Archives for category: Book publishing

I have often paid tribute to publishers’ ability to sell a book in the face of free competition. The fact that The Mueller Report is #1 on Amazon’s Bestseller list is striking evidence of this — on the day after the report was “published” and made available on-line free of charge. The fact that the same title is also #2 on the list and #3 drives the point home emphatically.

Open Culture reports the story. And these Amazon orders are pre-publication orders. The print industry is quick, but one day is not enough to see books delivered to warehouses. Probably these orders are mainly displacement activity: by buying the book you’re showing how strongly you feel.

A PDF of the free text may be found here, courtesy of Politico.

Everyone in publishing just knows that women are the ones who buy books, especially fiction books. It’s just one of these pieces of common knowledge that everyone accepts without ever really thinking about it. (Have booksellers have been asked about this? Amazon of course must know, but probably isn’t telling.) Here’s a piece from The Washington Independent showing confirmatory results about male/female reading and book buying from a 2018 survey, although it was only a “survey of over 2,400 people from around the world”.

We are often assured that ladies were the main consumers of fiction in the nineteenth century: see an earlier post on a Lancashire book club. I do think the claim is largely true despite obvious exceptions to the rule: for instance many mathematicians are male and have been known to buy a book or two, and probably most of the people who buy Wisden’s Almanack are men, though copies may often enough be purchased for them by mothers, wives, girlfriends etc. (Note however that the most recent edition features a female cricketer on the cover: they’ve been rather more successful than their male counterparts in recent years.)

Perhaps boys just enjoy running around making noise rather than sitting quietly reading a book. I would certainly have had to plead guilty to this charge. One should note however that of course there have been lots of books directed at the male child, and many have been very successful. Biggles was a huge British case in point. In America The Hardy Boys are surely meant for an audience of boys, similarly Captain Underpants.

I often go on about how publishers are merely the agents of their authors — taking the manuscripts these authors bring to them and preparing them for sale to an eager public. But of course, not all publishing follows that pattern. There are significant bits of publishing where the authors act more like freelance employees and write at the direction of the publisher. Children’s books are often created this way. I worked for a few years at a company where we churned out books for pre-teen girls, all notionally written by a couple of celebrity siblings, but in reality written by a team of professional writers paid a fee for their work. The books were created by and printed by this book packager, and then the finished books were sold to a large publisher who’d sell them through the book trade — and sell them very well: first printings were usually 150,000. The game came to an end when the “authors” started quite publicly doing non-pre-teen things like going out on dates, and having a general good time at college. I never thought it was the pre-teen readers who abandoned these books; it was the aunties and grandmas who refused to lay down their money for the benefit of such “badly behaved girls”.

Tying your books to a celebrity is a tried and true way of guaranteeing a good sale, but obviously carries the risk of the celebrity losing their popularity, or in the case of kid’s books, simply growing up. Of course, other strategies exist: don’t tie your heroes to living people, and they can remain the right age for ever and ever. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys exemplify this trick. Crime Fiction has a story (link via Literary Hub) about such branded series.

I may never have wondered about the gender distribution of book buyers and readers, but the OUP blog has, and makes a fist of explaining the phenomenon of apparent female bias. Turns out that the real question should be Why do girls outperform boys on reading tests around the world? In the end it seems to be because we apparently arrange things so that they’ll be this way. Psychology Today tells us about a recent survey that found that on average parents spent 3 minutes more daily reading to a girl than to a boy; and this grosses up to 100 hours a year. It’s not nature: it’s all nurture. We appear to want our boys to be reluctant readers. Or to put it the other way, we think boys should all be running around shouting!

The humanities monograph may be under threat because of the increasing fashionability of STEM subjects, but the whole kit and caboodle of academic communication is under a rather more general threat. In fact it might appear that the biggest threat to academic publishing could be Open Access. If people have to be allowed to free-of-charge access any research funded by the government, one might imagine those publishers who’ve always managed to eke out a living by publishing this stuff at a small profit might end up getting shafted.

