Monthly Archives: October 2018

How Do We Measure Commercial Success in Publishing?

31 October 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

Given all the problems, how is it that publishers rarely go broke? Even if they’re losing money, invariably someone steps in to buy them. Of course the purchaser may be mad, but the big publishing acquirers are themselves still in business and by all accounts performing well.

So what is the trick and how do we measure commercial success? There seem to me to be five measures, all important but all with shortcomings.

When you ask a literary agent or an author how well a book is doing the answer is usually measured in number of copies sold—either large to show excellence or small, the publisher’s lack of marketing effort. Of course numbers of copies is now a fairly meaningless measure, except to emblazon on the covers of bestselling novelists, as it’s perfectly easy to sell tens of thousands of copies as an ebook at one cent each.

Even when the books are sold at a reasonable price, the numbers may well camouflage an outrageously high advance or huge imminent returns from retailers, either of which would lay the publisher low. I remember a distinguished publisher telling me with pride that one of her books had sold 70,000 hardbacks. I discovered later that 65,000 copies were returned and the advance was £400,000 (US$513,000). The resulting loss was greater than the profit made on many a successful commercial novel.

A better measure, of course, is net sales value and it’s certainly true that increasing sales revenue is a good thing in most cases—but not when the increased sales are made by absurdly high discounts to retailers or by dumping stock and destroying a market.

And so we move on to profit, the measure most focused on by publishing managers at all levels and in all departments.

Not everyone understands profit. Highly intelligent journalists and politicians confuse profit and sales when discussing how little tax some corporations pay. The problem with profit as a measure is that it can be subjective. How publishers account for stock, authors’ advances, capital expenditure on computers and warehouses, plus central overhead allocation—all can distort profitability in one direction or another.

Of course, the single biggest beneficiary of overstating profitability in the UK is Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs agency, and the reason profitability is so important is that governments use it to calculate taxation.

No truly independent business would use profit as the key measure of success.

. . . .

Arguably the only thing that matters is cash generation and publishers are pretty good at generating cash as, by and large, there’s little need for significant capital expenditure. We don’t need to build factories or have huge non-revenue-generating R&D departments (unless we view editorial as that). And so any surpluses generated by sales of books should turn into cash as long as the surplus isn’t eaten up by over-printing and unrecoverable advances.

But building up cash reserves is not in itself an indication of success.

What really matters, in my opinion, is the building up of publishing assets—the author contracts in filing cabinets (or preferably on a secure hard disc), the licenses, the distribution arrangements, the brand value of imprints.

Of course, these assets are hard to value. With a public company, the share price is some indication, but we all know that financial markets are imperfect and are affected by short-term external factors and sentiment. With private companies, there’s not even that objective approximation.

It’s precisely because asset value is so hard to measure that it rarely gets the attention it deserves but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Truly understanding asset value is what distinguishes a good publisher.

A favorite example is Penguin’s acquisition of Frederick Warne in 1983. I don’t have access to its accounts back then but I’ll wager that sales were static, profits were minimal, cash generation was zero. Frederick Warne did however have an asset: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit series and a few others), which Peter Mayer recognized as a publishing jewel ready for commercialization.

The asset value of Frederick Warne was hugely greater than any of the traditional measures of success would have indicated. Both Peter Mayer and Peter Rabbit emerged triumphant.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

As regular visitors will have noted, this business relationship between the author and publisher generates far more money for the publisher than the author.

Top Halloween Candy by State

31 October 2018

Nothing to do with books, but important Halloween data from

This year, it is expected that $2.6 Billion will be spent on trick-or-treat, which is a lot of money. If we as a nation are spending that much, we might as well get it right. We gathered 11 years of data and made this map of 2018’s Most Popular Halloween Candy in America by state to help you choose wisely.

. . . .

The top Halloween candy in your state are not always what you think they were. Salt water taffy and Hot Tamales performed much better than some expected, for example.

For over 11 years, we’ve been delivering tons of bulk candy around the country. As preeminent bulk candy dealers, we’ve got a lot of candy sales data to comb through. Including some we shipped to New York not too long ago…

. . . .

