The New York Times recently issued its list of 100 notable books of 2009 — and I don’t think I’ve read any of them!
But it’s not like I haven’t been reading. What’s up with that?
The first post at The Art of American Book Covers, by Richard Minsky, was made on August 26, so this blog is less than a month old. I regret that I don’t remember who directed me to it, but this blog is so rich in knowledge about techniques of book production that it makes me feel like an absolute novice. The blog will apparently focus on fine books of the nineteenth century. The image above is a detail from a book published by L. C. Page, who it seems offered each of their titles in red, white or blue cloth (wow!). Instead of stamping, a white cloth panel was glued onto the red and blue books. Following is a portion of the blog’s commentary related to this detail, but you should check out Minsky’s blog for the full story:
A lot of people have weighed in with examples of book titles then and now over at kottke.org. These are some of my favorites:
Then: Book of Genesis
Now: FLOOD! A true story of heartbreak, heroism, and the will to survive
Then: Moby Dick
Now: Orca Obsession: How the Whaling Industry Is Destroying Our Sea and Sailors
Then: Romeo and Juliet
Now: The Teen Sex and Suicide Epidemic: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself and Your Family
Then: The Gospel of Matthew
Now: 40 Days and a Mule: How One Man Quit His Job and Became the Boss
And my own contribution:
Then: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Now: Chicken Soup for the Kitchen
Green Apple Books — located right here in the Bay Area — has launched a ten-round battle between the book and the kindle. Who do you suppose wins round one?
That seems to be the argument that Douglas Rushkoff is making in the August 24 Publishers Weekly. I have described previously the corporate consolidation that has caused the largest book publishers in this country to be subsidiaries of foreign-based conglomerates. For about as long as I have worked in publishing that has been a pretty steady trend, and not a beneficial one to either writers or readers.
But Rushkoff believes that era is drawing to a close. He writes:
The book business, however, was never a good fit for today’s corporate behemoths. The corporations that went on spending sprees in the 1980s and ’90s were not truly interested in the art of publishing. These conglomerates, from Time Warner to Vivendi, are really just holding companies. They service their shareholders by servicing debt more rapidly than they accrue it. Their businesses are really just the stories they use to garner more investment capital. In order to continue leveraging debt, they need to demonstrate growth. The problem is that media, especially books, can’t offer enough organic growth—people can only read so many books from so many authors.
So begins consolidation. In order to achieve the growth shareholders demand but the businesses can’t supply, corporations embark upon mergers and acquisitions, even though, in the long run, nearly 80% of all mergers and acquisitions fail to create value for either party. The music industry is a prime example. In the 1990s, when Sony could no longer demonstrate growth commensurate with its share price, it bought Columbia Music. At the time, newly invented CDs were selling briskly and at margins higher than vinyl records. This was because baby boomers were replacing their record collections. Once that surge ended, artificial growth turned out to be negative growth. The centralization of recording companies and labels under a few corporate giants, meanwhile, favored the rise of large distributors and retailers and the decline of local, specialized shops. Blame Napster if you must, but the truth is that the retail music industry no longer had anything to offer that the Web couldn’t.
The same thinking led the conglomerates to hone in on publishing. Top-heavy, centralized bureaucracies know how to work with a B&N better than with a Cody’s or a Spring Street Books. And they applied their generic corporate management to a ragtag crew of book nerds, most of whom wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—know a balance sheet if their lives depended on it. Finally, unable to grow as fast as their debt structures demanded, these corporations have resorted to slashing expenses.
Read more of Rushkoff’s argument here.
I have been toying with the idea of starting a little imprint to publish mainly world literature and other titles with international scope. It would be called Hanuman Maximon. (Hanuman is the monkey hero of the Ramayana; Maximon is the cigar-smoking rebel saint of the highland Maya.)
This is a logo for the imprint. I haven’t really decided on the color scheme yet. Any reactions? (Hmmm, maybe the graphics part should be a little smaller.)
Here’s your chance to prove your commitment to print. Purchase (the increasingly pointless) Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, or School Library Journal, all of which are on the block. Pay no mind to the fact that the information these magazines contain is now largely available on the internet.
“In a related announcement, Tad Smith, CEO of RBI US, has resigned.”
Over at the Asian Art Museum blog I’ve written a post briefly outlining some of the issues involved in designing Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950. I oversaw this project; the book was designed by Tag Savage of Wilsted & Taylor.
There are special issues for American designers when working with Southeast Asian subjects. This book demonstrates, I think, how they can be successfully addressed.
I’m working on a reprint edition for another publisher of a book originally published by Mercury House sometime in the 1990s. The layout files were on a zip disk — I had to scrounge to find a working zip reader (amazingly, the disk was readable). The files were in an early version of Quark. They used customized Type 1 fonts that had been edited in a font-editing program, and the font files no longer seem readable. Modern substitute fonts cause reflow, with unfortunate page and line breaks. Old style figures, ligatures, and special characters are all problematic. The book incorporates Chinese characters, which back then were difficult to set, so they were outsourced to a specialist in Chinese typesetting; if scans were made before the book went to the print they have been lost.
In short, in just a few years the technology with which this book was produced has been rendered virtually obsolete, leaving the book all but unreadable. Compare that to the print technology that produced the book shown above, which remains perfectly readable after more than a millennium.
Who says you can’t take it with you? Well, you might have to leave your books behind, but at least you no longer need to be separated from your bookshelves, thanks to William Warren’s “Shelves For Life.”
