Archives for category: Book publishing

This almost sounds like a slick definition of the publishing process itself. We read stuff (tidy it up a bit maybe) and then publish it. But no: “Read & Publish” (or occasionally “Publish & Read”) is a refinement of “Big Deal” agreements between publishers and academic libraries or library systems.

Research Solutions’ Reprints Desk has a piece designed to explain what Read & Publish means. A Big Deal is just a contract between library and publisher where the publisher supplies several journals at a negotiated price for the bundle, which represents a saving to the library as against subscribing to each journal individually — a bulk discount scheme. The business of academic journal publishing has tended to become more and more concentrated, thus the deal has grown into the big deal. The Deal has recently been sweetened by factoring into it the costs for getting the library’s users (academics) favorable terms in having their research published in the open access journals from that company.

Open Access, which sounds utterly logical and sensible — after all taxpayers have paid for the research, so the research ought to be available free of charge — is in fact a thorny thicket. The problem, as we have discovered to our collective surprise, is that there are actually some real costs involved in journals publishing — it isn’t just a license to print money as the commentariat always assumed. So if you make the resulting publication available free, who’s to pay for the cost of publishing it? Well, the brilliant answer we’ve come up with is — the author. We’ve begun to slide round the problem that creates by getting grant-giving bodies to include money to cover Article Processing Charges in their research grants, but not every journal article comes as a result of a project funded by a donor organization. Universities often fund APCs too. But it hardly seems fair that the author should be made to pay, does it? If not though, who? Some of the true believers in Open Access are beginning to worry that there may be real problems here. Richard Poynder has just released an 87pp report on Open Access which ends up “I have also suggested that there must be some doubt as to whether a fair and equitable global system of scholarly communication is even possible in today’s political environment. Finally, I have raised the possibility that, for a number of reasons, we may in any case see a pushback against open access.” Maybe that old-fashioned way of allowing publishers to make a profit on the journals they publish actually may have something to say for it.

There’s a discussion of this at The Scholarly Kitchen, in a piece mainly focussed on the problem of reading (or rather not reading) things that are too long — which is a whole different can of worms. (Computers make us do it. Let them read the stuff too!)

Standard Generalized Markup Language was what we first became familiar with in the late nineties in order to enable us to “repurpose” our texts. SGML is not a document language, but a description of how to specify one. In the old days typescript would be marked up by the designer or copyeditor, in pretty general terms, for example CT next to a chapter title. The typesetter would mark it up in more detail so that the keyboard operator could fly through it without having to stop and figure out what type size and face was really called for here in the designer’s specifications. Thus we were familiar with the need for markup. But what we were familiar with was markup directed at creating a book, laid out in pages, not markup which would enable the text to be output in multiple ways on different platforms, including as a book. Up until then we were book publishers, and we published books.

In the nineties along came the idea that the text of a book (the content) might in fact need to be used in other ways, and the fact that we already had that content on a digital medium made it obvious that money could be saved by using the same digital storage for all and any reuses. The main difficulty here was the difficulty of getting people’s minds changed so they could countenance the idea. Prior to the invention of computer systems the different ways a book might be used amounted to a paperback edition or a hardback, with the occasional opportunity for an extract to be published in some periodical. Magazines would just reset the extract they were doing, and while we academic publishers would use the same typesetting for hardback and paperback, even if a mass market paperback required resetting, the cost of typesetting was fairly trivial when compared to paper, presswork and binding a huge number of copies being printed. Now we also had the opportunity to allow people to access our content online: this required a severe adjustment of focus.

SGML is ancestral kin to XML (Extensible Markup Language) and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) which are now the primary tools used for text markup. The theoretical background to all markup languages is that before it ever appears to the world the text of any work should have been described in such a non-specific way that any application in whatever form you can imagine can be run off on a computer without any intervention beyond the specification of what medium you are targeting. In the example below you can see the HTML codes enclosed in guillemets < >. Here <h1> denotes a first level heading, <p> a new paragraph, <i> italic, and <em> tells you that this is an emphasized word. (The green color is just there for pedagogical purposes. Markup doesn’t show in green in the real world.)

