Melville House Posts

Literati – “Serial publishing” ( 2 May 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 May 2015) and will be in print ( 3 May 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article7164472.ece. I am also c&p the text below.

Published over 20 years ago, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a single-volume hardback at over 1100 pages, was bulky to hold though printed on Bible paper (a thin grade of paper used for printing books with a large number of pages). It was not unheard of to rip the novel into two or three volumes to read it easily. It inevitably triggered conversations about Victorian England when serial publishing was fashionable and lending libraries in Victorian England preferred to lend three-decker novels to members.

This practice was instituted by Mudie’s Lending Library and Mudie’s Subscription Library. Charles Mudie, known for his sharp business acumen, introduced the guinea yearly subscription allowing a customer to borrow an unlimited number of volumes at any time. He also profited from simultaneously lending different parts of a novel to different customers. Of course publishers and authors benefited immensely from Mudie’s select list of books since an order from the library/retail usually meant buying up print runs, certainly a substantial number of units that helped boost sales.

With the Industrial Revolution, rapid technological advances had a tremendous impact on book publishing. With mechanisation it was easier to produce cheap books for a mass audience. Printers too had acquired new technologies, notably the practice of stereotyping — casting a metal plate based on an impression from hand-set type — which permitted both quick reuse of the type for other pages and multiple copies of the metal plates for even faster printing of multiple copies. Writers like Charles Dickens managed to be financially secure by catering to working class audience sensibilities, weaving in characters in his serial and monthly stories that endeared themselves to readers up and down the social ladder. For instance, with Pickwick Papers, the monthly print run rose from 400 (March 1836) to 40,000 (November 1837). As Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer (2011) points out “the sales of each of the last three numbers of Dombey, in January, February and March 1948, were around 34,000, and people continued to buy back numbers for months afterwards. In 1847 he earned £3,800, and for the first time ever he had enough money in the bank to be able to invest.” (p.200)

Suddenly there were a flood of books available, a first since moveable type had been invented some centuries earlier. In the 20th century, it was Allen Lane’s introduction of the paperback edition that made a significant difference to book publishing.

***

Self-publishing

Fast forward to 21st century. Technological advancements, especially with the introduction of smartphones and e-readers meant that in less than a decade, e-books were easily available to access and download — most cheaply priced or for free! This fuelled the exponential growth of self-publishing as people discovered how “easily” books could be produced and sold at a reasonable price directly to customers. Like in Victorian England, new reading communities were discovered/created. At the same time, digital long reads came into vogue, usually standalone commissioned articles. Slowly the impact of this form is becoming discernible in the crafting a novel.

Instead of the long story being “complete” and polished equally from beginning to end, it is obvious to a trained eye that portions of the story are given more care, probably to be offered as extracts to digital and print media or to be read out at author interactions. This is affecting the form of a novel with experiments in interconnected stories being considered as a novel. Serial publishing too is making a comeback with authors offering their e-books as serials or intentionally writing serials, testing it on readers and later converting it into a book — mostly seen in self-publishing programmes. A deluge of books has resulted in the creation of monthly subscription models such as Oyster and Kindle Unlimited offering readers an unlimited number of e-books. Given the paucity of time but increase in commuting time and variety of handheld e-devices the rise of short fiction (flash fiction and short story) as a popular form of writing is inevitable. Yet I wonder if it is not time for serial publishing to make a comeback. It will engage a reader; the author can gauge the reader’s reaction to the story and tweak it accordingly, so the book’s sale is assured, ensuring writers and publishers benefit.

2 May 2015

An update ( 8 May 2015) 

Coincidentally, two days after my column was published I read a fascinating post on Melville House blog on serial publishing. “Two For Tuesday: Should Books Be Snackable, Serialized, and Delicious?” ( 5 May 2015,  http://www.mhpbooks.com/two-for-tuesday-should-books-be-snackable-serialized-and-delicious/)

Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”

Alan Turing, The EnigmaNowadays it is perhaps taken rather for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialised China can use the same computer as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s. That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Alan Turing in 1936 implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine. 

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing’s ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: ‘every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form…’ ( p.409). Donald Davies, one of Turing called programs) for ‘packet switching’ and these grew into the Internet protocols. Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing’s universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Alan Turing in 1936. 

( Preface, p.xvi-xvii)

Alan Turing: The Enigma a biography of the eminent mathematician by another mathematician, Andrew Hodges was first published in 1983. As with good biographies, it balances the personal, plotting the professional landmarks, with a balanced socio-historical perspective, giving excellent insight in the period Alan Turing lived. Whether it is the history of physics branching off into this particular field of mathematics, Alan Turing’s significant contribution to it, becoming a part of the team at Bletchley Park as a code breaker, and of course his personal life — the bullying he experienced at school, his homosexuality, the friends he made and his relationship with his family, especially his mother.

