An electrotype has a thin copper shell deposited by electrolysis onto the letterpress type. The copper coating is more durable than the original type metal and the thin covering makes for a sharper and more accurate printing surface than a stereotype with its intermediate step of a mould. Invented in Russia in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi (according to most sources) electrotyping was used for over a century in printing longer, high quality runs.

The basic chemistry of the process can be seen in this Met video of a Tiffany vase being duplicated by electrolysis.

It seems to be a bit of an overgeneralizing leap to slither from the closing of The University Bookseller in Plymouth to the contention that the academic print book is dying, but here is The Digital Reader last year racing off down that alley with The Bookseller keeping pace with him. His first paragraph has a link to an earlier piece of his “proving” the same point. I rather preferred Richard Fisher’s sober take on the issue.

But is there any reason to think that the online world, whether in its form of ebooks and database access, or in its sales aspect, is killing academic publishing. It’s true that more and more books are sold online, and specialized books are more likely to go this way than popular material — you’d be crazy to turn up at Barnes & Noble hoping to find a copy of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline. But of course a sale made via Amazon is still a sale.

Publishing Perspectives debates Academic Books and Digital Dynamics. We (or a subset of us) keep hoping that digital development is going to be the white knight galloping up to save the academic book. This assumes, of course, that the academic book needs saving. I question this assumption, while admitting that it is possible that a lemming-like capitulation could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was never (Never? Well, hardly ever) easy to publish monographs. They have always been expensive to produce, and by definition are directed at a small, specialized audience. So they are expensive to buy: Duh.

I do think that part of the problem has been the commercialization of the publishing business over the past half century or so. When big corporations buy publishing companies they expect returns, and publishers beaver away to deliver what they can. Maybe, however, most of the book business is by its nature a small-scale operation selling a few good books to a few good readers. Just because trade publishing can (almost) be turned into a branch of the entertainment industry doesn’t mean that this can be done to all publishing companies. But the temptation to grow is hard to resist: what boss is going to have the internal fortitude to say “No. We are not going to increase sales. We are going to make our books better, and if this means fewer and fewer people can afford them, that’s just the nature of the business”?

We all continue to wrestle with the increasing costs of everything, and work away at balancing our books. What has changed in the debate is the arrival of the ebook with its marginal cost of (virtually) zero. This Siren-call has beguiled a proportion of us into thinking that this tool can magically transform the economics of the specialized book. But if, as Kathy Christian asserts, it costs $25,000 to publish an academic book, the fact that the second copy you sell costs you $12,500 + $0 doesn’t put you in a much better place than a printed copy costing you $12,500 + $3.75. The marginal cost benefit only begins to mean something once you have sold enough copies to have amortized your $25,000 up-front cost. The point at which this will happen will depend on what price you’ve put on the book, plus several other variables. (See: Costing.)

Ithaka S+R reports on a study the cost of publishing monographs. (Link via Jose Afonso Furtado). I have commented on this report previously.

The key issue in the future of the academic monograph is however always, always, always what the academic community wants. Publishers, I keep on saying, do not make policy, establish trends, create policy; they are a conduit bringing what their authors write to interested readers. As long as academic discourse takes the form of the monograph (which probably means as long as a PhD requires a thesis) there will be publishers ready to bring the product out and hopeful of making some money by doing so. The question of what format the monograph should take is a separate one. Perhaps unsurprisingly the academic usage profile appears to match the sort of general level of ebook vs. print book sales. Academics find reference searches easier with a digital book, but prefer reading the resultant reference in a print book.

2015Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R writes a thoughtful piece at The Scholarly Kitchen. Their latest research shows academics preference for print books in most areas continues, and indeed has increased over the past three years. Researching for a particular topic remains the area where digital scores heavily. There seems to me to be no real problem with this. It does increase your origination costs to have to originate for both digital and print, but we have almost all been biting this bullet for quite a few years now.