We looked at 11 years of sales data (2007-2017), looking in particular at the months leading up to Halloween. We sell nationwide (and to Canada) so we broke down our sales by state. We also have relationships with major candy manufacturers and distributors – all of whom contributed and helped us verify our conclusions.

. . . .

Halloween Candy Quick Facts

  • 179 million Americans celebrate Halloween
  • Nearly 1/4 of all Halloween purchases are made online
  • Among those who celebrate Halloween, 95% will purchase candy
  • They will spend about $27 on average
  • In Oregon, full-sized candy bars are the norm for trick-or-treaters to receive
  • Over 50% of parents stash some Halloween candy to enjoy later in the year

Link to the rest at

Because Today is Halloween in the United States

31 October 2018

What Can a Linguist Learn From a Gravestone?

31 October 2018

From the Atlas Obscura:

Gravestone inscriptions, beyond the simple “name, date of birth, date of death” templates, are both a lasting, permanent record of a life, and also a record that the person buried under has very little control over. They’re also a valuable and extremely under-studied corpus of linguistic data, albeit a frequently misleading and opaque one. Linguists around the world go into graveyards, dutifully record what they say, check them against historical records, and try to find out the answer to the most basic questions. Who are these people, and these communities? What was important to them?

. . . .

Elise Ciregna, a religious studies professor at Harvard and the president of the Association for Gravestone Studies, says that inscriptions have existed as long as people could chip letters into stone, but that the more detailed inscriptions we see today—biblical verses, poetry, descriptions of the life of the buried—date back to the 1600s. The key running theme of gravestone inscriptions is that they are for the living, and even for a more specific task: they reaffirm and reiterate membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of the culture of that group. This does not necessarily mean that they are particularly informative about the life of the specific deceased, but they are full of useful, sometimes subtle cues about the community the deceased belonged to, and what they valued.

. . . .

Ciregna mostly studies colonial gravestones in the American northeast. There are language conventions in the 17th century that, she says, are usually associated with the Calvinist faith. They’re pretty gloomy and direct; you see a lot of stuff like “Here lyeth the body of Elisabeth the wife of William Pabodie who dyed May ye 31st 1717 and in the 94th year of her age.” But you can get some pretty decent information from that. Ciregna noted how common it was for women’s inscriptions to mention their relationship to men. “Wife of,” “consort of,” “widow of,” “daughter of.” This kind of information was, to them, the most important thing, which tells you a bit about the gender relations of the time period.

By the 19th century, you’ll see more and more elaborate inscriptions, and also a change in tone. The epitaphs become less gloomy, more celebratory. Here’s one: “She is not dead but sleepeth.” Another, written by Pearl Starr for her mother, the notorious “Bandit Queen” of the American west:

Shed not for her the bitter tear
Nor give the heart to vain regret
‘Tis but the casket that lies here—
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.

. . . .

John O’Regan, a sociolinguist at University College London, told me about one very minimal inscription he found: nothing more than a name, Thomas Beale. Turns out Beale was at one point a successful businessman and trader, but lost much of his fortune. One day he disappeared; his body washed up a few weeks later. Records show that it was believed he died by suicide, such a taboo that he wasn’t given any other information on his gravestone at all, even though his family remained wealthy enough to spring for an expensive box tomb.

. . . .

Stonecutters during before [sic] the late 19th century charged by the letter, and often persuaded clients to choose lengthy poems for epitaphs. One very successful Massachusetts stonecutter, Alpheus Cary, actually wrote a book on appropriate epitaphs; among the standard poems and bible verses were poems he wrote himself.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

One of PG’s great regrets is that he will never become president of the Association for Gravestone Studies

New MacBook Air

31 October 2018

PG has been a Windows user for a very long time and an MS-DOS user prior to that.

All of the PG offspring are Mac users.

On many occasions, PG has had the Windows vs. Mac discussion. Several years ago, with the help of one of his offspring, he purchased a lightly-used top-end Mac desktop and appropriate software to see if he had the potential to become a Mac guy.

After about six months of trying, he was feeling no buzz and one of his offspring inherited the Mac.