This biography is so much in the style of biographies written in the 1960s to 1980s — packed with detail. This is the major difference from the twenty-first biographies which are more in the style of bio-fiction than biographies. Yet it is fascinating to see how Alan Turing in a sense has been “resurrected” by twenty-first century concerns such as importance of the Internet, computers available 24×7 and of course his homosexuality, his struggles and his suicide. Then there is Turing’s genius. His gift for fiddling with maths and science. Decoding the Nazi messages. A great deal of credit goes to Andrew Hodges for keeping Turing’s memory alive and updating the information regularly especially at a time when bio-fic is fashionable. This is an old-fashioned biography where details about the life of the person with dates, snippets of correspondence, plenty of research ( constantly updating it as official files were declassified), minutely recording events and visits to places that may have relevance to the book. The book is fascinating for its detailed history of the evolution of mathematics as an independent discipline, the differences between science and maths and explaining how Turing broke away from the shackles of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought where maths was considered to be an integral part of the sciences. Turing’s biggest achievement was the original applications in maths relying upon the principles he learned in physics, especially experiments in quantum mechanics. The book  has footnotes and a preface that has been updated for this special film tie-in edition, to coincide with the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This biography has been in print for more than 30 years. It was last revised in 1992, but this special paperback edition has been reprinted with a new preface by Andrew Hodges, updated in 2014. In fact Newsweek carried an excerpt from it: ( Andrew Hodges, “The Private Anguish of Alan Turing”, 13 Dec 2014 http://www.newsweek.com/private-anguish-alan-turing-291653 ). Graham Moore who adapted the book for the film won an Oscar for his efforts, but as this post from Melville House makes it clear, this script was always meant to win awards. ( http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-imitation-game-and-the-complicated-byproducts-of-adaptation/ ) L. V. Anderson of Slate points out that that the biopic is riddled with inaccuracies. “I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was. ( L. V. Anderson, “How  accurate is The Imitation Game?”. 3 dec 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html )

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”, ( 18 Dec 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/quest-real-coleridge/?pagination=false )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.” This is exactly what Andrew Hodges achieves in this stupendous biography of Alan Turing. Sure there are moments when the technical descriptions about mathematics become difficult to comprehend, yet it is a readable account. The author bio in the book says “Andrew Hodges is Tutor in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford University. His classic text of 1983 since translated into several languages, created a new kind of biography, with mathematics, science, computing, war history, philosophy and gay liberation woven into a single personal narrative. Since 1983 his main work has been in the mathematics of fundamental physics, as a colleague of Roger Penrose. But he has continued to involve himself with Alan Turing’s story, through dramatisation, television documentaries and scholarly articles. Since 1995 he has maintained a website at www.turing.org.uk to enhance and support his original work.”

It takes a while to read this nearly 700 page biography, but it is time well spent. Certainly at a time when issues such as net neutrality are extremely important. In fact, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) in USA “voted on Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes. …The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those prohibitions are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept.” This ruling will have repercussions worldwide.  (“F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility”, 26 Feb 2015.  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html?_r=0 )

Alan Turing and his contribution to modern day technology continues to be relevant even 60+ years after his death.

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma Vintage Books, London, 1983, rev 1992, with rev preface, 2014. Pb. pp.750. £ 8.99

27 February 2015

“Keeping The Word”, PubSpeak, Dec 2013

“Keeping The Word”, PubSpeak, Dec 2013

( PubSpeak in December 2013 is about trust deficit. It has been published originally in BusinessWorld online. Here is the url: http://www.businessworld.in/news/books/columns/keeping-the-word/1175440/page-1.html I am also c&p the text below. 4 Dec 2013
PubSpeak, Jaya

Publishing industry too has its share of tales where people have not honoured their word or fulfilled contracts. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose writes of ways to prevent these

Some time ago, I received a message on Facebook from a distraught illustrator. The illustrator had been commissioned by a prominent publishing house to create paintings for a book cover design of a forthcoming young adult novel. The cover had been through three draft designs and had been approved by everyone including the author. At the final stage, some design changes were asked for. The illustrator was not happy. Nevertheless, in complete faith, the illustrator decided to submit high resolution files of the altered paintings since the project was nearing completion. But the relationship came apart (and legal recourse had to be taken to) because the art director of the publishing house refused to honour the contract, withholding part of the payment due on the grounds that the design had been created inhouse. But there is barely any difference other than the shade of colour and the size of the images if you compare the designs submitted by the illustrator with those that were done inhouse. Since then, the first illustrator has refused to work with the publisher.

