Archives for category: Book publishing

125 books about Brooklyn may seem a bit excessive, but clearly the temptation was too great for the Brooklyn Public Library, who, in celebrating their 125th anniversary, have compiled just such a list.

Don’t want such a narrow geographical focus? Here’s the New York Times with “The 25 most significant New York City novels from the last 100 years“. This is an immensely long piece, so here are the 25 titles:

No Henry James? No Edith Wharton? Anyway I fear I have a bit of reading before me. Do we now look for the Queens Public Library system to pick up the gauntlet? It was founded in 1907.

Here’s a trip down memory lane for anyone who made their living Xacto knife in hand. The London Review of Books describe this as the “lost art” of paste-up. But I insist it’s not lost as long as it lives in my muscle memory. This sort of correction making was so satisfying — for reprint corrections we’d do it on a set of unbound sheets which I’d always insist we retained for every book we printed, for exactly this reason — so we could cheaply cut in corrections on a reprint. I’d put the tape on the back using it to adhere the bits of type to. I always thought tape over the top would darken up the image below it and make the corrected lines stand proud. (Of course I could suggest that we book people had to maintain a higher standard! But would that be too contentious? Maybe it’s just that the printers used by academic presses could be relied on to be more careful with fragile copy.)

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. This LRB paste-up video comes from Open Culture via Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I guess I always loved this part of the job because variety is what I always craved. You’re sitting there figuring out whether it’s going to be 10/12 Bembo x 26 picas or maybe 11/13 Ehrhardt x 27 picas, then suddenly you’re trying to get the printer to drop their price by a couple of hundred dollars so you can make your budget, and then you’re putting together a jacket design, now bitching at the editor that the ms is late, next a schedule needs tightening, then the total physical bliss-out of cutting in a few lines of corrections just as we see in this video. Variety: spice.

In 1964 UNESCO, an organization clearly craving clarity and consensus, defined a book as a “non-periodical publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in the country and made available to the public”. This definition is reproduced in Emma Smith’s Portable Magic, and I’ve been unable to find the UNESCO original. This leaves me speculating that the reference to “published in the country” is not an instance of prejudice in favor of rural publishers, but something to do with the start of the publication of their definition threshing around in an “in a particular country . . .” sort of formulation.

In one particular country, the UK, for tax purposes (books are exempt from VAT, so this matters) books will “normally consist of text or illustrations, bound in a cover stiffer than their pages. They may be printed in any language or characters (including Braille or shorthand*), photocopied, typed or handwritten, so long as they are found in book or booklet form.” As Dr Smith points out this definition means that for tax purposes the original serial publication of Charles Dickens’ novels would not have counted as books; and of course we can all think of books bound in booklet form which have a cover no stiffer than their text pages, so I would imagine the UK taxman is open to a conversation on the point. Even the first Highway Code wouldn’t have counted as a book. When I was a child, many a popular magazine was referred to by its readers as a “book”, and I suppose one just has to accept that a book is everything and is nothing — but we all know one when we see it.

See also What is a book? What is a word cloud.


* Never occurred to me that there might be books published in shorthand. (Wouldn’t they run the risk of coming in too short to count as a book?) However The Gregg Publishing Company published some — the website Wonders and Marvels tells us about them and carries links to a couple of examples in the Internet Archive. Here’s a spread from The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Can anyone under the age of sixty still read and write shorthand? When I started work there was a young lady always hovering nearby, steno pad in hand, awaiting the gems that might drop from my lips: that didn’t last long!

Anyone who likes this blog will love Emma Smith’s Portable Magic: The History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022; to be published in USA by Knopf in November with an appalling cover design.

Readers of this blog will find that almost all the subjects touched on in Dr Smith’s book have already been covered here, so they’ll be welcoming familiar tropes. I approached Portable Magic with considerable enthusiasm, assuming I’d find myriad topics to expand upon in this blog. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that not only were almost all the topics touched on by Dr Smith subjects which had already been discussed in Making Book, but Dr Smith had in fact covered them all in greater detail, at greater length, and much more skillfully than I had. If two people talk about the physical side of the book business inevitably they will end up talking about the same thing sooner or later.

