Month: December 2007
It’s easy to get so immersed in a subject that you lose track of how much of it is generally known. I’ve been talking about the difficulties of independent publishing for so long that it began to seem to me that the subject was common knowledge. Then a comment on this blog made me realize that I needed to take a step back. So, over the next few days, I will do a quick overview of the plight of the independent book publisher.
Let’s start by recalling the contributions of the great American publishing companies of the 20th century. As we go along we can also see what has become of them.
- Dodd, Mead and Co. published such authors as Anatole France, A. E. Housman, G. K. Chesterton, Kenneth Grahame, and Agatha Christie. It went out of business in 1990, having failed to find a buyer.
- Doubleday & Co. published Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Joseph Conrad. It became part of the Bantam Doubleday Dell division of Random House in 1998, having been acquired by the German multinational Bertelsmann in 1986.
- E. P. Dutton published writers like Francoise Sagan, Lawrence Durrell, Luigi Pirandello, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Matthiessen. It was acquired by Penguin in 1986.
- Authors published by Harper (Harper & Brothers / Harper & Row) included Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, and Dickens. It was acquired by News Corp in 1987.
- Henry Holt published Robert Frost, Hermann Hesse, Norman Mailer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivan Turgenev, and H.G. Wells. It was acquired by HBJ in 1986.
- Houghton Mifflin was started by Ticknor and Fields, who published Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau. The company was acquired by Vivendi in 2001 and passed on to Riverdeep in 2006.
- Alfred A. Knopf used to publish great literature in translation as well as serious original literature. Their authors included Witter Bynner, Robert Graves, Wyndham Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Ezra Pound, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Jorge Amado, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, Yasunari Kawabata, and many more. It was bought by Random House in 1960 and acquired by Bertelsmann (which employed Jewish slave labor during the Nazi period) in 1998.
Knopf’s list was largely built on translation, but by the time I was the director of Mercury House we were publishing more literature in translation each year than Knopf was.
- Little Brown’s authors included Donald Barthelme, J. D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, and P. G. Wodehouse. It was acquired by Time in 1968 and sold to Hachette in 2006.
- Macmillan published Matthew Arnold, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats. It was acquired by Robert Maxwell in 1989 and after bankruptcy reemerged as the business name of another German multinational, Georg von Holtzbrinck.
- G. P. Putnam’s Sons published notable authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Vladimir Nabakov. It was acquired by Penguin in 1996.
- Random House, the world’s largest English-language general trade book publisher, is now owned by Bertelsmann, a multinational corporation with a dubious past; Bertelsmann is based in Germany.
- Charles Scribner’s Sons published such authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut. It merged with Atheneum in 1978 and again with Macmillan in 1984, and is now owned by Holtzbrinck.
(Update 12/21/07, a correction from Galley Cat: “Scribner somehow winds up still a division of Macmillan, but the Macmillan that bought Charles Scribner’s Sons in the ’80s and was then acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1994 was a separate entity from Macmillan Publishers Ltd., which is now the company formerly known as Holtzbrinck.”)
- W. W. Norton was known for distinguished nonfiction publishing. It is the only publisher on this list that is still independent.
- William Morrow was perhaps best known for its children’s authors such as Beverly Cleary. It was acquired by Hearst Corporation in 1981 and sold to News Corp in 1999.
Now, you might say, publishing companies are sold and merged all the time. Why does any of this matter? It is true that such changes in its landscape have been a part of publishing since the Renaissance. But:
- Never before has such a large percentage of the publishing market been in the control of so few organizations.
- Never before has so much of American publishing been accountable to foreign owners.
- Never before has publishing been a piece of giant entertainment multinationals that control not just book publishing but to a large degree its promotion and distribution.
There is no need to romanticize. I’m not saying the old publishers were better or more dedicated people than those in the business today — it’s just that there were so many more of them. Yes, we have more independents than ever in the sense that the bar to printing a book has been lowered by technology so that there are a seemingly infinite number of garage operations. But there’s a big difference between printing a book and being a publishing company.
Today 80 percent of U.S. publishing is controlled by five giant multinational corporations. In my next post we will take a closer look at who they are and how their activities affect the way books are published in this country.
Shown: Alfred A. Knopf in his office, from the Knopf Archives.
One of the most impressive things about Google is its staying power. The life cycle of online ventures is usually pretty short. Digg, for example, is no longer as compelling as it once was, despite its inflated offering price.
Then there’s Technorati. Its ascension into the heights of the blogosphere was the result of its being the first search engine or aggregator for blogs. (Over the first two decades of the internet all that has been required for massive success has been one simple idea, but surely at some point more sophisticated thinking will be necessary.) What is Technorati good for now?