Twenty years after the publication of ‘A Suitable Boy’, fans of Vikram Seth were waiting in anticipation for the sequel – A Suitable Girl. Unfortunately Seth did not deliver the manuscript in time to Hamish Hamilton. Soon after the merger of Penguin Books and Random House was official in July 2013, this book was one of the earliest casualties. The author was asked by the publishers to return the $1.7 million advance for a two-book deal, including the paperback rights of ‘A Suitable Boy’, bought off Orion publishing. According to media reports the new group — Penguin Random House — is expected to cut costs as it tries to compete better with new forms of publishing and competition from online rivals such as Amazon. Fortunately for the author, his original publisher Orion, stepped in and is committed to publishing A Suitable Girl in Autumn 2016.

Disturbing Trend
The world of publishing is full of such stories — some tamer than others. People yearning to be published, some having been published, some selling better than others, some getting noticed critically more than the others, many satisfied with what they have achieved, yet there is a constant subterranean rumble of unpleasant anecdotes. Many of the stories, often open knowledge to ‘those in the know’, deal with plagiarism, contracts not being honoured, copyright violations, disappointment about advances, dissatisfaction about contracts drawn or negotiations about rights hitting nasty patches, sales and marketing executives not fulfilling orders, bookstores not adequately stocked, at times even missing titles that have been shortlisted for literary prizes.A popular topic of conversation is the efficiency of vendor management systems and authors stealing ideas from each other. The stories are about professional relationships being affected, relationships that are forged, nurtured and sustained by humans. These, in turn, affect the commissioning potential of editors and the formation and evolution of lists and imprints, the emergence of new ideas and creative collaborations and more importantly the growth of the business of publishing.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “publish” is defined as “prepare and issue (a book, journal or piece of music) for public sale. Print in a book or journal so as to make generally known.” A “publisher” is a company or person that prepares and issues books, journals, or music for sale. In traditional forms of publishing, that is, the printed form, specialist knowledge of the processes involved including sales, marketing and distribution was essential. Many of the books published were and are inevitably born out of a conversation (or a “gentleman’s agreement”) that a commissioning editor has with the author (or the content creator, as the ‘author’ could even be another publisher or an organisation, and not necessarily an individual). It is after a series of negotiations based on trust that the business details of the arrangement are thrashed out and subsequently enshrined in a written and signed contract. These are then preserved and referred to for the time that the firm has the license to publish the book(s).

For many authors/illustrators this is a smooth process and continues to be so. From the moment authors are signed on, they begin to be a little more aware of their rights, wanting clarity on the royalty statements, visibility and easy availability of the book in all formats and kinds of stores. Publishers too want professionalism from the content creator and other collaborators on the project. Similarly bookstore owners/online retailers/customers want quick fulfillment of their orders. Readers want satisfaction from the books that they read.

So, What Next?
Every October, publishers from around the world flock to the publishers’ mecca, the Frankfurt Book Fair, for a week of intense conversations and meetings. This time the news emerging from the Frankfurt was about the most innovative and viable method of connecting books with readers, these were mostly reserved for the digital domain. Some examples of digital-only imprints are HarperCollins India’sHarper21; Italy’s RCS Libri’s Rizzoli Lab, dedicated to experiments in digital; Indireads presenting modern South Asian literature in digital friendly formats.; HarperCollins established HarperTeen Impulse; Random House launched Loveswept, Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt; Harlequin has Carina Press and Bloomsbury has Bloomsbury Spark.

Another tactic is to create blogs on publishers’ websites where most host curators prefer to focus only on their books and authors. The Melville House publishing house’s blog has to be one of the richest in its generosity of sharing accounts, stories and opinions related to books and not necessarily confined to its own lists.

Today, with social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, content creators (authors, illustrators) can have conversations directly with other publishing professionals. A democratisation of the system that is challenging established business models of publishing. A notable result has been the rapidity with which self-publishing has become an attractive proposition — primarily because the author is in control of producing his book in all formats, can track the distribution and sales and is responsible for the promotion of the book. With the number of authors opting for this form of publishing it is no surprise that even traditional publishers are offering self-publishing services as an option.

Through this wonderful burst of creative energy and proliferation of platforms for publishing, two facts stand out. First, these innovations are obvious responses to the changing environment of publishing. Second, given how complex the book market is becoming, with new channels of news dissemination and distribution, publishers are being innovative in accessing readers and customers. But these new business models of outreach will only be successful if publishing professionals do not keep their word and the growing “trust deficit” in the publishing eco-system is not addressed immediately.

Stuart Diamond writing in his bestseller ‘Getting More’ says “Trust is a feeling of security that the other person will protect you. …The major component of trust is honesty—being straight with people. Trust does not mean that both sides agree with each other, or are always pleasant to each other. …Trust is something that develops slowly, over time. It is an emotional commitment to one another based on mutual respect, ethics, and good feeling. …lack of trust has a cost.”

These challenges exist in all industries but it is slightly different for publishing which relies upon human relationships and creativity for growing the business organically. For it to be a sustainable business model, there has to be bedrock of trust among all stakeholders, irrespective of the format they choose to publish in.

The writer is an international publishing consultant and columnist

@JBhattacharji