As the author herself puts it “Portable Magic is an alternative, sometimes sideways, history of the book in human hands”. The title apparently originates from a memoir by Stephen King where he refers to the book as “a uniquely portable magic”. She adds, perhaps a bit contentiously, “And a book’s magic always inheres in its form, including that portability, as much as in its content”. She is not however in any way an enemy of ebooks and audiobooks.

The book has no illustrations; something which I regretted at several junctures.

Nevertheless I recommend the book unreservedly — it might turn out to be the sort of book which you will dip into from time to time, reading a chapter here and a chapter there. This disconnected connectedness is ultimately what appeals to me in the blog form. There’s no logical development required to take us from pixels to libraries, from book sales to paper supply; every day’s a fresh slate depending on little more than personal preference, even whim. Dr Smith’s book bounces about with a similar elan.

This legal interlude, fantasizing about library terms of supply, all provided a nice little flurry of fun. And now it’s over.

Publishers Weekly reports on the end of Association of American Publishers’ lawsuit against the State of Maryland about their law attempting to force publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at discounted prices. The judge decided not to bother to issue an injunction forbidding Maryland from doing this: that the “State never enforced the law and represents it will not enforce it in the future is an important factor bearing on whether the Court should take the additional step to enjoin the State from enforcing the Act. The Court has declared the Maryland Act unconstitutional and may reasonably assume the State will abide by the declaration.” I suppose if the State changes its mind and really tries to make publishers sell ebooks cheaply to libraries, an injunction can easily be obtained.

Now the court has ruled in favor of the AAP, indicating that Maryland, or any state, cannot just decide to override laws passed by Congress — in this case the copyright law — one can perhaps imagine that this would be the end of such legislation. But as Publishers Weekly told us in February “Library e-book bills are now pending in five state legislatures, MassachusettsRhode Island, IllinoisTennessee, and Missouri, and such bills have already passed unanimously in Maryland and New York.” Subsequently Connecticut joined the queue. The Governor of New York already vetoed that bill, and I don’t know where the other states stand, as well as any others who may have found the ebook bandwagon irresistible, but basic equity seems pretty clear. Prices are determined by the seller: if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

Now of course you can see why legislators would favor bills like this, whatever their chances of success. Makes them look like they are sticking up for the rights of their constituents without much chance of their having to do anything about it. But to me, any law or lawsuit based upon the words “reasonable prices” must be doomed: one man’s reasonable is another man’s exorbitant, is another man’s way too cheap. Pricing of ebooks for libraries still remains in flux: it hasn’t been all that many years after all. A solution needs to be negotiated not litigated or legislated or enforced. If librarians want their customers to be able to borrow ebooks, then the price they pay for them has (obviously) got to be a price publishers and authors are willing to receive. You can’t in any price negotiation say “This is ridiculous, I refuse to pay more than this much”. Well of course you can, but you have to expect your negotiating partner to walk away from the table, which just leaves you high and dry.

Let us take for an instant the extreme position — how damaging to the world would it actually be if ebooks could not be borrowed from libraries at all? To publishers? Not a bit: or if at all, very little. After all, the publisher would in theory rather that every reader should buy their own copy (even of a printed book — though of course everyone has bought in on the social desirability of a library system where barriers to reading are at least not financial). To authors? Maybe a little: it’s always nice to have another reader, even one who’s a non-buyer. To libraries? Maybe a bit annoying, especially if many people protest and start bending the librarian’s ear. To readers and library users? It’s just a matter of money. If I have to pay, will I nevertheless still read? Well of course that depends — and there always remains the free physical library book as an option. But in no way does the world as we know it cease to function if I can’t get a free ebook from the library. I am not advocating such a position. Nor is the publishing industry even thinking of such a thing, although it might reduce tensions between publishers and an important market segment.

Bite your tongue ye commentators, and be patient: a pricing solution will be reached. Surely it’s obvious that futile lawsuits are not a great way to win friends and influence your suppliers. I’m no lawyer, and have to assume that lawyers must have advised all these states that there’s some ground for proceeding, mustn’t they? — but just what ground that is I’ve no idea. Just because I wrote a book and people would like to read it for free, why must I be made to supply it at a cheap price to my local library? This doesn’t seem to me any more reasonable than that because eating is important to the public, farmers should be required to sell meat and milk at discounted prices. Now of course we have to recognize, yet again, that this “movement” is all based upon the erroneous “common knowledge” that ebooks cost nothing to produce! THEY DON’T.

