How do they decide? Booker shortlist.

In my last post, I argued that critics tend to look for innovation in writing, rather than ‘quality’.  This argument appears to be validated (at least in part) by the shortlist selections for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

There was a commentary in the Evening Standard on September 13 written by the Literary Editor, David Sexton, from which I quote.

“This year’s Man Booker shortlist is a total surprise.  The two most obvious contenders from the longlist failed to make the cut,  Colson Whitehead’s vivid, inventive novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad. has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award in the United States, and been warmly endorsed by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.  Now it has been discarded by the Booker.

“Sebastian Barry’s lyrical ballad about a young Irishman and  his partner fighting through the Civil War in America, Days Without End, won him the Costa Book Award last year – but it doesn’t figure either.  Booksellers will be clasping their heads today.

“Could the judges, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, have possibly been influenced by a desire not to be seen to be following the other big prizes and so seem behind the pace?  Surely not, because the prize’s one criterion is to find ‘the best novel of the year’. regardless.  The problem is that the five judges change every year, so there is no consistency and rarely any clear agreement, producing the erratic decisions that the Booker is famous for – including many terrible eventual winners.  When Julian Barnes dismissed the prize (before he won it) as ‘posh bingo’, he did it too much honour.

“The committee system is simply not a good way of determining ultimate literary value.  If you rope together five individuals and they charge off eagerly in different directions, they are likely all to end up flat on their faces – as I know from my own experience.  Camels are animals designed by committee, and Booker shortlists are compromises.

“Lola Young emphasises that the judges have discovered ‘six unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention’.  Perhaps that is all convention ever deserves, to be intrepidly but collectively pushed against?

“The shortlist is certainly great news for the debut novelists, Emily Fridlund. 38, and Fiona Mozley, 29.  Our reviewer called the latter’s novel, Ehmet, ‘a wonder to behold’ and hoped this David would conquer the Goliaths of the Booker.  However, of the novels that have survived this eccentric winnowing, the favourite to win, if it is determined on merit, must surely be Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, a writer who first came to prominence here through being awarded the Booker’s rival, the Folio Prize, for his short stories.  It’s and extraordinary invention: voices from limbo, counsel from the afterlife, heard as President Lincoln grieves his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.  ‘A dark imagination in service of a tender heart’, said our reviewer Johanna Thomas-Corr.  Properly unique.”

The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize is:

  • Elmet, by Fiona Mozley
  • Autumn, by Ali Smith
  • 4321, by Paul Auster
  • History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund
  • East West, by Mohsin Hamid
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Critique of Criticism

“There are many differences between critics and sensible human beings, but the main one is this.  Critics are fixated, above all else, with novelty.”

This was how Michael Deacon began his review of the Magpie restaurant on Heddon Street on London.  The Telegraph  lists him as a ‘Parliamentary Sketchwriter’; Wikipedia says he is a British author and political satirist.  In any event, I thought, ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about’.  The review appeared in The Telegraph Magazine on the 2nd of September.  If you’re interested in food, he gave the Magpie four stars and said, “With no menus, adventurous taste buds and an acute sense of smell are required.  Most of the food was terrific.  Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of influences”

Michael Deacon

He went on to say, “It’s the same in every field of creativity: books, music, film, theatre, painting.  In the eyes of critics, the highest accolade they can bestow is to call a work original – or groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary.  To them, it’s more important for a book to be original than readable.  More important for music to be original than tuneful.  More important for a play to be original than enjoyable.  Novelty trumps all.  Pleasure is a lesser concern.

“There are two reasons for this.  First, insecurity.  A critic is anxious about dismissing a work that is experimental for fear of how he’ll look to his fellow critics.  He’ll look stuffy, provincial, dim.  He’ll look as if he doesn’t get it.  He has to show them that he’s intelligent enough to understand and appreciate what the artist, this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur, is doing.

“The second reason is just as crucial.  Boredom. Think of a teacher marking a stack of essays from an exam in English literature.  In essay after essay, the same topics recur.  An exhausting majority of students have written about the set texts.  Read in isolation, their essays might be perfectly well-written – but read one after the other, they start to seem drainingly uninspired.  So a student who writes about an unusual topic – about novels, plays or poems that weren’t even taught  on the course may get a higher mark than those who wrote about the set texts, even if his essay is inferior.  The marker is simply relieved by the change in scene.  That’s what critics are like.  Sooner or later they run out of things to say about the conventional.  Hey ho, another romantic comedy.  Yawn, another detective thriller.  So when something unusual turns up, they embrace it with desperate gratitude.  What the paying customer is likely to make of it is irrelevant.  What matters is, it’s given the critic something new to write about.  The artist has done the critic a favour – and, more often than not, can expect to be rewarded.

