Archives for category: Book publishing

Robert McCrum seems to be an inexhaustible list builder. Here’s his ongoing list at The Guardian of the 100 best nonfiction books written in English. He’s up to number 97. Reading this lot represents a serious commitment, but on you go.

He introduces the series on a BBC podcast which can be found here. His interview starts at about 22 minutes in.

A couple of years ago I reported on his 100 best novels list.


What the commentariat often fails to understand is that book publishers are not in business to encourage e-reading. Ebooks represent, to a publisher, just a different format in which their books might be supplied. For a publisher the ebook is no more “desirable” than the paperback, the hardback or the audiobook. It’s just another way to supply content.

Here’s a piece from GoodEReader, in which the question is asked “Why do ebooks cost so much?” Might as well ask, as no doubt lots of people do, “Why do books cost so much?” I have written about the pricing of ebooks quite a lot (see Index to all posts): no doubt that’s because it has frequently been a topic of discussion out there. What most people get misled by is the obvious fact that when you buy an ebook there’s self-evidently no material there, no evidence of work like printing or binding having gone on. It is true that after a book is published if nobody ever buys a copy the publisher will not have incurred any more cost for an ebook, while there is already a pile of inventory cost sitting in a warehouse in the shape of printed books. But just because there’s no marginal cost in selling an ebook does not mean there’s no cost. Imagine a book which costs $5,000 to write, edit, design, layout, proof etc.. Let’s say every copy of the print edition costs $2 for paper, printing and binding. The ebook, obviously, costs $0 for its physical output (maybe there’s tiny electricity bill and some marginal computer cost, but let’s just say $0). If you published the book only in ebook form, you would not price it at $0 — clearly you still need to recover that $5,000, so you have to guess how many copies you’ll sell and divide the $5,000 by that number so that you can eventually cover the cost of creation. So this means that if the book were to have been a print book, sold at $25, the ebook could stand being published at $23 with the same gross profit (after all it costs $2 less to manufacture). Actually the math makes the difference more than that, so let’s call it $20 for the ebook. You can argue of course that publishing at a lower price will increase sales. And that is true. Unfortunately, except in the rarest of cases, it won’t increase sales to the extent needed to bring in the same budgeted amount of revenue*. In this regard the idea is a bit like trickle down economics: as a policy it has never worked.

The whole basis for the struggle trade publishers undertook with Amazon a few years back was a fear that Amazon was on the way to accustoming customers to an ebook price of less than $10, something which would have had disastrous consequences for the example quoted. At the time it looked like ebooks might continue to gain market share so that eventually publishers would end up locked into a pricing model which prevented them from ever publishing in the first place. One of my earlier posts from 2013 illustrates the point. Now we are much more relaxed about the “threat” of ebooks — indeed I think you could say publishers are now more likely to view the ebook as an opportunity rather than a threat. Relevant is also the fact that early ebooks were all conversions from print books, so that all the upfront costs were already covered by sales of print books. But loading all the costs onto the print edition isn’t a viable policy. Sure it’ll work in this case or that case, but ultimately, if print does go away, customers would be faced with huge price increases in their unsupported ebooks.

Self publishing really needs to be analyzed as a separate business. Of course an author can stimulate vast sales by pricing at $1.99. I can attest that that price in and of itself can also lead to minuscule sales. Will all books eventually end up being self published? Could be; and I do think it’s easy to see this as happening in those areas where maybe it is already happening, such as genre fiction. I think it’s a lot less likely in the case of the majority of books which, being directed at more specialist audiences where the quality control function of the gatekeeper is valued, tend to be overlooked by the commentariat.


* Another pundit problem is guessing at sales numbers. Just about the only sales numbers the public hears about are the big, exceptional ones. Nobody is out there boasting about books which fail, and publicizing their pathetic sales numbers. Sorry folks, most books are not bestsellers.


