Book publishing in the 21st century

by Judith Curry

Here’s a little real talk about the book publishing industry — it adds almost no value, it is going to be wiped off the face of the earth soon, and writers and readers will be better off for it. – Matthew Yglesias has a provocative article by Matthew Yglesias:  Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.  Summary excerpts:

What is indisputably true is that Amazon is on track to destroy the businesses of incumbent book publishers. But the many authors and intellectuals who’ve been convinced that their interests — or the interests of literary culture writ large — are identical with those of the publishers are simply mistaken.

Books are published by giant conglomerates. Wisdom on this subject begins with the observation that the book publishing industry is not a cuddly craft affair. It’s dominated by a Big Four of publishers, who are themselves subsidiaries of much larger conglomerates. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, Penguin and RandomHouse are jointly owned by Pearson and Bertelsmann, and Hachette is part of an enormous French company called Lagadère. These are not tiny, helpless enterprises.

Amazon faces lots of competition. It is undeniably true that Amazon has a very large share of the market for e-books. What is not true is that Amazon faces a lack of competition in the digital book market. Barnes & Noble sells e-books, and does so in partnership with a small outfit called Microsoft. Apple sells e-books and so does Google. And since these are companies that are actually much bigger and more profitable than Amazon, there is absolutely no way Jeff Bezos can drive them out of business with predatory pricing. Amazon’s e-book product is much more popular than its rivals because Amazon got there first, and the competition has not succeeded in producing anything better.

Publishers are superfluous. In the traditional book purchasing paradigm, when a reader bought a book at the store there were two separate layers of middlemen taking a cut of the cash before money reached the author: a retailer and a publisher. The publisher, in this paradigm, was doing very real work as part of the value-chain. A typed and printed book manuscript looks nothing like a book. Transforming the manuscript into a book and then arranging for it to be shipped in appropriate quantities to physical stores around the country is a non-trivial task. What’s more, neither bookstore owners nor authors have any expertise in this field. Digital publishing is not like that. Transforming a writer’s words into a readable e-book product can be done with a combination of software and a minimal amount of training.

Book publishers are terrible at marketing. When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct. The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.

A bounty of affordable reading. Of course a world where more people can get more books more conveniently is a better world. It is true that some individual authors may earn less in the new era, while others authors may earn more. As Amazon and other digital distributors gobble up some of the publishers’ slice of the revenue, it’s likely that authors will also get a share and see their total income rise. In the new regime it will be easier for writers to find readers and reach larger audiences. They just won’t find them through the exact same set of middlemen who currently sit astride the pipeline. Tough on them.

Dissenting perspectives

The New Republic responds with an article What Matt Yglesias doesn’t understand about book publishing. Excerpt:

A publisher’s list of books is in essence a risk pool, a term most often associated with health insurance. In the insurance business, the profits from the healthy people outweigh the big losses from the sick ones because the healthy outnumber the sick. In publishing, it’s the opposite, yet the underlying concept is the same. Most books lose money, but the ones that make money earn enough to cover all those novels that didn’t sell.

The publishing scenario that Yglesias is advocating is a world without health insurance. (Ironic, I know.) In a system without the publisher operating as middleman, where the author takes his life’s work and just posts it to Amazon, each book becomes a lonely outpost in the stiff winds of the marketplace, a tiny business that must sell or die. “So what?” Yglesias might say, because that’s the kind of ruthless neoliberal thinker he is. “If people didn’t buy the book, that’s just proof of its worthlessness.”

Salon has a rebuttal, excerpts:

The battle between Amazon and the Big Five publishers is complicated by the fact that neither “side” is exactly easy for authors and readers to be on. No one who cares about a diverse and healthy literary marketplace, where new ideas and writers can reach a wide audience — and even non-blockbuster authors are paid enough for their work so that they can continue doing it — can reasonably side with Amazon.

But the publishers have botched so many opportunities in recent years, and have been so maddeningly slow to adapt to the digital marketplace, that it’s hard not to feel that they deserve some kind of comeuppance.

Paul Krugman  has an article Amazon’s monopsony is not ok, excerpt:

Does Amazon really have robber-baron-type market power? When it comes to books, definitely. Amazon overwhelmingly dominates online book sales, with a market share comparable to Standard Oil’s share of the refined oil market when it was broken up in 1911. Even if you look at total book sales, Amazon is by far the largest player.

