Life Sentence

Random thoughts about publishing, stamp collecting, politics, popular music of the 60s and 70s, mooses, and my motley other obsessions.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Switching Textbooks

SwitchTextbooks.com is a service that allows college students to trade textbooks. The goal is to save money -- the founders see the textbook manufacturers and bookstores as ripping students off.

Do they have a case? Maybe. Textbook publishing is supposedly still the most profitable part of the book biz. Many textbook updates seem to be designed to make it difficult for students to get by with used books. And the books are definitely expensive, sometimes obscenely so. There are various reasons for that. Students are a captive market, so there is no pressure to bring prices down. The books are very expensive to develop, and that cost is reflected in the prices. Part of the reason for the high development cost is that profs are now used to getting a whole batch of fancy add-ins: teachers' manuals, workbooks, test bank, website, and so on. (We're trying to land a contract to edit just the teacher's manual of a science textbook. The editing of just that one ancillary volume will cost the publisher about $1,200 per chapter, whether we get the contract or not. That's for the teacher's manual, not the textbook. Editing the textbook will cost many multiples of that.)

Will switchtextbooks work? Perhaps. The publishers are getting pretty good at keeping the life of each textbook really short, so each book has only a few years as a sellable used title. They are careful to make sure that previous editions are pretty much unusable. But for books that are still in use, it makes perfect sense for students to look for a used copy. For the most part, people who want used books are finding them already, through private sales and through bookstores. If there are going to be any real losers in this, it will be the used bookstores. But my guess is that most students who want used books are finding them already. I'm not convinced that this sort of thing is likely to have much impact.

Two types of Hindmarsh Island squared circle

I was playing with squared circles a few nights ago, and noticed these. The postmark on the green block is the "normal" 26.5 mm Hindmarsh Island squared circle, shown here for reference. The one on the orange stamp is the interesting one.

Walker shows the HI post office as:

opened 1857
closed 31/12/1860

re-opened 1/7/1897
closed 31/12/1899

reopened 22/4/1901
closed 29/11/1930

Overton shows the squared circle as known 1905-1913 and rated XXX. Later research has extended the dates to 1901-1925, and it probably isn't quite as rare as XXX indicates.

The postmark on the orange stamp initially caught my attention because of the 1899 date -- it predates the 1899 closing. Then I noticed that the R in HINDMARSH was a different shape -- and so are most of the other letters. And there is enough of the postmark showing to be sure that it is a squared circle. The clinching detail is the size: 23.5 mm versus 26.5 mm. So, updating Overton:

Hindmarsh Island

Type 1 XXXX 1899 23.5 mm
Type 2 XX 1901-1925 26.5 mm

Type 1 resembles the postmarks that were issued in 1894-95, and I'm sure earlier strikes will turn up. I'm betting Type 2 was used for the duration of the 1901-1930 era of the office, and that there are later ones to be found.

Publishing on the cheap?

The Guardian reports:

Out on a wing with 'Ryanair-style' publishing

Plan aimed at promoting new authors attracts controversy


Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Saturday April 30, 2005
The Guardian

One writer is calling Macmillan's scheme a "scam"; another thinks it is "atrocious and wrong". Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist, has described the initiative, in which writers receive no advance and may have to bear editing costs, as "the Ryanair of publishing; it's like having to pay for your own uniforms". Natasha Fairweather, an agent, calls it "an exercise in futility". Macmillan, by contrast, describes its newly launched New Writing fiction list as offering a lifeline to thousands of writers who struggle to get their work seen by an agent, let alone an editor. According to Michael Barnard, Macmillan executive director, it is a way of giving "a voice to talented new authors".
(snip)
If it decides to accept a novel for the list, terms are unnegotiable; no advance will be paid, though writers will receive 20% of royalties from sales. Macmillan will copy edit books, but if manuscripts need more detailed work, it will suggest that writers employ freelance editors. According to notes sent to authors, such editors "will charge realistic fees and this will not in itself guarantee publication".

"This is about Macmillan finding new authors," Barnard said. "Like a lot of mainstream publishers we haven't in recent years been accepting unsolicited manuscripts, but only ones sent through agents. And we are not discovering as many authors as we need.
(snip)
Since the project was given the green light in February, Macmillan has been receiving 200 manuscripts a month. In April next year six novels will be published; subsequently one or two a month will come out.

But writers and editors are concerned about the fairness of the deal for authors, particularly since the standard contract means Macmillan will acquire all rights (such as overseas publishing deals) to the work, and, if it wishes, can publish a second book under the same terms as the first.
(big snip)
According to Barnard: "We won't be spending as much on marketing and promotion as on novels that have had big advances; but we believe we can find new ways of promoting and selling these books." He said the books would appear in the main Pan Macmillan catalogue and would be "very posh books" with ribbon markers, sold at £15. He expected them to become "collectors' items".

But Fairweather called the list a "scattergun approach to publishing", and Foden likened it to "putting a bet on every horse in the race - but without paying for any of the bets".
(snip))
Jamie Byng, who runs Canongate Books, said: "Anyone who is ambitious for their book won't go down this route. But then you don't have to do it. The deal is fine, it's OK. If you'd spent years and years working on your novel and no agent will look at it you'd be bloody grateful for this. Good luck to them."