“But of course, the above doesn’t apply only to critics of books, music and the rest.  It applies to restaurant critics, too.  And so when I go out to review a restaurant that’s in some way out of the ordinary, and decide that I like it, I have to ask myself: do I, though?  Am I genuinely enjoying myself?  Honestly?  Or am I just grateful to the chef because he’s just made  my job easier?”

Five stars to Michael Deacon!

Review: The God of Small Things

This novel won the Booker Prize in 1997, so I am somewhat tardy in reading this Indian author, Arundhati Roy, whose background interested me almost as much as the novel.  She was born in 1961 in Shillong, Meghalava, India, to Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta and Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned with her mother and brother to Kerala.  In her early career, Roy worked in television and movies, but she became disenchanted with the world of films and began writing her first novel,  The God of Small Things  in 1992, completing it in 1996.   She has since written The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), and a long list of non-fiction works, most of which seem to be associated with her advocacy work.  Ms Roy has opposed India’s nuclear, industrial, and economic development policies, as well as US foreign policy, Israel, the Sri Lankan government, and numerous other initiatives.  She has been a controversial figure in her home country.

Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things was critically acclaimed by major newspapers in the US and Canada.  Ms Roy received and advance of £500,ooo which, along with her prize money, she donated to her causes.  The novel was a commercial success.  Critical response in the UK was somewhat less positive, and the award of the Booker Prize was controversial.  Carmen Callili, a 1996 Booker Prize judge called it ‘execrable’, and The Guardian said its context was ‘profoundly depressing’.

I found the book neither execrable nor profoundly depressing, but I didn’t think it is extraordinary as the New York Times did.

The book is set in the 1960’s in Kerala, India, and much of the story is autobiographical about a somewhat dysfunctional middle class family.  The principle characters are young twins Rahel and her brother Estha, aged about 7, their mother Ammu, who is divorced, and their maternal grandmother, Mammachi.  There are also Chacko, Ammu’s derelict cousin, his English ex-wife, Margaret, their nine-year-old daughter Sophie, and Chacko’s mother – the twins great aunt – Baby Kouchamma.  Gradually emerging from the plot is Velutha, a Paravan untouchable, who is beautiful, competent and Ammu’s lover – the God of Small Things.  There are some terrible things that happen: Estha is molested by a soft drink seller in a movie theater, the twins rebel and go into hiding, Sophie drowns, and Ammu’s affair with Velutha is discovered, but none of these events, in the context of India is depressing.  All, with the exception of Estha’s molestation are the natural flow of events.   As it is told, the assault on Estha seems largely preventable.

The writing is certainly very clever: much of the story is told from Rahel’s point of view, with child-like idiosyncrasy.   The characters are unique and credible, though I have a lingering doubt about the fraught relationship between Ammu and her twins: why did it become so bi-polar?  There is a considerable amount of scene description, such that if it were abbreviated, the book would be at least 15% shorter.  But Ms Roy’s descriptive talents are so imaginative, and with some exceptions, so satisfying, that most readers will forgive her.

If you know India and like India, this is a book that should be read, not because it will help one understand India today, but because it provides a context for today’s India.

Review: The Bestseller Code

I mentioned The Best Seller Code in my recent post of August 4th, where I commented on a review by Sandra Elliot for The Florida Writer.  Now, having read the book, I can give you my own reactions.

First, let me say that it is a ‘must read’ for aspiring novelists, not because it reveals all the secrets of creating a bestseller (which it doesn’t), but because it will give you insights into your own writing’s weaker points.  (Assuming that there are a few.)

One aspect of the book that I found frustrating at the outset was that there was no discussion about how the ‘almost five thousand ‘ novels which were read by computer were selected.  Five hundred to these (10%) were best sellers.  Presumably all genres were represented, but in what sort of distribution?  Equal balance of male and female writers?  How about the age and background of the authors?  (There are comments on the back grounds of best-selling authors.)  What about the authors’ nationalities?  (Although all are presumably English-speaking.)  There was no mention of the age distribution of the novels, although all of the bestsellers mentioned are recent novels.  To what extent do readers’ tastes change over time?  How about the type of publisher (traditional vs indie) and the marketing budget?