Given that when you use one of these meta-languages to describe your document you have in theory prepared it for any and all applications, it may be seen as perverse not to use the markup to facilitate certain outcomes. In order to make our ebooks fully accessible to print-disabled people, here’s Bill Kasdorf in Publishers Weekly encouraging us to take advantage of the powers provided by our HTML mark-up. This additional small step is pretty straight-forward if you are doing your markup thoroughly — and if you’re not, why bother?

Almost parenthetically I might note that the transition to digital text processing and SGML markup, like all changes, caused a good deal of low-level turmoil. Once people got on board and accepted that text markup “was a good thing” a kind of enthusiasm gripped those bosses with more power than knowledge. Why couldn’t we take all those digital resources which we’d been holding onto for a few years and magically get them SGML-ed? Well, I can’t imagine that at the end of the last century the digital storage system we had was much different from that at any other book publisher. It consisted of a cardboard box or two into which the disks of any book that had had disks were tossed. Rubber banding together the disks from a particular book was a good idea, but rubber bands give up the struggle after a couple of years. What you had therefore was a mess of disks of various sorts, sizes, and formats, some of which were unreadable because the machines they drove no longer existed, some of which had gotten one of their component disks lost, and all of which required time to assess. Publishers will staff their production departments on the basis of the volume of work going through at any time. The amount of work going though was calculated on the basis of the number of books due to be published in the next 12 months — not with regard to sorting out the disks for every book you’d published over the previous five or so years. Eventually, I suspect, all publishers either threw away their old disks (and tapes), or sent them off to an overseas supplier to sort out, but we all spent a considerable amount of time trying to solve the problem of “looking back”. It’s always easier to implement a new system going forward: you just start doing your new books in the new way. Trying to catch up with the old books which were done differently is a nightmare. (This of course is why lots of older books remain unavailable as ebooks.)

The TLS (as they now officially call themselves after 117 years as the Times Literary Supplement) has a piece on 1 November about the PLR (Public Lending Right).

Public Lending Right is the scheme for the remuneration of authors for the use of their books in libraries. The notion behind it is that while the author gets a royalty (we hope and assume) when a copy of their book is sold to a library, it’s a bit unfair that that should just be that. An author whose book is borrowed every week will end up being paid exactly the same rate as the author whose book sits unborrowed on the shelf for ever. Hard to engineer a tiny payment every time the book is consulted, so a compromise is reached. As The PLR site at The British Library tells us, “Under the PLR system in the UK, payment is made from government funds to authors, illustrators and other contributors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. Payments are made annually on the basis of loans data collected from a sample of public libraries in the UK. The Irish Public Lending Remuneration (PLR) system covers all libraries in the Republic of Ireland and operates in a similar way.” Authors have to register to take part in the scheme. The current rate of remuneration is 7.67 pence per loan, up to a maximum of £6,600 — so nobody’s getting rich over this, but nobody’s being totally deprived.

Tom Holland’s TLS piece tells us that the earliest stirrings of the idea that it was right and proper that authors should get some reward for the library borrowings of their books occurred in Scandinavia. In 1919 The Congress of Nordic Authors took up a suggestion from Thit Jensen, a Danish writer, that library loans might be taxed for the benefit of the creators of the books. In 1920 The Danish Authors Association submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education but it took till 1941 for the Danish government to announce its support for a reasonable fee to be paid to authors for library loans. Obviously the turmoil of World War II got in the way, and it wasn’t till 1946 that they set up the world’s first PLR system. Norway followed suit the next year. It took until 1979 for Britain pass similar legislation, and their first PLR payments were made to authors in 1984. Since 2017 PLR in Britain has been extended to cover ebooks and audiobooks. Mr Holland tells us that in 2017 fully half of the top ten authors in PLR pay-outs were children’s book authors — an encouraging indication of continuing youthful book engagement.

Currently a PLR scheme is in operation in only 33 countries, 29 of them in Europe. A list is available at PLRInternational.

See also Ebooks and libraries.

Amazon is reported to be reducing the number of copies of books which they hold in their warehouses. The IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) post links to the Publishers Weekly report about this. (Thanks to The Digital Reader and BookRiot.) The reason given is lack of space in their warehouses, which is fair enough. Amazon has been building new warehouses all over the place for years, and logically a slow-down has to come at some time.

