The Times Literary Supplement has a little object lesson under discussion these days. Philip Larkin, The Secret Poems is a book containing 56 poems created from letters Larkin wrote between 1943 and 1985. The poems, basically prose texts broken into short lines, were excavated by Roger Rix. His book comes with CreateSpace listed as the source: so it’s probably self-published. As JC reports in his NB column on 5 January, having previously discussed the book in December, “Mr Rix writes that, ‘using only Larkin’s words placed in the sequence in which they occur’, he has ‘eliminated unwanted phrases while providing judicious line breaks’”. Nobody disputes that the results are pretty good: they read like real Larkin poems, which of course they really are. It’s the © notice that’s at issue.

Mr Rix has a letter in that same issue of the TLS, in which he reports on his permission, granted by an email from Faber & Faber: “We would be happy to grant permission for you to sell your book throughout the UK and Commonwealth in print formats for up to 250 copies. Please do take this email as confirming that permission is granted on these terms.” Not a legal document with anything approaching ideal clarity, but clear, despite that “would”, that permission has indeed been given to adapt Larkin’s correspondence in this way, and publish the results in an edition of 250 copies.

No harm of course in found poetry: lots of contemporary poets go in for it. I do rather part company with found poetry when it comes to picking out of an envelope random words cut from the newspaper, and laying them out as a poem. Surely you can find something more creative to do. But turning prose into poetry is clearly more acceptable. JC tells us that W. B. Yeats lineated some prose by Walter Pater and included the resulting poem, “Mona Lisa”, in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935. Edward Thomas, at the suggestion of Robert Frost allegedly derived poems from his own prose by lineating it. Hugh MacDiarmid was an inveterate quoter, and according to JC, silently copied a story by Glyn Jones to create “his” poem “Perfect”.

However, if there’s a collaborator, the question of who holds copyright in the resultant poems is not altogether straightforward. In February 2016 Patrician Press published a book, Robert Macfarlane’s Orphans by Martin Johnson, which turns Macfarlane’s often adventurous prose into poems. I’ve not seen the book, but the lack of kerfuffle suggests that the © notice credits Macfarlane, though it does sound as if Johnson does  a bit more editing than Rix, inserting, omitting, and changing words here and there. Mr Rix claims copyright himself even though the words of his text remain unaltered: intriguingly in the Amazon “Look Inside” feature, he is claiming it as copyright 1996 — typo or evidence of some earlier publication?

Mr Rix’s permission to publish is not in question The problem, maybe nothing more than a semantic one, is that that permission didn’t transfer copyright to Mr Rix. Henry Hardy, in a letter to the TLS, writes “Faber correctly wrote that they were willing to ‘grant permission’, but Rix misreports that ‘copyright had been granted’. It hadn’t. Copyright is a property right that is not transferred when permission to publish is given.” Dr Hardy’s suggested copyright notice would be “Text © The Estate of Philip Larkin [with some dates]. Textual arrangement and editorial matter © Roger Rix 2016.” This would seem a much closer representation of the ideal; but when all’s said and done has any real harm occurred? Nobody thinks Larkin didn’t write this stuff. Mr Rix says he sent a copy of the book to the Estate, and no objections have been raised. If the Estate were to wish to include these found poems in a future Complete Works, presumably there’d be no difficulty. The facts are the facts; copyright is copyright; a faulty copyright notice is just a faulty copyright notice, and doesn’t affect the legal situation.

A little sidelight demonstrates the decay of international rights grants and the territories they seek to define now that we can order books online. Despite permission having been given for UK and Commonwealth, Amazon US offers to sell me the book — for an off-putting $45.87, it’s true. It’s available at Amazon UK for £4.60, but doubtless they’d be aware that my computer is located in USA, and they’d refuse to ship the book to me. There appears to be no indication of any market restriction in the book.

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One could be forgiven for thinking that a leaf book, if it wasn’t a tree-identification manual, was a large volume used for pressing plants between sheets of blotting paper. Plant collectors seem to have moved on a bit from such rough and ready tools. The first item in The American Museum of Natural History’s instructions on How to Press and Preserve Plants reads “Buy or build a plant press”. Nothing about looking for a heavy tome.

A leaf book is actually a book containing one leaf (2 pages) from a famous book surrounded by suitable commentary and fluff. For example 2 pages from a Gutenberg Bible surrounded by pages telling you how well Gutenberg’s presswork was executed, how he invented movable metal types etc. etc. Truly a publication for the collector: just not the botanical sort. In ABC for book collectors John Carter explains a leaf book succinctly.

