Archives for category: Book publishing

This is Shelf Awareness‘ story from 1 August, 2017:

PBS will launch the Great American Read, an eight-part television series and nationwide campaign that “explores the joy of books and the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved books, chosen by the public.” The initiative is designed to “spark a national conversation about reading and the books that have inspired, moved and shaped us.”

In addition to the PBS series, the Great American Read will feature community reading programs and special events, and a range of digital and social media initiatives. The series will include testimonials from notable figures in the entertainment, sports, news and literary worlds, and culminate in the first-ever national vote to choose “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

The Great American Read launches in spring 2018 with a multi-platform digital and social campaign leading up to the reveal of the 100 books selected by the American public and an advisory panel of literary professionals. Beginning with a two-hour kick-off event in May, the documentary special will feature appearances by celebrities and everyday Americans passionately advocating for and explaining their personal connections to their favorite books.

Voting and social media engagement will continue throughout summer, with six episodes of the series exploring the nominated books through various themes, including “Being American,” “Heroes,” “Growing Up,” “What We Do for Love” and more. PBS stations will partner with local organizations and booksellers to activate and inspire the next generation of readers through library, education and community initiatives. Moving toward autumn, voting will close and America’s top 10 books will be revealed, counting down to America’s Best-Loved in the final episode of the series in September.

“The time is right for this nationwide reading initiative that will encourage conversations and complementary activities in communities across the country. We can’t wait to see what America chooses,” said Beth Hoppe, PBS chief programming executive & general manager, general audience programming.

“The Great American Read will speak to all Americans,” added Jane Root, CEO of TV production company Nutopia. “These books tell our story, explore our passions and celebrate the depth and range of our culture. Which book will win? I don’t know, but I’m super excited to follow the journey and find out.”

This sounds promising. Of course “best” lists don’t mean much, but the process of discussion (and invitation to think) are likely to do much good.

Here’s a Publishers Weekly story, and the PBS press release announcing the series. (Can’t decide what “(w.t.)” means. Can’t be working title surely, can it?) The Publishers Weekly story clarifies how the initial list of 100 books has been chosen; it was “chosen through a demographically representative survey of ordinary Americans conducted via YouGov, a polling organization. Based on the question ‘What is your best-loved novel?,’ the YouGov survey produced a list of 1,200 titles.” This list was then whittled down by “a volunteer panel of ‘respected industry professionals including heads of not-for-profit literary organizations, educators, a librarian and members of the literary press,'” So all you’re going to get to vote for is the order in which these 100 “best books” should be ranked. Better than nothing I suppose. Let’s hope folks join in.

The University of Iowa has produced a dynamic map showing the spread of printing across Europe between 1450 and 1500. Click the Animate button then the Spread of printing button, and watch fifty years of expansion. You can do this with the other categories too.

This was brought to our attention through the American Historical Association’s site in a piece about getting started in Book History.

Most of us in publishing spend little time thinking about the contracts with authors which form the basis of our stock in trade.

Many publishers use a standard contract, adding any peculiar issues as additional clauses at the end. Big trade books will tend to have contracts negotiated clause by clause by publisher and agent. These will usually cover only a license to publish — in various specified editions. A university press on the other hand may “buy” the copyright from the author in return for royalty payments or a fee. In crude terms this just reflects the relative value of a bestselling novel and an academic monograph. Effectively it means that when the book goes out of print, publishing rights will probably revert to the author in the trade world, while the copyright remains with the academic publisher. An academic publisher will rarely refuse to revert copyright upon being asked though. The arrival of print-on-demand production has affected this part of the contract: if the book never becomes unavailable, rights need never revert. Agents are no doubt tying reversion to a rate of sale now.

You should remember (because we all know this don’t we) that you should always read your contract and would be wise to get legal advice on it. You never know when your book is going to go viral, so think about rights you may be casually giving up. What looks anodyne today may turn out to be a big pain tomorrow. Hergé apparently assigned publishing rights to his work to his publisher in 1942, and this has cast into doubt millions of dollars-worth of merchandising rights. The Digital Reader has the story. As Tintin was first created in 1929, Hergé (1907-83) doesn’t have the excuse that he was a young writer unaware of future demand for his works. Maybe he needed to raise cash in a hurry.

There’s a great deal of aggro in the self-publishing/indie community about the iniquity of publishers and their rapacious contracts. But every deal is a negotiation, and it’s up to authors to keep negotiating if they are unhappy with some of the terms. Sure the power balance favors the publisher: all the more reason to bargain hard. Publishers really have no incentive to be so hard-nosed that they alienate every one of their authors. After all, at the end of the day there are always other publishers, including potentially yourself. Any publisher’s editor will be expected to sign a certain number of books each year: they, as individuals, cannot afford to allow every negotiation to end in acrimony. Sure they’ll push for the most favorable deal they can get: so should the author.