No, really — I can’t figure it out. Google Blog Search does a better job of searching blogs for content. (WordPress 2.3 has abandoned Technorati and now uses Google Blog Search to track backlinks.) Sites like MyBlogLog and BUMPzee are better at the social aspect of blogging.
I have a bunch of feeds designed to find new material on various topics, but the Technorati feeds have become entirely redundant and are not finding material that I can’t find more quickly by other means. I think I am going to have to delete all the Technorati feeds. Redundancy creates inefficiency and with a day job, several blogs, and free-lance work on the side I can’t afford to be any more inefficient than I naturally am.
So tell me, what is the use of Technorati?
Recently there has been an increase in calls for the inclusion of ads in printed books (this “On the Media” report, for example, touches on the idea). There’s a degree of desperation in this — supposedly it would help to address the difficulties of making publishing profitable. Alongside these calls has been the inevitable hand wringing about sullying the sanctity of the book by adding a smudge of commerce. Not that the publishing industry doesn’t have dirty laundry, but it’s felt unseemly to display it publicly.
I say there’s nothing wrong with putting ads in books, and if publishers can really make money this way they should go right ahead. It’s been done before — pick up any mass market paperback from the 50s. The real problem lies on the other side of the equation — the advertiser’s side. Most books produce very small numbers compared to other media. At North Point Press we once had a book make the New York Times Bestseller List when it had only 30,000 copies in print. An ad in a book will get far fewer views or listens than one on television, radio, the internet, magazines, or even the endangered daily paper. Moreover, books today have a short shelf life in stores. Yes, they do have a long life in libraries, used bookstores, thrift stores, and home shelves, but few advertisers are looking to pay big bucks for stale downmarket exposure years from the point of purchase. In fact, the ability of books to endure for decades (or centuries) is more of a minus than a plus, since out-of-date ads only confuse current campaigns.
In general, print media advertising is more about brand exposure and awareness than direct selling. This requires a level of market saturation that would be difficult to achieve through book advertisements. Face it: the virgin pages that publishing people are agonizing over sacrificing on the altar of commerce are just not that desirable. The valuable parts of a book for an advertiser would be the front cover, spine, and back cover, because these don’t require opening the book and could get some store hits from book browsers. For many books these are also the only areas that are full color. But to advertise in these areas would probably kill sales pretty effectively in all but a few market segments.
There may be some niche markets where advertising could work. For example, in a book about whitewater canoeing a discount code for canoes and canoeing supplies might generate some modest sales. Travel guidebooks and other regional publications could get local ads. But in general the reason that books don’t currently have a lot of ads, while magazines and newspapers do, has nothing to do with the purity of book publishers compared to magazine and newspaper publishers and everything to do with the relative value of the book as an advertising medium.
NPR’s “On the Media” reported some publishing trends recently. Among the interesting facts:
- Bookstores account for only 40 percent of book sales nationally.
(The percentage would probably be even lower if book marketing was more sophisticated.)
- Amazon accounts for 11 percent of all book sales nationally.
(I would like to see more people shop at Powell’s.)
- OTM claims that print on demand (POD) will enable independent stores to better compete with the big boxes.
(I’m not so sure of this. If POD machines catch on they are likely to be installed outside bookstores in all sorts of high-traffic locations.)
- The membership of the American Booksellers Association has dropped from more than 5000 to around 1700 over the past decade.
(This is partly because of the decline in independent book selling, but I think it also reflects the changing role of the ABA. Thanks to the internet it is no longer as necessary for bookseller to go to the annual publishing convention, which has become more of a rights fair than a booksellers’ convention.)
- Reading proficiency is declining across the board.
(This is good for publishers such as Chronicle Books who focus more on pictures than words.)
Yourshelves.com is a project of kimbooktu, who explains:
I collect pictures of libraries of ordinary people. People who love to read – and collect – books from all over the world. Every time I get a new ‘library’ I am amazed at how book lover’s keep their possessions. The fun part is; all the libraries have something in common. It is impossible to say who owns which library. All the shelves are loved. And most of the time there is too little space.
Gender, country, religion, color. It is said that one’s books say a lot about a person. But all the libraries on Your Shelves! just scream one thing at me. Passion for books. The rest does not matter. It is really about the things in what we are alike. Books.
It’s interesting, from an interior decorating and livestyle point of view, to see the diversity in the libraries. Every one of which is more orderly and less sprawling than mine, which desperately needs editing.
