Archives for category: Writing

There’s a new Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe which aims to get authors to disclose the size of their advances. John Scalzi writes a response at his blog Whatever. Here’s his post at #PublishingPaidMe.

Now I think disclosure of pay rates is always a good thing. If you know what everyone else is being paid, you are armed for your own pay negotiation. So in principle knowing what other writers are being paid in the way of advances ought to help you

But of course it isn’t as simple as that. An advance isn’t a salary. An advance isn’t even a measure of what the author ultimately gets paid. And it’s certainly not (usually*) the amount a publisher pays for the book, although many people, including authors who clearly should know better, seem to treat it that way. As Mr Scalzi points out the advance is merely a guess by the publisher at the amount of royalties the author might be due after a period of sales. It’s an estimate that a book of the sort you are working on ought probably to sell this or that number of copies, which means that they can offer to pay you up front a portion of the royalties due to you after about a year’s-worth of sales. In effect the payment of advances represents publishers funding authors while they write. Of course the publisher expects to make money off the book, and if they do the author will do so too. If the book sells more than expected, the author will be paid more: if the book sells less — the author gets to keep the advance. Not a bad deal surely. Investing in the success of the book by paying advance on royalties is a way to persuade authors to sign with you rather than with a competing publisher: it is not society’s mechanism for supporting authors.

See also Advances.


* Usually — but the advance will turn out to be the full amount paid in those distressingly common cases where the book ends up being less successful than estimated, and the advance doesn’t “earn out” because it paid royalties on more copies than were ultimately sold. These unearned royalty payments represent quite a drain on trade publishers’ resources. This is one of the calculations behind the postponing of many new books during the current business restrictions. There’s probably no right or wrong answer to the dilemma: I would bet even more advances than usual will be failing to earn out in the coming year. However, sympathy is not called for: optimism is a job requirement, and competition involves risk.



At LitHub Alex George asks Why do some writers burn their work? He’s mainly interested in Proust, about whose decision to have the notebooks lying behind the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu burned because he “no longer needed them” he expresses puzzlement. He has just written a novel speculating that one notebook survived. Mr George informs us that Gogol, under the influence of a religious zealot, burned the manuscript of (among other things) the second volume of Dead Souls, apparently originally planned as a trilogy. He asks “would Gogol be as celebrated today if he hadn’t burned his manuscript?” to which I have to answer that, for myself, I never heard of this burning, but have certainly heard of the author (and read “volume one”, without realizing I was meant to be getting more).

We all recall that Franz Kafka wanted all his unpublished manuscripts burned after his death. We think Max Brod was right to disregard the wish, because we believe the world’s a better place with Kafka’s works than it would be without them. But if the author doesn’t want people to see what they’ve written why shouldn’t they be allowed to act on that wish? If he’d managed to get to it before he died, Kafka could have ensured that his directive was redundant. (Of course keen psychologists might suggest that the more or less subconscious hope that his instruction would be disregarded was the whole point of leaving it in a letter.) This New York Times Magazine article tells us about a long-running lawsuit over ownership of the remaining contents of the suitcase-full of Kafkaesque manuscripts with which Max Brod fled wartime Prague. The Guardian reports that the case was resolved in 2016 with the result that the papers have been deposited in The National Library of Israel. The Times Magazine piece tells us that after all during his lifetime Kafka burned 90% of his work. Surely standards are something we are all allowed to have.

A page of the manuscript of The Trial from the German Literature Archive, Marbach.

Maybe we can agree that Kafka aimed impossibly high, but it seems that Vladimir Nabokov’s decision was probably quite justifiable, although also disregarded. We can imagine an author noodling around with some sort of extraordinary idea, just to see if it might ever work out, and nevertheless being embarrassed at the idea that anyone else might see such an unsuccessful attempt. Feeling the approach of the grim reaper, a bonfire might become urgent. Nabokov appears to have missed that boat.

I wouldn’t wonder if many a manuscript hasn’t recently gone up in corona virus ignited fires. This is of course a time when the writer has suddenly acquired almost endless of time in which to have a go at the Great American Novel or whatever. Some such efforts must be being self-censored.

See also Book burning.