“A leaf book is (or was – they are out of fashion) a way of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. A seriously imperfect copy of a famous book presented the opportunity: some suitable authority on the book would be asked to write an essay on it, a distinguished printer would be asked to give it typographic form, choosing a page slightly larger than that of the book in question, and printing as many copies as there were surviving leaves. The whole would be handsomely bound, with one leaf of the original laid in. A Noble Fragment 1921, in which this treatment was bestowed on over 200 leaves (about a third of the whole) of a copy of Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, was the original leaf book. The evidential (not to say monetary) value of a single leaf of that Bible is now so great as to make this seem deplorable vandalism; at the time, no doubt, it was regarded as an honest way to bring to a larger market something in itself virtually unsaleable. Hard cases make bad law: a leaf book is always in some way a hard case. But breaking-up is not to be condoned, even in a good cause.”

 

A slightly over-jaunty commentary doesn’t remove the interest of this video introducing you to 10 letters which were once included in our alphabet.

Link thanks to David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.

Mike Shatzkin has another thoughtful analytical piece about changes to our industry, backed up by extensive comments from The Data Guy who appears to know more than anybody else about sales numbers in the book world. Mr Shatzkin identifies five trends:

  1. Amazon continues to grow its share of print and digital sales
  2. The overall market is growing, but Amazon Publishing and indies are the growing segments
  3. Smaller legacy publishing is suffering more than the Big Five
  4. More titles now get to be bestsellers for a shorter time
  5. Some genres and categories of books are getting almost all their sales through Amazon

The Data Guy takes issue with point 3, but otherwise sees his data as confirming Mr Shatzkin’s contentions. Surprise, surprise, Amazon is gaining market share: they now account for 83% of ebook sales and more than 40% of print sales. And their share is growing. And their share will continue to grow. We don’t really know what effect their entry into the bricks-and-mortar world will have: we just assume it will be bigger rather than smaller. As a publisher they already have a large presence in certain genres such as romance and sci fi, and are America’s largest publisher of translations.

Referring to ebook sales The Data Guy says “Legacy publishers have ceded a huge chunk of market share to non-traditional players over the last several years.” But isn’t that slightly misleading? Before there was an ebook market we may well have had control of 100% of it, but 100% of $0 isn’t something anyone should be too upset at ceding! Amazon didn’t create the ebook market by bringing the Kindle to market, but it did create the big ebook market that we’ve all become used to. A publisher will always be making more on one format than on another, and this has always been true. This doesn’t mean you stop doing the less profitable formats. As long as you are making something, and that something is something more than your costs, then something’s working. Maybe it could be better; maybe it’ll get worse; we all know things fluctuate. That’s why we keep throwing the spaghetti at the wall. I don’t believe there are any publishers whose aim is for their company to sell all the books ever published: publishers just want to publish a few good books and make money (OK, as much money as possible) while doing so.

The trouble (to me anyway) about this sort of analysis is the either/or implications it encourages — not that Mr Shatzkin or Data Guy themselves are guilty of this kind of short-circuiting. Others will be. Yes we did move from horse-drawn carriages to the internal combustion engine, so that buggy-whip manufacturing went away. But we didn’t stop burning coal once our cooking stoves became electric or gas powered. When I make a soufflé I whip my egg whites by hand (the key is a copper bowl) though we do own an electric whisk which would do the job just as well. Different ways of doing things can coexist: the latest, most efficient way does not have to eliminate the earlier ones. The legacy/traditional publishing business still generates a huge amount of revenue. No company is going to give that up. Maybe individual companies will get smaller, maybe they won’t. One thing that’s not going to happen though is that they disappear overnight.

Does the fact that one publisher now makes more than half the sales of the “Big Five” mean anything other than that Penguin Random House is a very large publisher? I suspect not. HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster etc. make sales: their sales are not as big as PRH’s but they are a lot bigger than say Grove’s. Just as that doesn’t mean curtains for Grove, it doesn’t mean curtains for the “Pretty Big Four”. Trends point towards more sales concentration: so what? Smaller (and I mean here smaller even than Grove) publishers can do very well in an environment like this. Clearly self publishers, representing the extreme on the large/small curve, show us that tiny publishers can thrive in the environment we now enjoy, and so can small independent publishers, both small traditional publishers and indie publishers. Doom-sayers can disagree, but to do so they need to believe that Amazon has ambitions to be the only publisher in the world — which, even if that was a Bezos-belief, would be something they couldn’t possibly achieve given how easy it is to get in on the act nowadays.

