Archives for category: Book publishing

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society has issued its annual survey on author incomes, and as reported by The Society of Authors, reveals that median earnings for UK authors have declined by 60% since 2006. “In 2006, median author earnings were £12,330. In 2022, the median has fallen to £7,000, a drop of 33.2% based on reported figures, or 60.2% when adjusted for inflation.” I assume, without knowing anything about the numbers, that a similar situation prevails in America.

Numbers like this are hard to interpret*. Many, presumably the vast majority of authors are making virtually nothing from their writing, and are probably perfectly content for this to be the case. They probably never expected to make any money from their books, and are unsurprised when this turns out to be true. Others, however, look on their writing careers as a sort of job choice, so the fact that their income goes down is of existential importance. In 2006 40% of authors reported earning all their income from their writing. In 2022 the percentage had dropped to 19%.

Now there are of course different types of contract that an author and publisher can negotiate, but the most common form is a royalty agreement whereby the author gets paid a percentage of the sale of every copy of their book. Advances against royalties do no more than change the timing of such payments (and guarantee the author against the risk of failure to reach a certain sales quantity), but these are becoming rarer, and in any case don’t affect total earnings. To the extent that an advance will take income you might have made in year two and moves it to year one, the reduction in advances will negatively impact the earnings of successful authors. They are however irrelevant to the mass of authors at the bottom of the sales pyramid. Royalty income, as a percentage of the price of each copy, is clearly dependent on sales. A 10% royalty on a retail price of £20 gets you £2; sell a million copies and you’ve got £2,000,000. Sell 500 and you’ve got £1,000.

ALCS doesn’t reveal any income details, but they are not, as far as I can see, complaining about reductions in royalty percentages. In other words, income reductions are due to sales reductions. It may look bad that while publishers are experiencing a banner year, authors’ income continues to plunge. But what this has to mean — and by “has to mean” I am effectively saying “is mathematically certain” — is that book sales are now being made over a larger number of titles than previously, so that each author makes less off their writing, while the overall pool of authors makes more. This is entirely consistent with reports of the unexpected popularity of back-list during the pandemic. So a bigger royalty pot is being shared by more writers. However if you’ve had a pay cut it’s no comfort to know that wages for the whole company have increased!

The Society of Authors warns that these “findings raise serious questions about the future of writing as a profession”. But surely there has never been a time when the profession was able to support more than a few members in any condition better than penury. Grub Street has always been tough work environment.

Any thought that such a crisis in author earnings might have a negative impact on the course of literary history should of course be resisted. But one cannot deny that someone like D. H. Lawrence was able to make enough to live on by his writing, and it is no doubt harder to do so today. But that, I do believe, is mainly due to the increase in the number of active authors diluting the pot. To some extent society has recognized the problem and is dealing with it through grants and subsidies.

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* Recognize that such a drop in the median income could be caused solely by a large reduction in the earnings of a single top author. — I’m not suggesting it is, but mathematics is mathematics, and the mean is the mean, not the average.

The publishing industry in New York accounts for 94,300 total jobs, $10.8 billion in total wages $33.5 billion in total output. In their Economic Impact Study, New York City Publishing Industry, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment divides the business into four groups — publishing (including books, newspapers, magazines and internet); talent; print production; distribution and consumption.

Publishers Weekly brings us a story about the Study. “In a report designed to measure the economic impact of NYC’s various publishing segments, the first-of-its-kind study found that the number of book publishing jobs dipped 1.7% between 2010 and 2020, while bookselling jobs tumbled 37.1%. The average book publishing salary was $119,000, compared to a $39,000 wage for booksellers.”

I guess one has to accept these figures, does one, but an average salary of $119,000 sounds high for book publishing. Given everyone’s eagerness to misuse numbers, especially percentages, I wonder if this might be more like the mean rather than the average. On the other hand, perhaps it’s “total remuneration” — salary + benefits. However, the report stubbornly refers to “wages” so maybe our colleagues are doing better than we think! Clearly however fellow N-Y-Citizens will be better off looking for a job in publishing than in bookselling even though it may be a bit harder to get one.

