Archives for category: Book publishing

D. Eadward Tree, author of Dead Tree Edition, has published a post celebrating ten years of live trees, entitled A Decade of Delusions. (The link comes via Publishing Executive.) Although Mr Tree’s focus is on the magazine business, what he says has relevance for the book business too.

The delusions he points to are:

  1. There’s a magic formula for 21st century publishing – we just need to figure out what it is.
  2. Web publishing means posting your magazines’ articles online.
  3. “Video is the next big thing.”
  4. The big publishers will join together to fix the newsstand system because that’s the only option.
  5. Print is dead.
  6. Legacy publishers must go all-digital to succeed on the web.
  7. Digital editions will revolutionize publishing.
  8. The future belongs to the big, sophisticated publishers.
  9. Some kind of postal reform must happen soon.
  10. Advertisers hate free copies.

We all overrated the impact of the digital revolution both on the positive and on the negative side. It’s proved neither doom nor bonanza; it’s just another format now, one that permits us to do things print wasn’t able to, but an addition to our quiver, not a total transformation.

BoingBoing brings us the exciting news that the University of Michigan Library has acquired a book made up of pages consisting of plastic-wrapped American cheese slices. One suspects that library patrons will not be allowed to take out this volume, for fear that it might fall victim to the lunch menu. The book is one of an edition of ten produced by Ben Denzer, whose earlier works include “200 one-dollar bills arranged in serial number order, and a tiny volume of Chinese restaurant fortunes”.

If librarians store the cheese book carefully they can probably manage to keep the book worms and library mice at bay. Do libraries feature freezers?

Link via The Digital Reader.

The Publishers Weekly table lists the top 53 publishers worldwide by sales.

I also copied and pasted this table last year, and wrote about the 2014 list. By and large there’s a recovery, partial or complete, from the dip in revenue in 2016.

The Daily Campus, the University of Connecticut newspaper, tells us that several Pearson textbooks were out of stock at the beginning of the semester — which is exactly when an efficient and huge textbook publisher would aim to have them there in abundance. Textbook publishers move heaven and earth to ensure that their books don’t get into this position. Huge sums are invested in creating textbooks and missing the starting gun is a disaster. Teams of workers meet almost daily to ensure that every bit of the project gets completed on its crazily tight schedule. Because a successful textbook will print often and long, printers will commit to the moon in order to land the job. Many new textbooks are printed in a smaller quantity in the summer so as test the waters in the fall semester, with the full printing already scheduled as a potential reprint to take place once the results of sales campaign become evident, and the book is known to be a success.

The article doesn’t tell us why Pearson’s books were not available, and there’s some sort of implication that it was all down to electronics. But can this be printer backlog caused in part by paper shortages?

I would imagine that the problem must have been taken care of by now, but I can’t find any mention on-line.

From our roof we can see the dome above the onlie begetter of this business in America, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. It’s in the middle of this picture, just to the left of George Washington High School* (in Manhattan) whose spire dominates the scene. Follow the classic pediment in front of it to the north (left) past those trees, and just at its end and level with it there’s a pale green blob. That’s the copper-covered dome, across the Harlem River in the Bronx. For fans of the city, that’s Co-op City in the hazy distance, almost at the north-eastern edge of NYC. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was opened in 1901, and usually is just called The Hall of Fame. Wikipedia has a list of the 96 bronze busts of famous Americans you can gaze upon. There’s room for 102, so hope springs eternal. 1976 is the last time anyone was inducted: no doubt because of the bicentennial. Didn’t someone recently talk about making Americans great again?

As a Brit I think of Halls of Fame as a uniquely American mode of commemoration. However the Bronx Hall of Fame was allegedly modeled after the Ruhmeshalle in Munich and the Walhalla memorial in Bavaria, products of Ludwig I’s reign. The Hall of Fame was built on New York University’s Bronx campus. In 1973 under severe pressure during New York City’s financial crisis NYU had to to sell the campus to City University of New York. (New Yorkers will be surprised at what that says about the relative positions of NYU and CUNY in 1970s.) The campus has now become the Bronx Community College.