At such time as faculty review boards stop using monographs, in print, and journal publication records as the measure for assessing academics when it comes to hiring and tenure decisions, then perhaps we’ll see academics stopping writing monographs. Maybe there could be a different way of communicating academic research: it’s not for the publishing industry to come up with that idea. We just serve our public. And what they want (albeit in smaller quantities that they did a few years ago) appears to be what we are doing.


If Ray Kurzweil says it’s possible who am I to disagree? Cathy O’Neil’s piece at reports on an interview of Kurzweil by Neil deGrasse Tyson in which the claim is made that books may well one day be directly uploaded to your brain via some tricky nano-bots floating around in your bloodstream.

But I’m not sure the examples given are the right ones. Uploading The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace directly to your brain would of course save a lot of reading time — but then so too would not starting them in the first place. Is what we get from these books, or any novel, the sort of thing that would be provided by the entire text suddenly appearing in your mind? One has to assume that the entire text would be instantly and completely available to you upon upload, something which is not my experience with the conventional method of upload, reading. By the time you’ve reached chapter 100 you may hate that character you loved at the start, and you may now be a little hazy about what went on in chapter 2. If it was an important thing this might necessitate a refresher return to the beginning. Nothing wrong with this: it’s just how it is, and is part of the pleasure of reading. Our minds cannot remember everything all of the time, and our attitude towards people develops as we get to know them better, or indeed as we see more or less of them. As you read through a book you develop expectations, hopes and fears concerning the characters and the events to which they are exposed. A nano-robotic one-off upload would bypass all this and leave you with the whole thing, just sitting there. With any story it’s more about the journey than it is about the arrival.

Now if direct upload isn’t the way we want to interact with fiction, it may well be better suited to things like The Driver’s Handbook, The Elements of Electronics, How to Win at Poker, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plumbing Repair, Sibley’s Guide to Birds. Just imagine living with someone who had ingested the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Talk about a know-it-all — though we probably wouldn’t, because by then knowing everything would no doubt be boringly commonplace.

Link via The Digital Reader.

See also Direct to consumer

We tend to think of online publishing as meaning large reference projects to which, if you are lucky, your library subscribes. Things like Oxford Scholarship Online which makes electronic versions of 13,000 scholarly monographs available to the subscriber. Or the Oxford English Dictionary. OSO is the basis for University Press Scholarship Online, a collection of content from 25 academic presses around the world who are using Oxford’s platform to distribute their online content.

Notable by its absence from this list is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Cambridge University Press. Their equivalent, Cambridge Core offers content from 360 journals, and an impressive 30,000 ebooks, again on a subscription basis.

But massive databases, accessible only by an expensive subscription, are not of course the only kind of online publishing, even for academic books. In one way one might think of ebooks as directed at the end-user, the retail customer, and online offerings as selling via subscription to libraries, but there’s really a shading of one group into the other. Terminology is still evolving, but I suggest that the terms we might end up with ought perhaps to contain a distinction between work published in electronic form only and work published first in print and then converted to digital formats. Obviously a large proportion of the huge output of self-publishing is available only in ebook form: many self-published authors don’t want to fill their homes with cartons of books which they then have to sell off. Though it remains unusual for the traditional publishing company to publish in digital format only, experimentation is taking place. Academic publishers are also beginning to use the halfway house which is ebook + the option of print-on-demand.

But there’s no reason it shouldn’t work well to publish directly into an online format. Last year Publishing Perspectives told the story of CNET’s plan to publish “books” online under the label Technically Literate. The stories stream, so you need a connection, but if you want to read them in the subway (which seems the ideal place to me) you can download to your Kindle or Kindle app. I suspect author pressure may lead to a wider range of formats being made available, but experimentation has got to be a good idea.

I thought the first story Technically Literate published, The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley, was pretty good.

See also BuzzFeedDigital book, digital format, and The future of electronic literature.