I can’t help thinking that the disruption ahead promises more and more variety, not any kind of take over by a giant.

Maybe you’d never have guessed that the largest publisher of translations in America is Amazon. The New Republic had a piece about it a couple of years ago. Len Edgerly interviewed Gabriella Page-Fort, Amazon Crossing’s Editorial Director on The Kindle Chronicles recently.

Sensibly they ask for your suggestions for other books they might translate and publish. Such an efficient and successful company!

I expect this had no effect on the National Book Foundation who announce a new National Book Award category for  “a work of fiction or nonfiction that has been translated into English and published in the US.”

 

“Lipogram is the name applied to a species of verse in which a certain letter, either vowel or consonant, is altogether omitted” W. T. Dobson tells us in Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies, and Frolics (1880) as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. Maybe this sort of thing is more common in verse but it doesn’t have to be restricted to poetry.

Wikipedia has examples including versions of “Mary had a little lamb” worked in various lipogrammatic ways: i.e. each one avoiding a certain letter or letters.

In what must surely be one of the oddest sentences in Wikipedia we are told “Poe’s poem The Raven contains no Z, but there is no evidence that this was intentional.” Bit of a stretch to allow that to qualify it as a lipogram surely. What evidence of intentionality might we look for? A letter from Poe saying that he was planning a poem with lots of Vs and Qs, but no Z? As far as I can see very few of his other poems contain a either. Anyway I’d say it was obviously (if trivially) intentional in that Poe clearly selected no words in which Z featured. Of how many poems could we say that they contain no Z? Certainly too many to bother with. I suspect that big-league lipogrammarians would consider their job required the omission of a letter slightly more frequently-occurring than Z!

Eunoia by Christian Bök certainly satisfies on that score: it restricts itself to the use of a single vowel. Wikipedia includes it as a lipogram, though it is in fact not a lipogram but a univocalic. Each of its five “Chapters” uses a single vowel only. Incredibly this actually manages to make sense and at the same time be interesting, or at least tell a coherent story. The title, which apparently means beautiful thinking in Greek, is alleged to be the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels. It is not however represented in the OED, even after this week’s update. Maybe Mr Bök’s efforts will get it there eventually. On a bellyband around the book, Gyles Brandreth describes Eunoia as “Extraordinary, outrageous, irresistible — a must for verbivores.” I guess experimental writing encourages that sort of thing.

Here’s the first page: Chapter A continues to page 30, so he keeps the performance up for a considerable time.

Haplography (chiefly to be encountered in the world of palaeography) is “The practice or an act of inadvertently writing a letter or word, or series of letters or words, once, when it should have been repeated. Opposed to dittography, which is “double writing; the unintentional repetition of a letter or word, or series of letters or words, by a copyist.” Re-reading this paragraph I find it itself sounds a bit haplographic, or maybe I mean dittographic.

Joe Esposito clearly knows more about these sorts of things than I do, but isn’t he being a bit too vague when he writes at The Scholarly Kitchen “a fair number of not-for-profit publishers have margins that come close to 50%”? Having just talked about Elsevier’s net profit margins, isn’t he here carelessly sliding into gross margin?* Maybe not, but surely a not-for-profit publisher with a 50% net profit margin would be conspicuous. This sort of profitability was not in evidence at the not-for-profit publishing companies I’ve worked for; and they are usually described as relatively successful.

The point he makes that size brings cost reduction through efficiencies is nevertheless important, though we might not all wish to go along with the implications of the shock headline of his paper Why Elsevier is a library’s best friend, from which my quotation comes. Before big companies like Elsevier consolidated so many journals under one umbrella there were subscription agents  who could be used by librarians to consolidate all their subscriptions into a single transaction. Of course the middle man would be taking a bit of margin, but that margin has in effect merely been transferred over to the publisher whose profits on this sort of business have long been objected to as gross (as well as net).

My objection is to the suggestion that libraries unambiguously benefit from the efficiencies created by Elsevier and their like. If every journal was published by a separate publisher, each one of whom had to pay their typesetters and printers more than Elsevier with their market power do, and if they had to pay a subscription agency to manage their subscriptions, would librarians necessarily be worse off? The publisher’s margin would come way down, the subscription price might go up a little or even remain the same (nobody’s accusing Elsevier et al. of giving their journals away) and the library might end up paying more for each subscription. The big difference would come in the library’s freedom to choose. In order to get the “discounted” price on a bundle of journals from a single large publisher, you have to subscribe to them all. You may feel that 100 of these journals are essential, 50 are optional, and 25 are junk which you take because you have to in order to get the overall price. Without the consolidated subscription each individual journal might cost you more, while your overall expenditure was a good deal less, because you no longer have to subscribe to the 25 worst and maybe most of the “optional” group.