Book publishing, which is to a surprisingly large extent still being done from home, came through the pandemic with a lot less damage than the retail end of the business. If the story isn’t actually over for bricks-and-mortar bookstores (and I think it isn’t) these numbers show that there’s going to be a more vigorous recovery in the bookstore business.

Getting the manuscripts and turning them into books was always the fun part. Persuading people to buy them is tough.

Chris McVeigh at @4fifty1 has a rant, entitled This is not a love song. He quotes a publishing marketing director who “was frustrated because she felt like she was consistently letting down the authors under her care. The sheer relentless weight of books coming through the pipeline had all but overwhelmed her and her staff some time ago — and from where she was standing things were only getting worse. We just don’t have the time to do anything properly, we’re just ticking boxes.”

But unfortunately boxes do need to be ticked: it may be boring but messages need to be sent to the relevant mailing lists, influencers need to be alerted, and review copies need to be sent to appropriate review media. These publications will insist on wanting to make up their own minds about whether or not they’ll send the book on to someone who might actually read it and review it. It’s a lot about horses and water and drinking — you can do all sorts of social media stuff but you can’t reach down the wires and force the punters to buy. At the end of the day, all a publisher can really do is let people know that this book exists, ensure it’s out there in places where they might find it, and keep their fingers crossed. I suspect most readers are fairly adept at discounting publishers’ claims of excellence: what makes the book sell is something else. Where the idea comes from that this is a book I need to buy varies wildly, but is summed up as “word-of-mouth”. You hear about the book, and having heard about it you think it sounds like something you might buy. Eventually maybe it ends up as something you have bought.

This Publishing Perspectives piece asks whether we can replicate “word-of-mouth” by using the Internet. “Every marketing expert loves — and wants — business through word-of-mouth, but nobody has figured out the perfect way to automate and digitalize this vital tool.” Well, of course, if you run a business aimed at automating “word-of-mouth” clearly you’ll think of it as a tool. However I fear word-of-mouth is not a “tool” representing a means to an end — it is the end itself. What marketing aims to create is word-of-mouth. The assumption, and the probability, is that that talk will indeed translate into sales — but what the publisher’s marketers are trying to gin up is not directly the sale, but the awareness which will provoke people out there into thinking “I might should buy that book”. Clearly, I guess, the more eyeballs you can hit with the fact, the more effective the distribution of that fact may be.

Mike Shatzkin claims Open Road’s automated online marketing operation is unique. OK, maybe it is unique, but is it working? Hard to tell from the outside — probably from the inside too when all’s said and done. We don’t see Open Road at the top of bestseller lists all the time, but how can we judge whether Open Road books are not in fact selling better than they would have done without this digital marketing help? They probably are, but not even Open Road can know for certain. These are not scientific experiments which can be rerun: so we just stumble along and tick all those boxes.

Here David Gaughran gives the self-publisher advice on how to do email marketing. At the coalface too, from Inside Higher Education, Joanne W. Golann lets us know what an author can do to publicize their own academic book. I am always tempted to insist that there’s a platonic perfect number out there which represents the sales number of any given book. In most cases in academic publishing this is a fairly low number and letting millions more know about is almost a waste of time. No amount of TikTok activity and word-of-mouthing is going to provoke anyone to buy Leucocyte Typing VII I fear — unless they were going to buy it anyway. Still getting the word out to fifty more buyers for such a book is a more rewarding feeling than trying to alert millions.

Via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing comes a link to The Guardian‘s report on TikTok’s plans to sell books direct to customers. Coming as this does in the same week as Amazon’s announcement of layoffs in its book division, this story must encourage speculations into Amazon’s possible abandonment of the book business. Publishers Weekly weighs the evidence.