The U. S. Treasury used to have  department which would refurbish bills which had gotten dirty (not we hope exclusively dirty money) using a custom-built laundry machine which would soap, scrub, disinfect and iron dollar bills, saving the Treasury  from the need to print about $250,000 of new bills each year. Naturally the printers’ unions didn’t like it. Atlas Obscura tells us the story, with a small gallery of photos.

As we learned at the Crane Museum of Papermaking dollar bills (almost exclusively single dollars — we seem to be able to remember to remove larger bills from our pockets — often inadvertently go into the wash. This has the effect of washing off the potato starch with which our currency is coated, an absence which can be detected with a fluoroscope. Of course we all have one of those lying around, don’t we?

Felt is a woolen fabric made by compacting fibers together: it is non-woven. We all know what it looks like, and because this look can be imparted to woven cloth by teaseling* it, which we call felting, there has arisen a tendency to think of felt as woven. Properly speaking though it is not. The website How products are made has a full description.

I recently received a query as to what printer’s felt might be. It was a blanket, a sort of padding used to soften the impression in letterpress printing which facilitated the transfer of the ink to the paper by making the contact less smash-bang rigid. The material used might at sometime have really been felt, but was more commonly something else: paper, cardboard, anything with a bit of give in it.

We come across the word more commonly in paper-making, where a piece of felt is used as a divider between sheets of paper as they were hand delivered by the vatman. The coucher (pronounced coocher) is the one who deploys the felt, as described in Paper making by hand 2.

The felt side is that side of a sheet of paper that has not been in contact with the Fourdrinier wire, and which therefore is the smoother side of the sheet. In modern commercially-made paper this distinction is hard to see, except in the case of a laid paper.


* A teasel is a thistle-like plant of the family Dipsacus. It has hooked prickles and when the flowers are dead the plants are harvested and used in the cloth trade to raise the nap on cloth. When I was a boy woolen mills had huge frames on which hundreds of teasles were mounted. No doubt we nowadays have some man-made cheaper equivalent.

Well of course we should all regret the decision of Duquesne University to close their press. Having a press is a sort of badge of seriousness for a university, though the idea many outsiders have, that a university will establish a press in order to publish the books written by its own faculty, is just wrong. Professors at university ABC will happily publish at the press of university DEF, especially as different presses have different strengths. Furthermore there is no fall-back right for academics at university XYZ to have their home press publish their books — though there’s often a great deal of embarrassment in declining the work of a colleague and friend. Any book has to be good enough to be published anywhere. Nevertheless shutting your press down must represent some kind of admission of failure, though I can’t help reflecting that no person or organization is under any requirement to be a publisher. It’s not a moral issue, and nor is it, as the AAUP’s statement strives to imply, a matter of choosing between sports and learning.

“The Association of American University Presses denounces the decision last week by the administration of Duquesne University rejecting the efforts of the association, the university’s faculty, the staff of its Press, and even some members of the administration itself to identify alternatives to the closure of Duquesne University Press. Despite a robust list of alternatives that would reduce cost while retaining quality, the university confirmed its intention to withdraw support and close its press. The decision was announced the same week as the hiring of a new men’s basketball coach with a seven-figure annual salary, and shortly after the unveiling of plans to invest $40 million in the refurbishing of the basketball arena. In AAUP’s view — and indeed in the view of many other observers both on- and off-campus — these consumption choices seem inconsistent with the institutional mission and aspirations of a national research university.” — Part of the AAUP’s statement yesterday concerning Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pa., and its press.

From Shelf Awareness, 6 April 2017.

On an idiot level it’s hard to argue against the fact that college sports earn universities large sums of money — and no doubt a successful basketball team means more to most people in the world out there than a record of publishing great monographs most of which no doubt struggle to sell 1,000 copies each. Personally I deplore the decision, and of course the AAUP’s got to stand up and be counted — that’s what they’re there for — and they don’t want to lose a member press either.