There are a number of examples of the characteristics of books which tend to make them best sellers, or not, and these, of course are helpful.  But the authors admit that their computer model is only 80% accurate in predicting whether a novel will be a bestseller.  The methodology of the authors’ research used three different mapping algorithms to compare hundreds of dimensions in ‘space’.  One dimension, for example, is the use of the word ‘very’.  It turns our that authors who use ‘very’ frequently in their text are less likely to produce bestsellers.  Particular dimensions may be quite influential in predicting bestsellers.  An example is ‘human closeness’.  The computer reads the text looking for words and arrangement of words which mean that the author is writing about human closeness.  It turns out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not a best seller because of its sexual content, but because of its human closeness.

The computer was 71% accurate in identifying the gender of the author.  Three genres that have difficulty achieving bestseller status are romance, science fiction and fantasy.

Some of the dimensions which contribute to good public acceptance include: emotional cycles; active, rather than passive characters; characters who need rather than wish for; author’s distinctive style (J K Rowling’s first incognito novel was recognised not by its subject but by her style).

Topics that readers like include: marriage, death, taxes (really), modern technology, funerals, guns, school, work, doctors, presidents, kids, moms, and the media.  Less popular subjects are: sex (except in a small erotic genre), big emotions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties.

For me, the chapter on style was particularly interesting as it included a number of specific examples and commentary on why a particular style is effective.  I also believe that I need to work harder at bringing life to what my characters are feeling in subtle but effective ways.

Having said all this, I think it’s important to keep one vital point in perspective.  There are many award-winning novels which are clearly labours of love by their authors, memorable for their readers, and which never make the bestseller list.

 

Publishing Industry Standard

Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishing Association, has introduced an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book in the July issue of  IBPA Independent magazine.

Angela Bole

In the article, she says: “IBPA has been championing independent publishers, big and small, self and otherwise, since 1983.  That’s over 30 years of advocating for indie voices in the traditional publishing industry.  Over this time, we’ve seen a thing or two.

“Recent changes in the publishing industry have created enormous opportunities for self-published authors.  It’s now possible to produce a professional-quality book outside of the Big Five conglomerates.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has come at the cost of a deepening divide between how traditionally-published and self-published authors are treated.  Too often, IBPA has noticed a bias against self-published authors, independent publishers and hybrid presses when it comes to choosing titles or authors for review consideration, book award contests, association memberships, and inclusion of independent bookstore shelves.

“There is no reason for this bias.  While it is true that not all books are created equal, when they are, it’s important that the industry treats them as such.  That’s why the IBPA’s Advocacy Committee recently published an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book – a two-page document developed to support independent publishers and self-published authors, but also to urge an industry in flux to acknowledge that books ought to be judged on their substance ranter than their business model.  If used appropriately, the checklist gives both authors and book industry professionals an at-a-glance method by which to gauge the professional presentation of a book.  The goal is that the checklist becomes a future guide that reviewers, contests, membership associations and bookstores turn to when deciding which authors merit consideration.

“You can download the checklist at: ibpa-online.org/standardschecklist .

“During BookExpo last June, I had the privilege of discussing the checklist with other industry organisations.  I met with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews and many more.  I’m glad to say that the reception was warm.  Those industry professionals paying attention know they’re missing quality books be using gatekeeping tactics attached to business models; they just haven’t figured out how to consider books without opening the floodgate to unprofessionally produced content, as well.  They seemed to appreciate that the checklist is a needed first step toward figuring this all out.

“Today’s independent publishers and self-published authors represent a diverse array of voices and backgrounds, often speaking about specialised issues that are marginalised by larger presses, often because their books are being judged on the business model and not on what matters, which is the content of the books.  Just as publishers, self, or otherwise, are responsible for producing books that adhere to industry standards, the book industry as a whole is responsible for creating an environment that allows for equal evaluation of all published works.”

Amen!

So You Want to Be a Freelance Editor

This is the title of an article in the Florida Writer (June 2017) by Mary Ann de Stefano, editor of The Florida Writer and the Monday Muse.  She is an independent editor with over thirty years experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers who are developing books, organises workshops and designs authors’ websites.

She says: “From time to time, a writer who has decided it would be cool to be a full time editor will offer to take me out to lunch in order to ‘pick my brain’ or ask me a ‘quick question’ about the business.  I turn down such requests as kindly as I can.

“If there’s one thing you have to learn quickly to survive as a freelancer, it’s the value of your time and knowledge.  It worries me to see some of the starry-eyed attitudes that abound about  freelancing, so I want to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

“First and foremost, get real about the money.  I’ve had conversations with people who think they’ll work 40 hours a week, bill at a rate of $25/hour, and make a good income.  After all, 40 hours x $25/hour x 52 weeks in the year = $52,000/year.  Yippee!