Amazon clearly still maintains a hugely dominant position in the book retail world. They are currently ordering vigorously for this Christmas season, and will no doubt be selling a pile of books for months (years?) to come. But one thing of which we can be confident is that their business is not directed by sentiment. If they see an opportunity to enhance their prospects by abandoning books, books will be abandoned. And bear in mind they have three strands to their bookselling business: the retail operation, the Kindle and ebooks, and Audible.com for audiobooks. They are also a publisher.

Rather straw-in-windish perhaps is Princeton University’s announcing their new ability to sell audio-and ebooks direct-to-consumer via Glassboxx. We may not be watching a huge amount of change in publishers’ readiness to sell direct, but trickles under the dam, around the dam, and through the dam can ultimately lead to the collapse of the dam and a transformational flood. Movement is surely in the direction of more publishers selling more stuff direct to customers, which might suggest an anticipatory repositioning to cope with a post-Amazon world. If you pooh-pooh that, consider also Bookshop.com, which is quite successfully providing an e-commerce solution for independent bookstores.

Not immediately relevant but nevertheless an issue to consider in developing your sympathies, Amazon has (like lots of other businesses) received copious subsidization from state and local governments for creating jobs around the country. Good Jobs First details the situation. (Thanks to Nate Hoffelder for the link.) Most of these jobs will no doubt continue to exist of course if Amazon does ever decide that it’s easier and more profitable to sell things other than books.

At The New Publishing Standard Mark Williams warns that we should be wary of Amazon’s doing to books what they just did to music — putting it all onto Amazon Prime. With their ownership of Audible.com Amazon has the ability to direct one stream at least of the book business into an unlimited subscription model. Now of course as long as you as a publisher or author are adequately rewarded for such usage, an unlimited subscription model can be a good thing.

Bob Dylan fans are keen to give him the benefit of the doubt, claiming that he obviously had no part in the recent scam whereby Simon & Schuster sold about 1,000 copies of Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song “signed by the author” for $600 a pop. After all what need would Dylan have to screw even more money out of fans — didn’t he just sell his back catalog and copyrights for $500,000,000?

The New York Times brings us the sleazy story, though the buck seems to be stopping with S&S, whose customer service at first pooh-poohed the “online rumors” about the signature. Now they are offering full refunds.

The collector’s impulse afflicts different people in different ways, but in none of these do I have any real inner understanding of what’s at work. But I guess one of the more understandable motivations is that if the author signed the book they also had to touch it — so you know this is a direct connection to the writer. (As if their words and thoughts were a somewhat lesser connection.) When I worked at Oxford University Press every now and then the publicity department would arrange for an author to come in and sign copies of their latest book for staff-members. I’ve got half a dozen or so such books: most notably the latest edition of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In return I presented her with a print-on-demad version of the hardback of an earlier edition. I’m not sure she really understood what I was telling her — there was a long line!

I do think it’s not unreasonable, when you go to a book event, to get the author to sign a copy at the end — but of course that involves the necessary precondition of actually buying the thing. This is really a bit of an understatement: I mean it’s almost a moral obligation to buy the book in such circumstances. Getting it signed: optional.

An auto-pen signature is better, or maybe it’s not, that what one often sees: the author’s signature blatantly printed on the endpaper or the half title. A hundred years ago they used to like to foil-stamp the author’s signature on the book’s cover: we don’t spend that kind of gold-foil money any more.

Debate about non-signing signing is not new. See for example Long distance signing.

LATER: — from Book Riot, 28 November.

Bob Dylan has issued a public apology amid controversy over his use of a machine to autograph copies of his book. The copies of Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song were being advertised as hand-signed and were sold for $599 each. All copies came with a letter of authenticity from the publisher Simon & Schuster. In his statement, Dylan said, “Using a machine was an error in judgment and I want to rectify it immediately. I’m working with Simon & Schuster and my gallery partners to do just that.” Simon & Schuster also apologized last week, and they offered refunds to any purchasers dissatisfied with their purchase.