An author recently asked “There’s no copyright in covers, is there? So I can just photograph one and use it as a slide in my forthcoming lecture?” Well, you probably could use a cover as a slide in a lecture, but that’s not because it doesn’t enjoy copyright protection. Depending on the lecture it might be regarded as fair use, though if it was a talk to a Wall Street firm for which you were receiving thousands of dollars, this might become less clearcut. The lecture in this instance was fairly formal, and I suggested that the author just hold up a copy of the book to make his point and thus avoid the potential “crime” of photographing it and “publishing” that photo. Reproducing a cover in a book or magazine would unambiguously require permission. Consider the fact that many book jackets come with their own © notice — e.g. all Library of America volumes.

 I suppose there might be a fair use defense for my use of this cover picture, but it might be a bit tortuous. The real reason* NOLO is (I hope) not going to come after me is not because I’m not making free use of a copyright object, but because publishers generally find reproduction of their book covers to be a good thing, bringing their publication to the attention of hordes of new potential purchasers.

There are actually two or three layers of copyright protecting this cover: the design is copyright, the photo is copyright, and the form of words used on the cover is copyright (but not the title and subtitle). All three aspects may vest with the one “owner”, the publisher. If the designer did the job as a work made for hire (which they would if it was part of their job, or if their freelance agreement specified this) then the contractor would own the copyright. The same might be true of the photo: and as the same image has been being used on successive editions of this book, this may well be the case. The cover copy would almost certainly be written in-house, and thus be work made for hire.

If NOLO wants to shout “Noli me tangere” at me, I’ll take the picture down.


* Apart of course from the harsh fact that they are unlikely ever to become aware of it!

Academic authors like to have offprints — little booklets consisting of just those pages in a journal on which their own article appeared — so they can give them to colleagues, especially those whose work has helped them in their own research. Nobody can afford to buy copies of the entire book or journal issue for this purpose. In the olden days, before digital printing made a publisher’s life so easy, we used to run on a few copies of each journal issue, so that they could be left unbound, cut up into individual pages and reassembled as offprints. The offprints tended to become less and less elaborate as the years went by. They might have had a little cover in the early days — in very classy journals, they might have been reimposed, given a new pagination sequence, and made up into proper little mini-books — but latterly they’d tend to be just a bunch of loose pages wire stapled down the spine margin. They might even come with the last page of the previous article or the first of the next incorporated, though this of course created problems for these other ones, so you’d have to run on even more sheets than if your articles all started on a recto. In order to facilitate the offprint process journal articles will tend to repeat bibliographic information on the first page of every article. This has nothing to do with the needs of the journal issue itself: it is so that the copyright notice will appear on each offprint on its own.

Collaborative book volumes, collections of papers on a single topic by a group of academics, can be regarded as effectively nothing more than single-issue journals bound in hard covers. As academic publishers never like to pay much for articles to be published in multi-authored volumes, the convention grew up that part of the author’s remuneration would be the provision of similar offprints. And they would be handled in exactly the same way. This meant the production people would have to remember to buy extra paper and tell the printer to add x number of copies to the ordered quantity for the book itself. Such specialist academic volumes are usually straining at all the limits of their budget anyway without some dumbhead’s error leading to a costly instant reprint in order to fulfill the offprint requirement.

Nowadays of course offprints can be done whenever and in whatever quantity desired by being run off on a DocuTech or similar digital print engine. Just another way computers make our lives easier.


The recently closed Bronx store.

Barnes & Noble announces that they are going to focus on books! And all we ignoramuses thought that B & N was  a bookshop chain. I always assumed that bookstores went in for stationery, music, coffee and all the other frills and chachkes because the margins on almost anything were better than on books — where we all know that meany publishers have been starving bookstores for ever! If that’s the case, would giving up the frills really help the bottom line?

The Passive Voice shares these extracts from B & N’s recent Second Quarter Earnings Conference Call commenting on their recent losses.