With book publishing staff being furloughed, laid off, working from home and ending up utterly distracted by how to sew a facemark, control the kids, try to get a food delivery time slot, or otherwise descending into turmoil, maybe this might not be the best moment to take your baby and show it off to a potential sugar daddy. Perhaps it would be wiser to keep that beautiful new manuscript under wraps, and maybe even make a start on creating a new project? What’s a poor writer to do?

Seems from this Publishers Weekly article that it’s a toss up. Some agents suggest holding off on submitting your manuscript; others admit that publishers still actually do need books. A publisher is quoted as opining that covid doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the rate of submissions.

Unless you are in the high stakes area, where one might justifiably expect publishers to be a more bit cautious with advances and generous extra contract clauses than usual, it seems to me that this is probably as good a time as any to submit your proposal. Publishers definitely will be wanting to publish books en masse once anything like a normal market is reestablished, so go ahead and get your place in the queue. After all, if you don’t like this publisher’s response, you don’t have to reach an agreement, and can try the next one. At this moment time is on your side.

From the sidelines it begins to look like a new normal is beginning to be established in the book business. On the supply side there may end up being serious losses, with a resultant need to reduce print runs in order to share capacity. (Easy to say, but of course it’ll be hard to share; though print runs will probably be sharply down anyway, at least for a while. Safe profit will being to look much more attractive than speculative high margins.) On the distribution side, nuts and bolts are still in need of tightening, but at least the nuts and bolts appear to have been identified. The business which resumes after the crisis may end up being quite a bit different from the old one. To some extent it depends on how long the shut down continues (and more ominously, when the second wave hits, and just how bad it turns out to be) but one might confidently speculate that a greater proportion of sales will be made on-line, whether via Bookshop, Amazon, Ingram, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart and lots of other quite surprising outlets. I do expect and hope that many local independent bookstores will be able to reopen, and B&N will be making a brave showing. They’ve been spending the shut-down rejigging their stores, which they were planning to do anyway. Ebooks spiked a bit in the early days of the crisis, but may already, or will soon return to their “normal” situation. (Isn’t it weird how annoying it seems to be to the ebook-boosting crowd that lots of people still persist in wanting physical books?)

The New York Times published an interesting article on Tuesday with data on credit card spending complied by EarnestResearch.


Yesterday marked William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday. He was born in Cockermouth on April 7th, 1770, and died at Rydal Mount on April 23rd, 1850. He’s buried in Grasmere. Cockermouth was touched upon in my recent post on The Printing House; which post shows a picture of Wordsworth’s rather impressive birthplace.

Trinity College sends an account of the Wordsworth family’s Cambridge connection. We all remember (or perhaps more realistically, are aware of) the poet’s evocation of Cambridge in The Prelude. Wordsworth went up to St John’s College in 1787. The Trinity blog quotes the bit, where Wordsworth looks out onto next-door Trinity.

“Near me hung Trinity’s loquacious clock,
Who never let the quarters, night or day,
Slip by him unproclaimed, and told the hours
Twice over with a male and female voice.
Her pealing organ was my neighbour too;
And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

Not quite a Wordsworth’s-eye view. That’s Trinity College’s Wren Library with the University Library in the background. Great Court with its clock and Newton’s statue is a sharp left from here. The blank wall in the foreground running down to the Cam, marks (I think) the edge of Trinity’s Master’s Garden which is next to St John’s.

Wordsworth seems not to have been the ideal student.

                            ” . . . Companionships,
Friendships, acquaintances, were welcome all.
We sauntered, played, or rioted; we talked
Unprofitable talk at morning hours;
Drifted about along the streets and walks,
Read lazily in trivial books, went forth
To gallop through the country in blind zeal
Of senseless horsemanship, or on the breast
Of Cam sailed boisterously, and let the stars
Come forth, perhaps without one quiet thought.”

                                  “. . . many books
Were skimmed, devoured, or studiously perused,
But with no settled plan. I was detached
Internally from academic cares;
Yet independent study seemed a course
Of hardy disobedience toward friends
And kindred, proud rebellion and unkind.”