So far Amazon has not tried to exploit consumers. In fact, it has systematically kept prices low, to reinforce its dominance. What it has done, instead, is use its market power to put a squeeze on publishers, in effect driving down the prices it pays for books — hence the fight with Hachette. In economics jargon, Amazon is not, at least so far, acting like a monopolist, a dominant seller with the power to raise prices. Instead, it is acting as a monopsonist, a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down.

JC reflections

Well I definitely know nothing of the world where authors of books get an advance from the publisher.  I assume advances are for the type of books that you would buy in an airport (blockbuster type novels), plus the more literary works from established writers. Writers of science books, even popular science books, probably don’t get any advances (I’m somewhat ignorant here), but I do know that textbook writers don’t get advances from the publisher!

I’m a hardcore e-book/Kindle/amazon fan, and amazon’s marketing of books is sheer genius (relative to conventional publishers, who seem in any event to rely on amazon for their marketing).  I think Yglesias pretty much gets it right, although there seems to be something to Krugman’s monopsony concerns.

I would like to discuss here what this means for popular science and academic publishing.  I’ve seen a number of popular climate/environment science books self-published on Kindle, or published electronically by an e-publisher.  Not sure to what extent e-publishing is dominating in this sector?

With regards to textbooks, the dilemma is this.  There typically isn’t much value added by academic publishers, but getting any ‘academic credit’ for writing a book depends largely on getting it published by a prestigious press. Textbooks are enormously important in educating not only university students, but also scientists within and outside the field, and the interested technical public.  Writing a text book requires integration and weaving together loose ends, an activity that is very different from primary research.  Such skills should be more highly valued in the academy than they are.

I have to say that my publishing experience with Academic Press for my text Thermodynamic of Atmospheres and Oceans hasn’t been great.  I submitted a camera ready, fully formatted/indexed/page numbered book, there was no editing or formatting done.  The original (1999) price of the book was $66; the price on Amazon is now $115 for hardcover and $59 for Kindle.  I have received minuscule royalties for this book; I received full royalties (which were rather small anyways) only for books sold in the UK (where the book was published).  I am under contract to do a 2nd edition (and I will not be giving them a camera ready version).

Our experience with our new book  Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Microphysics of Clouds, published by Cambridge University Press, so far has been somewhat better.    CUP did a serious job of editing, and did an excellent job with the page layouts and indexing.  The price is relatively reasonable:  $89  for hardcover, and $63 for Kindle (Dan Hughes has been extremely helpful in pointing out bugs in the Kindle version).  One disappointment is the font size for hardcover:  9 point eye strain.  This small font was used because the book was slightly longer than our original estimate, and an effort was made to keep the costs down.  With regards to marketing, it is not really clear what CUP is doing – most of the effort (and presumably the majority of the sales) is from my blog post and tweets and Vitaly’s extensive emailing to cloud physicists worldwide.

Any further books that I write (apart from the under contract 2nd edition) will be published electronically only, and probably self published. I would be happy to sell the books for $1 (the royalties for publishing technical books are minuscule anyways). Electronic publishing opens up the possibility for nontraditional formats, with hyperlinks, etc. The internet – email, blogs, twitter – is remarkably effective for marketing books.  About half of the books I’ve read recently have been spotted from twitter. So the question is whether the institutions (e.g. universities) will decide they value textbook writing and affordable texts, and whether they can figure out a better way to evaluate the impact of a book beyond the press that published it.

Here’s to  hoping for saner models for publishing scholarly books in the 21st century.





103 responses to “Book publishing in the 21st century

  1. I received advances against royalties for both my textbooks, but relatively small in each case – roughly equivalent to the royalties on the first 500 copies. One was with OUP and one with CUP. On the whole I have found CUP easier to deal with. Neither publisher contributed a lot, but they both contributed much more than journal publishers do.

  2. I find it very difficult to understand how textbook publishers justify charging as much as they do. I have seen trade paperbacks at the university library selling for 60$-80$. My POD trade paperbacks of comparable size list for 10$-12$. As you say, the extra cost is not going to the authors.

    • University Presses just print Books and collections so that members of Humanities Departments can state that they have published books and chapters.

  3. I cannot see academic publishers lasting for much longer; they are essentially trading on their names and Citation Index. The average paper is costing us $5,000 with all our colored images and this is a complete rip-off.

  4. How about putting books on vinyl records?

    • Heh!