  • “As a result of the improving trends, we will continue to place a greater emphasis on books.”
  • “There’s too much stuff in the stores.”
  • “definite shift in strategy”
  • “Our goal is to get smaller.”
  • “Through customer research, we discovered that customers come to Barnes & Noble not only to browse and discover, but also to interact with our booksellers. This is a big takeaway for our store managers from a recent conference.”
  • “We remain laser focused on cost reduction initiatives that are centered on realizing efficiencies and simplification.”
  • “And while we’re not ready for prime time yet, I feel the team has done a very good job at loading up the pipeline with a lot of good ideas.”
  • “I think we’ve done a nice job of coming together to understand what needs to happen here.”
  • “What we can tell you is we have a better plan than we did at the start of the year.”

Not particularly inspiring talk. Shelf Awareness has a story about the situation. So too does The Digital Reader. There’s a definite trend for large-scale retailers to be finding life difficult. Maybe Macys et al will be able to weather the on-line storm. I guess everyone’s response is to get smaller — except of course for Amazon who continue to take over things like Whole Foods and to open more and more bricks-and-mortar stores. The retail situation has looked fairly dire for a couple of years. How much direness can be borne?

I expatiated on B & Ns problems a year ago.

Keep those fingers crossed.

LATER: The Digital Reader and The Passive Voice tell us that B & N have decided to offer in-store customers the same (lower) price for a book as they offer on-line. That they haven’t been doing this before is just dumb. The attitude can perhaps be understood as originating from the out-dated idea that on-line is an insignificant supplement to the real in-store experience.


Reykjavik in the grip of book frenzy

Publishing Perspectives suggests that we may all be familiar with Jólabókaflóð, Iceland’s annual flood of book-gift giving at Christmas. Sorry, I wasn’t. “The tradition began, according to Hildur Knutsdottir of The Reykjavik Grapevine, during World War II, ‘when strict currency restrictions limited the amount of imported giftware in Iceland. The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice.’”

Publishers in near-North-Atlantic-neighbor Scotland have now decided to give emulation a try. They are not going to call it the Jolly Book Flood, which is what the Icelandic sounds like to me. Somewhat unfortunately it will be being referred to as ScotBookFlood and, according to their promotional material, echoes the recent Arctic Circle Forum in Edinburgh at which northerly peoples agreed to find common ground. Whatever it takes to sell some books. We can all read lots during these long winter nights.

Edinburgh likewise

I’ve done a couple of other posts about Iceland, clearly the land of the book. One about Icelandic authors, and the other about one inflammatory publishing company.

You’ve probably come across one of those books in your public library which looks like a paperback except that it’s bound in hard covers. This is a book which has been prebound. I went to my local library to photograph one of these objects for this post, and discovered that the world has moved on. We now, in NYC brach libraries anyway, just put the paperbacks straight onto the shelves without bothering to prebind them into hardbacks. I guess we don’t care whether the books last or not. I did locate a pair of Before/After pictures from Bridgeport National Bindery which illustrate the transformation. (These are not prebinds though. They are rebound textbooks; rebound after use. The process is identical though.)






Prebinding is an odd term whose origin may become a little less strange when we look at its history. In the olden days, when money was less of a problem, smart libraries would consider edition binding, the hardback bindings provided by publishers, inadequate to the stresses of library use, and would habitually send out their new hardbacks to be rebound in a stronger, Buckram-covered, reinforced binding before putting them on their shelves. As part of the service the binders who did this work, library-repair binders, would provide full library services too, adding shelf labels, pasting in the lending record pouch, maybe even Brodarting.





So one can see how in a world where a librarian considered edition binding so contemptible as not really to qualify for the name “binding”, prebinding your books before issuing them to your patrons might be what you’d call it. Going even further back we can find libraries buying unbound sheets from publishers, which they’d then have stoutly bound before shelving. According to Bound to Stay Bound Books the industry came up with standards for library binding in 1923. They direct us to a librarians’ Hall of Shame, but unfortunately their link no longer works, so we cannot gawp at examples of lousy edition binding. We all know they are out there however. I once worked for a company which had two divisions, one doing reference books (which were by and large strongly bound and well able to withstand more than 100 borrowings) , the other a trade list where, shamefully, many of the books, even though large, were bound without any reinforcements. A cynic might claim trade publishers prefer not to address the question of reinforced binding head on: they would really prefer that their books should fall apart before 100 readings, so that their customers will feel impelled to go out and buy another copy! The binding of this cookbook is a disgrace — though I did have ultimate responsibility for it myself. (The annotation refers to the recipe, though it might as well refer to the binding.)