“The reality is you’re not actually going to work 52 weeks of the year, and you’re not going to work 40 hours of every week, either.  You’re going to take vacations, holidays and personal time, sick time, and mental health days off.  In addition, not all your working hours will be billable to clients.   Some time must be devoted to marketing your business and taking care of administrative tasks like billing, record keeping, correspondence, etc.  The fact is, only about a third of your work time will be spent producing billable work.  Promoting your services and dealing with administrivia will eat up two-thirds of your time.

“As an independent, you’ll be responsible for expenses that were previously covered by your employer on your ‘regular’ job: medical and disability insurance, retirement savings, office supplies, computer, continuing education, membership fees, etc.  And you’ll incur new business-related expenses for a website and accounting services.  Some support tasks you’ll want to do yourself to save money, but that means more admin time for you, which is not billable.  Spend time or spend money?  Your decision.  While some of your new expenses will be tax-deductible, you still need to have enough cash flow to support them.

She asks other questions: “Think about how you can distinguish your business from others and plan what you will do to reach the prospects you want to serve.  How will you stand out in this crowded field?  What kind of editing do you want to do?  Fiction, nonfiction, academic/scientific, business?  Developmental, content, substantive, copy-editing?

“Do some serious reflection and decide whether you have what it takes to be a full-time, solo entrepreneur.   Go ahead and make the leap – but look before you do.”

All this reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who was working in financial services in a well-paid job, but he was unhappy and consulting looked like just the thing – financially.  He had lots of contacts who would become clients.  But some of the same observations Ms de Stefano makes, above, applied to his case, as well.  He made the jump and while he may be happier in his work, it didn’t turn out as he expected, financially.

Is Amazon Helping Pirates ?

Angela Bole, chief executive officer, Independent Book Publisher’s Association, implies as much in the lead article of the June issue of the IBPA Independent magazine.  She takes issue with Amazon’s change in policy on its book buy box.

Amazon’s Buy Box

This is the method which Amazon has used in the past to say that the book in question is new and is supplied by the publisher.  Now, Amazon is offering a priority spot in the buy box the third party suppliers who offer the same book as new, but at a price significantly below the publisher’s list and Amazon’s Prime price.

For example, a hard cover version of The Bestseller Code has a publishers list of $25.99.  Amazon is offering it at $14.29 Prime.  There are eight third-party sellers offering the book at prices lower than Amazon’s.  The worry, of course, is that publishers and authors are not receiving their due compensation on these cheap books.

In the article, Ms Bole asks: “Where might these third-party sellers be getting the books that they sell that don’t result in any author compensation?  Any number of ways, including donated books, closeout sales, sidewalk sellers, remainder and overstock dealers, ‘hurts’ from distributor stock, promo copies and ARC’s” (advanced reader copies –  f0r reviewers).  An Amazon spokesperson wrote to Publishers Weekly to say that books obtained in one of the preceding ways wouldn’t qualify, because the books must be ‘new”.  Amazon defines ‘new’ as ‘brand-new, unused, unread copy in perfect condition.  The dust cover and original protective wrapping, if any, is intact’.

“The problem is that Amazon does nothing to enforce the ‘new’ policy.”  The third-party seller gets to declare that the book is ‘new’ by simply choosing the ‘new’ option. . . . .

“Karla Olson, director of Pantagonia Books, said, ‘We received a comment on one of our books that it was riddled with typos, and the captions were all the same for the second half of the book.  It took us a few reads to figure out that the customer had bought an ARC, from Amazon. . . .

“And Cynthia Frank, president at Cypress House pointed out another problem. ‘We’ve learned that some of the third-party sellers who have won our Buy Boxes are actually fly-by-night sellers who have only been in the business a few months.  Some likely don’t have even a single copy.  On various listservs and forums, including LinkedIn, I’ve read that some customers pay for a book, but it never arrives.  Amazon, because they take good care of their customers (as opposed to their vendors), ends up holding the bag and has to pay a refund.”

“According to Ian Lamont, founder at 130 Media, in a written statement, ‘Even before the policy change, there were several recent cases of counterfeit paperbacks being co-mingled with legitimate inventory at an Amazon warehouse (as reported by No Starch Press) and taking over the Buy Box (which happened to Author Dave Burgess).  Knock-offs taking over the Buy Box has been a massive issue for manufacturers for several years (as reported by Forbes).  And it’s clear that Amazon can’t control this new policy if they can’t solve the counterfeit problem.'”