In Libraries and ebooks I previously beat the drum of getting ebooks out of the library and having publishers “rent” them to readers.

See also Mandatory ebook licenses for libraries?.

The Freelance Isn’t Free Act has been passed by the New York State legislature, as Publishers Weekly reports here. New York City has had such a law since 2017, and this now extends protections to the entire state.

I find it quite hard to imagine that there are operators out there who are willing to use a freelancer’s work without paying for it, but apparently such businesses do exist. My own experience would suggest that payment problems for freelances would result more from incompetence than from malice. I tried always to process every invoice promptly — even if you are dealing not with an individual, but with the largest of corporations, there is a tendency on the part of suppliers to believe that being paid promptly is highly desirable. (At a minimum, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a printer who knows they are likely to have to wait months for payment of any invoice will be less likely to help out a customer with some special schedule or price break.)

One knows of colleagues who found processing invoices to be a burden. You’ve got to check the estimates and see that the charges invoiced match up. This isn’t hard, but it’s almost inevitably a diversion from what your main focus now is — the next book you’re on to. The invoice will arrive a week or two after the job’s delivered, and will have a pay-by-date a month or so in the future; so it looks like you’ve got time. Also if you find a discrepancy, you’ve got to ask what’s up — maybe that conversation was what many buyers shied away from, but you just have to ask, and after all there are errors in billing that can happen for the most innocent of reasons. So some buyers would resist invoice processing. One, having left the company, was discovered to have a large drawer full of unprocessed invoices, many months old.

But even if you can bring yourself to delay payment to a printer, how can you countenance stiffing a freelancer who you’ve probably sat with discussing the job when it was originally commissioned? The law calls for a contract — obviously it’s a good idea for both parties to know ahead of time what it is you expect to pay for this jacket design, that proofreading job or whatever. “The law requires . . . that those freelancers be paid by the agreed-upon date or within 30 days of the completion of the work.” We shouldn’t need such laws, but given what people are like it’s just as well that we do.

I wrote about Read & publish a few years ago, rather glossing over Publish & read.

These are in fact two different flavors of contract between academic publishers and scholarly libraries, designed to shift emphasis from subscription-based reading towards open access publishing. They have evolved because of the arrival on the scene of open access publishing (which carries a cost which has to be paid somehow). A read-and-publish agreement is an agreement between libraries and publishers in which the publisher is paid for access to their journals (reading) and for publishing in them in one single contract. A publish-and-read agreement is an agreement in which the publisher is paid only for publishing, the reading being included at no additional cost.

The Scholarly Kitchen has a piece from 2019 clarifying the difference between these two types of contract. They suggest that the long-term consequence of this new regime will be a situation where academic institutions no longer pay for access to published materials as they used to, but pay the costs of publishing it in the first place. In effect, it’s a recognition that it’s not fair that the government (the taxpayer) should pay twice for access to the results of academic research.

This is unfortunately a topic we all need to think about. We might like to think that libraries and academic institutions would not be potential targets for hackers, but it seems this isn’t the case. Seems ransoms can be raised in fairly unexpected quarters. A book manufacturer’s operations were recently paralyzed for a few weeks by what I believe was a ransom-ware attack. The Scholarly Kitchen brings us a warning that attacks on libraries and educational institutions are on the rise and now that there’s a war in Europe such activity, a Russian speciality, becomes ever more likely as Jisc warns (Jisc = the Joint Information Systems Committee, a UK digital resources company for higher education and research institutions).

I can’t help thinking that as far as digital books, and indeed all social media and internet dealings are concerned it’s still early days. I see us as stumbling around in the dark, a bunch of innocents wondering about what it is we should perhaps be looking at, more amazed than concerned — but give us bit of time and we’ll have a better understanding of what it is we are doing, and how we might better secure our communications. (We might along the way also discover how to make our ebooks more useful, less like books just dumped online, more capable of new types of usage as well as the old ones done better.) Of course by the time we’ve figured out security systems the wide boys will probably have moved on to more valuable and easier pickings — let’s hope, anyway.