The university claims their annual subsidy to the press is of the order of $300,000. While this is indeed next to nothing compared to the cost of a new basketball stadium, it is surely within the rights of the university to decide that it is more than they wish to continue to invest. It’s all very unfortunate, but there are arguments on both sides. Closing a press probably doesn’t actually reduce the access of scholars to avenues of publication. Duquesne is a fairly small press. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it publishes 10 books a year, though in some years it looks to be one or two fewer. Other university presses will no doubt be ready and able to take over the flow of manuscripts, so one can’t really run the argument that scholarship is going to be affected by the closure. Sure, a well-curated publishing program can support or even, in rare instances, stimulate an avenue of academic enquiry, but ultimately a good book will always be able to find a home. Duquesne has a niche in Milton studies, and indeed publishes the annual hardback volume Milton Studies. But of course other presses publish books about Milton, and no doubt homes will be found for future work.

New manuscripts may end up facing some delays, but should transition fairly successfully. The back list is where the main problem lies. Authors will no doubt get rights-reversions and many will be able to get other publishers to take on their books. No doubt however there will be several books which will just become unavailable joining the ranks of orphan books despite actually having a parent!

The real sufferers however will be the five staff members. Not only are they losing their jobs, but they are probably facing the necessity of changing either career or domicile; Pittsburgh is unlikely to be bursting with publishing jobs. Being laid off is always traumatic, even in the fertile ground which is New York City. It’s no immediate consolation to be assured that the shake-up of an enforced job change almost always ends up being “a good thing”. Being forced out of that rut does tend to work out to be ultimately invigorating.

Grammar Girl, via The Passive Voice, brings us the news of a sensible change at Associated Press. The AP Style Manual now embraces a bit more gender neutrality:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

I see from the piece that it was 2011 already that AP decreed email should lose its hyphen. I will have to try to comply.

Why do we have to get our books out earlier, quicker, sooner, faster; never better, more thoroughly edited, proofread, indexed, and more carefully manufactured?

Molly Flatt at The Bookseller considers this question.

I can remember a time when printers (more the workers perhaps than the nonetheless acquiescent management) used to like to delay jobs in order to ensure that there’d be work on hand for next week/month/year. The norm back in the sixties was that you’d send a manuscript by mail to the typesetter asking for a cast off and estimate. After two or three weeks you’d pick up the phone and ask after your estimate. The invariable response was “It’s in my in-box. I’ll be getting to it in the next couple of days”. You knew this meant that in a week or two your estimate should arrive.

The same work-spacing rule applied to the typesetting, printing and binding of the book. When I started out it was regarded as a rarity to get a book into the warehouse in less than a year from receipt (from the editorial department) of the manuscript, and while we disdained to make such calculations, I’d imagine that our average was more like 18 months. I’ve no idea where we stand now but I certainly lived through the breaking of the 12-month and 9-month barriers. If you think it’s better that the compositor send you queries about the accuracy of the mathematics or the Greek he’s setting, rather than just to bang it out and hope that someone notices the mistakes, then you are voting for slower rather than faster production.

No sooner had I drafted this than here comes a post by Rick Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen asking whether journals oughtn’t to start aiming at publication schedules that are slower thus more accurate. But don’t journals exist at least partly as an alternative to the slower, more “authoritative” publication of research in book form? I can’t see that speed to publication in journals can be anything other than a benefit. The more the better, and while accuracy is obviously an essential good, I suspect that the sorts of inaccuracies a publisher can prevent (mainly spelling and semantics rather than substance) can be sacrificed without great loss in the interest of speed.