Now, Amazon works by powerful algorithm, and is extremely sensitive to changes in demand. If a book gets selected for some book group, or gets a good review somewhere, and as a result a few people place orders, Amazon’s system may generate orders to the publisher calling in more copies. They want to be covered against the algorithmic “probability” that tomorrow a dozen people will order the book and so on day after day. A consequence of this is that any sudden jump in demand can result in the majority of a publisher’s inventory ending up in Amazon’s warehouses, even though these dozens of orders don’t actually come to pass. Many a publisher has been forced into a reprint they didn’t really need, when ultimately Amazon’s excess inventory wends its way back as a return.

On the other hand Amazon’s ordering patterns will tend to get baked into publishers’ sales assumptions, and a slow-down in ordering will have an impact on budgets. One publisher is quoted in the PW article as saying that in Amazon’s latest order quantities were down 75% compared with this time last year. That’s not nothing.

Is Amazon moving toward a position of maybe allowing a customer to wait a day or two for a book? Not necessarily. They can and do source books not only from the publisher but from wholesalers, especially from Ingram, so it’s quite possible that they figure they can maintain “instant” delivery using this sort of option. They also have the option, in many instances, of printing a book by print-on-demand, even in some cases where the publisher is still offering copies from inventory printed by offset. This set up will have to have been agreed to by the publisher, and is directed at keeping books continuously and rapidly available. Amazon, on getting an order from a customer, will go through a cascade of options on how best to source the book. In other words, having the book on a shelf in one of their warehouses isn’t their only option.

Now that I have started the hare in my own mind of Amazon’s possibly wanting to exit the book business, I can’t stop reading that speculation into any news about them. But that’s got to be over-interpreting things in this case, even if the IBPA piece does suggest that Amazon’s looking to favor items with a bigger margin this holiday season. Last Christmas season there was a bit of congestion around Amazon’s warehouses, with publishers unable to get delivery appointments to deliver their books. Amazon’s decision to carry a bit less stock is possibly just an attempt to moderate this chaos, with a bit of fingers-crossed hoping that there won’t be much of an impact on their deliveries to customers.

Dard Hunter

Tony Sanfilippo is down in the dumps. A meaningful visit to Dard Hunter’s* home in Chillicothe has gotten him ruminating on the rarity of beauty in today’s book output. He gives us an account of his visit at The Scholarly Kitchen, and enters into a spiral of despair culminating in his wondering if each book his Ohio State University Press produces won’t in fact be the last physical book they ever do.

No question running a university press is a hard row to harrow these days. Unit sales keep on going down; libraries are no longer the guaranteed market they once were; funding is scarce; costs escalate. Eppur se muove. Courage! I really don’t think things are terminal.

There are basically two things at work in Mr Sanfilippo’s piece: the problem of lost beauty, and the problem of lost sales. It was undoubtedly a very satisfying life working for a university press in the days when we could still afford to make books “properly” in the traditional fine-bookmaking manner. Although throughout my university press career I worked sedulously to get costs down and to expedite schedules, I was never thanked for getting a book in early, or below budget. Once or twice though I was lucky enough to get congratulations from on high: such encomia were always related to thanks for making such a handsome book. This always struck me as quaintly out-of-date. I had always been reluctant to submit our books to those shows where the books are judged on physical appearance, aesthetics, and production quality; (for example the shows organized by BIGNY and AUP.) I just didn’t regard that as what we were in business to do.

People who work in publishing are book people. Book people like a well-made book. Even though the bosses of bosses may insist you trash the specs in order to increase the margin, we could never close our hearts to the siren-call of the good. I remember being begged by a publisher to print a particular book on a particular paper, doing which would have involved a special purchase at a specially high price. This I refused to do. The publisher started weeping; and of course I bought the paper. The company didn’t go bankrupt — well it sort of did eventually, but that was for a whole bunch of different reasons.

We all want to be able to be proud of what we have produced. But, in the cool gaze of reality, our pride has to be refocussed onto the content and the sales of our books. Because it is difficult to run a university press these days. Every penny saved is a contribution to the dyke protecting us from the rough seas out there. If our customers are not insisting on beauty, or even a moderately well-made book, then making such a thing for them is just irresponsible.

