription business just isn’t an easy option for trade publishers. While academic publishers do publish many individual ebooks, the bulk of access to monographs (and journals) tends now to be via a subscription by the institution. But note that, in round terms, according to the AAP’s monthly sales figures, university press print book sales came to about $3 million, while ebooks accounted for just $700,000. Where, if at all, subscription revenue for online collections was includes is not clear.

Writing before the pandemic Niko Pfund and Mandy Hill (of OUP and CUP) wrote in detail in The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall protected) about the evolution of the monograph. OUP and CUP’s joint report on the use of the monograph shows that the format isn’t going away and that its salvation seems almost inevitably to involve digitization. As open access becomes more and more desired (and available) the key question becomes who’s going to pay the costs of publication.

If sales are booming in 2021, so too are signings. Publishers want to do more books and authors seem to be full of pent-up content.

According to Publishers Lunch of 8 July:

HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray told an investor conference in June that the publisher is, ‘Being aggressive in terms of buying books. We’ve seen the book pie grow, maybe 15 percent. And so our response, which is part opportunistic and part defensive, is to be aggressive in buying right now.’ Our exclusive analysis of deal transactions in the second quarter of 2021 confirms that behavior, across the industry.

In the first quarter, US deal volume was 19 percent higher than a year ago (and 21 percent higher than the recent four-year average). For the second quarter, deal volume again registered 18 percent higher than a year ago, and  23 percent higher than the recent four-year average.

This time, the biggest gains were in adult fiction. Deals in our traditional fiction categories were 27 percent higher than a year ago, while the smaller group of fiction sales to digital publishers rose 38 percent. (Combined, all fiction sales were up almost 30 percent). Children’s deals continued to grow, as they have steadily year over year, up 15 percent.

Clearly we expect book sales to continue strong. See the bar graph below the increase in signings over just the second quarter:

Not only has the number of deals increased, so too has their size. However, in that bar chart below, that right hand column would probably be larger in any case if more books were being signed up, so this effect may not be as dramatic as it looks here:

I wonder how much coronavirus-diary sort of material there may be in these numbers of new signings. Not too much I hope: if every major publisher signs up one of them we’ll quickly be overwhelmed — and most of the books will thus fail to wash their face, which won’t be good for hopes of continued expansion.

Whatever the merits of Cory Doctorow’s piece on publishing, extracted at The Passive Voice, the Passive Voice‘s commentary is way beyond nonsensical. He informs us that “Traditional publishing simply has not been able to make the transition to an internet-dominated book sales channel” — which means what? Odd coming from a quarter which constantly carps at publishing for being in thrall to Amazon. Still, where animus reigns, look not for logic.

He continues, on a different tack: “Traditional publishers are simply not able to hire and retain very smart people. Does anybody at the top of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher? Does anybody at the bottom of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher?” Nobody of course could possibly object to the opinion that the only smart people in the world are Wharton MBAs! I cannot swear to the Wharton bit, but I’ve certainly worked alongside plenty of MBAs in the past. The thing about MBAs and publishing is that publishing isn’t your normal money business: sure publishers make money, but money’s not the main point of the whole operation, so what MBAs are primarily fascinated by is not provided by publishing in a big way. On the other hand of course some might suggest that MBAs are just smartish people who lack the imaginative spark to do anything other than hide behind spreadsheets and mind-numbing numerical detail in order to look like they are contributing. Not me, of course!

Often have I claimed that publishers all too casually hire inexperienced smartypants and let them loose on the real stuff right away. If they’re truly smart they’ll work out what’s the right thing to do (ask if in doubt is the basic rule); if not, they can always be replaced. In some respects publishing employees are just too smart: everyone has an opinion about everything, and the opinions are usually quite good, so there’s a temptation to keep the debate going for ever and never get to a decision. I remember tumult over whether the type on a book’s spine should read from the top to the bottom or vice verse: this went on for weeks and had finally to be resolved in an afternoon-long meeting.

