Links We Liked for October 30, 2007

This week’s Links We Liked has the smell of the scriptorium. First up is an amazing post about a robot arm that is perpetually writing out the Lutheran bible on a roll of paper using a calligraphy pen. Click here for some thought-provoking images. The combination of robot, writing, religion, and the history of the book is almost too much to bear. Now what we need is a room full of monks writing out advertising copy for double glazing firms. A surly nod of acknowledgment to Boing Boing.

From low-volume to the bestseller list. Kirsty at Other Stories has pulled together bestseller lists from 1963 and 2007. While this year’s list is full of TV series tie-ins, celebrity crash-and-tells and the perennial Highway Code, 1963’s list is headed by A.L. Rowse’s William Shakespeare: A Biography and includes in the top 6 books by Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, and Osbert Lancaster. It’s easy to see this difference in literary class as a sign of publishing’s populist decline, but at the same time I suspect that fewer people actually bought and paid for books in 1963 and those who did were among the more affluent and better educated of the population. More encouragingly ‘classic’ literature continues to sell extremely well in 2007 as it has for year after year. It’s just that Mansfield Park doesn’t sell as well in a given month as Jordan: My Life and Breasts. What happens to the mid-list author in the face of this celebrity onslaught is the real worry.

Which brings me to the other front in the publishing wars: The Internet. Anthony Grafton has a link-packed piece on the New Yorker website summarizing some of the developments in libraries and online archives in the last few years. There are some real gems here: an online copy of Alice in Wonderland and recommendations for the excellent Project Gutenburg, the Internet Archive, and the Open Library. For those of us with access to large libraries, Grafton celebrates JStor; I would add that it is best used in conjunction with the Zotero extension for the Firefox web browser. In fact for anyone doing any kind of online research Zotero is the thing.

Posted by Chris Routledge

4 thoughts on “Links We Liked for October 30, 2007”

  1. Was thrilled to see you mentioned my post, and thanks for the link. 🙂

    I completely take your point about the demographic (to use a word I hate) of people who were actually buying books, and I think you’re right about the plight of the mid-list author.

    Is it awfully snobbish of me just to be a little bit sad at the fact that bringing out an “auto”biography is just *what you do* if you’re a popstar? Why can’t they just bring out the novelty Christmas annual like they used to?

  2. As an academic writer turned hack turned not-even-mid-list author I look forward to having those troubles. I do agree that the focus on celebrity life stories is depressing, but only if it prevents other ‘better’ books being published. Thankfully it doesn’t seem to have done that (loads of books get published), though there is certainly less money in those ‘better’ books than before. This is the future I see for publishing. Book writers will fall into four broad categories: 1. Celebrities and their anonymous ghosts, who fill the front tables and the bestseller lists. 2. Academics who get paid anyway so it doesn’t matter to them or their mortgage payments if their book bombs at the checkout. 3. Part-time writers and self-publishers, most of whom won’t make any money at all and won’t care. 4. A small number of Ian McEwan clones who will have been reduced to writing quality potboilers for readers of the broadsheet newspaper review sections.

    Bookmark this and see if I’m right in ten years’ time. Oh I forgot the Christmas annuals, which will make a comeback for nostalgia reasons.

    Chris

  3. You’re most likely completely right, but I can’t help wondering whether the money being lavished on celeb books – and I’m thinking here more of the novels by Kerry Katona, Jordan et al rather than the biogs – couldn’t be better spent encouraging new talent? Might we have more quality writing if it was invested in?

    I don’t know, I am merely speculating. But I am hoping for the return of the Xmas annuals – the Beano annual was the highlight of every Christmas morning for me growing up!

  4. I’m assuming these novels sell and make money (mostly) and that the money they make allows publishers to take a chance on an unknown or two. But of course risk-taking is not really what big business is about. I think there is a lot of quality writing about, but that is itself the problem: too many well-educated people who can write proficiently, too much expectation of what ‘being a writer’ means, and not enough readers of those kinds of books. In the days of Iris Murdoch writing at a proficient, publishable, if not brilliant, level, was an exclusive skill. Despite what the educational doom-mongers tell us that’s not true any more, especially if you have a decent copy editor. Even Booker Prize nominees only sell a few thousand copies, largely because they are competing with a flood of other, equally well written and well marketed, books. Fewer books, not more, would mean better sales for those writers who remain, but that’s not what anyone wants. And as publishing gets cheaper, it’s not what is going to happen.

    Beano Annual? In my day we had to make do with sixpence and an orange.

    Chris

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