I remain more sanguine than many. It seems pretty much accepted by everyone that there are indeed costs involved in making research material available to an audience wider than the person in the next door office. Here’s a link to Springer Link bringing us an editorial from International Journal of Clinical Pharmacy about the costs involved. The existence of these “fixed costs” is obviously not news to anyone who’s worked in publishing, and rail as they may members of the commentariat cannot shout the evidence away. It costs something: and that something is what know-nothings like to think of as academic book publishers’ fat and obscene profits. Oh that they ever had been obscene, or even slightly rude!*

At The Scholarly Kitchen Roger Schonfeld and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg commented on the recent Ithaka S+R U.S. Faculty Survey and its implications for academic publishing. Unsurprisingly perhaps there’s widespread support for the idea of Open Access especially among younger faculty; as why wouldn’t there be? The good news for publishers is that there does seem to be an awareness of the value brought to published research by the publishing community.

Faculty Survey responses arranged by age group

Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press, in her interview referenced in my recent post on the humanities, does identify Open Access as a looming issue. But she remains non-committal about the whole thing, maintaining the wait-and-see attitude which is really all we can do. The issue isn’t just one of publishing: the whole system of academic assessment and hiring is tied up in the same bundle, and the solution will have to involve all the elements. Things will no doubt work themselves out — keep cool and see what happens before making any binding decisions.


* Elsevier‘s £1 billion (almost) profit for 2018 does qualify this I guess. 37% profit is amazing. But journals do seem to be a better bet than books. Does this mean that the subscription model is likely to be adopted for monographs?

Springer Nature has just published its first machine-generated book, Lithium-Ion Batteries: A Machine-Generated Summary of Current Research. I did get a Tweet the other day telling me the book was really boring — but hey, guys, what were you expecting with a title like that? If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you’re interested; if not, not. The Bookseller carries the story (linked to by Book Business Magazine).

They tell us “The creation of the book involved the development of a state-of-the-art algorithm, called Beta Writer, to choose and process relevant publications in this field from SpringerLink. Based on this peer-reviewed and published content, the Beta Writer arranges the source documents into coherent chapters and sections and creates succinct summaries of the articles. The extracted quotes are referenced by hyperlinks which allow readers to further explore the original source documents.”

Although the Luddite community will doubtless regard this as apocalyptic, I see nothing wrong with machine-generated text. People often describe the work of checking through journal after journal looking for references as “mechanical”. Well, it is; and we should really be happy that we’ve now gotten a machine to do mechanical work for us.

Nor is this really a first. In 1973 I worked on a computer-generated concordance: Complete word-indexes to J. van den Vondel’s Bespiegelingen van Godt en Godtsdienst and Lucifer with ranking lists of frequencies, reverse indexes and rhyming indexes, edited by P. K. King. The only real difference is that back then the raw data (Vondel’s texts) was input by humans before the computer did its analysis, while Beta Writer scanned the data which presumably was already there in someone’s computer. The analysis on Vondel was less sophisticated, yes, but it was all done by a computer. Impressively you can still buy the book from Cambridge University Press: who’d have imagined Vondel’s words would have been in such enduring demand?

1665 portrait of Vondel by Philip de Koninck

Joost van den Vondel (1587 – 1679), a Dutch poet and playwright was notable for converting to Catholicism in his fifties. He was a strong advocate for religious tolerance, perhaps not too surprising for a Catholic in a strongly Protestant country. His working life began managing the family hosiery store in Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam. I was happy to recognize the name when once I ran into a park in Amsterdam and discovered it was called Vondelpark.

Michael Massing’s piece of this title in The New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily is noticed by The Passive Voice.

Traditionally defenders of the humanities have taken the high road: the humanities “promote self-discovery, breed good citizens, and teach critical thinking” as Mr Massing puts it. Personally I think that kind of seals the deal, and no more need be said. College humanities enrollments may be down today, but they are of course much higher than they were fifty years ago when a much smaller proportion of the age cohort went to university. So over the long term what’s really happening is that more people are choosing to do a STEM degree (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and this is surely a good thing. The closure of a few humanities departments is to be regretted for the sake of the people who thus made their living, but doesn’t amount to any kind of crisis in supply.