      • I don’t know about books on vinyl, but books on polycarbonate (CDs) are terrific and my car is never without one to listen to during my commutes. But here’s an idea: why not set up a 900 number and have someone with an “exotic” voice read a chapter at a time for some rate per minute. ;-)

  5. Speaking of books… Wondering if you have seen this great review of Oreskes/Conway’s “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” published by Columbia University Press: You are mentioned in the equally intelligent and informed Comments discussion. Coincidentally came upon the essay via Amazon’s Customer Reviews.

    • A fan of *MORE* discourse

      Climate Etc readers are invited to verify for themselves that the literate public at GoodReads are expressing overwhelmingly favorable opinions of *BOTH* Naomi Oreskes (2014) *AND* Naomi Klein (2014)

      Good on `yah for effectively reaching-out to the public, Naomi and Naomi!

      FOMD sez  You gals oughtta write a book together!

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      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: t the literate public at GoodReads

        Is it “literate” to assert that capitalism is the problem and that tyranny is the solution?

        the critique linked by vitadMD is better informed than the customer approvals at GoodRead

        China provides an interesting case for .Oreskes and Conway. Whereas California halted its water development in the 60s, China has continued to enlarge its flood control and irrigation systems on a quite massive scale. Whereas California is strenuously trying to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, China continues to increase its consumption of all known fossil fuels at a great rate; nationwide American coal consumption is down. Compared to the US, China has terrible pollution. But the authors embrace the Chinese approach rather than either the California approach or the US national approach.

      • All that indicates is that the only people able to finish either book were those who agreed with it beforehand. I invite you to check out the ratings for some books with which you disagree to see the very strong effect.

        Your belief that the reviews for these books are a reliable indicator of their value is a sad reflection of your inability to process information with which you disagree.

      • A fan of *MORE* discourse

        fizzymagic criticizes “inability to process information with which you disagree.”

        fizzymagic, how do you “process” the overwhelming dominance of non-skeptical climate-change books on GoodReads?

        Top-rated (for example) is James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

        And WUWT hats on the guy climate-scientists?  The world wonders!

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      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: fizzymagic, how do you “process” the overwhelming dominance of non-skeptical climate-change books on GoodReads?

        The most obvious explanation, to a person who reads a lot of technical material related to CO2 and climate, is that they are mostly dunces there.

      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: Top-rated (for example) is James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

        That clinches the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

      • A fan of *MORE* discourse

        Matthew R Marler concludes “They [the GoodReads members] are mostly dunces [thirty million of them].”

        Opinion by Matthew R Marler, facts by FOMD!

        There is an alternative explanation:

        The trouble with ignorance
        is that it feels so much like expertise

        “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

        Matthew R Marler, does blending skepticism of science with market-fundamentalism buoy the morale of denialists by inducing “something that feels to denialists like knowledge?”

        The world wonders!

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      • Considering that Oreskes and Klein have the same (dismal) track record as Yglesias for being right, this is a very apt post.

        Nice own-goal Fanny.

      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: Matthew R Marler, does blending skepticism of science with market-fundamentalism buoy the morale of denialists by inducing “something that feels to denialists like knowledge?”

        There is no way I can know the answer to your question.

      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: The trouble with ignorance
        is that it feels so much like expertise

        “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

        I have sometimes wondered what it would feel like to have confidence or to feel like I had knowledge. One of the reasons I read and write at Climate Etc is to learn what kind of evidence there is for and against certain propositions, some of which I have read here and elsewhere, some of which I might have thought of myself (e.g. increased downwelling LWIR will mostly act to increase the rate of vaporization of the non-dry parts of the Earth surface, speed the hydrological cycle and increase rainfall.) I follow most links and download the pdfs if they are available. I find when I follow your links that they usually do not support scientific claims that you make for them. Most commonly you claim that James Hansen made accurate predictions, and multiple reviews of the evidence show that his predictions to date are too high. I have quoted from some of the papers that you have linked to.

        My favorite word in this debate is “maybe”. “Maybe increased tropospheric CO2 will cause increased tropospheric global mean temperature.” “Maybe increased cloud cover will blunt the hypothetical warming effect of tropospheric CO2.” “Maybe FOMD will back up a proposition about CO2 and global warming with some published evidence.”

      • A fan of *MORE* discourse

        Matthew R Marler asserts [ludicrously] “Commonly you claim that James Hansen made accurate predictions, and multiple reviews of the evidence show that his predictions to date  are too high  have proved to be strikingly accurate.”

        Claim by Marler, facts by FOMD!

        Hansen’s 1988 Predictions

        Summary  The match of observed temperature to Hansen’s scenario C [of 1988] is quite good.