I’m not sure I see how the experience of newspapers and magazines has any great relevance in the discussion of academic journals. Columbia Journalism Review is quoted by Mr Anderson as saying “In our conversations with research editors at more than a dozen award-winning national and regional magazines, we found this same pattern: Print gets the full-on fact-checking; online content gets at most a spot-check.” But this really has marginal relevance to academic book and journal publishing. Academic and journal publishers do not do fact checking. In so far as anything like fact checking is carried out, it is done by academic referees who vouch for the general accuracy of the paper they are looking at. They cannot guarantee the accuracy of detailed results of experiments: to do so would require them redoing the research, and this is just not how the system of research works. Results are published; an academic referee or two has vouched for the reliability of the researchers and their general approach; the results are tested by other researchers repeating the experiments; any variations in results form the basis for yet another journal paper; and thus the procedure starts all over again until eventually, maybe, we reach the “truth”. Writing for a magazine or a newspaper is nothing like this. Your readers are not going to stop and test your claims nor are most of them qualified to do so anyway. Thus because you are addressing a less knowledgable audience you have to be more careful that what you assert is in fact accurate because you are dealing with an audience which doesn’t share the assumption that journal readers have that this article is to be seen as a step in a process of eliminating error and reaching consensus on what reality looks like. Counter-intuitively perhaps the less “educated” your audience the greater the requirement to be absolutely accurate.

So while it may be perfectly good for newspapers and journals to take more time over their work, and probably, I think, would also be desirable for book publishers, I do think journals should remain focussed on speed to publication. On-line pre-prints help, but the sooner research results are published the sooner they can be tested.

The Obamas’ dual book deal seems to have gotten folks thinking.

Here’s Nina Martyris at The Paris Review looking at David Bellos’ new book The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’. Mr Bellos points out that because the c. $3.8 million (in today’s money) that Hugo received in 1861 for Les Misérables was for an eight year license, this remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature. These sorts of things are difficult to compute: but here from a few year’s ago is The Daily Beast‘s piece on 14 of the biggest book advances. Forbes obligingly provides a photo gallery showing the 15 top earning authors of 2016.

What does seem extraordinary in the deal for Les Misérables is that the young Belgian publisher, Albert Lacroix, aged 28, was able to raise this large sum as a loan from the Oppenheimer bank. The book may go into this a bit more I guess, but The Paris Review article doesn’t enlarge on it, though it does note that Lacroix had contacts at the bank. They must have been good ones! He even got the loan before he’d contacted Hugo. Lacroix obtained translation rights as part of the deal, and mitigated the risk a bit by subleasing the French edition to a local publisher. As The Guardian tells us “‘There’s some irony in a novel so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major bank loan,’ Bellos notes, ‘probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book’.”

Ms Martyris writes “On the morning of April 4, 1862, part 1 of Les Misérables, called ‘Fantine,’ was released simultaneously in Brussels, Paris, Saint Petersburg, London, Leipzig, and several other European cities. No book had ever had an international launch on this scale. Within a day, the first Paris printing of six thousand copies sold out to the avid queues that snaked around the bookstores. The critics and literati panned it brutally. . . But the people absolutely loved it. When forty-eight thousand copies of the ‘Cossette’ and ‘Marius’ volumes went on sale a month later, ‘Hugonic fandom’ had reached such a fever pitch that shoppers in Paris arrived with handcarts and wheelbarrows to whisk away as many copies as possible.” Lacroix was able to pay off his loan within months — presumably payment terms in the trade were less lengthy than they became.

The New York Times Book Review focusses on the non-financial aspects of the book. Tobias Grey, their reviewer, quotes Mr Bellos’s claim that “there are around 20,000 different words in the 630,000 words of the text”. To drag the focus back to money, this means that Hugo was paid at a rate of around $6 a word. The Obamas’ rate, which I speculatively calculated at the link at the top of this page, dwarfs this. Hugo started writing Les Misérables in 1845 and got it published 17 years later, though apparently he set it aside for 13 years in the middle (and nearly lost the manuscript in Paris riots). President Obama is said to be hard at work on a beach in Tahiti: he and Mrs Obama will probably deliver their manuscripts in something more like 17 months than 17 years.

See also Romolan royalties for another massive authorial payment.