There are all sorts of Halls of Fame for you to visit. Wikipedia will tell you of the rich variety of family pilgrimages you can mount. They range from The Diecast Hall of Fame (unfortunately just a Las Vegas event not a place) to The Walk of the Stars in Mumbai. Not that Wikipedia lists them, but we can be proud that there are publishing halls of fame. I don’t think these are places you can actually visit and muse on the wonders of our industry, but there are at least two: The Publishing Executive Hall of Fame and a newly inaugurated Hall of Fame sponsored by Digital Book World. A Google search will bring up a Self-Publishing Hall of Fame too. The Publishing Executive Hall of Fame ought properly I guess be presented as The Publishing Executive Hall of Fame, as it is the creation of the magazine, Publishing Executive. Perhaps if you visit their offices you can pay your tribute to those who have gone before us, but their website doesn’t allow you to see a list of inductees. I do know one, which is the only reason I’m aware of its existence.

The only halls of fame I’ve visited are the original at the Bronx Community College, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. A visit to Cooperstown offers the sublime/ridiculous option of attending an opera at Glimmerglass after going round the Hall of Fame and the Farmers’ Museum. It was also of course James Fenimore Cooper’s home town. An exciting bonus is provided by the fact that Cooper is in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Additionally I have both run and biked up and down the Bronx Walk of Fame, which is essentially just the southern end of The Grand Concourse with a bunch of markers attached to lamp posts. Enough, enough.


* Famous alumni include, Harry Belafonte, Henry Kissinger, Alan Greenspan, Rod Carew, Manny Ramirez and my wife. Only one of these is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Shortlisted titles for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018. From left, top row ‘The Baghdad Clock’ in its English translation by Luke Leafgren; ‘The Critical Case of ‘K”; ‘The Second War of the Dog’; and ‘Flowers in Flames’. From left, lower row, ‘Heir of the Tombstones’ and ‘The Frightened Ones’

The shortlist for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Short Fiction is delivered to us by Publishing Perspectives. These are their covers. And the winner was Ibrahim Nasrallah, the Jordanian-Palestinian author of The Second War of the Dog, second from the right in the top row. The  large symbol in the bottom right corner is the logo of the Prize itself which is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation.

One problem restricting the growth of book publishing in Middle Eastern countries is that apparently many modern Arabic books are written in Modern Standard Arabic, a formal variant of Arabic which is rarely spoken and is quite hard to learn. Think of reading Robert Burns’ poems — relatively straightforward to a Scots dialect speaker,* but a struggle for others. Or as another parallel imagine that all books in “English” were written in a form of 17th century Cornish. Always were, and always will be. While we’d all no doubt have been put through some sort of Cornish instruction at school, most people would doubtless find themselves unwilling to make the effort to read more than a few books, and a bestseller would probably show numbers only in the low thousands. Actually of course we only have to go back a few hundred years to find an analogous system in operation in the European world. Once upon a time all books were written in Latin. I am absolutely innocent of any knowledge of Arabic, but I dare say Modern Standard Arabic is closer to the different Arabics spoken in various countries, but the comparison is I think helpful. It isn’t perhaps too amazing that reading in Arabic-speaking countries is not a mass activity. I would think that publishing in local versions of Arabic must be getting more popular.

The Economist has a little piece on the difficulties of publishing in the Arabic-speaking world. Apparently Middle Eastern nations only have by and large only recently started to think about copyright laws, so piracy is quite common, which makes the book industry a precarious catch-as-catch-can chase. Here at  Hyperallergic an Israeli publisher, Resling Books, justifies recently publishing without clearing any rights a collection of stories by 45 women from 20 different Arab-speaking countries as follows “When you translate from English, you deal with norms, you have a subject and you ask for rights. We as a publisher do it all the time, and we never publish foreign works without permission. It’s different in the Arab countries, where there are no publishers.” “No publishers” is of course a bit of hyperbole. More publishing houses are being set up all the time. Here’s a report on Middle Eastern Book Fairs this year.