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The image at right is a selection from my inlinks tag in Google Reader. It shows websites that have been linking to mine (these are all via Google Blog Search). This is less than a single day’s sample. As you can see, all of a sudden many people are posting links on their blogs to my glossary of book publishing terms.
I’m sure the number of links is not staggering compared to pages that go viral on places like Digg. Still, the glossary has gotten about 5,000 views over the past five days.
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Tim O’Reilly makes some points in its favor.
Ten Speed Press, a mainstay of Bay Area Book Publishing for nearly forty years, has been sold to Random House, which means it is now part of the Germany-based megacorporation Bertelsmann AG, which is the world’s single largest owner of book publishing companies. This continues the long trend of independents getting swallowed by international entertainment conglomerates.
Ten Speed’s most popular titles include What Color Is Your Parachute and The Moosewood Cookbook. According to a report in the NYT, Ten Speed will retain its editorial staff — Phil Wood will be publisher emeritus — but there will be layoffs in the warehousing and distribution operations. If past experience with such sales is any predictor, for a while the company’s editorial program may seem little changed, but sooner or later it will lose its distinctive character.
Phil Wood says, “I am confident Ten Speed Press, the Company I founded and have owned for almost four decades, will thrive under Random House, whose highly professional people are committed to, and fully understand, publishing.”
John Gall, book designer for B&N, shares some thoughts about book cover design.
The second biennial CODEX Book Fair will be held this weekend, February 8-11 in Berkeley. The Codex Foundation promotes the art and craft of the book and strives to increase awareness of the book arts.
For those unable to attend in person, Codex now maintains a blog.
Over at India, Ink., the redoubtable India is thinking about “what materials and processes and vendors to use to make books that will last a hundred years.”
I think traditional books will survive the digital revolution but that their role will change. They will become luxury items, keepsakes, so whoever still knows how to make the nicest books will win. But I’ll bet that a lot of well-meaning production people don’t even know how to spec well-made books, because all they’ve ever been asked to do at their jobs is make everything cheaper and faster. And as the vendors that excel at quality work die off—Stinehour comes to mind—it will become even more difficult to acquire that kind of experience.
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I’ll be on the road for a while, and posting could continue to be light until mid January.
Meanwhile, I’ve agreed to be a reader for this translation award. Books translated in calendar 2008 by writers based anywhere between Fresno and the Oregon border are eligible. So far these are on my reading list:
- Castellanos Moya, Horacio, Senselessness, translated by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
- Do, Nguyen, and Paul Hoover, eds., trans., Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed)
- Holderlin, Friedrich, Odes and Elegies, translated by Nick Hoff (Wesleyan)
- Holderlin, Friedrich, Selected Poems, translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover (Omnidawn)
- Nobuo, Ayukawa, America and Other Poems, translated by Shogo Oketani and Lez Lowitz (Kaya)
- Peri Rossi, Christina, State of Exile, translated by Marylin Buck (City Lights)
- Rodamor, William and Anna Livia, eds., trans., France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts)
- Rojas, Gonzalo, From the Lightning: Selected Poems, translated by John Oliver Simon (Green Integer)
- Saba, Umberto, Songbook, translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan (Yale)
- Talebi, Niloufar, ed., trans., Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians around the World (North Atlantic)
- Toussaint, Jean-Philippe, Camera, translated by Matthew B. Smith (Dalkey Archive)
- Zambra, Alejandro, Bonzai, translated by Carolina de Robertis (Melville House)
This is a pretty strong group of candidates. It makes me feel encouraged about the state of literary book publishing today (but notice all were published by independents or university presses — corporate publishers have abandoned the the kind of publishing that built houses like Knopf).
Pat Holt’s take on this topic is worth reading. Here are some excerpts:
I think the saddest thing that ever happened in the book industry was the gradual devaluing of editors and all they stand for – their high standards, their belief in readers, their ability to nurture authors, their love of language, their patience, their dedication, their eye.And most of all, their power….
As I recall, the ganging up against editors started in the 1970s, when Michael Korda of Simon & Schuster said that editorial workers should acquire marketing savvy so they’d get out of their ivory towers and stop mumbling about literary values at sales conference. Until then there was at least an attempt to separate Editorial from Sales & Marketing so that acquisition decisions wouldn’t be tainted by commercial concerns. The editors acquired the books independently; they told the marketing people what to sell. Sales and Marketing got to decide how to sell them, but there was no backing-and-forthing, no suggestions made to editors, no intrusion into the editorial process….
I can’t think of anything harder today than being an editor for a mainstream publishing house in New York. Now the horror stories are even worse, coming from the authors’ point of view. Acquisitions editors are pushed so hard to get out there and compete that they often leave the actual reading and editing to assistants who don’t know enough yet to bring the manuscript to its highest level….
I don’t think it’s healthy for editors to be ignorant of the marketplace and marketing. Editors since before the time of Aldus Manutius have had their finger on that pulse. It’s not realistic, or even desirable, to expect editors not to be “tainted by commercial concerns.” But I agree that in large commercial publishing today the shift of power to the marketers has not resulted in a superior product, and that for the most part neither readers nor authors are well served by it.
I’ve had a website since 1994. I’m glad content is being digitized. I love being able to find stuff I don’t have in my own library without even having to leave the house. Sometimes I wonder how we ever even did research before the internet.
But I don’t believe that print is dying.
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