So efficiencies are good, but freedom of choice may be better.

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* Crudely, gross profit is the difference between receipts and outgoings. Net profit is gross profit minus the overhead cost of running the business, salaries, rent, insurance, paper clips and so on. In order to get your net profit within spitting distance of 10% you’d want to have your gross margin around 50%, as far above as possible. Efficiencies in operations will reduce your overhead. Reducing your overhead will increase your net profit. The PR difficulty that large commercial publishers of academic journals have is that their net profits tend to be over 30%, which their customers begin to see as excessive. It is believed that while some of this profitability may result from efficiencies, much of it comes from market dominance.

I think it may be a bit of a stretch to place the The Diamond Sutra at the start of an infographic illustrating the history of publishing. Surely ancient texts tended to be produced for reasons nobody would ever describe as publishing: for private distribution, not public. The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes two senses for the word “publishing”: “official notification, public announcement”, and “the action or business of issuing books, newspapers, etc. for public sale”. Their two earliest examples of the second meaning date from c.1454 and 1548. They seem to me to be really examples of the first meaning — at the very least they are ambiguous. Clearly by 1667 when the Royal Society notifies us that “This Author . . . promises the publishing of a Treatise about Insects” they are talking about a kind of publishing that we’d recognize.

Still the Ribbonfish chart settles down pretty well — compared to many competitors. “In its modern sense, publishing in Britain dates from the late eighteenth century, when we can first identify individuals and firms whose primary engagement was in issuing printed books for sale but were not directly involved either in printing or retail bookselling.” Thus John Feather in his A History of British Publishing. He goes on to qualify the baldness of this statement “Just as there were books before there was printing, there was publishing before there were publishers. Manuscript books were bought and sold in the ancient world and in medieval Europe. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a sophisticated trade had developed in their production, dissemination and sale. . . Not until the early nineteenth century was the word publisher established in its modern meaning, because by that time publishing and bookselling had also come to be practiced by different people and firms.” In my own mind I like to reserve the term book publisher for this eighteenth century development; thinking of the earlier manifestations as book merchant, printer/publisher, printer/publisher/bookseller or whatever.

Such vagueness need no longer continue to cloud our vision of the history of our industry. Book history has become such a thing nowadays that you can find many universities offering courses. Cambridge offers a graduate course in the Faculty of History. Many have podcasts on the subject. Here’s a link to Yale’s offerings. Look below and you’ll find several others; clicking on those will lead you to a lifetimes listening. Beware.

The website Publishing history appears to go in for listings of books published in various series. It’s an impressively long list which continues to grow.

Normally we might regard stealing books as a fairly low-level crime: even as a not altogether unacceptable means of spreading the reading habit. “[Theft] is part and parcel of what it is to be a bookseller – a certain percentage of books will wander off, and over time you know what they’ll be,” says James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, as reported by The Guardian. However earlier this month there was an unusual book heist from a Thetford warehouse. The Norfolk Police described these books as “not the sort of thing you see every day”. The haul included first editions of The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Can this Harry Potter book really be worth £40,000 as BBC.com asserts? Who puts these prices on books? Harry Potter was such a publishing phenomenon that one would assume that second hand copies would be a drug on the market. It can’t be that rare can it?

Well, it turns out that it can be. Wikipedia tells us  “In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print-run of 500 copies in hardback, 300 of which were distributed to libraries” so the book is actually quite rare, and, given popular fervor, such a price might actually be realistic. “Her original name, ‘Joanne Rowling’, can be found in small print on the copyright page of this first British edition. (The 1998 first American edition would remove reference to ‘Joanne’ completely.) The short initial print run was standard for first novels . . . Examples from this initial print run have sold for as much as $33,460 in a 2007 Heritage Auction.”

