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Tuesday 11 August 2020

Publishing on Commission, Vanity Publishing, Self-Publishing


The early logical and mathematical work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein was made possible by Gottlob Frege (1848 - 1925) who taught at the University of Jena. In 1893 a Jena publisher brought out the first volume of his pioneering Basic Laws of Arithmetic and the second volume in 1903. Sales of the first volume had been so poor that Frege had to pay for publication of the second. But he did not self-publish and nor did he, in the ordinary sense, vanity publish since his publisher Hermann Pohle exercised discretion in what he published - and Pohle could point to the fact that on the title page Frege would be identified by his academic titles (as he was) and claim that as adequate justification for publishing a work which neither Pohle or anyone else understood.

The conventional way of characterising what happened is to say that Frege was published on commission. Under such arrangements, the author pays all the printing costs up-front; the publisher retains a commission on all the income from sales, but hands over the balance to an author who may or may not recover their original outlay. Both Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll were published on commission. Where copyright law exists, it is likely that the author published this way will retain copyright. In contrast, when a publisher bears all the costs, they sometimes agree to do it only if copyright passes to them. They are, after all, taking all the risk. Academic journals, for example, took their pick of submitted articles, paid the whole cost of publishing, took the copyright, and paid no royalties. Like all academics of the pre-internet period, I signed up for that many times. Now I observe with curiosity the fact that downloads of things I wrote are on sale from publishers who took everything and paid nothing - though it’s true, neither authors or publishers foresaw a world in which something called a download might exist let alone be sold.

Permutations on these arrangements are easily imaginable and modern printing and publishing technologies have expanded the range of possibilities, once ideologically polarised (by proper publishers - MRDA) into proper publishing and vanity publishing.

But it was never really that simple, as the practice of publishing on commission illustrates, and it still isn’t simple. Self-publishers are avoiding the older, rather quaint vanity publishing firms. Publishers can apply to the Arts Council for subsidies to publish books which are unlikely to make a profit, perhaps because of the very significant cost of getting a good translation made. Universities may subsidise publication of a faculty member’s book if something like the need for colour illustrations would otherwise push up the cover price to levels which would deter everyone except librarians. And so on.

The quality control which a publisher’s editors like to think they exercise always takes place in a context where the balance sheet has to be considered. A subsidy - doesn’t matter where it comes from - can alter the equation and make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Of course, there are always other factors in play. Modern corporate publishing has become so competitive, and margins so tight, that I very much doubt that editors can afford to devote more than a very few hours to reading, judging, and seeking to improve the books they commission. My guess is that nowadays a large proportion are nodded through on the basis of the author’s previous track record. They are published unread.

The Geography of My Reading - Eight Year Survey


I didn’t travel very much, even before lockdown,  and I’m a bit uncomfortable about that, especially since there is an international airport just up the road. But I like to think that I still travel extensively in my mind, in thinking and in the reflections which reading enables. But do I fool myself? Well, as always now there is CCTV evidence; the movements of my reading can be tracked. For the past eight years, I have posted reviews of books onto this blog - not all the books I read, maybe a third of them. So do those books provide evidence of extensive mental travelling or not?

As of this morning, there are about 280 posts on the blog of which some are essays or comment. I classify 240 posts as book reviews. Four are reviews of books read in another language (French - Duras, Houellebecq, Kundera, Geblesco) which hardly counts as serious surveillance of what they are up to on the other side of the leylandii.  Still, I can also point to twenty four books translated into English but it seems only one of those from a non-European language, Japanese: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which I enjoyed. Everything else - almost ninety percent - was written in English, though many by American writers and some by European academics writing in English. True, English is a world language - but so is Spanish.

Of the 240 books reviewed, 170 were written by men and 70 by women. Take out the extensive non-fiction and consider only the novels and autobiographies, then the balance changes to 50 men and 40 women. The only mitigation I can find is that the one review of Elena Ferrante deals with all four Neapolitan novels and a scurrilous review of Jane Austen tackles five with the agreeable result that if separately counted the ratio for novels would improve to 50:47 which ain’t bad as things go. You can always do things with statistics.