The Millions on the other hand explains to us Why we can’t have Arabic books in America. It’s just hard to buy a book in the original Arabic. The writer, seeking to buy the Arabic text of the 2010 IPASF winner, got book-jacked twice — paid a dealer on Amazon who offered the book but in reality had no stock and very little ability to acquire any — and was unable to order direct from the publisher in Beirut/Baghdad, nor from a middle eastern dealer. Another problem in the Arabic language book trade is censorship as this piece from Quartz tells us.

Translation of Arabic originals is a better bet perhaps, and is increasing steadily. Publishing Perspectives sends us several links: one outlining the general difficulties of publishing Arabic books in translation, another telling of a UK-UAE Partnership, another of a new translation imprint, Hoopoe Press, another an interview with a UAE publisher. The Literary Hub is running a series on Arabic Fiction. Here’s No. 5, on Short Stories.

I’ve been reading  Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (usually referred to as Fariyaq). It’s an odd performance for the middle of the 19th century. It’s a sort of Tristram Shandy-esque tour de force, metafictional in its persistent focus on the mechanics of what the author is doing. One doesn’t expect a book published in 1855 to kick off with a couple of pages of words for different types of sexual intercourse, but preserving words is one of Fariyaq’s passions, and you are going to get taken along with him on his journey through many many lists. Formal structures dictate chapters in different literary modes, repeating at regular intervals. This 2-volume “novel” is part of New York University Press’ Library of Arabic Literature. The White Review offers an extract.


* Later: Atlas Obscura has just delivered a nice piece on the survival of Scots.

Trying to measure chaos sounds like a good, if difficult idea in any chaotic business. The chaos in the chaosmetric tag refers however to its mode of creation, not anything it might be measuring. Chaosmetric technology generates a unique, one-time-only tag. As there’s no human intervention in the generation process randomness and unreproducibility are guaranteed, thus making the unique identifier proof against counterfeiting and forgery. An example of this technology is Bubble Tag™, produced by Prooftag. One advantage of chaosmetric tags is that they are cheaper than RIFD tags and can just be printed on paper and stuck into the book. They look rather like a QR code.

The chaosmetric tag is being deployed by textbook publishers in an attempt to defeat the pirating of their content. Cengage Learning, apparently, estimates that counterfeiting costs their company between $70 and $100 million annually. Book Business Magazine brings us a link to a Publishers Weekly story about this issue.

The difficulty with the use of such a tag to authenticate a textbook as genuinely coming from Cengage or whomever is not the tag technology however. Any one-time use code can work fairly well. No doubt, as Prooftag claims, a chaosmetric tag is impossible to duplicate. To me, the problem is that if faced with a “genuine” textbook at $100 and an alternative at $50, identical in every respect except for that chaosmetric tag, I doubt whether my moral fiber would be robust enough to turn down the bargain. The ability to effectively protect the digital materials accompanying the book may, as the PW article suggests, be enough to provide a partial solution. But the digital materials need to be more than supplementary. Phygital Book,* which Cengage is using for this purpose, seeks to protect both book and digital originals: if you don’t have a valid code you’ll not be allowed to access the digital materials accompanying the text. If you click on the picture of the phone on the Phygital Book webpage you’ll see a rather halting video about the way this works. I dare say the chaosmetric tagging will probably help, but I’d bet students can find a way to share a single digital access and still save money by buying second-hand or illegally reproduced books. Even if tests were only available via the chaosmetric tag, can one really expect professors to fail students whose test papers don’t chaosmetrically scan, or even to scan all papers to see if they carry the right access permission?

Still, the poor textbook publisher has to try to do something to stop their business seeping away.


* The link seems balky. If it doesn’t work, you can see the same video at YouTube using this link.