Making prebounds has became even easier with the advent of digital printing. Now instead of carefully removing the paperback cover and laminating it onto boards for the rebound book, the binder can simply scan the paperback cover and reoutput it scaled to fit the hardback exactly.

I’ve always wondered about the legal position of converting paperbacks into hardbacks. I guess it’s not really a legal question: more of an ethical one. After all publishers issue paperbacks at a cheaper price for a mass market sale, and many, especially university presses, depend on the higher priced hardback to amortize the “discount” given to the customer on the paperback. If the hardback costs $74.00 and the paperback $29.95 obviously a librarian who can get the book prebound for less than $44.05 (which they certainly can!) is going to be able to stretch the book budget a little further. If all librarians did this and the publishers didn’t ever sell the couple of hundred hardbacks they’d made, clearly there would be difficulties for the publisher: not only would they be left with hardbacks on hand, but every paperback sale would fail to make its margin. The profit margin had assumed a helping hand from the higher-priced hardback, which would be carrying a large proportion of the up-front costs of the book. Until the books are sold such an allocation is just wishful thinking.

Here are stacks of paperbacks awaiting prebinding at Bridgeport National Bindery.

I discover that prebinding has a second meaning. The website TechTerms informs us that “Prebinding is an optimization process that allows faster launching of applications in Mac OS X. Often, when a program is opened, it loads data from files called dynamic libraries. These libraries must be located each time a program is run since their memory addresses are usually undefined. When a program incorporates prebinding, the addresses of the library or libraries referenced by the program are predefined.”

We all tend to assume that a good review will sell lots of copies of a book. But it’s never quite as simple as that. A good review in the The New York Times will sell some copies of a trade book, but probably fewer than you’d think. What really sells books is buzz, publicity. We know buzz is at work when we see books jumping off the shelves, but we are not sure just how it gets started. A favorable review can’t do any harm, but it’s not enough.

It was ever thus. Here’s Elizabeth Hardwick in Harper’s Magazine in 1959* — “In the end it is publicity that sells books and book reviews are only, at their most, the great toe of the giant. For some recurrent best sellers like Frances Parkinson Keyes and Frank Yerby the readers would no more ask for a good review before giving their approval and their money than a parent would insist upon public acceptance before giving his new baby a kiss. The book publishing and selling business is a very complicated one . . . It is easy enough, once the commercial success of a book is an established fact, to work out a convincing reason for the public’s enthusiasm. But, before the fact has happened, the business is mysterious, chancy, unpredictable.”

A couple of years ago The Scottish Book Trust sent this piece from Me and My Big Mouth on the pointlessness (in sales terms) of book reviews. (The link no longer seems to work. I wonder if the blog has been shut down. Scott Pack now appears to be active on Twitter with the handle @meandmybigmouth.) The writer had observed from the vantage point of a bookshop what happens after reviews appear. I suppose his recollection is accurate when he says “As I recall the book that received the lead review in the Observer . . .  sold one copy the week after. Yes, one single copy. In the whole of the country.” And this, he implies, is not that unusual.

Now, one may have to add some missing context to understand this remark fully. When a book is first published the publisher’s sales reps will have ensured that bookshops across the country have plenty of stock on hand. When a review appears, the publisher is not necessarily going to sell any more copies right away — the stock present in bookstores around the country will be drawn down as people come in to buy a copy. Our reporter doesn’t say who it was who didn’t make a more than a single sale in the week after the review. If he means the publisher didn’t make more than a single sale, that wouldn’t be that unusual. However, if he means only a single bookshop made a single sale, that would be significant. However the testimony that a single reviews doesn’t unleash a bonanza of purchasing is generally realistic. Now, as in all things, there are exceptions, and the odd review can make a bigger impact. But by and large good reviews do not create bestsellers: the most they can do is help to create them.