All sounds pretty familiar — if you swap the horses for bikes. Cambridge was still encouraging such reading around the subject when I was there. The aim seemed to be rather to develop enquiring minds than to instill a body of knowledge. I was once assured “Our job is not to teach you facts, it’s to enable you to develop the ability to find them out for yourself” or words to that effect. However Wordsworth clearly picked up enough of the required knowledge to be able to get his BA in 1791.

Such literary immortality for Trinity College was not however the end of the family’s contribution to the university. Wordsworth’s little brother Christopher was Master of Trinity from 1820-1841. He had three sons, two of whom were also Fellows of Trinity. The Trinity blog post, perhaps unsurprisingly focusses primarily on their ex-Master.

Book Riot links to this story from Boing Boing which tells us that there’s noticeable demand for learning to use a typewriter among Philadelphia’s school kids. It is claimed that you pay more attention to your writing when you type on an old fashioned typewriter because it’s harder to make a correction than if you’re using a computer keyboard.

OK, but what about handwriting? I keep hearing that schools are stopping teaching handwriting. If you write in ink it’s hard too to make a correction to a page of hand-written copy, at least a correction which is not blindingly obvious. I have a belief that our brains have evolved to work at the same speed as our hand will be able to write down our thoughts. Of course, even if that’s true, a hunt-and-peck typist like me is probably going equally slowly at handwriting or at keyboarding.

There’s short video at the Boing Boing site, but it may also be accessed here.

I would think that any writer will use the writing technique which feels best to them. If you get used to writing on a heavy old manual typewriter, that’s probably the place you’ll do your best work. (I wonder if, faced by writer’s block, switching to a different technology might work.) Recently Charles Simic discussed the physical side of writing at NYR Daily, the blog of The New York Review of Books. He favors a chewed stub of a pencil, and some little scrap of paper. Of course paying too much attention to the mechanics of a writer’s production line is a reductive trivialization. Thus Mr Simic mocks the cultural media “You are known the world over for your sculptures carved out of butter, sir, turning out masterpieces that are attracting the attention of leading museums in this country and the world: Did you churn your own butter when you sculpted your famous Weeping Madonna, or did you buy it at the local supermarket? If he says he makes his own, they want to meet the cow from which the milk came and take a photograph of the two of them standing next to the sculpture.”

It’s good that there are still one or two typewriters out there for writers who like to use them, but trying to co-opt them as an educational tool is a bit over-ambitious. After all, just because it’s hard to make a correction doesn’t mean that you don’t make errors. You just spend more time damning and blasting while rectifying a situation which is so simple on a computer that making an error has become trivial. We have calculators to make learning arithmetic less important. Thus we have spell checkers to make spelling ditto.

To the extent that this educational fashion is a means of assuring the survival of a typewriter repair shop, this is of course an excellent idea.

Self-reflection is a basic part of writing a memoir. Self-regard is the pitfall awaiting the self-indulgent author of a memoir.

Witty picture from The Millions, Pulp Nonfiction.

“Write what you know” — maybe because everyone says it — is a piece of advice attributed to many originators. Whoever may have first said it, it can’t be true, or at least can’t be sufficient. No harm in writing about what you know of course, but no harm either in using your imagination. I always thought it was E. M. Forster who said it. Goodreads tells us it was Mark Twain. Literary Hub has a piece with advice from multiple sources dealing with the diktat. In the end, I conclude that almost everyone has said it: and far too many people seem to be taking the advice literally — the memoir is omni-present nowadays.

Remember the furore over James Frey’s memoir, which was discovered in 2006 to have been partly made-up? I find it hard to get too worked up about this. Do you really expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth in a book just because the publisher has labelled it non-fiction? After all who among us has perfect recall of what happened a few years ago let alone in early childhood? The mind can play tricks: even real memories can turn out to be made-up memories. I suspect that the appropriate attitude toward any memoir or autobiography is to suspect that some of the apparently firm details may in fact be wishful thinking.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read something described as a memoir. Maybe Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller counts? Teffi’s Memories comes deceptively close, at least in its title. I suppose Partick Leigh-Fermor’s accounts of his European journey could be called memoirs. Is Walden a memoir? My feeling is that there’s something necessarily light-weight about memoir as against autobiography. If your life’s interesting enough, you can do an autobiography. If you think it’s only worth a memoir it might be better to keep quiet.* And is there any real meaning behind the category “creative nonfiction”? I suspect not. If you make it up surely it can’t really be nonfiction, can it?