And just because the university press, or any traditional publisher, is not giving the world a well-made book, this is no reason to despair that the well-made book will vanish from our lives. In hard times, and these are rather hard times for book publishers, lots of people lose their jobs. One or two of these will turn out to be the Dard Hunters of the future. There are indeed people, other than the odd disappointed publisher, who value a well-made book, and are willing to pay for a few. Just because trade publishers (or most book publishers) are unable to give them this does not mean that it can’t be had.

So, bite the bullet, make your POD books, and don’t spend too long examining the product.† If your customers object to the trimming of a few pages, reflect that in order to discover this flaw they have to have bought the book. Books are needed because they convey information: nice to convey it in a handsome physical form, but ultimately irrelevant to the communication process.


* Dard Hunter (1883-1966) was primarily a papermaker, but he mastered and practiced all phases of book manufacturing. The books published by his Mountain House Press are “believed to be the first American ‘one person’ books, meaning one person did everything: made all the paper for the edition; designed, cast, and set all the type; created every illustration and ornament; every punch, plate, die-cut, and embossment; wrote the book; laid out the book . . .”

† And be it noted, production flaws of the sort Mr Sanfilippo instances are no more likely in a print-on-demand book that they are in any book. I suspect we just go looking for them more assiduously.

Why do academics write even though their papers attract relatively few readers? Leiden Arts and Society Blog speculates on this. They come up with there reasons: 1. academics think everyone will read and refer to their self-evidently brilliant work; 2. having lots of articles will look good on a resumé; and 3. they believe in the importance of what they are doing.

To me this seems to omit the main reason — academics write because they are paid to do so. Not well (I intended “well” to qualify “paid” here, but some might want to make it refer to “write”), but in a research university it’s part of teachers’ notional job description, so they do it. Maybe Socrates used to sit around engaging in verbal debate, but at least since the 19th century academic discourse has been conducted in writing, not only by verbal debate — which still goes on of course in formal as well as informal settings. It has become essential for any kind of research results or intellectual insights to be communicated in writing so that people who might not have been there as you held forth in the seminar room or at high table can also be informed, and take part in the critical debate about your findings. This is how knowledge advances. It is absolutely irrelevant whether the research results are communicated in elegant prose or not — as a minimum we might be allowed to demand the elimination of any ambiguity — but as long as your fellow specialists can work out what you are saying, that’s just hunkey dorey. Here the differences between the sciences and the humanities rear their head. You won’t ever hear members of the public beefing about the difficulty of reading a journal article on nuclear physics, but historians better look out. The finding that 82% of historians’ journal articles are never cited should not depress historians; it just means their work is used in a different way from that of physicists or even economists.

See also Monograph publishing.

Everyone’s bent out of shape about Macmillan’s change of terms for the supply of ebooks to libraries. Just for the record, this is more or less what we are talking about, as reported by Publishers Weekly: “Under the publisher’s new digital terms of sale for libraries, ‘library systems’ will be now be allowed to purchase a single — that is, one — perpetual access e-book during the first eight weeks of publication for each new Macmillan release, at half price ($30). Additional copies will then be available at full price (generally $60 for new releases) after the eight-week window has passed. All other terms remain the same: e-book licenses will continue to be metered for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first, on a one copy/one user model.”

The commentariat is out in force on this, expressing their disgust at Macmillan’s daring to restrict access to their books. Scrivener’s Error maintains that John Sargent of Macmillan is simply lying. The Digital Reader accuses him of failure to adapt to the market.

But bear in mind that libraries (and ebook readers) do not buy ebooks from publishers, they merely license access to them. This piece from Ingram Content Group a few years back explains the situation from the librarian’s point of view. The basic problem is that if you sell an ebook to a library (or theoretically to anyone) that’s likely to be the only copy you’ll ever sell. If any number of library patrons can look at the file, nobody else needs to make the investment in purchasing their own copy. This needless to say is not a good business model.