He won’t go into detail, but, over the years, PG has collected a variety of Windows software programs and utilities, both widely-used and obscure, that, for him, make his use of a Windows computer quite efficient. Every few years, he upgrades his hardware for more speed/memory/storage/virtue. (For computer geeks, PG’s current desktop contains a healthy i7 processor,  32 GB of RAM, 3 TB of internal storage, including a 1 TB SSD and 16 TB of external storage, so you can see he suffers from an advanced case of something.)

OTOH, PG owns and has owned and enjoyed several iPhones, so he’s not constitutionally anti-Apple.

For visitors to TPV who don’t pay attention to such things, Apple introduced a new MacBook Air yesterday, the first refresh of a popular entry-level Mac laptop in several years.

As with many things Apple, the price increased. For $1199 (up from $999) you get a 13-inch hi rez display (nice, but not large), an i5 processor (middling performance), 8 GB of memory (not much) and a 128 GB SSD (teeny, at least by PG standards). Its built-in camera (Skype, Facetime) is 720p (low rez lame, could impair your online image if you don’t buy an external webcam which will impair the sleek MacBook Air’s appearance).

One commentator on all things Apple opined that Apple’s overall strategy is to raise the Average Selling Price (ASP) of all of its products. The latest iteration of this strategy began with the new iPhones introduced a couple of months ago – $100 or so more expensive than last year’s comparable models. The MacBook Air continues the +ASP strategy.

Over the last several years, based on sales, Apple has evolved into a phone company rather than a computer company.

In terms of unit numbers, Apple sold about the same number of phones in late 2017/early 2018 as it did a year earlier. Increased iPhone revenue occurred during that period because of increased prices.

PG read somewhere that cellphone users in the US are keeping their existing phones for a longer period of time than they have in previous years.

Apple’s competitors in the smartphone and laptop/desktop computer markets have been adding features, but not increasing prices like Apple has.

So here’s the question (PG promises to get back to books shortly): Where’s the tipping point for Apple? When are its products going to cost more than they’re worth, technically and as a lifestyle statement?

“How did you go bankrupt?”
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.

~ Ernest Hemingway

When I sit down to write a book

31 October 2018

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

~ George Orwell

The Real Reason Clowns Creep Us Out

30 October 2018

PG couldn’t make a firm connection between this article and the writers’ world (other than some horror fiction), but thought it was interesting.

From National Geographic:

Clowns are creeping across America, lurking in the woods and generally freaking out the general public.

Over the past few months, “clown sightings” have become a thing, occupying a dark crevice in the popular imagination that was once filled by UFO or Slender Man sightings. And like all viral trends, this one is spreading, with creepy-clown alerts popping up in England, Australia, Canada, and Scotland. Whether they’re teenage pranksters, a movie-marketing ploy, figments of the imagination, or really out to do harm (all possibly true in some cases), the clowns are universally described with one word: creepy.

But why are clowns so creepy? And why are they suddenly popping up all over? Luckily, scientists are giving this some thought, and clown sightings turn out to be a perfect case study on the nature of creepiness—and what makes an idea go viral.

“In many ways, clowns combine a perfect storm of freaky things,” says Frank McAndrew, a social psychologist who published the first large study of creepiness just this year.

Not only are they mischievous and strange looking, McAndrew says, but behind the makeup you can’t tell who clowns are or what they’re really feeling.

That has led some people to speculate that clowns are creepy because they fall into what’s known as the uncanny valley, a not-quite-human appearance often ascribed to robots. The idea is that we like and feel empathy for robots that look somewhat human-like (think C-3P0), but are repulsed by those that look too human.

So, the thinking goes, clowns scare us because they blur the lines of looking human, with heavy makeup distorting their features—not to mention those huge feet and bizarre hair.

. . . .


And clowns, let’s not forget, haven’t always been loathed. If the uncanny valley alone were the problem, we’d expect clowns and other heavily made-up actors to have always elicited feelings of creepiness. Yet there have been many beloved clowns (such as Clarabell and Bozo), and I remember when clowns were perfectly acceptable decoration for a child’s room.