Why would Amazon want to introduce a policy like this?  I don’t know, but I suspect that it is driven by Amazon’s commitment to offering goods at the lowest possible price.  What Amazon has apparently failed to consider is that the goods are different at the lowest price from the ‘same’ goods at the more reasonable price.  They have also failed to consider the interests of the people who try to earn a living from the goods Amazon sells.

If you would like to reach a wider audience with your comments, you may want to add a comment on the IPBA website:

http://www.ibpa-online.org/news/349854/An-Amazon-Buy-Button-Call-to-Action.htm

 

 

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: The Rover

My blog of April 17, Review: Today, concerned a novel by David Miller on the death of Joseph Conrad.  Since I had never read any of Conrad’s work, I bought Selected Short Stories and The Rover, by Conrad.  As well as The Rover.  the book includes eleven of Conrad’s twenty-six short stories, selected and commented on by Dr Keith Carabine of the University of Kent.  In his introduction to the stories, Dr Carabine says that Conrad’s great distinction “lies in his ingenious and rigorous exploration of the undiscovered possibilities latent in one of the genre’s most familiar forms, namely the framed short story in which a first-person narrator (who is sometimes a member of the group) introduces, comments on and encloses another’s tale.”  As Dr Carabine says, the theme of most of the stories is man’s fate, and they are often “teasing and enigmatic”.  The framed construction of these stories introduces uncertainty in that the main narrator and the teller of the tale may have different interpretations of the events, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Two other general points I would make about Conrad’s writing.  First, he does not take great pains to capture the interest and attention of the reader at the beginning of a story.  The beginning may be a page of detailed description of the opening scene, with little information about the character who is present, and a considerable, almost poetic word picture of the setting.  In fact, Conrad’s word pictures of scenes are remarkable in their shaping of the mood of the story: mysterious, uncertain, uncommon, unusual.  Moreover, Conrad is lavish in the extent of his descriptions throughout a piece.  Some of this may be attributable to his writing for commercial publication in up-market magazines, where his compensation would be based, at least partially, on the word count.  Each of these stories has at least one principal character who is confronted with some sort of existential challenge and has defects in his character which contribute to his downfall.  Nonetheless, the reader is drawn into his predicament, hoping all the while, that the right solution will be found.

The principal character in The Rover, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, is an ageing, sea-faring, privateer who has come ashore in the south of France to take his ease.  There is also a dim-witted and committed old revolutionary, a young woman who has been psychologically damaged be the horrors of the revolution, a royalist French naval officer, and an aspiring young British naval officer, each of whom seeks his/her own solutions in the world. Who will succeed?  The ingredients in the story include a plan to deceive the British fleet, as well as a search for love, and a re-ordering of the world between revolutionary-royalist lines, and a rough but beautiful Mediterranean sea coast backed up against a traditional rural society.

One comes to have sympathy for the dilemmas of each of the flawed but real characters, and one can sense the tensions between them, as well as having a sensation of being on the rough bucolic scene, or on board one of the ships.  The Rover is an engrossing tale.  The one aspect which I found annoying was the slow pace of the conclusion.  One cold feel it coming, but Conrad was in no hurry to jump into it.  There was much detailed scene setting and character back-story telling.  We were familiar with the scenes, and the character enhancements should – I think – have come earlier.  Nonetheless, The Rover is a satisfying and interesting tale.

Backwards Books

Qualifying for an obscure facts about books award, is an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘How Book Lovers Turned Things Around’ by Anita Singh.  Appearing on 19/4/17, it said:

“If you want to display books on shelves the traditional way, try turning your books back to front.  Placing books on shelves with the spines facing outwards is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Mark Purcell, former libraries curator for the National Trust who now oversees the research collections at Cambridge University Library.

Mark Purcell

“‘Until fashions changed in the 18th century, book titles and authors were not printed on the spine but written in ink on the edge of pages.  The turnaround happened when the wealthy decided having titles embossed in gold leaf would add a certain cachet.  If you’d gone to almost any library in England, Wales or Scotland until 300 years ago the books were kept backwards,’ Purcell said at the Hay Festival.  ‘In those days the cultural supposition was that books had the title printed on the edges of the pages in ink.’

“The first known English book with a title gilded on the spine was printed in 1604, he said, and that was considered ‘cutting edge’.  Then followed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, what historians call ‘the great turnaround’, where the method of display was reversed.”

I suspect that a change in binding technology may also have been partially responsible for this change.  It may have simply been more difficult to print the author’s name and the title of the book on spine of the book.  But, judging by the picture above, it is easy to see why book owners preferred to display their possessions with the title and author’s name on the spine.