You might sidestep this Passive Voice prejudice by going straight to Mr Doctorow’s original piece at Medium

Why do people insist on writing this sort of stuff? The book world described by Mr Doctorow is a largely fictitious world. “Every part of the publishing supply chain has undergone radical concentration over the past 40 years, starting with consolidation of mass-market distribution in the 1980s.” But there are more publishers out there today than ever before. He goes on to tell us Penguin Random House, after the proposed merger with S & S might be referred to as “Viking-Putnam-Berkeley-Avery-Ace-Avon-Grosset & Dunlop-Playboy Press-New American Library-Dutton-Jove-Dial-Warne-Ladybird-Pelican-Hamish Hamilton-Tarcher-Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-Knopf-Harold Shaw-Multnomah-Pocket-Esquire-Allyn & Bacon-Quercus-Fearon-Janus-Penguin-Random House-Simon & Schuster”. This I suppose he counts as one. Yes, they have the same ownership but who worries about the integrity of football or baseball because the ownership of Liverpool Football Club and the Boston Red Sox is the same? These imprints all compete with one another for content: they share services of course, but anyone looking at Multnomah’s list will easily be able to distinguish it from Dial’s. Besides, nobody not in the business gives a hoot about who the publisher of the book is, or what corporate structure they are part of. Doctorow’s analogy with the health-care industry is interesting but irrelevant. Does anyone imagine that Random House is buying Simon & Schuster in order to raise the price of books? Until there are only a dozen or so books available nobody will ever be able to monopolistically raise book prices. The product of the publishing industry is millions of discrete items. It’s not like insulin which you need to keep on taking. Once you’ve bought a book that’s it: you’re not in the market for another copy.

“The decline in the author’s share of the pie is directly attributable to a decline in competition among publishers” is rubbish. On a book-by-book basis the authors’ and the publishers’ share of the pie has remained pretty constant. Nobody’s paying 2% royalties. On a macro, industry-wide basis, the authors’ share has declined because most books are not selling as many copies as most books (from a much smaller universe of books) used to. Many, many more slices are being cut from a slightly larger pie.

“If you don’t get a job at Macmillan, Harpercollins, Hachette or Random Penguin, then you have been rejected by every major publisher” sounds terrible, but I managed about 45 years without ever working for any of them. Maybe they would have rejected me: I never asked. (I did for a short while work for a company which was owned by Simon & Schuster/CBS, strangely omitted from the list, but rejection was never what I felt.) Having told us “There were a lot of startups . . . but apart from some religious publishers, the only one that attained liftoff was Amazon” he goes on to admit “Today’s publishing landscape boasts a very exciting mid-tier of publishers” which although he says they are doing great things somehow fail to make any difference when it comes to criticizing the industry for its boring monopoly status.

Simplification is often a virtue, but Mr Doctorow is way beyond simplification when he tells us “there’s still just one brick-and-mortar chain, one dominant electronic bookstore, four major publishers, and one major distributor. The mass market is dominated by four or five big box retailers”. The book trade is much more varied than that: what about scientific, technical and medical publishing; university presses; journal publishers; academic societies; lots and lots of start-ups; independent bookstores;

Though he publishes successfully with a variety of publishers, Mr Doctorow’s lengthy piece all adds up to an appeal on behalf of self publishing. There are lots of reason’s for someone to opt for self publishing, and many writers are very successful at it: but disdain for a caricature publishing industry which, as described, has never existed isn’t the most solid basis on which to proceed.

I know “everyone” thinks digital reading is the future of publishing (I just don’t happen to agree) — but print is certainly hanging in there. These charts compare the performance of print book sales over the last three years.

Topline American market performance for the week ending July 3, 2021, with 386.8 million units year-to-date and an increase of 60.1 million units year-to-date over the same period in 2020. Image: NPD Group

The arrival of a swallow or two should never be allowed to declare a change of season, but so far this year we do look to be in for a banner year. This is of course to some extent conditional on our being able to navigate our manufacturing capacity problems, but at this stage we begin to look set for a record year. Snarky commentators love to sneer that publishers just want to kill off ebooks, and that this sort of statistic just goes to show how good they are at that. (Funny that the only thing they think publishers are good at is stomping on the ebook.) But of course publishers don’t really care which format you buy, just so long as you buy. Numbers like these support the contention that most book readers prefer a printed book. Publishers really aren’t clever enough to make people want things they don’t want: we just provide the things they desire.