        D*mn good.

        So good, that I suspect the match isn’t entirely due to the excellence of the model, in part it was coincidence.

        Regardless of that, to claim on the basis of these 25-year-old model runs that “Empirical evidence confirms failed performance of global climate models” is downright ludicrous.

        Really. Ludicrous.

        Your ludicrous contributions to the amusement of Climate Etc readers are appreciated, Matthew R Marler!

        Good on `yah, James Hansen, for an outstanding multi-decade record of accurate climate-change predictions!

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      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: Hansen’s 1988 Predictions

        That’s Tamino. He revised Hansen’s prediction post-hoc to make it appear as though Hansen’s model had made a correct prediction. Tamino didn’t even provide a link to Hansen’s original paper. I have gone to Hansen’s 1988 Science article and quoted it exactly as written, at least twice, iirc, in response to your claims. Plain and simply, the 21st century is not as warm as Hansen predicted it to be. And as happened to everyone else, the “apparent hiatus” in surface and troposphere warming happened without Hansen predicting that either.

      • John Robertson

        FOMD – did you actually READ Hanson’s 1988 paper? Always go to the source! If so you would have read “We define three trace gas scenarios to provide an indication of how the predicted climate trend depends upon trace gas growth rates. Scenario A assumes that growth rates of trace gas emissions typical of the 1970s and 1980s will continue indefinitely: the assumed annual growth averages about 1.5% of current emissions, so the net greenhouse forcing increases exponentially. Scenario B has decreasing trace gas growth rates, such that the annual increase of the greenhouse climate forcing remains approximately constant at the present level. Scenario C drastically reduces trace gas growth between 1990 and 2000 such that the greenhouse climate forcing ceases to increase after 2000.“. (pg 3 of 24 pages in this doc, it was part of a larger one so it shows as page 9343…)
        In other words for business (growth of trace gases) as usual the result would be scenario A, freezing production at 1980s levels would produce scenario B, and only by cutting CO2 and other trace gases drastically would produce scenario C. Didn’t happen, did it?
        Read the paper here. It took me ten seconds to find with a Google search for “Hanson 1988 paper”.

      • Yeah because Naomi-squared will be even more demented than either separately…. brilliant idea, FOMT!

      • What folks need to understand is that FOMT rarely reads the material to which he links, and that his reading comprehension is so dismally biased that even if he attempts to read we cannot rely upon his presentations.

        As for Goodreads, from what I have seen it is dominated by highly biased lefty group-think humanities clones….. just the proper environment for FOMT. The two Naomis are perfectly at home there….

      • Matthew R Marler

        a fan of *MORE* discourse: The trouble with ignorance
        is that it feels so much like expertise

        “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

        Perhaps you can answer my questions.

        1. What have been the documented negative effects of CO2 increase since 1850?

        2. In view of the fact that water vapor pressure increases supralinearly with temperature, how will an increase in temperature of 1C on the non-wet surface of the Earth increase evaporation, cloud formation and rainfall?

        3. How much will an increase of 3.7W/m^2 downwelling LWIR on the non-wet surface of the Earth increase evaporation, cloud formation and rainfall?

        I have from time-to-time posed these questions and related questions here and at RealClimate and at WUWT. So far, there has only been one study that was directed to my attention that addressed any of these questions.

    • Hmmm …

    • “The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners…”

      This is a very effective way to scare us – or, I should say, raise our consciousness. Much better than the grandchildren.

      We know our smartypants grandchildren will be cruising through snow in their thorium-hoverers and making fun of our quaint ways, such as twerking, selfies and solar feed-in tariffs. Some of the more intellectual will make lugubrious movies about the notorious Hollywood greenlistings of the Boring Twenties.

      But the moggies and pooches! That’s how you rend the hearts of those wealthy Westerners.

      Btw, haven’t read Naomi’s book. Do any budgerigars get it the neck?

      • Thorium hoverers? Mosomoso, back in the 1960s, The Incredible String Band had a song called, well, “Back in the 1960s,” apparently pitched a little beyond where we are now. It included the lines:

        “Well, travel was hard,
        Y’know we still used the wheel …”

        Could this have presaged thorium hoverers, I ask?

      • Having invented the stump-jump plough and…well, that other thing, Australians are now working on the TH. You have to pay in advance, like those Arctic condos and Richard Branson space flights…but the TH will be worth every hundred thou.