The Guardian article referenced in Book Riot‘s piece, contains this fascinating information: “The autopen was first patented in the USA in 1803, and allowed a machine to duplicate a person’s handwritten letters. The US president Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent, purchasing one autopen for the White House and another for his house in Monticello.”

The Merry Muses of Caledonia is a collection of bawdry by Robert Burns (1759-96), though some of the content of the first edition may have been written by others. That edition appears to have been privately printed in 1799 for The Crochallan Fencibles, an Edinburgh social club. However the date, the location of printing, the purpose, and the contents all seem to be subject to debate. Two copies survive, one, from which the title page shown below comes, in the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina, and the other a copy owned in 1959 by Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery, which contains no printing date though paper analysis shows it was printed in 1799.

The edition I have was published in 1965 by W. H. Allen & Co., then in 1966 in paperback by Panther Books. Slightly oddly copyright is claimed for both 1959 and 1965, and indeed the introductory pieces by the three editors are all dated 1958, though there’s no indication that they were published before 1965. The paperback, which cost me 8/6, was printed in Manchester at C. Nicholls & Co.’s Philips Park Press.

Clearly nervous, the publisher prints on the half title this justification of the project from Elizabeth Smart of The Queen magazine: “Poetry has somehow acquired a boring, prissy brand-image. ‘Poetry lovers’ have given it a bad name. It might get a glorious reversal if all the bawdy verse that all the poets invariably write — even that stately old Tennyson, so scholars tell me — were published in pocket-size bar-room editions. In the meantime we have at least got a great rollicking collection by Robert Burns: The Merry Muses of Caledonia.” The Queen (now just Queen, but formerly subtitled The Ladies Newspaper and Court Chronicle is obviously a solidly establishment puff-source. If polite ladies can tolerate bawdry, who are we to resisit?

The publication of this edition was driven forward by James Barke, the Scottish novelist (and father of a onetime colleague at Cambridge University Press) best known for the five-volume series, The Immortal Memory, fictionalizing the life of Robert Burns. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is the one you might have heard of. I am surprised, and touched, to discover that James Barke was born at Torwoodlee just outside Galashiels in 1905, son of a dairyman and a dairymaid. Barke was joined in the enterprise by Sydney Goodsir Smith, the Scots poet, and John DeLancey Ferguson, an American academic, who introduces the volume with a bibliographic essay on sources. Mr Barke died after a long illness in 1958 and the other two editors carried the task forward to ultimate publication.

When he died Mr Barke had substantially completed his introduction in which he indulges in quite some contortion to justify the publishing of bawdy poems be they by howsoever famous an author. Remember we are talking about 1958, when people could still (in theory) go to jail for just saying “fuck”. The Lady Chatterley’s Lover lawsuit was still two years in the future when he died. He emphasizes the good-humored straight-forwardness of Scottish bawdry: “English bawdry is ever inclined to ‘snirtle in its sleeve’: the prurient snigger is seldom far away. In the main, Scots bawdry is frank, ribald, robustly Rabelaisian, rich in erotic imagery and extraordinarily fanciful invention. The flowering of this Scottish art form reached perfection in ‘The Ball o’ Kirriemuir’.” This last, set to a catchy tune, never struck me as literature, but does still tend to recur in snatches in my mind when it’s free-wheeling.

Here’s a “robustly Rabelaisian” offering from The Merry Muses, this one preserved in Burns’ holograph:

There was twa wives, and twa witty wives
    As e'er play'd houghmagandie,
And they coost oot, upon a time,
    Oot o'er a drink o' brandy;
Up Maggie rose, and forth she goes,
    And she leaves auld Mary flytin,
And she farted by the byre-en,
    For she was gaun a shiten.

She farted by the byre-en,
    She farted by the stable;
And thick and nimble were her steps
    As fast as she was able:
Till at yon dyke-back the hurly brak,
    But raxin' for some dockins,
The beans and pease cam doon her theese,
    And she cackit a' her stockins.