Still, I suppose that we keep being offered memoirs because we keep buying memoirs. Can I link the rise in memoir as a literary form with the rise of social media? We live in a world where self presentation in “print” has become an every day activity. We’ll grow out of it I’m sure.

The Guardian has a piece about authors who have lied. Most touching is perhaps the story of a teacher who, finding a lack of available fiction about teenage immigrant Muslim experience to use in his classes, wrote his own. Which seems to have worked. His big mistake was to submit some of his fiction to the BBC, using a female Asian nom-de-plume. Success brought public scorn.

It is interesting to reflect along with The Guardian that “Memoirists who lie are often in breach of contract with their publishers. Novelists, however, sign a contract to promise that their book is lying.” However, I rather doubt that memoir writers really have to bind themselves contractually not to exaggerate or mis-speak: they’ve got to write something after all!


* With slight embarrassment I have to confess to having written a memoir myself. It was basically designed to tell my granddaughters what it was like to be a child in Scotland in the forties and fifties of the last century. And of course some of the posts in this blog are open to the charge of actually being memoirs, especially those located under the index heading “CUP memories”.

Golden Goose Publishing brings us the poems of Donald J. Trump, compiled from presidential tweets — literary productions which surely secure the place of our first gentleman (!) as our first poet. As the publisher describes the work:

“Combining the measured contentiousness of Thoreau, the terse poignancy of Hemingway, and the incisive social commentary of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison, Donald J. Trump has emerged as one of the leading poets of his generation. Together with contemporaries such as Rupi Kaur and Haruki Murakami, Trump has helped bring about a revolution in twenty-first-century literary expression. Considered one of the most inventive poets in a digital world, Trump masterfully uses technology and the written word to reflect and shape the hearts and minds of his culture.

His words, at times inspirational, often fractious, always display a brilliant creative mind for linguistic inventiveness. His work continues to challenge the boundaries of what language is — as well as what it is capable of. 

This collection sheds light on the depth of his creative genius as well as the breadth of his mastery of a wide range of topics and his ability to deftly communicate across the emotional spectrum. We, the collectors of this volume, humbly present this collection of works in hope that it may move you, enlighten you, inspire you, and — above all — that you will appreciate the poetical genius of our time, Donald J. Trump.”

$39 (+ freight) required to obtain your own a copy.

We owe knowledge of this important addition to our nation’s literary heritage to Book Patrol. (A search of Amazon reveals that there are a couple of other publishers who have already had the same idea.)

In a related creative adaptation of presidential tweets, we acknowledge President Supervillain (@PresVillain on Twitter) a melding of the president’s actual words into pre-exisitng comic book artwork: e.g.:

Now publishing a selection of someone’s tweets rearranged into verse form might seem to raise a question of copyright. Are Golden Goose laying themselves open to a law suit from our tippy-topmost litigator over copyright infringement? Government communications are not copyrighted, but of course many (most/all? I don’t study this) of the author’s tweets are coming from his personal account. While the consensus seems to be that tweets are not copyrightable, the opinion rests on their brevity and specific subject matter, which it seems to me might not be directly relevant here. WIPO Magazine has a short description of the situation. The trouble of course is that new technologies come up with new ways of creating content, some of which cannot of necessity be covered by copyright law, having been no more than a gleam in someone’s eye when the law was complied. A revision of copyright law will obviously address this, and lots of other, issues.

One might argue that President Supervillain gets by on the basis of parody, an exemption to the need for permission under our current copyright law. Maybe Golden Goose can argue the same. The trouble, as ever, with copyright law exemptions is that you’ll never know whether you are right or not until you’ve been sued.

The fact that it is happening via our computers may make us think crowdsourcing, or more narrowly crowdfunding, to finance the publication of a book is something new, but books have been being “crowdfundeded” since the invention of printing from movable type. It’s not the thing that’s new; just the word. The Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia agree that the word “crowdsourcing” was first used in 2006 by Jeff Howe in Wired.