Whether the results of scientific research should be made available free of charge or not, there is an awful lot of it. This isn’t utterly amazing given the expansion in universities, and the progress we can see possible in many research areas. Stanford Medicine’s blog Scope raises the question of whether it’s possible to have too much science publishing. From the sidelines one would assume that you can’t really ever have too much data. But it seems that some smart people have figured out that publishing the “results” of experimentation brings larger rewards than actually bothering to do the research. A few scientists appear to have become wildly productive. Dr John Ioannidis describes these problematic cases thus “Hyperprolific authors are those who publish so many papers within a short period, that many other scientists would find it implausible and rather unfeasible. These are full papers, excluding editorials, letters, or notes, and publication is happening at a rate that’s equivalent to publishing a full paper every five days.”

University World News carries another article alerting us to the problem of too much academic research being published. The authors, Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit, are mainly targeting the poor old journal: beset from all sides, but amazingly still hanging in there. For years publishers have been worrying about the demise of the journal as a publication medium. Relying as it does on the good will of already busy academics reviewing articles without remuneration, the basis of the journal medium has become open to question as costs in all areas have steadily risen. Maybe we just can’t think what else to do, even though the arrival of digital media did for a while provide the appearance of a beacon leading towards — whatever you’d like to wish for.

In a related story Science Magazine tells us about editors resigning because of pressure to publish more substandard work. The Economist weighs in warning us of a tsunami a-coming carrying vast amounts of open access science papers.

It seems to me that we must almost be tottering on the edge of a radical change in the way academic work is evaluated and published. If open access turns out to be the norm, maybe the onus on deciding whether this or that research is any good will move from the gatekeeper to the consumer. If everyone who looks at a paper adds a comment about their reaction to it, we might arrive at a sort of TripAdvisor regime, where caveat emptor rules. This is obviously inconvenient for researchers, but if we reach a point where peer review as we know it becomes untenable because of volume, time pressure, economics, and cynicism some alternative will have to be found.

And, lo, here carried by Nature comes good old AI riding over the hill to save us all by providing a way to read this flood of information without having to waste any of our time doing so. (That’s Artificial Intelligence, not sheriff Alfred.) If AI can really tell us what’s worth looking at, then peer review and careful editing perhaps become less important.

See also Peer review, and Open access like it or not.

The Guardian has a little controversy going on as a result of George Monbiot’s piece, Science publishing is a rip-off which amounts to a claim that knowledge really does want to be, and furthermore should be, free. Guardians of balanced debate, the newspaper has published a follow-up consisting of reactions to Mr Monbiot’s article. In the original piece the author touchingly tells us of the expense involved in his researching cancer treatments after his recent diagnosis: but is it not the case that what Sci-Hub saved him from was nothing more than the bus fare and hassle of going to a decent library with subscriptions to all the journals Sci-Hub has ripped off, and reading the papers in question there?

I’ve gone on about the open access issue before, and think that the question doesn’t have a single clear-cut answer. Like any simple formulation of a complicated idea, “information wants to be free” appears to say more than it really can. Too much depends on who’s asking the question, in what context, and what specific meaning is attached to individual words.

It’s undeniable that there’s a logic to the argument that since we all paid for this piece of research through government funding of research and/or universities, we ought to be allowed access to the results without further payment. Leaving aside the issue of private funding of research, the problem comes with the mode of that access. Most academics are modest enough to understand that their writing is at best serviceable for internal discussion, and at worst, incomprehensible to the general public. This isn’t usually a problem, as the traditional journals to which academics submit their papers will all have editors and copyeditors who will, in theory at the very least, whip incomprehensible prose into as elegant a shape as possible. Worried about factual errors? Fear not, peer reviewing will take care of such problems: unknown colleagues will quietly read, check, and approve your work. Which is all very good, and valuable. And costly. Someone has to do this sort of work, and someone usually likes to be paid.