The book comes with a split personality on the use of rude words. In the Introduction Mr Barke freely uses the f-word and the c-word, spelling them out repeatedly; in Burns’ text however modesty prevails. All rude words are presented as grawlix, with dashes in the middle. Thus in the poem above, the last word of the first stanza is printed “sh—ten” in the book.

Overall The Merry Muses is a fairly tame and unexciting collection, which fact may have redound to the credit of the poet when he faced his heavenly tribunal, no doubt not that different from the kirk-organized ones he had to face while among us. “Collected by Burns” and “Attributed to Burns” are the largest sections. There’s a section “Old Songs Used by Burns for Polite Versions” which contains twenty poems: here Burns actually cleaned up the folk versions! Only twelve of the ninety-six poems are identified as definitely by Burns. Jean Redpath has committed a few of these to song: here’s “Ode to Spring”, the first line of which, in case you miss it, is “When maukin bucks at early fucks” (maukin being a hare):

Somewhat unexpectedly Lit Hub publishes an extract from the book The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages by Katherine Harvey, published last year by Reaction Books. This extract, and no doubt more so the entire book, provides copious (over-copious) evidence of medieval bawdry, such as to put Burns in the deep shade.

GLOSSARY

  • houghmagandie — (obsolete) fornication. In truth, this is probably the only place you’re likely to meet this word. The rest of the words are so common and everyday as to almost escape my list.
  • flytin — scolding, shouting the odds
  • byre — cow shed
  • dyke — wall
  • hurly — storm. Think of hurly-burly.
  • theese — thighs
  • rax — reach
  • docken — Rumex obtusifolius A common plant in Scotland with a large wide leaf, ideal for al fresco clean-up. Also a remedy for the sting of a nettle, near which it usually grows.
  • cack — shit. A note on pronunciation: north of the border we tend to rhyme this word not with pit but with white, sight, flight, which makes Burns’ rhyming scheme work in the first stanza above. It’s usually transcribed with an e on the end.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley of Oxford University Press starts off her blog post entitled “Is publishing sustainable?” with an account of how environmentally expensive book manufacturing is. She overstates her case of course, understandably, given that her job title is Director of Sustainability at the Press. When I first saw the title of the post I thought we were in for an essay on whether publishing could survive economic and technological conditions — which I believe (and hope) it will. But of course it’s not that kind of sustainability: I obviously hadn’t allowed for OUP’s new electronic chops.

There’s no doubt that books do take a toll on the environment — which I’d claim is most significantly incurred in trucking the damn things hither and yon, often in the end to a place where they’ll be incinerated as unsaleable. But we’re already taking action on that. It may be true to claim that “Wood pulp, for making paper, board for book covers, and packaging, comes from forests in countries ranging from Brazil to Finland. Commercial forestry for timber and pulp contributes to deforestation and forest degradation, a leading driver of biodiversity loss that also accounts for around a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions.” True, but almost irrelevant. If you took all books out of the equation the difference would be unnoticeable: book paper represents a tiny proportion of printing papers, which in turn is a small proportion of overall paper manufacture. Still, as she says, “Publishers can reduce their impact by sourcing certified sustainable paper”, and they do. Most books are already being printed, and have been for most of this century, on paper from sustainably managed forests.

It is of course only to be expected that advocates of digital over print should minimize the environmental costs of electricity, computer manufacturing etc., though in fairness I have to note that Ms Barsley does acknowledge this cost. Whatever the detail of the calculations, OUP is set on a course to achieve by 2025 carbon neutrality from their entire operation, 100% certified sustainable paper usage, and an elimination of any waste to landfill. Obviously if you don’t print any books, this is easier to attain, but the increased use of digital printing also makes controlling your inventory a lot easier. Even when I was there a significant proportion of OUP’s print books were already designated “MD” — which means in their system “manufactured on demand”, i.e. manufactured one-off only after a customer has ordered the book. For an academic publisher this route is truly a no-brainer. Warehouses are expensive, especially for books which only sell in dribs and drabs.