One might like to argue with the assertion that 500 copies was standard for first novels in the 1990s. If you added another zero, I might not object. If the hardback came out simultaneously with a paperback edition, (the table of dates in the Wikipedia article appears actually to be for the US Scholastic edition) then a short run of the hardback might have been done if the publisher had wanted the paperback to be the primary edition. Maybe if they were doing a few hardbacks just to supply the library market, 500 might have not been too out of the way. I don’t think that Bloomsbury was focussed on the paperback though. They may have just done 500 as a sort of prepublication test, though this seems unusual and in need of some explanation. One would assume that information about this would be available somewhere, but I’m not able to find it in any reasonable timeframe. We have of course to remember that hindsight always distorts. The book was by no means guaranteed to be a publishing sensation. The public had to weigh in for that to come about. Bloomsbury however look like they were being strangely cautious. They can hardly be assumed to have been intending to fuel the second-hand market twenty years on. Obviously everyone woke up to reality quite quickly after publication and reprints in quantities way north of 500 were quickly done. For example a copy from the 22nd printing of the book is available second hand at £48. So in order to fund your retirement you’ll need one of these 500 1st edition 1st printing copies with the J. K. expanded to Joanne.

The resale value of your books is governed by rarity (and condition). Biblio.com has a simple site where you can see what current offerings are for this or that book. Bear in mind that the prices delivered are the prices people are being asked to pay, not the amount a dealer will offer you. That will be a good deal less: book dealers need to make a profit too.

Isn’t it likely to be simpler just to get another pillow? But this photo does indicate one of the difficulties of reading in bed: posture. Still, like so many things, if you are used to half-an-hour’s reading every night with your head propped up and neck bent forward, you will quickly get used to it. The fact that these fancy glasses never caught on suggests that they were indeed the solution to a non-existent problem. Heavy books do present a challenge for the bed reader (just as they do in the subway).* Still, if you’re deeply engaged in the book the balancing act you have to perform with that 1,000-page volume will recede into irrelevance. Last November Robert Gray had a nice piece about reading in bed at Shelf Awareness. Read it at his blog, Fresh Eyes Now.

I wonder if there are any physical commonalities with books for bed reading: do people chose thin volumes over massive tomes. For myself I can detect no avoidance of heavy books, though I probably tend to steer away from heavy (in the sense of serious subject matter, requiring constant thought and analysis) for bedtime reading. But of course, if I’m fascinated by this book on quantum mechanics, I’m not not going to read it at every available moment.

Author Howard Jacobson (who shockingly confesses to having abandoned reading in bed in favor of television) calls  in his Guardian piece for someone to write a history of reading in bed. Tough research project for a book history grad student looking for a thesis subject! Is he generalizing from his own experience when he claims that the practice has declined overall? Until the research is done we won’t know (if then, since historical data will be recoverable only via unreliable often boastful memory) but my bet is that the amount of reading in bed hasn’t declined at all. We readers should never forget that reading is a minority interest — not because of smartphones, but because it always was, and always will be. There have always been relatively few readers, and thus also relatively few readers-in-bed. There’s no way to reach any conclusion about numbers — but of course demography is our friend here: if 10% of people read in bed, that means that there are many more of them today than there were 50 years ago. That we continue to think of reading in bed as a sort of norm is evidenced by the first question in the New York Times Book Review‘s weekly column “By the Book” which is always “What books are on your nightstand?”. One may be able to detect a slight tendency for self-aggrandizement in the answers given: there’s certainly no shortage of heavy tomes.

Having been brought up in the north, reading in bed, seasonally at least, was almost unavoidable. If you have to go to bed at 9pm you’ve still got a good hour, hour and a half of summertime daylight to encourage you to keep going. I remember (no doubt in the winter) a lot of under the bedclothes with a torch (flashlight) reading too. I suspect — well, more than suspect, insist — that adult reading in bed is merely a continuation by alternate means of being read a bedtime story by a parent. We all acknowledge how important in the making of a reader is that parental service: I think I can remember (though I really know I can’t) the moment when I told my mother not to bother, I’d take over from here on.

Now those purveyors of sleep, hotels, are more aggressively getting into the book business. Some are furnishing their rooms with books which they will be happy to sell you, having a small inventory in the cellar. Here’s Bustle telling us of room-book-service at a Paris hotel. Is a hotel room with a few books not bibliophilic enough for you? Then you’ll relish the news from Atlas Obscura that you can book a room in William Ewart Gladstone’s library in Hawarden, Wales. The Poetry Brothel appears to be aiming in a slightly different direction, one which doesn’t involve beds.

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* Actually I think big thick, oversized books present a problem anywhere really. Maybe we can get some requirement added to our next copyright revision law that books may not weigh more than 1 or 2 pounds. War and Peace in three volumes is a much preferable offering (to me anyway) than one single podgy book. Costs more of course.