The Economist, reporting on developments in Europe, jumps into this discussion with a piece called The S-Plan diet. Plan S is an agreement among eleven European countries requiring scientists who benefit from national funding to publish only in freely available open-access sites by 2020. This would prevent papers appearing in about 85% of current journals, including the most prestigious. It now looks like the European Union is racing down the legislative track of freedom for info. Now, we can all be relied on the deprecate the hefty prices put on journals by the likes of Elsevier, everyone’s favorite bête noir in this world, but that doesn’t do much good. We can all (I think) recognize that there are costs involved, we just don’t agree on how much of a margin over and above those costs, whatever they may be, the publisher should be allowed. We just believe that the profits are too damn high. The world of open access has tended to take care of these costs by publication fees charged to the authors when they submit the paper. The European legislation seeks to cap these fees, but nobody really knows how much of a fee is too much, and how low fees could go before publishers give up. Naturally, of course, many open-access sites have figured out that there are rich pickings to be made in charging publication fees as high as the traffic will bear, which is often a surprisingly large amount with academics doomed to publish or perish.

For a simple direct assault on the fat-cat publisher, see Aaron Schwarz making his case at Academic publishing scandal.

It’s hardly surprising that independent booksellers should feel frustration and powerlessness in the face of discount-granting publishers. Publishers not only get to determine the discount they’ll give, but also set the retail price off which that discount is granted. But, while I’m sure it’s never easy balancing your books, surely this piece from Publishers Weekly by bookseller Jonathan Platt can be said to miss the point that costs have gone up for everyone not just for bookstores.

Unfortunately we live in a world where neither bookstores nor book publishers function as public charities or quasi-governmental organizations. I dare say arguments in favor of such a situation would prevail in Utopia, but unfortunately we are doomed to deal with the here and now. We regularly hear how publishers should be giving authors a better deal. The same argument applies at both ends of the publishing supply chain: most books just aren’t selling as many copies as they once did. Publishers can keep their income up by simply publishing more of them, which doesn’t help bookstores any, nor authors other than those who can churn out multiple volumes each year. Now we should admit here that publishers’ margins have improved a bit over the past year or so: but surely no business owner would suggest that any improvement in profitability should immediately be passed on to customers. If this were to go on for a longer period, who knows?

The way retailers can counteract overhead cost increases is to increase sales revenue. Some of this happens just because the prices of books go up. Obviously 47% of a $29.95 novel is more than 47% of a $6.95 one — the price at which Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969. (See How to boost your sales?) No doubt it’s frustrating that you as a bookseller have no control over the price of these books, and while it’s quite legal to charge more than the face price of a book, it requires considerable intestinal fortitude to set such a policy — in the face of on-line discounting this might also be suicidal.* To the extent that price increases for books march more or less in step with price increases for everything else, this is perhaps of little comfort. (I would argue that trade discounts have in fact grown since Portnoy‘s days: perhaps not as much as Mr Platt would like, but grown.) Real revenue enhancement unfortunately has to come from selling more books or other stuff, or doing the job with fewer people. Harsh perhaps, but the same reality is faced by the publisher and any other businesses.

Be it noted that many independent bookstores are having success in achieving just these ends, and that we are in fact living through a time of bookstore growth. Heck, even Barnes & Noble opened a new store in Maryland last week.


* I wonder if any good would come of changing the pricing policy for books. Mr Platt justly identifies discounting by big-box and on-line stores as a large issue. His implication that this was a sort of general policy decision by publishers is of course not correct. If someone offers to take a huge number of copies off your hand, you may be liable to offer a discount: I dare say if you went into Nonesuch Books & Cards and asked to buy 100 copies of Fear, even Mr Platt might be willing to cut you a little bit of a deal. I would imagine that if publishers were to attempt to fix discounts to big retailers on an industry-wide basis this would in fact be an illegal restraint of trade. But would it help if publishers were to cease establishing a retail price and selling to bookstores at a discount from that price, and change to selling at a net price — more or less half of what their retail price is today? Bookstores would then be able to set whatever price they wanted, and might perhaps then be less at risk from losing sales to discounters? Not sure that’d be so. I expect what would happen would be a flight to the lowest price available from say Amazon which anyone can discover instantly on their iPhone.

While our current system may not be perfect, it does, I suspect, function better than any achievable alternative.