On November the 8th The Bookseller informed us that Cambridge University Press & Assessment* have appointed their first global director for climate education. The Scholarly Kitchen brings us a more general report on what actions academic publishers are taking. That we can do so little in terms of the overall problem should not of course be taken as an excuse for doing less than we can.

See also Environmental sustainability.

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* This is the awkward name the Press has adopted since they were smooshed together with the Local Examinations Syndicate — the folks who create all those exam papers. Can’t help unease: Press is an object, Assessment an activity. Better would have been Cambridge University Press Publishing and Assessment, maybe with a colon or a —. As my friend David Tranah points out, a major gain from this would have been the resulting acronym: a cuppa is what we all need. Cupa sounds more like a sort of Amazonian rodent.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c.1656) was a bit of a child prodigy: her earliest surviving work, Susanna and the Elders, was painted when she was seventeen. Her father was also a painter, and no doubt directed her early studies. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence and developed an international clientele. Unusually she took a vigorous role in the breach-of-promise trial of her rapist, Agostino Tassi in 1611. Some suggest that her life provides plot features for George Eliot’s Romola. Her stock has risen in the last fifty years, and she’s now considered one of the most accomplished seventeenth-century artists.

An alumnus of St Catharine’s College recently donated to the college a reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s self portrait as St Catherine. The “e” or the “a” in the name is not determinative: they both refer the same saintly person.*

The picture (the real one) hangs in the National Gallery in London, having been bought as they put it in the College newsletter The Wheel (duh!) in 2018 “with the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust Art Fund (through the legacy of Sir Denis Mahon), Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, Hannah Rothschild CBE and other donors who wish to remain anonymous”. The reproduction, a “high-resolution print replica on canvas”, now hangs in the College chapel right above the altar where I observed it a couple of weeks ago.

The donor is quoted as saying “In a first for the National Gallery, the replica will be created by recording the painting in high resolution using the Gallery’s own image file and then reproducing the image on canvas. The National Gallery has also kindly agreed to create a replica of the 17th-century Florentine frame.”

My thoughts about this gift are not focussed on its price, though one assumes it was quite high — after all they threw in a frame too! What I wonder about is the reproduction process, which seems to have granted the object some greater respectability than a mere “copy” could have achieved. If you or I (assuming we had the skills) had taken up our paint brushes and painstakingly copied this painting, no matter how brilliant a job we had done, I suspect that it would be dismissed as a fake. (Or is a fake necessarily something you’ve tried to pass off as genuine?) What is the magic of a computer file that it can o’erleap such mundane concerns, achieve an authority greater than any highly skilled artist could command, and qualify as a big deal?

I have a piece of software called Camera Lucida. Using that software, which basically allows you to look through your iPad and copy what you see, you would get the proportions spot-on, and might well be able to trace the very brush strokes made by the original painter. Such a reproduction would seem to me a more valuable object than a copy printed from a digital file, though not as valuable as a good copy painted freehand.† Is the fact that they’ve never done this digital trick before relevant? Do they promise never to do it again with this painting? Or can St Catherine’s Oxford just come along and get one too? Or St Catherine University in St Paul, MN? I don’t beef at the donor, whose motivations are doubtless of the highest: I just wonder about the thing itself. And it is a handsome picture.

In a completely unrelated story we learn from Hyperallergic of plans to undrape the originally naked subject of Gentileschi’s Allegory of Inclination painted for the home of Michelangelo’s son in 1616. As art historians will do, this picture is also claimed as a self portrait, though who’d know? The drapery and veils were added around 1680 by Baldassarre Franceschini, known as il Volterrano, to soothe the moral concerns of a nephew of Michelangelo’s son. In order clearly to see what lies below the added drapery, investigators will use “advanced imaging techniques for restoration (diffuse and grazing light examination UV and infrared investigation; multispectral hypercolour imaging; X-ray and high-resolution reflectography), which will not only allow the acquisition of the technical and material information that will then guide the intervention on the painting, but also to virtually restore the original appearance of the Artemisia painting.” It seems that the painting itself will be left as shown, since physically to remove the paint added by il Volterrano would damage the image beneath, but it will be accompanied by a virtual, digital reproduction of the original original as painted by Ms Gentileschi. Is it something about Artemisia Gentileschi, or are all classic painters being given similarly sophisticated “advanced digital” treatment?