Publishers are in business to sell books. According to The Digital Reader Macmillan’s John Sargent “can’t figure out how to adapt to the market and sell what customers want, so he has decided to arbitrarily impose restrictions to force his customers to buy what he wants to sell.” Quite apart from the fact that what we are actually talking about here is licensing books not selling them, one should point out that controlling the market in this sort of way is not altogether stupid. Publishers have been doing it for generations: in a pre-digital world, if we didn’t choose to reprint a book, you couldn’t actually buy it. If we opt not to publish this or that book, or put a high price on it, then access to that work is indeed restricted. We are talking about a business, not a constitutional right to easy access to everything ever written. Nobody, surely, can disagree that the primary moment for selling a book is in the early days, when people are (we hope) excited to get at it. If an ebook is widely available free of charge all across the country one might expect the possibility of selling more copies would be reduced.* That may well be the way lots of customers want it to be (they probably also want their books to be free), but “wanting” isn’t enough. I may want not to have to wear my puffer jacket in January but the government cannot change the seasons — though many politicians seem hell-bent on ignoring climate change. Now of course publishers’ terms are not as resistant to change as the climate, but what is, is the requirement that any business has to make money in order to stay in business. You may not think Macmillan’s tactic is likely to lead to maximizing sales, but you cannot deny their right to try.

It shouldn’t need saying, but obviously does, that publishers instinctively favor easy access to books. If publishers didn’t want to make books available to people they wouldn’t be publishers. Critics of Sargent like to make their complaint on that basis: and that basis is nonsense. The real problem, which they choose to ignore, is that if a publisher gives away all their books they won’t be publishing for very long. Now it’s possible to disagree with the detail of Macmillan’s terms: but it’s just burying your head in the sand to pretend that the big issue is freedom of access to books. The issue is under what terms that access should be granted, and any deal has to allow for a bit of profit to the publisher, so that they can continue publishing. Readers understandably tend to focus on the book they want to read right now. But that, unfortunately for the frustrated ebook borrower, is not the most important issue. The main issue is all those future books which require that the publisher stay in business and see some incentive to keep going. (Yes, yes, I know true objectors will say that self publishing is the royal road to the future. Don’t agree. Both will coexist.)


* Shouldering my invisible sentimental air-violin, let me say that this means authors make nothing too.

Can this work? There was a discussion in the comments section of a recent post of how the book publishing industry might set up a collaborative online bookselling site to compete with Amazon. I remain concerned about anti-trust barriers to an initiative like this by publishers, but bookstores — that’s surely a horse of a different color. But can a collaborative online store work without support from publishers? Would publishers see any motivation to support a new site as against Amazon? What form would any support take? Bigger discounts might not be universally popular, and avoiding that sinkhole is in any case one of the motivations behind trying to outcompete Amazon.

Apparently the American Booksellers Association has been thinking along these lines too. Their “store”, due to launch in January is named Bookshop and Publishers Weekly has a piece about the idea/plan. There’s a discussion at LitHub encouraging us to order from our independent bookstore which mentions the Bookshop site. (Link via The Digital Reader.)

My worry is that this initiative may end up lacking focus. A sort of affiliate merchant program like Amazon has, using local bookstores as the partners could perhaps work, but I’m not quite sure how this site represents that. Just distributing 10% to stores who’ve signed up as partners, doesn’t represent the same idea, does it? Merely offering to sell people a book isn’t enough, is it? Why wouldn’t people continue going to Amazon? Key to success must be driving traffic to the site: relying solely on people’s good will seems inadequate, especially for an organization which has spent years dissing on-line purchasing. Surely real discounts for purchasers are a requirement, necessary but no doubt not sufficient. Something more is needed, but what? And where’s the margin to fund incentives to come from?

The ABA already offers books through their site Indiebound, though apparently not too many people have taken them up on this. The site isn’t altogether user friendly, and you’d have to be fairly determined to buy books this way. Bookshop is claimed to be better.

As they say at Indiebound:

Why shop Indie?

When you shop at an independently owned business, your entire community benefits:

The Economy

  • Spend $100 at a local-owned business and $52 of that stays in your community. 
  • Spend $50 at a national chain and keep $6.50 in the local community.
  • Spend $50 online with a remote vendor with no sales tax collected and keep not one penny in your local community.
  • Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
  • More of your taxes are reinvested in your community–where they belong.

The Environment

  • Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.

The Community

  • Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
  • Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains.
  • More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.