  6. Matthew R Marler

    I read the e-versions and print versions of two statistics books recently, and I much preferred reading the print versions. Some of this debate will be settled by how many people there are who are like me.

    The calculus textbook by James Stewart (6th edition) costs $220 for the e-book, and $253 hardcover. If you purchase a license to Maple, you can get a free addendum to Stewart’s text in pdf format. However, the University of San Diego gets a special version from the publisher at a reduced price, and I imagine that comparable deals are available to students at other universities. So, with your notebook open for writing, your screens displaying text and diagrams, and your textbook open for study, you can benefit simultaneously from diverse formats.

    I expect the market to become more fragmented and seemingly even less rational.

    • I don’t think that you burn the option for a printed book if you use alternate publishing. I do know people who have written and published books who did not use traditional publishers. This has been around for many years.

    • My family bought me an e-reader, and my initial reaction was that I thought I would not like it. However, it is lighter than the book version, has backlighting for reading in the dark, and I found that I prefer it over the book which you constantly have to hold open. I expect that the market will move in the paperless direction as the new generation starts to have a significant market share. Think about a student carrying several heavy text books around campus versus one e-book, and it is not hard to imagine that the generation that is used to phones doing everything for them (including e-reading) is going to reject paper books.

      • Curious George

        I take it that you don’t use many post-it notes in your reading materials. I would miss them badly. Paper has its advantages.

      • Actually I have a post-it farm across my desk. However, my children do e-post-its, to coin a term. Those of us that are used to paper books know of their value. I get the distinct impression from the younger generation that paper books are mostly a pain and to be avoided. I hear considerable whining when an e-book is not available and the paper copy must be read to fulfill a reading list assignment for instance.

      • Michael Larkin

        Curious George, do you not know that you can easily add editable notes to Kindle books? Also, you can: highlight text; search for text in Wikipedia or on Google; search within the text of the book for specified strings; get dictionary definitions of unfamiliar words in the book.

        You can carry round hundreds of books on the Kindle reader hardware, or any other portable device that can host a free Kindle reader app. You can’t lose your books either, even if you lose the hardware/software currently storing them.

        Paper is going the way of the Dodo, I’m afraid. In time, it will become the interest of only a few romantics who love the touch and smell of conventional books.

      • Curious George

        Thank you very much. Clearly I am not keeping up with technological advances.

  7. I do not see what this has to do with the climate debate. Anyone seriously interested in these issues might check out where I used to blog and still comment actively. Book publishers are not about to go away.

  8. Thanks for information that confirms my vague conclusions when trying to decide whether to self-publish my autobiobiography or turn it over to a “publisher.”

  9. A fan of *MORE* discourse

    Judith Curry avers “I submitted a camera-ready, fully formatted/indexed/page numbered book, there was no editing or formatting done. The original (1999) price of the book was $66; the price on Amazon is now $115 for hardcover and $59 for Kindle.”

    For established customers, who provide ready-to-rip PDF files (the phrase “camera ready” has become meaningless), mainland-china printers will reliably deliver top-quality single-color buckram-bound books, in containers, to West Coast ports, in runs of a few thousand, for substantially less than $6 per copy (four-color prices approximately double).

    Globalization’s downside  These prices are so low that family-supporting pressmen in North American are becoming scarcer even than family farmers.

    The catch  Newbs need not apply … these overseas printers (and their brokers) provide zero hand-holding … they can’t afford to assist the clueless!

    Technical authors who succeed as independent printers  Michael Spivak … Edward Tufte.

    Confection  Whenever Patrick O’Brian created a sailor-character who has gone to sea to escape hopeless crushing poverty, that character’s dismal back-story invariably involved the bookselling business.

    Conclusion  It’s never been easier to get into the printing business; it’s never been harder to make a living at it.

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    • I and my secretary, the late Phyllis Johnson, edited and submitted the camera ready 600+ page Proceeding of the 1999 ACS Symposium that Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg and I organized on the Origin of Elements in the Solar System: implications of Post-1957 Observations.

      The book sells for about $250-300 new. I did the work to get reliable information past the gatekeepers of knowledge. I receive no royalties.

      I do not regret that decision.

  10. Congratulations, Judith. On your publications.

    Mine have usually been stamped SECRET to prevent people reading them, which of course has the opposite effect to most authors’ desires. It goes without saying that their content (usually a description of a new invention) is not written for entertainment, but to instruct on how to use the new device or theory. Consequently they are mot the sort of thing one would choose to read in bed, rather like a text book I imagine.