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* I always like to claim that the e/a difference is another Oxford/Cambridge thing. St Catherine’s College in Oxford has the “e”, though the local map I was given a couple of weeks ago spells it with the “a”. Cambridge has an “a”. However it isn’t an Oxon/Cantab thing. When you transliterate, you live in a world of inconsistency. The “e” is much commoner. The name can be spelled in various ways, even, obviously, with a “K”.

There are actually several Saints Catherine. The one we are looking at is Saint Catharine/Catherine of Alexandria, a somewhat shadowy personality from the fourth century. She it was who was broken on the wheel (whence Catherine wheel) — actually the wheel broke, as Ms Gentileschi shows, during the process and she was ultimately beheaded. She earned this fate because she had refused to marry the Emperor. regarding herself as the bride of Christ. There are also Saints Catherine Labouré, Caterina Volpicelli, Katharine Drexel, Catherine of Siena, of Genoa, of Bologna, of Ricci, of Sweden, and Saint Catherine Tekakwitha, the “lily of the Mohawks”.

Saint Catharine of Alexandria** is reputed to have debated successfully with fifty philosophers who tried to persuade her of the error of her Christianity. Because of her argumentative prowess she is regarded as patron saint of students, especially philosophy students, and of the clergy, young girls, and nurses, as well as, rather obviously, wheelwrights, spinners and millers. It’s a busy afterlife.

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† We appear to have settled on the view that an ebook is “worth” less than a printed book — that analog is worth more than digital in this context. Would anyone regard a digitized reproduction of Gutenberg’s Bible as anything other than a convenient reference? Nevertheless Book-io has apparently just sold 1,600 NFTs of this book at about $67 each (it’s priced in cryptocurrency so the price fluctuates).

I wonder if anyone has ever set out to reverse engineer the Gutenberg Bible — i.e. to copy it by hand. After all, Gutenberg’s aim was to make a book as nearly indistinguishable from a hand-written manuscript as possible. If someone had hand-scripted it, such an object would surely fetch more than $67 — though no doubt less than one of Gutenberg’s actual printed copies. We now have the ability to print a single copy of any book you care to name, and I doubt if printers are going to insist on seeing your title to the rights! The assigning of a value to such a “pirated” book will be interesting to watch.

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** The Feast of St Catharine on November 25 is somewhat obscured by Thanksgiving. It is celebrated by the consumption of Cattern cakes. Here, from the College’s website, is a recipe. You’ve got a few days left in which to bake some.

Cattern Cakes

Makes 8–10 cakes.

Ingredients

  • 275g self-raising flour 
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 25g currants 
  • 50g ground almonds 
  • 2 tsp caraway seeds 
  • 200g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling 
  • 100g butter, melted
  • 1 medium egg, beaten

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan 170C/Gas 5. Sift the flour and cinnamon into a large mixing bowl and add the currants, almonds, caraway seeds and sugar. 
  • Add the melted butter and beaten egg, and mix to form a soft dough. 
  • Roll out onto a floured surface to about 2cm thick and cut out rounds using an 85mm biscuit cutter, then lay them onto a piece of baking parchment on a baking tray. 
  • Take a knife with a sharp point and draw a swirl into the surface of the biscuit, then sprinkle on a little sugar. 
  • Bake for around 10 mins or until they are browned and slightly risen. Cool on a wire rack.