The Authors Guild currently has an initiative under way aimed at revising several of the boilerplate clauses that publishers typically import into their contracts. It stands to reason that standard contracts need to be revised from time to time as new technologies and distribution options alter the shape of our business. Publishers can I think be relied on eventually to respond to market forces, and change clauses in their standard contract which no longer make sense. Much of the frustration in the indie community stems, I think, from the slow pace of change. This may not be desirable, but is surely understandable, especially in cases where the clause needing change is one which benefits the publisher! What looks like rapaciousness is all too often laziness and incompetence. Still, why should an aggrieved author feel better about laziness than greed?

Regretful printer, by John DePol, from The Legacy Press.

You don’t want to be doing one of these. It means you (or one of your colleagues) have screwed up, and badly enough to warrant the expenditure of quite a bit of money.

Errata, also referred to as Corrigenda, are mistakes and misprints discovered after  a book has been printed. They may be joined by their cousin Addenda. In the early days of printing, when it took quite a while to work through the setting and printing of a book, Corrigenda and Addenda might be incorporated into the first printing, in the front matter which would be printed last. Some early printers corrected errors and omissions straightforwardly by hand-written additions.

The whole subject gives bibliophiles conniptions: they agonize over things like whether a book which had an erratum slip is complete if the erratum slip has gone missing — which of course tends to happen a lot.

If the mistake is embarrassingly silly it may be taken care of by a cancel — a completely new page tipped in in place of the ghastly original. An erratum slip may tend to advertise the carelessness of the author’s proofreading, and occasionally may be there as a silent admonishment by a frazzled publisher. Just dropping an erratum slip into the book is the cheapest way of dealing with the problem — other of course than simply ignoring it and assuming nobody’ll notice, which is more and more our modern attitude. But really an erratum slip should be tipped in somewhere near the end of the front matter: if you’re going to go to the expense of doing one, you really want the reader to get the benefit of the information it carries.

See also Anti-decluttering for a couple of examples.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his essay “Books”, “Meantime the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and, I think, no chair is so much wanted. In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends, but they are imprisoned by an enchanter in these paper and leathern boxes; and though they know us, and have been waiting two, ten, or twenty centuries for us — some of them — and are eager to give us a sign, and unbosom themselves, it is the law of their limbo that they must not speak until spoken to; and as the enchanter has dressed them, like battalions of infantry, in coat and jacket of one cut, by the thousand and ten thousand, your chance of hitting on the right one is to be computed by the arithmetical rule of Permutation and Combination — and not a choice out of three caskets, but out of half a million caskets all alike. But it happens in our experience that in this lottery there are at least fifty or a hundred blanks to a prize. It seems then, as if some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books, and alighting upon a few true ones which have made him happy and wise, would do a right act in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.”

We should not perhaps be surprised that events have caught up with Emerson: we do now have professors of books. However our professors of books are not doing exactly what it was the sage of Concord desired. I follow the SHARP listserv (The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) which is contributed to mainly by professors of books, and I can confirm that the main focus on books is not “in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry [them] safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples”, but on the social, cultural and technical history of the book as object. A recent vigorous exchange perhaps indicates the extent to which the big problems have already been tackled by this new discipline. The discussion has been about marginalia (a good indicator of past usage): does an X in the margin carry a different meaning from a tick, and are their meanings any different from that of a vertical line? The acme was reached with serious consideration of whether a mark on the left of the text carries a different meaning from the same mark on the right of the text. Of course less minute issues are also grist to the mill of book history. There’s a vigorous study of the book as a physical and social object, and book history has become a university subject.

The great books of the western world in 60 volumes

The job Emerson was calling for, although not perhaps graced with any endowed chair, is nevertheless sporadically performed. A good librarian springs to mind. Some teachers do communicate their delights. I guess Great Books programs in so many American colleges may have been inspired by Emerson’s call, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s on about. I suspect that being hit over the head with Mortimer Adler’s stultifying list of over 500 “great books” would be calculated to make many a student immediately apply for an apprenticeship in metal bashing. Emerson’s looking for a professor who’ll communicate his/her enthusiasm for their reading so that students will follow up for themselves. I would think this would include lots of books which aren’t “Great” but which are good and fun. Many of such books may of course actually be or become great, but the enjoyment is the thing. I rather doubt that anyone who has fun reading Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics is also going to yuck it up on Georg Cantor: Transfinite Numbers, or even consider wasting time reading Congreave’s The Way of the World. The sort of thing we want is the reading group reported on in a recent issue of The Wheel, a St Catharine’s College newsletter. A couple of history professors have set up a reading group to read “beyond research specialisms”. The group, perhaps unsurprisingly for such an élite organization, is made up of Fellows of the college and graduate students. You’ve got to keep the discussion at an appropriate level haven’t you? They are currently reading Eric Hobsbawm’s four volumes on modern Europe. Daringly they now propose opening the group up to “alumni in history and cognate disciplines”, but not to any of those unruly undergraduates. The additional members will be “invited to follow the same course of readings, and then join [the original group] for discussion and dinner in Cambridge on Sunday 5th November and then in London in the summer of 2018”. Not sure I’m cognate enough.