Word of mouth is probably the number one means of creating a bestseller in the trade world. The “great toe of the giant” doesn’t create the buzz, though of course a rave review may motivate one or two people to pick up the book or to order a copy from Amazon. But more important for sales than the people who read the reviews are those who read the book, like it, and tell people about it. If these are celebrities that’ll work wonders.

Of course, as in all things, one needs to draw a distinction between different categories of publishing. With academic books reviews can be more important (or at least they used to be) as they are often used by librarians as a trigger to place an order for the book. There are publications directed not at the general public but squarely at librarians, providing them with reviews promptly upon publication. The timing of a review is important: there’s always a backlog. A good review of an academic book in a prestigious journal appearing a couple of years after publication of a book, serves merely as validation — anyone in the subject area will have bought the book long before on the basis of the author’s standing and the need for all in the group to have read the book.

Back in the old days when the only way to find out about a book was to read a review in a newspaper or journal, the sales consequences of a good review could be larger. The authority of say The New York Times’ reviewer was considerable, and their recommendations could move books: though by 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick suggests in her essay, this power was already in the past. Now that more and more online review sites are appearing, and print media are under more and more pressure, as printed review pages become steadily fewer the influence of the newspaper book review has diminished.

One constant remains, however; that the most effective reasons for buying a book are that you read everything this author writes, or that someone has recommended the book to you. It just becomes less likely that the person who recommends the book will have heard about it from a printed review. They become much more likely to get the word from some form of social media. It’s not insignificant that almost all publishers today have a growing staff putting out stuff on various social media.


* This essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, is included in The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Darryl Pinckney who was one of her students. This 640pp. book was published in October by New York Review Books at $19.95. (You can get it at 20% off from them.) There it joins her Seduction and Betrayal, Sleepless Nights, and New York Stories. All very appropriate as she was a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, the epitome of the serious print review.

Illustration by Elena and Anna Balbusso from the Folio Society edition

The Folio Society has seized the moment by reissuing their edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which they first published in 2012. Elena and Anna Balbusso, the twin sisters who did the illustrations for the book were interviewed at Publishing Perspectives. Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview can be found at these links. All seven “plates” are reproduced in the course of the two-part interview.

You can get the book from The Folio Society for $71.95. They only have 83 copies left.

EdSurge brings the happy news of an initiative to save from obscurity all those orphan books which now live in limbo because nobody can trace whomever it is who holds copyright. It costs money to bring a book back into print, or into a digital existence, and cautious publishers avoid the outlay unless they can identify a copyright holder and get their permission. This has led to thousands of books ending up trapped between unambiguous public domain status and the possible limits of copyright (70 years after the death of the author — but who knows when, or if, authors have died if you cannot identify or find them?)

Apparently the solution has been staring us in the face all along. One of the provisions of our current U.S. copyright law would allegedly allow nonprofit educational institutions like libraries and archives “to reproduce, distribute, display and publicly perform a work if it meets the criteria of: a published work in the last twenty years of copyright, and after conducting a reasonable investigation, no commercial exploitation or copy at a reasonable price could be found.” I wonder if, in this context, a university press could be regarded as a nonprofit educational institution. Probably not: Section 17 US. Code §108 (h) seems to insist that the institution perform as a library or archive.

Here’s an account from The Internet Archive blog (link via The Passive Voice). Their collection of 61 already digitized orphans, the beginnings of The Sonny Bono Memorial Collection, perhaps indicates why no commercial publisher can afford to finance this sort of thing. Keep checking though and gems may yet be found.

Protecting books for whatever period Disney may want to have as protection for Mickey Mouse remains crazy. I’ve advocated splitting copyright into three different versions. We need to stop the very large commercial cart pulling the creative horse.