Now is the time to stand up and join your fellow individuals in the IndieBound mission supporting local businesses and celebrating independents.

All true enough, but wouldn’t this tend to discourage me from going to Bookshop too?

On 7 November there was a panel discussion at New York University’s Institute for the Humanities entitled “Writing Lost and Found: How Books Disappear and are Rediscovered”.

The focus was, quite appropriately, on celebrating the “rediscovery” of the four books under discussion. Three of the books were translations, and one discussant did allow as how the previous translations were partly responsible for the need for a new version. Jenny McPhee, who translated Natalia Ginsburg’s Lessico famigliare, said that while the original remains eternally fresh, translations need to be updated from time to time. Not because they are no good, but because readers’ expectations change. There is much to this. No Spanish reader would ever suggest that Don Quixote needs to be rewritten, but we are perfectly justified in thinking that we shouldn’t have to read it in the 17th century English of Thomas Shelton.

Of course that one never got lost. The easiest way to lose a book is to forget all about it. The second easiest way is to have its one existing copy burnt in a fire. The Library of Alexandria may have been burnt by accident when Julius Caesar invaded, or maybe the fire was the result of religious riots as recounted by Gibbon, or most notoriously set by Caliph Omar who regarded books as unnecessary since “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” We don’t really know what was lost in this fire, but you can’t stop writers riffing on the subject. It’s become a sort of metaphor for the loss of the one remaining copy in existence. We have 18 plays by Euripides, but we believe he wrote over 90. Maybe one or two’ll turn up having escaped the flames.

They couldn’t find Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan and Gormenghast during the evacuation of the Gormenghast library which had been set on fire by his sisters Cora and Clarice under the Machiavellian Steerpike’s direction. When they found Sepulchrave “he was smoothing the backs of a set of the Martrovian dramatists bound in gold fibre and there was a smile on his face which sent a sick pang through the bodies of the three who found him.” They got him out but the library was burned down. “The shelves that still stood were wrinkled charcoal, and the books were standing side by side upon them, black, grey, and ash-white, the corpses of thought.”

So we are all of us destined to live in ignorance of those Martrovian dramatists, the Sonian poets, and of course so much more. Corpses of thought is good; but of course the physical book could itself often be described in just this way. Sitting ignored on a library shelf, on lots of library shelves around the world, there must be many a book we know nothing of, each eager to be opened by a curious student and thus revivified. One can visualize that determined reader, fighting his way through the thorn entanglements around the palace library to reach his sleeping beauty, the works of the Martrovian dramatists. It’s harder to explain why a book becomes a living corpse though. It’s not just a matter of not being taken out of the library: though librarians constantly analyze unborrowed volumes as “mustie” books, and “crew” them every now and then.

Lost is lost. Maybe a copy will be found, but nobody knows where it might be, or whether there’s any there there anyway. But lost is also forgotten. We’ve got several copies, but don’t really care. Now of course not all forgotten books are great books. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but most of what we publish is actually not really very good. It’s easy enough to see how that 1950s Your Big Book of Flower Arranging or that sensational robber-romance from 1845 would get forgotten. Nobody needs to remember them. But many forgotten books are excellent books. An example quoted at the meeting is the complete oeuvre of John Williams which has been forgotten on at least two occasions before its recent resuscitation by New York Review Books.

“Forgotten” could once upon a time be used almost synonymously with “out of print”. When publishers couldn’t sell enough copies of a book to justify reprinting it, it’d just drop out of the catalog. For a year or two you’d get the odd order for the book and you’d send the answer OP: and that was that. Nobody had a mechanism for checking whether there were enough orders to warrant bringing the book back. Remember that in those days printing a book meant printing a couple of thousand books at least, and they’d have to be paid for and stored while the small demand munched its way through your holdings. So, when you sold the last copy of a book, you tended to heave a sigh of relief and keep your focus on moving forward.

But I suspect that there were quite a few books that paradoxically became forgotten because they remained in print. In those olden days publishers would often overprint a book. As printed books are an asset, wasting them is a cost. Temptation to hold onto the books hoping that demand will magically pick up can easily cloud judgement. This means that such a book might remain locked up in the publisher’s warehouse for years with nothing effectively being done with it. If the rights had reverted to the author when demand collapsed it would have been possible for a different edition to have come out which might have attracted buyers.