  11. “A publisher’s list of books is in essence a risk pool, a term most often associated with health insurance… …Most books lose money, but the ones that make money earn enough to cover all those novels that didn’t sell.” – Evan Hughes
    Let’s say it is an insurance market. Insurance companies must take some money for administering the money. For example, $1000 in premiums might go 10% to the insurance company for their costs and 90% to actually pay for whatever the insurance is for. We might call that ‘getting in the middle’. You see payers and who they pay, and you attempt to ‘get in the middle’ of that payment stream. When we compare traditional publishers to health insurance companies I see a difference. A failed book is different from failed health insurance as we would be more concerned with the latter. When we look at many failed books we might be concerned that there are less good books to read and that might cause societal problems unless of course the industry transforms and provide more good books. A goal of an insurance company (or publisher) would be, to stay in the middle. Doing that on only its merits would involve being efficient at that, and keeping both the payers and the ones being paid happy. So we might say the middle is usually occupied those who keep the other two parties happy.

  12. Out of this discussion it would be useful to know what amount out of a $66 or $205 book the author actually receives.

    Let’s consider the modern musician.

    The self-made CDs of musicians have shown that a run of 2000 CDs, each priced at $15, generates a band-profit of about $12/CD, or $24,000. This is somewhere above the costs of self-recording but using a professional studio/engineer. So a “profit” is already being received. A record company that charges $20 at the HMV outlet, may pay nothing until the recording costs are recovered, which is >>$24 grand, and if band payback is $1/CD (?), the band needs to sell >>24,000 CDs to get any profit at all.

    2,000 or >> 24,000. The difference is in whether the recording company has the muscle and the incentive to sell the record. Most bands aren’t going to be in the running for this. I would expect it is the same for small-scale writers.

    It becomes more financially worthwhile to have limited sales but cut out the recording companies. Such would be the same here with publishing. If you are able to network and do e-sales, you don’t need as much selling to get into the black.

    E-promotion is what makes sense. A short or a longer list of products for sale cost only the upfront listing. One e-book or 1000 e-books cost the same push of a button.

  13. Is there no limit to the insanity? A humourous novel about academic eccentricities require the overthrow of democracy and capitalism.

  14. stevefitzpatrick

    Just as with newspapers and academic journals, book publishers are little more than the living dead. They add virtually no value and collect most of the profits. Disintermediation is what is happening to them, and they can’t stop it. The final nail in the coffin is decades away, but there are so many possible final nails that the coffin is going to close for sure.

    • stevefitzpatrick – ” …final nail…decades away…”

      Years away…

      • Justin, given that this industry is still growing what do you see just years away? The end of publishing? How does it work?

    • Steve: The STM journal business, much of it by non-profit scholarly societies, is running about $10 billion a year and still growing, because science is still growing. So what do you see happening in decades? Poof it is gone? That is just silly. Apparently you do not understand the role that journals play in science, or perhaps you just do not approve of it, which is even sillier.

  15. While it is not climate related (a welcome diversion BTW) the book industry in Australia is overdue for review due to anomalous ricing differences of the same books in different countries around the world. It seems that publishing rights in each country for many books are owned by different entities, with different profit margins to be sustained.

    I may be old fashioned but I tend to prefer the physical look and feel of books from the shelf rather than their electronic counterparts but I understand why university students prefer electronic versions due to easy access to copy and paste facilities for the construction of essays and other paper in the course of their studies.

    • err pricing as opposed to ricing

    • Say, Peter, reading in bed is one of the joys of life. )

    • Funnily enough Beth, I find it easier to hold my kindle when reading in bed and yes, my bedtime reading is always the precursor to a good night’s sleep but I do find that a couple a glasses of red wine also helps as well! :)

    • Peter Davies – “…I prefer the … look and feel of books…”

      Me too. My sons do their homework online, via wifi, using a Chromebook, saving to the cloud. They do math on a website with hyperlinked examples and mini video lectures, which they ignore. Dad, a relic, insists they use paper and pencil and show their work and hides the calculator that makes them stupid. However, a calculator is a click away. It is a ferocious battle between past and present and past is slipping.

      • The only exception to retaining good books I feel should be old textbooks. These books have no value and clog up my bookcases!

        As for your sons, learning is still taking place but quite differently from the way we did in our younger days Justin. Lets hope that they are better able to innovate and adapt to changes in their workplaces and their homes than many of the current baby boomers have been!