Maybe one can attempt to measure the effectiveness of university study by comparing the earnings of graduates in various disciplines. Mr Massing tells us that “the median annual earnings for engineering grads is $82,000, compared to $52,000 for humanities grads” and this is less than upsetting to me. Not everyone is motivated solely by money, and it would be a serious error to base public policy on the assumption that they were. This does however seem to be exactly what our politicians are bent on doing in their attempts to save us from the consequences of the 2008 crash. Maybe once we get past populism and the Brexitization of everything we will be able to bring a calmer, saner brain to bear on the issue.

In his piece however Mr Massing takes the low road, if one can call it that. He goes industry by industry pointing out how much value has been created by boobs with mere humanities degrees. Many have made masses of money without ever having studied a STEM subject — can you believe it? Anyway, if  grasping the highest possible starting salary was really what university education was all about, shouldn’t we favor courses not in the sciences but in finance so that all graduates can make those fabulous Wall Street fortunes?

This STEM tide doesn’t seem to have greatly impacted the output of academic publishers. The humanities monograph remains the focus of much of their concern. Most university presses would love to publish more science books. They tend to be priced higher, though they are often more expensive to set, but that’s not why fewer are published. It’s always been hard to persuade science professors to sit still long enough to come up with a book-length manuscript. They tend to spend their lives rushing out shorter papers reporting on their research. The humanities work a bit differently, so expatiating at book length on your favorite topic is a favorite pastime of the serious humanist. Nowadays selling monographs of any flavor gets harder and harder. Here’s Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press sharing the pain in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I say that the fewer copies we print of a book the higher the retail price will have to be; but as long as publication and the sharing of research remains a part of the academic process, a way will (have to) be found to afford the cost. Apart from the immediate post-World-War-II period, when you could sell anything in relatively vast quantities, monographs have never really been anything other than a minority interest carrying an inevitably high price. Sure, if they were cheaper more might be sold (or perhaps not, since part of the “problem” is the splitting up of disciplines into narrower and narrower specialities each with fewer participants) but when all’s said and done if the material is worthwhile people will feel the need to know about it. Just because this may be a bit different from what we grew up with doesn’t mean it’s awful. It’s certainly not terminal.

On the topic of the humanities and the purpose of a university education Jeremy Mynott recommended Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For (Penguin 2012) in a comment on an earlier post of mine on the threatened humanities.

When I was an undergraduate I took a job in the summer of 1962 selling encyclopedias door-to-door on U.S. military bases in Germany. It was on the way home from a two-week camping holiday organized under the auspices of the UN Association where we took about 25 displaced kids from their refugee camp in Austria to an idyllic spot up an precipitous track in the mountains somewhere between Leoben and Graz. The almost vertical dirt track was so awful that it crippled our van, which finally expired on the way home, and was abandoned by the roadside in northern Italy in the Quinque Terre along the Ligurian coast. We killed a few days sleeping on the beach in Riomaggiore before heading to Heidelberg where we were due to meet a highly motivated fellow student who had an in with this American encyclopedia publisher. This was going to make us enough money to pay for the entire summer.

I often claim that the public is generally innocent of any knowledge of who publishes any particular book, and this is borne out by the fact that I haven’t the faintest recollection of the name of the publisher of this set of encyclopedias, nor of the title of the set.* I know it was printed in four color throughout, and I suspect that if I saw an illustration or two today I could probably identify the set. We were expected to persuade innocent GIs, and their wives, (never speak to the wife alone was rule number 1; never leave without clinching the deal was number 2) that the future happiness of their kids depended on their caring parents providing them with this important set of books, which could be obtained by making a sequence of easy payments. We were trained in the morning and let loose on our prey after lunch to visit senior NCOs in their married quarters. I suspect we didn’t start till late afternoon in order to be sure both husband and wife would be present. The company supplied all sorts of materials showing off the wonders to be beheld by lucky owners of these books, as well as a sort of flashcard set which would guide us tyro salesmen through the process. The first (and last) family I visited were really nice — can’t remember where they hailed from but I think it was rural rather than some famous big city. As we talked I liked them more and more and began to worry about whether this investment was really one that such nice people should be making on the limited pay their bread-winner was no doubt getting: much more important to put food on the table. In the end I told them they probably shouldn’t spend that much money for encyclopedias, and skedaddled. I had to return the ton-weight of selling materials and sample books, but managed to learn the valuable life lesson that sales was not the area for which I was cut out.