That tracks with what McAndrew found in his study, where he surveyed more than 1,300 people to figure out what behaviors and physical characteristics people find creepy. The common factor was unpredictability.

“It is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about a threat that we get the chills,” he writes in an article about psychology. “It would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.”

. . . .

Harvard computer scientist Michele Coscia studies what makes an idea go viral online—or not—and he says he’s surprised that the creepy-clown meme is being revamped so successfully.

He has shown that most memes—whether an image, phrase, or idea like creepy clowns—fizzle because they fail to differentiate themselves from the competition. And creepy clowns have already flooded the marketplace of ideas, starring in horror movies for years.

“My theory would say, Well, this meme is not novel, so it should not be likely to go viral,” Coscia says. “Yet, it did. So you could say that my theory in this case fails.”

But Coscia has a hypothesis. When he looks at a meme on social websites like Reddit, he can create a measure called “canonicity” for it—how unusual it is. Lower canonicity means the idea is more unusual, and more likely to go viral. In the case of creepy-clown sightings, “there were prank memes and creepy clowns, but not the conjunction of the two,” Coscia says.

And boom—a new, low-canonicity idea was born, primed to go viral.

Then social psychology kicked in. “Social media fans the flames by giving us a false sense of how widespread something is and how threatened we should be feeling,” McAndrew says. “Better to err on the side of caution by protecting your children from killer clowns than to err in the other direction. We now have the ability to sound alarms and spread rumors with a megaphone, and we never pass up the opportunity to do so.”

Link to the rest at National Geographic

PG was intrigued by “canonicity” and did a little research. As you might have suspected from the root word, canon, there are religious connections.


How do we know that the 66 books in our Bible are the only inspired books? Who decided which books were truly inspired by God? The Roman Catholic Bible includes books that are not found in other Bibles (called the Apocrypha). How do we know that we as Protestants have the right books? These questions are addressed by a study of canonicity.

“Canon” is a word that comes from Greek and Hebrew words that literally means a measuring rod. So canonicity describes the standard that books had to meet to be recognized as scripture.

On the one hand, deciding which books were inspired seems like a human process. Christians gathered together at church councils in the first several centuries A.D. for the purpose of officially recognizing which books are inspired. But it’s important to remember that these councils did not determine which books were inspired. They simply recognized what God had already determined.

. . . .

Tests of Canonicity

The early church councils applied several basic standards in recognizing whether a book was inspired.

A. Is it authoritative (“Thus saith the Lord”)?

B. Is it prophetic (“a man of God” 2 Peter 1:20)?

– A book in the Bible must have the authority of a spiritual leader of Israel (O.T. – prophet, king, judge, scribe) or and apostle of the church (N.T. – It must be based on the testimony of an original apostle.).

C. Is it authentic (consistent with other revelation of truth)?

D. Is it dynamic – demonstrating God’s life-changing power (Hebrew 4:12)?

E. Is it received (accepted and used by believers – 1 Thessalonians 2:13)?

Link to the rest at

PG read a few other items relating to canonicity, for example, discussions of how books entered the canons of English and American literature.

This raised a question in PG’s struggling mind:

Are there canons for genres of fiction? What are tests of canonicity?

  1. Are there Romance novels that should be canons of the genre? What would the tests of canonicity be?
  2. Ditto for Science Fiction and Fantasy (PG nominates Dune)
  3. Detective fiction?

He concluded that while some canons are formal (see above), there are other canons (see clowns and canonicity above) which are much less formalized.

Used generally, PG suggests that canons need not be written, but may come into being from widely understood and accepted truths concerning various subjects.

For example:

  1. Are there canons relating to Amazon? Things that are more or less Amazonian? Items or events that should not be included in the canons of Amazon at all?
  2. How about Apple canons?
  3. With respect to Amazon or Apple, are there identifiable elements of either organization that can be designated of low canonicity?

PG is happy to view responses to this topic in the comments. However, he will be neither offended nor surprised if visitors to TPV have better things to write about.


Literature embodies virtue

30 October 2018

Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.

~ Karen Swallow Prior

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