Then of course there’s The Western Canon. “Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them” mowing swaths through the charging cavalry of eager youth. Rather than bury the lads and lasses in Grotius’ The Law of War and Peace, Emerson would have his ideal professors just talk at random about things they’d loved reading, and thereby catch the enthusiasm of the student. Still I guess there are some things you do just have to plough though in order to be well educated! Actually I think the best university education will make you read the books you are meant to read, but make the experience rewarding enough that you’ll go on after graduation and read the best of the rest.

The literary critic, a title hopelessly compromised by its association with the book reviewer, is the sort of figure we’d look to for inspiration: someone a bit like Emerson in fact: the man of letters. This is rather an unfashionable job, seen as too conservative and hectoring for our modern permissive mores. Harold Bloom and George Steiner are surviving examples. I was always very glad to have bought The Modern Movement: 100 Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950 by Cyril Connolly when it was published in 1965. I’ve certainly not read all 100 (106 actually; he has one or two a. and b.s) but I have benefitted from Connolly’s directing me to most of the books included. Each entry is accompanied by a little essay telling you why you should care, and the book is completed by a comprehensive bibliography. Now there’s bridges and ships.

I was aware of George Bernard Shaw’s desire to rationalize English spelling (famously his complaint that fish could be spelled ghote without phonetic alteration), but I didn’t know that he had sponsored the creation of a new featural alphabet. His requirements were that it contain at least 40 letters; be as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and be distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that new spellings were simply “misspellings”. The alphabet was actually created after his death by Ronald Kingsley Read.


This means ghote be damned, fish would look like this: 


It turns out that  Penguin published a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in this script in 1962. This parallel edition was paid for by the Shaw Trust, but ended up being the only book to be thus sponsored because Shaw’s will was then contested.

I like the little price sticker on this image of the cover.

I just noticed that Pamela Paul has gotten a memoir out of her list of all the books she’s read since 1988 — My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. I too have such a list, starting in 1987! She looks a good deal younger than me so she must have started the list at an impressively early age.

Although I have the list, even if such was my bent, I guess the memoir path is closed to me — been done. I actually started keeping records several years before that, but an ex-wife tossed out the book in which I was keeping my records. She claimed this was unintentional. My current list is in a dummy Bible (i.e. a thing that looks like a Bible but has no type inside, or in this case outside either). Should last me. Periodically I enter the titles into FileMaker Pro on my laptop, so the whole thing is searchable.

Pamela Paul’s book provoked Robert Gray into musing at Fresh Eyes Now on the fact that maintaining such a list might rather cramp your style when it comes to pretending to have read a book. Although I don’t do this a lot, I doubt if the existence of my BoB would inhibit me at all. I can’t remember, without looking them up, the books I read in 1996 (heck, even 2016 for that matter. Some of the titles I even have difficulty recognizing at all!) so why should I hesitate to claim to have read a title which might in fact turn out not to be there. One case he cites, that of assuring an author, falsely, that you have read and loved his book, always seems to me to be deeply fraught with potential disaster, and I have never done it. After all, if you express fervent delight, the author may feel the need to engage you in further chat about especially brilliant gems from the text. Much better to tell the truth, or at worst, the half-truth “I’ve started it” — after all reading the title could be regarded as a start.

Discoverability is vitally important. On the other hand discoverability is almost irrelevant. Both of these statements are paradoxically true.

Here are two blog posts, each taking the opposite side. The first one, from Publishing Perspectives of 20 March 2013 about Search Engine Optimization and Discoverability tells you you’ve got to do it. This is of course true: if you don’t get the metadata out there nobody on-line will ever be able to find your book.  But as Joe Wikert points out, at The Average Joe, 27 April 2015, there just aren’t people out there saying “Gee, I wish I could discover more content”. So it’s easy to get trapped into thinking discoverability is going to help sell books. It isn’t: but lack of discoverability will surely prevent sales. You’ve got to write a book people want to read. Getting them to realize they want to read it is of course the secret sauce. Having got their attention, then you need to ensure that the people can actually find your book.

See also Metadata and discoverability and Metadata glossary.