The Guardian provocatively touted Kickstarter, which started in 2009, as one of the world’s biggest powers in publishing , but this surely implies an exaggeration of the novelty of the collection of grants and subscriptions for books. Here’s John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, discoverer of the Aubrey holes at Stonehenge, and the first to recognize Avebury as an archaeological site, reporting in 1693 on his lack of success at collecting donations for his Monumenta Britannica. “. . . I think I will have to print it by collecting subscriptions instead. I have begun gathering them already and have been lucky so far. And I have sent a copy of my prospectus for publishing my book to Mr Wood. I hope he can find me some new subscribers . . . So far I have only 112 subscriptions for my Monumenta Britannica, which is not enough, so I must ask if the University will subsidize the printing of it . . . I need to find more subscribers or my manuscript will never be printed . . . It seems more and more unlikely that my Monumenta Britannica will be printed. I despair of the manuscript ever becoming a book in four volumes.” The book was in fact not published till 1980 when a quasi-facsimile edition, edited by John Fowles and Rodney Legg was issued by Little Brown and Company. Crowdsourcing was even harder back then.

Crowdfunding is a subcategory of crowdsourcing, which Wikipedia demonstrates can cover a wide range of non-finance operations. See for example Crowdsourcing content, which makes it obvious that when it comes to books you can crowdsource more than just money. Lots of money does get raised this way: according to Wikipedia “In 2015, over US$34 billion was raised worldwide by crowdfunding.”

This Observer piece tells us that Maris Kreizman is Kickstarter’s publishing ambassador. One assumes that the publishers she’s interested in are mostly self-publishers and small indie operations. The gathering of grants and subsidies can become a part of an academic publisher’s work when some complex scholarly research just cannot be published without financial support. I doubt, however, that traditional publishers are too busy crowdfunding, though Ms Kreizman does tell us she talks to them.


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.

The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation has an interesting account by Kathryn Vomero Santos of her detective work on an annotated copy of John Minsheu: A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, A Spanish Grammar, and Pleasant and Delightfvll Dialogues in Spanish and English (London, 1599).

In 2010/11 Professor Santos was examining all nine of the Folger Library’s copies of this work when she found copious annotations in one of them. She observed that “something fascinating happened: the Spanish-to-English dictionary section was removed from its original binding, interleaved with new sheets of paper, trimmed, and rebound. These new sheets of paper were ruled to mirror the three columns of the dictionary entries now on the opposite page. In various places throughout these ruled columns, a reader then inscribed a series of two or three numbers that correspond to words in the dictionary. Where the dictionary lacks a particular word, this user has added entries and numbers on the opposite page.”

You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Professor Santos’ solution to the mystery of why anyone would have gone to the trouble of interleaving the book and adding apparently cryptic numbers turns out to be that the reader in question was creating a dictionary or a concordance of Don Quixote. The numbers correspond to Part number and page number in some edition of Don Quixote of the word thus indicated on the facing page. Who exactly it was who was doing this work is uncertain. The book was part of the library of John Hunter (1728-93), Scottish surgeon. His older brother William it is for whom The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow is named. John however is commemorated in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and is also name checked in The Hunterian Society in London.

The handwriting of the annotations doesn’t however match that of John Hunter or his wife Anne. One might speculate that the book was marked up by someone who was planning to publish a concordance to Don Quixote, or a dictionary containing all the words used in that book, and that the Hunters acquired it when the job was done. Was there such a concordance or dictionary published?

My 1959 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, still to my mind the best one-volume dictionary because of its policy of nesting*, charmingly tells us that it aims to include “all words used in Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, in the poems (and many those in the prose writings) of Spencer and Milton, and in the novels of Walter Scott.” I choose to think that these handwritten annotations in the Minsheu volume were done for an eighteenth-century Chambers’s Spanish Dictionary with analogous aims.


* Nesting refers to the arrangement of entries all together under a single root heading. It can be thought of as a typographical matryoshka doll set. Saves space, but also occasionally provides quaint and interesting juxtapositions. They don’t do it any more I regret.