      • Their attention span, due to selection pressure from video games, is a fraction of a second. They seem to have two states, engrossed or bored, but I love them anyway.

    • Agree whole heartedly Peter…. It may just be a product of my age though(50)

  16. I still like books. You don’t have to plug them in, the batteries never run down, and you can tuck one away without accessories.

  17. And re the etcetera wrote this yesterday.

    Far out, weird, whatever…
    ‘If an evil genie escaped from some smoking urn
    in a subterranean cave, somewhere, I dunno,
    somewhere, and crossed my path in that
    serendipitous way that genies have,
    coming out of nowhere, black swan-like,
    to offer just one wish, three being
    over generous in the circumstances,
    and this one wish heavily circumscribed.

    ‘You will become something other than
    what now you are, something, not someone,
    non-animal, even non-vegetable, that’s it, okay,
    these will be the genie rules by which you’ll play.’

    So what’s it to be apropos this circumscribed
    scenarios? I know, I’ll choose to be the Alexandria
    Library. Oh those books, those journeys
    by human minds now extinct. What thoughts,
    scintillating in their day, rays of enlightenment,
    motes of glinting imagination, gone. Kaput!
    Never to reverberate down the ages, dammit!

    Until today.’

  18. ‘scenario’ dammit!

  19. When individuals can publish their own books, an enormous amount of dreck will flood the marketplace and readers will find it more difficult to discern which are worth reading and which not. One possibility is that “big name” editors and writers may provide “endorsements.” This is largely the function of the publishing houses, academic and commercial. The second function is the independent gimlet eye: good editors can help the author straighten out narrative problems, pacing, etc. The author’s loving gaze will seldom see the flaws in the little darling. (A large part of this has been migrating to the agent, but I understand academic authors seldom have agents.

    In commercial publishing, the author is given an advance against royalties. After the book is released, a percentage of the cover price (negotiated in the contract) accrues to the author until is equals the advance. From that point on the book has “earned out” and the author receives additional royalties every six months thereafter. The sad truth is that most books do not earn out their advance. This will not change when the great flood of self-published books inundates the readers’ attention spans. Even if the self-published cover price goes entirely to the author, 100% of diddly-squat is still diddly-squat.

  20. “So the question is whether the institutions (e.g. universities) will decide they value textbook writing and affordable texts, and whether they can figure out a better way to evaluate the impact of a book beyond the press that published it.”

    Judith – I wonder if the entire model of higher education is,going to come under exreme market pressure very soon. When I studied mathematics at UCSC in the early 80s the resident fees – there was no tuition – was around $400/qtr and could be earned in a few weeks.

    Many years later fees at a CA state university grad school were ~ $1000/class, parking not included. Some professors chose cheap texts, some photocopied, some Dover paperbacks, another professor chose a $120 book he decided later he didn’t like. And this was an inexpensive school for the not-so-elite!

    A university education is wonderful – the professors, contacts, campus life, and the mentoring, if you are one of the chosen, are all great. Tenured positions are great for the professors that can get them. However, given the high cost, the high debt, and job uncertainty I would look at MOOCs, eTextbooks, and proctored exams if I were in the market today. For a bright and ambitious student in the third world or without wealthy or connected parents this might be the only option.

    I think the world is going to look very different soon. Professors may become free agents, charging what the market will bear. Lectures might be available online and viewed asynchronously. Professors might teach only their favorite topics – unlike the number theorist teaching analysis which he clearly dislikes. Texts will be online and cheap. Individual classes will have online communities like a forum, supported perhaps by assistants or volunteers. Teachers will be student rated, as will classes and texts. How degrees will be awarded is an open question.

    I suspect that pay walls are going to come down due to competition from open models. Who will pay those subscriber fees? How will journals with their paywalls prove their value in the market?

    Funding for research will likely change also, perhaps crowd sourcing will play a role. I saw a thread on CE recently regarding glacial albedo and dust (rdmobservations perhaps?) and the researchers were using crowd sourcing.

    The current higher education model is going to experience downward price pressure. When products become commodities it gets tough for the sellers with expensive models. If they can’t bring their costs down they are doomed.

    So, yes, paper books, though I love them, are soon going to join clay tablets, papyrus, and hand copied books in the museum.

  21. A fan of *MORE* discourse

    Reading Public EMBRACES Climate-Change Science …
    REJECTS Climate-Change Skepticism

    Climate Etc readers are invited to verify for themselves that of GoodReads’ top dozen most-popular “Climate Change” books, precisely *NONE* are skeptical.