The Publishing Perspectives post from which this BookScan diagram comes, also shows performance by category.

Here’s a beckoning rabbit hole.

The CIP data for Martin Amis’ Inside Story tells us that this book is to be classified as Autobiographical fiction, making reference to GSAFD. What on earth is GSAFD? You can look it up! It stands for Guidelines on Subject Access to Individual Works of Fiction, Drama, Etc. It is an ALA (American Library Association) cataloging classification system, realized in MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging, a system developed in the sixties at the Library of Congress). At WorldCat we can find this helpful-ish direction with regard to Autobiographical fiction designation, “Use for works in which the events in the writer’s life slightly disguised are presented as fiction. Samuel Butler’s The way of all flesh is an example of autobiographical fiction.‏” But we learn at Marcive that Library of Congress Genre/Form Terms for Library and Archival Materials (LCGFT), is replacing GSAFD. Keep up. Got to pay attention.

Once upon a time it was enough to just publish a book and trust to the ability of booksellers and readers to be able to work out if it was a history book, a biography, or a novel. The way of all flesh even managed to find its place without anyone being told to classify it as Autobiographical fiction. Then we dreamt up computers and you had to tell the damn things what the book was really about. (Forget all those ideas about computers being better at figuring things out than we are: they’re really dumb: you have to tell them everything. Maybe we’ll get to a point where artificial intelligence will enable Amazon to read every book, and classify it infallibly. But don’t hold your breath.) Thus were invented BISAC subject headings (Book Industry Standards And Communications). You get to choose from an ever growing list of options the subjects which best describe you book: for example here are the 43 options for Biography and Autobiography.

In the meantime it behooves you to be alert and rigorous with your metadata. After all, BISG (Book Industry Study Group) have just issued an updated list of subject codes. You want to be sure that anyone showing even the slightest interest in, say, Autobiographical fiction gets your book thrust before them.

If you love acronyms, please see my earlier post Acronyms.

Oops: easy to get dizzy with this stuff. LCSH stands for Library of Congress Subject Headings.

That’s what we in the book making game call most anything in a book which isn’t type: the book’s graphic component. Obviously a four-color reproduction of the Mona Lisa qualifies as art, but so too do all photos, however gross and unattractive they may be. Any graphs, pie charts, bar graphs, diagrams of the digestive system or whatever, genealogical charts, drawn maps — all drawings in short, are also art. We tend to call this stuff line art, in order to differentiate it from halftone art, which is the photos.

The word art is here a contraction of artwork, which is what we might call it if we were being a bit more formal. I believe we might commission artwork from a graphic artist, and once we had it, talk of it as art. The art for the book, collectively speaking, is the art program. The copyeditor, or an editorial assistant will tape a little label to the back of the piece of art, positioned so that it shows from the front at the bottom. This is the art label and will carry the ID number for that piece of art. The same person will compile a detailed listing of the art program including the ID numbers. This list is called the art log, and will travel with the manuscript as it progresses through the system (along with, one hopes, all the various pieces of art). There’s an unfortunate tendency for bits of art to be late in arriving, perhaps because the author can’t get permission, or the draftsman’s running late, but even absent art must be included in the art log. This art log will include directions as to the prominence or treatment of various bits of art — full page; may bleed; lighten up; must fall on same opening as text reference on msp (manuscript page) 237; crop this or that bit (cut off — well no cutting is done, here we just mean “do not include”); and so on. At some point someone, probably a designer, will size the art, and the sizing information will be entered in the art log too. To size art you indicate what reduction (or occasionally enlargement) factor should be applied to the original in order to make it end up the size you want it to be. In other words, you don’t say “make it as wide as the text” you either mark it “63%” or indicate the final dimension on the edge of the piece of art, with a couple of tick marks showing the limits. Sizing (and cropping) is often shown on a tissue overlay. We would aim to keep original art in the same condition in which we received it: occasionally you are dealing with a valuable piece. (Nowadays of course, with our end-to-end digital workflows, things are naturally rather different.)

The most elaborate bit of art in the book will probably be the jacket art. This will be just the picture used, without any of the type showing title, author etc. When these elements are combined, you are looking at the jacket mechanical.