Shown is the library of Rachel and Dan from Schuylerville, New York (Kimbooktu is based in the Netherlands). They “love all kinds of books, but particularly love books about natural history, books about books, historical mysteries, jazz books, and fiction by Michael Ondaatje, George Macdonald Fraser, Sarah Bird, Charles Dickens, Russell Banks, Robertson Davies, Patrick O’Brian and Ian Rankin.”
I missed the discussion about this book cover during the accompanying exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, last summer. Clearly the provocative cover image of the catalogue is intended to cause the viewer to consider the nature of feminism and feminist art.
According to the museum website, “the artists in WACK! made feminism one of the most important influences on art of the late twentieth century”:
In the 1970s, women changed the way art was made and talked about forever. WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution is a long-awaited international survey that chronicles the impact of the feminist revolution on art made between 1965 and 1980, featuring groundbreaking works by artists such as Chantal Akerman, Lynda Benglis, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Valie Export, Mary Heilman, Sanja Ivekovic, Ana Mendieta, and Annette Messager, who came of age during that period — as well as others such as Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Lucy Lippard, Alice Neel, and Yoko Ono, whose careers were well established.
A lively discussion on the MOCA page, focusing on the cover art, begins with these comments:
Sarah Rossiter: “The front cover unfortunately caters to the power structures that Feminism has sought to combat.”
Paige Wery: “I think Sarah Rossiter misses the point. The cover of this catalog is empowering.”
The cover art is Body Beautiful, Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem, 1966-1972, by Martha Rosler. Here is an excerpt from the catalogue about the series of which this painting is a part:
In one series of thirty-one works, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain, Rosler interrupted magazine advertisements by collaging them with elements that call attention to the ubiquitous use of women’s bodies and body parts in the media to market consumer goods.
Whenever I come across a new blog I read the latest postings and, if I like those, I add the site to my news reader. I always intend to go back and browse the archived postings but I rarely do so. Figuring that a lot of visitors to my site also never make it too far into the archives, I decided to pull together a selection of postings from my archives and create a free e-book.
It’s a handsome book in a narrow vertical format (a format often used in travel publishing). The Bodoni face seems a good choice for the subject. My only regret is that there are not more images, which would surely bring value and add appeal, considering the subject.
The immediacy of blogging may cause us to forget that the process is also a way of preserving content and building on it. I think this project is an excellent example of utilizing and repurposing the results of sustained, focused blogging.
Recently I launched a new blog on Asian art and culture, called 7junipers.com. It’s a long-term project, and I have done virtually no promotion or link building for it yet. But I did photoblog a couple of images from the site for stumbleupon. You can see the resulting spikes in traffic on this chart (courtesy google analytics). From this you can see that while stumbleupon delivers a lot of traffic, it isn’t necessarily sticky. After both spikes my visits went right back to where they were before. It’s possible that some stumblers may have favorited the site or someone may have subscribed to its feed, so there could still be a small benefit down the road. Nonetheless, it looks like this has not been an effective traffic builder in this instance.
I process most images that I post to the web in Photoshop, and I have a simple workflow that does what I want with a minimum of fuss. The whole process only takes a minute or two. Allow me to demonstrate.
I’ve chosen an image more or less at random (except that it is one that I like, from this photoset). My vantage point was looking down at a river from overhead, with colorful leaves on the right. For the purpose of this demonstration the image has been resized to fit this space (435 pixels wide).
The first thing I do is to open an action I’ve saved under the name “open adjustments.” This opens three adjustment layers: levels, curves, and hue/saturation in that order, which is the order I make the adjustments.
First I look at levels. If they look well balanced I might leave them alone. Often they are weighted to either darks or lights, and I slide the midtone triangle to get a better balance. That often makes the image look worse but it puts it in position for the next adjustment, curves. Usually I find a midpoint that looks good and then generally make an ess-shaped curve in order to get a good range of darks and lights. Finally, I adjust hue/saturation. With my current camera this usually means just increasing the saturation a little bit.
Next I open an action I’ve saved under the name “hi-pass sharpen.” This sharpens the image using the duplicate layer – invert – blur – overlay – adjust transparency workflow that I have described previously. I don’t like oversharpening, so my default transparency is a modest 40 percent. It’s important to remember to select the background layer first or you will just be sharpening your hue/saturation adjustment. One nice thing about this way of sharpening is that it is size independent, so I can resize my image and do a save for web to reduce the file size without having to resharpen.
The entire process is done with adjustment layers and is completely nondestructive — no changes are made to the original image. Below the image as it came from the camera is on the left and the adjusted image on the right.