Printing Impressions brings us a reflection on data security needs for printers.

Less book paper is being made — capacity reduction in free sheet, represents mainly capacity gain in packaging grades which are easier to make and thus more profitable. (Yet, chaotically, printers have difficulty sourcing cartons too.)

But even if, paper having been made, you can find it and buy it, it’s still hard to find a truck to get it where you might use it. “Last date for change” used to be a consideration: it really no longer really exists — the last date on which you can now change your quantity is the day you place your order, or even before, because you’re probably ordering what your supplier has told you you can have.

These graphics come from the recent New York Book Forum discussion “The Paper Pause”. Matt Baehr of BMI moderates a panel of Dirk Hiler from Lakeside Book, Meg Reid from Hub City Press, Jane Searle from W. W. Norton, and PRH paper buyer David Hammond.

If you don’t see a video here, please click of the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. The video takes a while to get going so you may want to drag along a couple of minutes to miss out of the generic “music” which fills the start.

I’m always a believer in the market’s ability to self correct. If there’s a shortage of x, the price of x will rise till such time as businesses that can provide x will flood the market in order to capture the surplus profit swilling about. That’s no doubt how it works, but it takes years to change direction for a business as capital intensive as paper making. Adding capacity takes time (and money) — as the Mr Baehr tells us “To greenfield a new paper millI today would take five years and $2 billion” so even if someone thought that the book paper market was worth going after, it wouldn’t help for a while. Doubtless truckers will rally to the flag before that as wages rise and the need to get out of the house becomes salient — the American Trucking Association’s chart just seems to me a far from disinterested forecast. But of course prices will rise.

Maybe we will have to be content with a world in which there is only one or two different book papers. A large publishing house today may use a thousand different papers: different shades, different finishes, different ppi counts, different roll sizes and so on. Rationalization and standardization is a-coming: I’ve expatiated before on the silliness of insisting of trim size variations of ⅛” here and ⅛” there. The supply chain will enforce such self-discipline.

And of course it’s not just books. Here is Printing Impressions showing us that the same difficulties face commercial printers where price increases tell the story. In another piece they point out a classic antidote to supply problems: pay your bills on time. How many publishers have failed to pull that arrow out of the quiver? Nobody want to discuss it, but you know that for years publishers who payed their bills late always had difficulty getting decent schedules: why not go further and offer earlier payment as an incentive for better schedules?

Freightwaves assures us that supply chains are never going to return to normal. (Link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Well of course they are right — yesterday’s normal can never be tomorrow’s too; change is constant and unavoidable. They do allow however that with all the labor and logistics problems automation will ultimately ride to the rescue. Can we expect to see goods being whisked along conveyor belts running beside our rail and highways?

The Scholarly Kitchen reported last year on the initiation of the Association of University Presses’ Global Partner Program, whereby expertise of member presses will be shared with university presses in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Perhaps it’s the charm of distance affecting the view, but I seem to become more and more ardent in my belief that the university press is the paradigm of what a publishing company ought to be. One could argue that they do exactly the same as commercial presses with the lack of profit-making. But it’s more than that. University presses need to make profits, and do — it’s just that a not-for-profit company doesn’t pay that profit to shareholders, but uses it to fund future operations. The terminology is important: a not-for-profit company is not a non-profit company: its raison d’être is just not profits. Perhaps in not having someone pushing to maximize profit your operation can avoid the excesses we think we see in trade publishing. Maybe it’s just that taking the overwhelming money-motive out of the picture leaves just the essentials of getting a book from author to reader. Because university presses often tend to be dealing with books of importance but small demand, and are not themselves rolling in money, they have over the last five hundred years had to develop super-efficient methods of survival. Having painfully developed over the years a bundle of techniques about how to survive in tough economic circumstances existing presses have acknowledged a duty to share this with as wide a range of newer presses as possible. The AUP’s Global Partner Program is clearly “a good thing”, if not a moral obligation. I hope it is a success, and develops more and more.

A statement of what a university press is may be found here. It always struck me as inspiring that we published stuff because it was good, useful, and valuable, not because it’d make money. (Though nobody minds if it does that too.)