I'm with Macmillan on this -- I think it is potentially a great opportunity for writers.

I'm currently working on potential deals for several of my books. One, A Book of One's Own, has been out of print for a while. I've updated it (which didn't really take very long) and want someone to get the thing out to market again. Advances are always nice, but I don't need an advance for the book. I would be really happy to have someone just get it back into print. The deal I'm discussing with a publisher is pretty much the same as the Macmillan one (though we're talking about a 10% royalty, not 20% -- if that is 20% of the retail rather than wholesale price, it is a really high royalty rate).

One of the other books is a totally different story. (I can't tell you what the book is -- sorry!) The publisher has come up with the idea for the book, and I'm interested in writing it for them. We agree that it will take about two years to write. For that one, I need a decent advance to give me some income during the two years I'll be working on the project.

If I were a writer who had already finished a novel and was having trouble getting anyone to publish it, I'd be really happy to talk to Macmillan.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Well, someone's optimistic about the future of book publishing

This is an interesting view of publishing outsourcing from an Indian perspective. While some of us in North America are wondering if book publishing as we know it can survive in any recognizable form at all, these Indian outsourcees see all optimism.

"Ranjit Singh expects another booming year for the publishing industry. 'We expect to grow by at least 25-30 per cent this year,' he says. Worldwide, the publishing outsourcing market is expected to grow to about $4.5 billion by early 2007 from the current $2.6 billion."

I wonder if that includes work that is outsourced to North American suppliers -- like my company. If so, that's really good news for me. I'm not holding my breath.

I had my first exposure to a book that had been outsourced to India last year. It was a textbook from a major Canadian publisher. The Indian supplier had done terrific work on it. The proofs were far cleaner than we are used to seeing. Sure, there were some typos and non-idiomatic word usages. Nobody's perfect. These guys were pretty impressive.

Am I worried? Not really, or, more accurately, not by this. Most of my company's book publishing work these days consists of books we have initiated. Those projects aren't going to be outsourced to anyone else. And only a small percentage of our work comes from book publishers.

Would I be worried if I owned one of the big book design and layout companies in Canada or the US? You bet I would!

If I owned one of those companies in India, how optimistic would I be? Not as optimistic the people interviewed are. I can see problems for every sector of the book biz. Trade publishing seems to have lost the ability to produce mid-list books, which should be one of the most profitable parts of the business. Textbook publishers are more and more often hitting price resistance. Most reference books are dead in the water. Academic publishing in many ways makes more sense as an Internet activity. The Internet, of course, has changed things for everyone, and will continue to do so. We simply haven't seen how, yet.

My guess is that the most profitable outsourcing work will be in content provision, rather than editing, design, layout, printing and distribution.

South Australia 3d red surcharges

This just appeared on eBay, and got me thinking.

I've been playing with these red overprints, and was trying to figure out just what this one was. (It is SG 91, red on dull ultramarine, perf 10. Boring.) The postmark is Farrell Flat, but from the days when it was called Farrell's Flat (they called it that from 1870-1940). Then I noticed the spelling: "Farrels"! The stamp is from 1870, so this is presumably the first postmark that office was issued. Martin Walker doesn't note the spelling variation in The Post, Telegraph and Telephone Offices of South Australia and the Northern Territory. Do I bother dropping $50 for a stamp I don't want to get that postmark? Nah -- I'll just save the image.

That 3d carmine overprint is not as simple as it is supposed to be. Gibbons lists it in just one variety, the perf 10 dull ultramarine, SG 91. So do the various other catalogues, including the Aussie Specialized and Scott. And likewise my usually trusty 1894 Napier and Smith.

OK, so here are some reds from my collection. The first one in the second row is the only true SG 91. The one beside it is the right shade but perf 10x10x10x11.5. The reprint is in there for entertainment value only. The one on piece is obviously on the wrong printing of the base stamp -- it is the later ultramarine shade.

I have a ratty Postilion reprint of something called The Postage Stamps of South Australia, which was apparently published in the 1940s by the Philatelic Society of South Australia.

It has a reference list of the stamps of South Australia, and lists the following:

136. Perf 10 on dull ultramarine (this is SG 91)
137. Perf 10 on pale ultramarine (this is the guy I have on piece, though we could debate the "pale")

It then goes on to list various compound perfs. It does list the 10x10x10x11.5 compound, but only shows two shades of the 6d found with this perf. The mirror-image 10x11.5x10x10 compound is recorded for the 1d and 1/- stamps.

So the second stamp in row 2 here may be a new discovery? Does anyone know of more recent research on these?

OK, so welcome and all that

I've been toying for a while with several ideas for a blog, or something blogesque. My problem always seems to come down to focus. I flit from ideas and observations on publishing to stamp research to music stuff to political rants and so on and so on. I've decided, for now, to just keep it all in one place. So most of the people I tell about this blog are only going to be interested in a part of what's here. So be it.

The main focus, I think, will be book publishing, hence the name of the blog. I'm not sure whether publishing is in terminal decline or is just going through yet another transformation. I guess we'll watch and see. As often is the case, a bit from a Roy Harper song catches my current feeling about publishing perfectly:

The pumpkin coach and the rags approach
and the wind is devouring the ashes

I wonder if this blog will end up writing more about Harper or about books?