“It is a fair bet that there has not been a single day since 19BCE when someone somewhere has not been reading Virgil’s Aeneid, and it is hard to think of many other books, apart from the Hebrew Bible, of which one could say that.” Thus Mary Beard in her Guardian survey of Roman history.

Publius Vergilius Maro seems to have started having his name misspelled, if that’s what it was, early on. J. W. Mackail points out that the relatively common family name Vergillius was also spelled Virgillius in different times and places; the different spelling probably reflecting different pronunciations. In The Classical Tradition Gilbert Highet suggests that the vowel shift from e to i may have begun because of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias, apparently bestowed on him during his lifetime by the Neapolitans, which makes reference to the poet’s alleged sexual restraint. Get it? Vergil’s a virgin, I guess.

I wanted to make Vergil/Virgil into one of those Oxford/Cambridge arguments, like civilisation/civilization or medieaval/medieval, but even these examples appear to be of questionable validity. Probably we in Cambridge used just to brush off alternate spellings by sniffing that that was how they did things in the other place. (I certainly played a similar game after arriving in America. I became a much better speller as soon as I could claim that that was how a word was spelled over there.)

Amazon’s not messing around: search for Vergil, and they’ll deliver results for Virgil, knowing you made a typo. The Germans seem to go for Vergil. They attribute the spelling with i to late antiquity and early medieval periods. The French are in the i camp; Virgile is their man. They apparently (at least on Wikipedia) don’t acknowledge that e was ever an option. Ditto the Italians and Spanish where Virgilio reigns alone.

I guess it doesn’t matter how we spell his name, as long as we read him. Professor Beard’s claim must rely a whole lot on school children. I’m not sure at what age I was assigned my first book of the Aeneid, but I did two or three of them. Serious Latin students got to browse Georgics too, but I was never in that group. One of my retirement projects is to read the Aeneid in Latin. I’m a bit bogged down near the end of Book 1 in my Loeb Classical Library edition, dealing with Dido: I always found her a bit trying. Aeneid was forever being extracted and reworked, and the Dido and Aeneas story was one of the favorites. On to Book 2 and the Trojan war!

Even a hesitant Latin reader like me can appreciate the efficiency of Latin as a language for verse. Because the words conjugate and decline you can put almost any word anywhere in the sentence without risk of misunderstanding, and thus the poet can make dramatic juxtapositions and focus on the melody in the words, almost allowing the sense to take care of itself because of the agreement of word endings. Consider the famous line 462 of Book 1, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” It consists of two phrases made up of verb, subject, qualifying noun, and then object, subject, verb. “Are — tears — of things. Mind — mortal-things — touch.” The Loeb translation does as well with this as any I’ve found “here, too, are tears for misfortune and human sorrows pierce the heart”. Tough for a non-inflected language to match the concision and also the slight ambiguity as to whether the “rerum” are themselves weeping or being wept over.

I wonder if there’s any way to count how many copies of Vergil’s various books have been printed. While the print runs, except perhaps for things like a school edition of Aeneid Book VI, were probably always fairly small, they were constant. I’m sure best-seller Vergil could boast that his works have never been out of print. Amazon offers at least 15 different translations into English. In my post on tie-ins and fan fics I expressed surprise that fan showed 14 fan fics based on the Aeneid. In the two and a half years since then the number has gone up to 30.

One Book events have been sponsored in many places since the first one in Seattle in 1998. Basically the idea is everyone in town reads the same book at the same time, and starts to talk about it with their neighbors. The Library of Congress shows there have been hundreds of these events. Their site, which seems to be in dire need of updating, lists 108 of them just for books by authors whose names begin with A, and that doesn’t include the NYC one just completed where we all read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. (“We all” does not, I’m ashamed to say, include me.* Nor did anyone try to discuss it with me.)

This year’s New York event is over, and Literary Hub brings a report on its success. A lot of people participated — can it really be eight million? The Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment promoted the mass reading, and here, including an hour-long video, is their round-up which took place at New York Public Library on 5 June.

Get geared up for next year.


* Good citizen that I am, I am hastening to make up for this lapse. The book’s main character is a blogger who uses the WordPress platform with great success. A Nigerian who’s moved to America, she is blogging about more provocative material: race in America. Maybe it’s just me, but the bits about the blog and writing in general are the bits where the book comes alive: most of the narrative just strikes one as words freewheeling downhill. The book is valuable for its portrayal of what it means to be black in America — most of this occurring in the blog posts reproduced.

The New York Times Book Review named Americanah one of the ten best books of the year. It’s not that it’s bad; far from it — just somewhat short of what I’d like to think of as “the best”. I guess I don’t read a whole lot of modern fiction! Great that eight million may have read this one though.