EBITDA stands for Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization. It is a measure of the amount of operating cash in the business. QuickBooks tells you how to figure it, and why you’d want to. As they indicate, “Those who use the EBITDA formula prefer to analyze a company’s performance based on day-to-day business operations. They disregard debt (interest costs), taxes, depreciation, and amortization.” Printing Impressions has an introduction and the application of EBITDA in print acquisitions. Quite a lot of book publishers now use EBITDA. (My ex-boss, a fan, used to shout at me “Don’t say ‘a lot’. What’s the number?” Sorry, I know not.

I just woke up to the fact that the phrase “a New York Times bestselling author” is a simple turn-off for me. I was reading about a book which sounded quite interesting, a book about trees, but as soon as I encountered this claim I stopped reading and moved on to the next item. OK, you can of course accuse me of being an élitist snob, but that’s not the point, I think, whether it’s true or not. My point is that an author’s motivation is a huge aspect of the success with which they’ll be able to write their book. What the book’s useful for will in large part be determined by the author’s intentions. So you have to choose: important book for readers, or profitable book for the author.

Some popular authors can I dare say just churn the stuff out, but for most writers I’d imagine that writing for money must be an awful grind, and utterly wearing on your self-belief. It must be a bit like writing advertising copy without the organizing structure provided by the product. When you’re own your own, you’re always hitting that writer’s block wall, and when you do get going you have to face your financial commitments: you’re either running late or finding you’ve written way too much and have to cut. These two problems will naturally tend to occur together as Parkinson has decreed. Then of course your imagination will start telling you that your publisher will surely be out to screw you. When your book does eventually roll off the presses, inevitably your worst enemy will be asked to review it. And perish the thought that the thing doesn’t rise to number one in the bestseller list. A bestselling author cannot afford to write (m)any books which don’t get into the bestseller list. Is it any wonder that trade books are more often than not less than brilliant? With all that hassle who’s got time to focus of literature?

On the other hand — I’ve just finished reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, and now notice with chagrin that its cover carried a tag line: “The Sunday Times Bestseller”. I have the UK edition; no doubt the US version says “New York Times bestseller”. I thought the book was brilliant, so I’m having to tell myself that insofar as it was a bestseller it must have been a borderline bestseller! Maybe this is that rare phenomenon: important and profitable. Should there be a category “Accidental Bestseller”? — a book written for a serious purpose which nevertheless manages to sell in quantities associated normally with entertainment pap. I never knew anything about fungi — they turn out to be fascinating. Hard to classify, but they are clever little guys, and a lot of fun. They are specialists in cooperation, with us naturally, but most dramatically with plants where they supply phosphates to the trees in return for the carbon they need but can’t make themselves, they seem to be everywhere.

Mr Sheldrake concludes the book with a tour-de-force bibliographical metaphor: “Now that this book is made, I can hand it over to fungi to unmake. I’ll dampen a copy and seed it with Pleurotus mycelium. When it has eaten its way through the words and pages and endpapers and sprouted oyster mushrooms from the covers, I’ll eat them. From another copy I will remove the pages, mash them up and using a weak acid break the cellulose of the paper into sugars. To the sugar solution I’ll add a yeast. Once it’s fermented into a beer, I’ll drink it and close the circuit.”

Here’s a picture from his website:

I wonder if those mushrooms are protected by copyright?

Jacques Testard, owner of Fitzcarraldo (who didn’t publish Mr Sheldrake’s book), says “I never want to publish a book for commercial reasons. I think of publishing as an intellectual project: if we grew so big that I couldn’t read all the books, I would find that depressing. Then it becomes strictly a business and I don’t really see the point in that.” (From a piece in The New Statesman.) Publishing books which aren’t “real” books just to make money is as boring as writing them must be. Books accidentally getting into the bestseller lists as quite a few Fitzcarraldo titles have done, is of course altogether acceptable. It’s not the money we object to; it’s the grubbing for it we deprecate.

Money can of course be made off books, but it’s much pleasanter to make it as the publisher rather than as the author.