It’s been years since the Fuller Brush guy last knocked on my door, but door-to-door selling lives on. A company called Southwestern Advantage hires students as independent contractors to spend the summer selling educational books, software, and college prep materials. Their main product, a set of books called Southwestern Advantage, looks very reminiscent. Of course in my day there was no computer element.


*My fellow salesman, Julian Blackwood, who has a better memory than mine, (also a better sales record) tells me, in response to a draft of this piece, that the publisher in question was Compton’s. This would be Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia and Fact Index. By then the Encyclopedia had newly been bought by Encyclopedia Britannica (in 1961). It came in 20 volumes. The first edition, published in 1922,  was entitled Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia and came in eight volumes, and was unique in its emphasis on illustration. This double-page ad for the 1962 edition is, if you click on it, frustratingly close to being readable.

Compton’s would be competing head-on with World Book, I guess. I wonder if Britannica bought them for the ability to sell door-to-door (by which I really mean, reach a less “bookish” audience), or for the library of illustrations. I’d suspect the former motivation, and wonder if they came to regret their purchase as the market wasted slowly away, even if Southwestern Advantage shows us that it’s not totally vanished.

OK, it’s short, and it may take you longer to queue up to get it for free than it’ll take you to read it, but who wouldn’t like a free short story from one of the three vending machines which have just been put up at Canary Wharf? The Guardian brings us the story.

Here’s one at the station, where it looks like it may risk getting in the way of rush-hour commuters.

Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I noted these machines a couple of years ago. According to another Guardian story, the same French company, Short Édition, is the one supplying the machines. They have many installations around the world: you can find a map here which you can enlarge to see where to go to get your stories. New York’s a desert: the nearest are the three machines in Boston and three in the Philadelphia area. (You can, it seems, also read the stories online at the Short Édition site.) Obviously someone has to pay for these machines, the writing, the paper, the maintenance. Another Guardian story tells us “The cost is borne by businesses, which are encouraged to install the machines as a way of improving customer experiences and preventing people from getting cross or bored.” Well, OK. Let’s hope these businesses continue to think it a good idea. I’m not expecting the New York subway system to spend part of their anticipated windfall from congestion charging on short stories. Inevitably they’re not even going to be getting enough fully to replace the 100-year old points. Maybe we need a wealthy commuter.

Here’s a promo video showing Francis Ford Coppola getting on board — but, more importantly, also showing the machine in operation.

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

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link.

Healthy Holly has certainly racked up some healthy sales figures. But they may just have been a consequence of overdosing. The Mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh, author of these books, self-published them at various times between 2011 and now, though there seems to be uncertainty about just how many titles there have been. Three can be seen here: A Healthy start for Herbie, Fruits come in colors like the rainbow, and Exercising is fun, though pictures may be found online of Vegetables are not just green and Walking with my family is fun. This last is no doubt just a proof.

The bonny bouncing sales were made to organizations like the University of Maryland Medical System on who’s board the author sat at the time of the sale of 100,000 copies at $5 a pop. Now I suppose one can see a scenario in which this would be acceptable — the board says “If only we could find some little colorful books to encourage kids to be healthy” and Ms Pugh pipes up “I’ve got just the thing, and could easily bang out a couple more” to which the board says “Great, let’s do it”. Maybe at that point someone might have suggested a possible conflict of interest problem, but I can certainly imagine a good-will-all-round situation where this would be basically OK. But clearly it wasn’t. Ms Pugh is quoted as saying that the deal with the medical system had been a mistake. “I am deeply sorry for the lack of confidence or disappointment which this initiative may have caused Baltimore city residents, friends and colleagues”. And by paying back $100,000 Ms Pugh signals to us all that everything was not on the up and up with this deal. There are reports of many books languishing in warehouses, and it might seem that the accounting process has been altogether vague. It turns out that other board members of UMMS may also have been engaged in apparent self-dealing. Insurance was one example mentioned by NPR’s Morning Edition today.