Now we have evolved a technological solution, print-on-demand, which means that you can print as many or as few as you wish. This means a book need never go out of print: all you need to do is set it up for POD and await that odd order. The book won’t be printed until after someone has ordered it. This means no matter how few may ever sell, the publisher is not incurring any extra cost. Ebooks reinforce this situation, but require more investment to bring about, especially if they are older books. What print-on-demand means is that in potentio every book ever published might be made eternally available. So the concept of a lost book would move to being an ignored book. Actually I think Neglected Books has the mot juste here. Someone could look at this book, but nobody does: it’s just neglected. Some day we may manage to develop assessment tools which will be able to direct us through this mass of material and tell us which items we might enjoy. In the meantime there are publishers making hay by bringing back into print good books which have slipped into the abyss of neglect. These reprint publishers, who tend not to be using POD, just printing the smaller runs permitted by modern printing set-ups, are effectively taking something lost and placing it before us, saying “Look at this. You’ll love it”. For the downside of all this however, please see Forgotten books.

I suspect that readers can be divided into as many types as there are readers, but probably a majority of them feels some sort of need “to keep up”. As new books are published, there’s always something new clamoring for our attention. Inevitably yesterday’s books will begin to slip into oblivion. If we didn’t publish so many of the damn things there would be fewer neglected books!


The New York Times has a piece, linked to via LitHub, entitled Want to write a cookbook? Don’t count the money just yet.

The article is focussed primarily on how poorly publishers are paying cookbook authors. The article quotes a couple of outraged writers: “‘This is all so unbelievable,’ one Twitter user replied. ‘No money is a joke. Who would do this for nothing!?’ Another wrote, ‘As a hopeful book-writer, I had to stop reading this tweet because it made me sick to my stomach.’”

Well, outraged writers — not being paid an advance against royalties is not the same thing as being asked to do a book “for nothing”. A 10% royalty, even a 5% royalty is not nothing. Without an advance, it’s true that you won’t be getting paid your royalties until later on, after the sales of the book have already taken place. Surely any “hopeful book-writer” must be aware that that’s generally how authors get paid. It really doesn’t help your argument to chum the waters with irrelevancy like this.

And there is of course an argument to be had about whether a cookbook writer should be better paid: specifically whether they should be given an advance against royalties. One would like to believe that all recipes had been thoroughly tested in a kitchen quite similar to one’s own, and of course they almost always have been, though recipes from chefs will no doubt have been tested in a professional kitchen. But it’s usually the author who’ll be doing the testing, NOT the publisher. So providing a bit of an advance to cover time and ingredients might seem a reasonable idea. Of course some authors, the more established and successful, do get an advance, but beginners, it seems are less fortunate. There are three broad categories of cookbook author, the celebrity, the restauranteur or chef, and the home cook with hopes. Even for restaurant chefs everything isn’t all plain sailing as this piece from Grub Street illustrates. However at the end of the day the selling of a cookbook manuscript is a business transaction, and if publishers are not paying much for cookbooks, that has to be because of supply and demand. Just too many home cooks want to write a cookbook, and this bids down the price. If publishers can sign up enough cookbook authors by offering miserly terms, business logic dictates that cookbook authors will get miserly terms. If publishers had to pay more, they’d either exit the business of cookbook publishing or pay more.

Given the fact that you can find how to cook anything by a quick Google or DuckDuckGo search, it is a source of surprise to me that cookbook publishing continues to flourish. “A spokesman for NPD BookScan said sales of print cookbooks grew 24 percent in 2018 over the previous year, compared with 6 percent growth in 2016.” This has to represent gift-giving doesn’t it? Nobody, surely, needs another cookbook, but they do make handsome, thoughtful gifts, showing how cultured are the lives of both giver and recipient. And they’re cheap too — compared to a meal in a restaurant run by the author of the book.

This is obviously bad news for all you proto-authors sitting at home hoping to liquidize your cooking prowess. Probably your best bet is to start a blog and ask for donations or carry advertising. People are meant to be able to do quite well at this. But surely the cookbook publishing business has moved into advanced maturity.