But overall first impressions do not strike me as the kind of wide-awake travelling I had fondly imagined. But perhaps I do myself an injustice? The reviews are never plot summaries; I only review a book if I find that I have something to say about it. Often enough, I draw on a back catalogue. I looked at my review of Murata and found that I pulled out Charlie Chaplin and Gregor Samsa to make sense of her first person narrator, Keiko. But that also shows that I didn’t have any Japanese points of comparison and I still don’t.

I don’t currently read books about Brexit or Donald Trump or the Royal Family. I have reduced my Bloomsbury biography footprint to zero The authors don’t need my encouragement..






Changing Places


Collectors enjoy great freedom. Drift into collecting teapots and it’s up to you whether to focus on a country or period, or instead go after little teapots short and stout. Readers are equally free to structure their reading; there is a field of possibilities limited only by our imaginations. If someone told me that this year they were reading books by authors surname Z that would be intelligible and intriguing. I would guess that a reader could learn a lot that way. Likewise, if someone said: This year, it’s writers in translation. From Chinese. And an obvious policy: Going halves: alternating books by women with books by men. Such principles could work well but not perfectly - you might end up reading all of Zola for want of anything else and a small voice in my head reminds me that there is a Marxist tradition which marks down Zola as a superficial naturalist, inferior to a robust realist like Balzac.

A powerful structuring principle would ensure that you read mostly good books and at the same time familiarised yourself with many real times and places, with varied ideas, and a wealth of imaginary worlds. What’s not to like?  But does any such principle exist? Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust a university reading list. Might I trust a friend?

Imagine a friend in another country who also enjoys reading. And suppose that at the end of the year you sent each other a list of all the books you had read that year. And suppose that you made a Resolution to read in the coming year the books which your friend had just read - exception made for those already familiar to you.

This is a more demanding challenge than the habit of taking up occasional reading suggestions or acting on reviewer recommendations. It’s always a big challenge to change places. If your friend reads in another language and you can’t read it, there’s immediately a problem with books not available in translation. Fine, that will reduce your commitment to something less daunting.

Paris is a couple of hours away from London but the reading world of a French friend in Paris is going to be very different from that of an English friend in London. It’s not a new intellectual situation; Voltaire pointed it out:

 A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon…

Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques were published in English in 1733 and in French the following year; the London edition a best-seller, the Paris edition suppressed. That typical outcome reversed in the twentieth century when Paris became the place to publish books banned in English-speaking countries.

Who knows what it might be like to change reading places now? Just for a year. Or a lockdown.

Readers Lurk in Every Writer's Mind

Readers lurk in every writer’s mind. Some are wished-for readers who will fully appreciate what the writer is about. Some are stern critics, editors of style but also protectors of morals. Some are judges who remind the writer that not all can have prizes. One is likely to be your Mum or Dad.

The list continues and it is a brave writer who can claim that they wrote exactly what they wanted to write without a care about who might read and what they might think.

When Charlotte Brontë  has Jane Eyre declare Reader, I married him!  I assume that she expected a Bravo! from everyone, a tear from some, and a blessing from the vicar. She did not expect her readers to be appalled. So even if I married him! is more assertive than He married me! it is not as if Miss Brontë expected to scandalise early (1847) Victorian readers of expensive triple-decker novels. Some may have had reservations, but they bought the book and read it. That’s the main thing.

Nowadays, the creative writing magazines that I find in W H Smith constantly prep their readers with information about what readers want and what propriety demands. It is as if the only kind of writing they can imagine is cynical writing under the overarching banner of Give ‘em what they want.

So they might tell you (I simplify a bit) that Asperger’s is trending. The would-be successful first-time novelist then turns to Wikipedia and discovers what Asperger’s is, googles around for a few personal experiences, and stumbles on an articulate mother whose child has Asperger’s. At this point, the novelist decides that it will not be too much of a disruption of the plot if the main character of their novel-in-progress now acquires a sister who in turn acquires a child with Asperger’s. The new sub-plot will surely strengthen sales of the intended novel. It probably won’t and the cynicism with which it is created may well be lisible, even to an average reader. 

Clearly, there are many variants on this simplified story. These little manoeuvres designed to ride on the coat-tails of current trends are unlikely on their own to produce a best-seller. In any case, even bestsellers don’t pay the mortgage for very long. The serious money is in books which can be turned into films for the big screen. The reader lurking in the writer’s mind then becomes a film director or, at least, a scout for one.