BLURB: A brief noise that embarrasses everyone.
— Tom’s Glossary of Book Publishing Terms
A curious aspect of book publishing is that publishers have never quite figured out what the best way is to sell books. Not only is the industry cursed with a byzantine distribution system, but publishers routinely repeat the stale promotional techniques of past decades without thinking too hard about whether they are actually effective.
Take the case of blurbs. Publishers chase after blurbs for the back covers of their books mainly because everyone else is doing it, and a blurb-free cover will therefore look like some kind of failure. But do people really put any weight into blurbs? My guess is that they usually don’t, but occasionally a blurb will hit the right note, excite someone’s curiosity, and help make a sale. But does this happen more often than would be the case if the back cover real estate were put to other uses?
Part of the reason readers distrust blurbs is that they know instinctively that they are the product of a process that at its worst is corrupt and deceitful. Consider the letter that Stephen J. Dubner (co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) received from a book’s editor, containing this amusing passage:
If you find [redacted] and [redacted]’s ideas as compelling and inspiring as we do, a quote from you that we could print on the jacket would make a world of difference. I would be happy to help craft a quote if you prefer. My contact info is below.
When an editor goes looking for an author to put his name underneath a quote written by the editor or others at the publishing house you know the blurb system is broken.
Still, some blurbs do rise above the mediocrity of the genre. My favorite is this one about the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, from Pablo Neruda:
Anyone who doesn’t read Cortazar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder . . . and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.
It has become necessary for me to articulate policies that will be posted on my blogs.
Outright spam is straightforward to deal with, but here and elsewhere I am increasingly receiving marginal, opportunistic comments that, while they may appear to contribute faintly, are mainly intended to benefit the commenter through their links and anchor text. I have struggled with how to respond to comments that fall into this gray area.
I don’t believe in the default WordPress nofollow function that is intended to prevent search engines from following links in comments. If you contribute you should receive benefit, and I am sticking with that position. But maintaining site quality is paramount — otherwise the time I devote to my websites would not be well spent and the visitor experience would be diluted.
Because I am posting them now does not mean that I did not also reserve these rights previously. I will be going back and cleaning up comments on older posts.
A link to the following statement will appear on all my blog pages (it’s in the left sidebar on this site).
- Comment moderation: Comments on this blog are moderated. I reserve the right to edit or remove any post or element of a post for any reason. That said, I do try to be as hands off as possible.
- Do follow: Links on this site have the nofollow function turned off. If people are contributing to the site’s content they should benefit from its links. (You can show appreciation by linking back or bookmarking.)
- No keywords in author names: Either a real name or a handle is okay, but if I think you are using an author name simply to target keywords, I may edit or delete your name, website link, or comment.
- External linking: Relevant links are encouraged, but comments and links intended mainly for site promotion risk being edited or deleted.
- Detente: If I suspect your posts of being spammy or mainly self-promoting I might remove your links. If you keep posting and stay on topic I am likely to reconsider and allow the links.
- Civility: This site supports free speech, but it also values civility. Abusive or offensive comments may be edited or removed.
- Range of opinion: Comments reflect the viewpoints of those commenting and do not necessarily express my opinions or the views of the website.
- E-mail: I answer most nonspam e-mail, often promptly but sometimes more slowly. Occasionally I might e-mail someone who leaves a comment.
- Privacy: I do not share user information.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum, located at the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp, Belgium, is one of the prime pilgrimage sites for typeheads. It is is the only Renaissance printing office that has survived to the present. It houses some of he world’s oldest surviving printing presses as well as complete sets of early dies and matrices. And it houses an excellent library.
Christoffel Plantin (1520-1589) established himself in Antwerp around 1549 and soon set up a business as a printer. Among his famous projects was a Biblia Polyglotta (Bible in five languages. By 1575 the business had seventy employees. After his death the business passed to his son-in-law Jan I Moretus (1543-1610) and remained in the hands of the Moretus family for centuries. In 1876 the firm and its contents were sold to the city of Antwerp and the Plantin-Moretus Museum was born. In 2005, the museum became the first museum to be listed on the UNESCO World heritage site.
These images were taken in 2004. I’ve done what I can with the them but the camera I had with me at that time was not really up to the conditions in which these photographs were made.
Above: The Martyrdom of Nicholas 2, 2007, colored pixels, by Thomas Christensen and the master of Saint-Austremoine-Issoire.
Below: The Martyrdom of Nicholas, 2006, colored pixels, by Thomas Christensen and Francisco de Goya. (Last year I also listed the top ten seasonal songs that don’t mention Christmas.)