Mayor Pugh is taking a leave of absence having been struck down by pneumonia. That she is a Democrat is perhaps not irrelevant in light of the Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s involvement. He has written to State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt “These are deeply disturbing allegations. I am particularly concerned about the UMMS sale because it has significant continuing ties with the State and receives very substantial public funding.” He has further tweeted (something Republicans seem intent on bringing into the political mainstream) “The people of Baltimore are facing too many serious challenges, as it is, to also [have] to deal with such brazen, cartoonish corruption from their chief executive”.

The Baltimore Sun now reports that the State Prosecutor is opening an investigation. Their story includes video coverage.

Is this a first? A full-blown political scandal revolving around the publishing of books. We generally just get to bring out accounts of this sort of thing, not to be the very mechanism driving the scandal. We can stand tall now we find our industry coopted into a story of alleged malfeasance.

The Wall Street Journal reported the story. (Link via The Passive Voice)

Well the baseball season is a day or two old already — it started a couple of days earlier than usual this year. Here’s a nice tweet from Joe Esposito to mark the opening of the new season.

I’m not sure why we’d need a question mark following the word coincidence. Yes, of course it’s a coincidence, though it is a striking one. We don’t after all spend much of our time in front of the TV watching the International Journal of Middle East Studies being put together.

All those misery-guts commentators who go on about how publishing is doomed, might spend more of their glooming and dooming time focussing on the future of baseball — at about $10 billion, major league baseball is only the size as the academic journals subset* of the publishing industry! There are indeed a couple of major league publishers involved in academic journals but most of the activity is generated by minor league publishers. (Extending the metaphor, one might see self-publishing as an upsurge of local baseball/softball leagues in the parks.)

The comment below Mr Esposito’s tweet is not altogether unexpected, though I suspect grounds crew, laundry staff and beer sellers may be more in the publishing salary range than the superstars we read about. It is of course true that a top left-handed reliever will out-earn the best of editors, whether left or right-handed. A journeyman out-fielder too I guess. Still someone working on a journal may find that their career can last longer than a ball-player’s, so lifetime earning power may look a bit more even.


* Claims like this always make me nervous: one wants to check them, but where to go, and how are we to judge the basis on which every claim is made? Of course Mr Esposito doubtless knows, and his academic journals figures can be trusted. It must be a world-wide number too.

Notice of an exhibition about one of the foundational texts of social anthropology is delivered by HyperallergicThe Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians by Franz Boas and George Hunt was published in 1897, and, in the way of anthropology monographs, remains relevant to this day. These books are ageless: they provide a record of social structures which may no longer exist, and are our best insight into how societies were structured in the past. Bronislaw Malinowski, W. H. R. Rivers, A. R. Radcliffe Brown, Margaret Mead et al provide accounts of societies which no longer exist in their original pre-contact form, and their books will be being read by students of social anthropology for ever. They can’t be superseded, and whatever shortcomings one may regret in the interpretations made by individual researchers these monographs remain primary evidence. I had to read Boas (or at least consult the book) as an undergraduate. The potlatch and the images associated with Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous culture remain irresistible to students.

George Hunt was not credited on the title page. His contribution is noted on a sort of half-title following, where the book is described as by Boas “Based on Personal Observations and on Notes Made by Mr. George Hunt”. Hunt was a member of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw community, and his great granddaughter, artist Corrine Hunt has collaborated with the curator of this exhibition which highlights the role of the book in stimulating and rebuilding Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture. Apparently in the early 1920s George Hunt corrected and expanded the book. Hundreds of pages of unpublished revisions were stored away in archives after Boas’s death in 1942. These materials and others are being combined back into the book in a digital edition being prepared by Bard College and the U’mista Cultural Centre.

The Story Box will be running at The Bard Graduate Center on West 86th Street in Manhattan until July 7th.