    Question  Why does the literate public so resolutely ignore the literature of climate-change denial?

    Even FOMD doesn’t know!

    And why do climate-scientists love hats?

    FOMD doesn’t know that either!

    Popular climate-change fiction:  Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

    Popular climate-change science:  Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

    Good on `yah for building climate-change literacy, Barbara Kingsolver and Tim Flannery!

    \scriptstyle\rule[2.25ex]{0.01pt}{0.01pt}\,\boldsymbol{\overset{\scriptstyle\circ\wedge\circ}{\smile}\,\heartsuit\,{\displaystyle\text{\bfseries!!!}}\,\heartsuit\,\overset{\scriptstyle\circ\wedge\circ}{\smile}}\ \rule[-0.25ex]{0.01pt}{0.01pt}

    • I have studied climate science for six years. I have not even heard of any of these books. They must be popular only among the alarmists and most of the alarmists I know don’t read that much.

      they have no data to support their alarmism and books are not data.

      • A fan of *MORE* discourse

        popesclimatetheory complains “I have not heard of any of these books.”

        The personal lives, scientific education, scholarly accomplishments, and artistic talents of Barbara Kingsolver and of Tim Flannery make them outstanding role models for students … as Climate Etc readers can be sure that Judith Curry’s students appreciate.

        Not to mention, Barbara Kingsolver is plays keyboard for the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-writer rock and roll band whose members include Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Dave Barry and Stephen King.

        How cool is that, the world wonders!

        \scriptstyle\rule[2.25ex]{0.01pt}{0.01pt}\,\boldsymbol{\overset{\scriptstyle\circ\wedge\circ}{\smile}\,\heartsuit\,{\displaystyle\text{\bfseries!!!}}\,\heartsuit\,\overset{\scriptstyle\circ\wedge\circ}{\smile}}\ \rule[-0.25ex]{0.01pt}{0.01pt}

    • Matthew R Marler

      a fan of *MORE* discourse: Question Why does the literate public so resolutely ignore the literature of climate-change denial?

      There isn’t any literature on “climate change denial”.

    • I read both Flannery’s (terrible) and Hansen’s book. At least Hansen got it right about nuclear but much of the book is him venting his frustrations with his nemesis with lots of boring details regarding testimony. Dull. I have a healthy sceptism with respect to claims the sky is falling, especially when the proposed solutions will cause tremendous suffering for many and money for an elite and connected few.

    • Fan

      It is said that more people are arrested wearing wide brimmed hats than any other type of headwear. Does the hat cause the person to be arrested or do those wearing wide brimmed hats have a propensity to be arrested?



    • Green stuff going back to E.F. Schumacher has had a huge popular following for decades. In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich sold about a zillion copies of The Population Bomb. John Maddox’s (former editor of Nature) The Doomsday Syndrome, criticizing these eco-porn disaster books, probably got less than 10% of the sales, even though just about everything he said back then turned out to be right. FOMD’s logic tells us that Fifty Shades of Gray is the greatest piece of literature of our lifetimes. For that matter, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin sell millions of books, so they must be right. God help us, there are even people out there (other than lobbyists and other professionals) who actually buy and may even read the pap generated by politicians in their books. Isn’t this what Bacon called the Idol of the Marketplace fallacy?

      There used to be a slogan: “Eat s***. Ten billion flies can’t be wrong.”

  22. Steinar Midtskogen

    The same arguments appliy to academic journals.

  23. Alexej Buergin

    Many older book are now free on Amazon (otherwise I would not know how poor old Athos died and where creepy Aramis ended up), and a paperwhite is superb for reading novels (at home and on cruises). But when I want to learn something I still print it on paper and read it with a pencil and a yellow marker.

  24. Carl Sagan is known more for what he said on TV than wrote in books.

  25. I think all of the views above: Yglesias, New Republic, Salon, and especially Krugman – are completely off base.
    Yglesias has – intentionally or not – focused the entire discussion on the operational/logistics aspects of book publishing much as deriders of digital copyrights have focused on the same issues with music.
    The true role of a publisher is far more than logistics and operations.
    For one thing, a good publisher has the job of finding and cultivating talent.
    For another, a good publisher’s job is to both cross sell between its authors in similar genres, and ideally to also bring in new readers or slide existing readers into new genres.
    Sure, it is much more possible in this era of social media for authors to form their own little circles, but it is far more difficult to replace the publisher’s non-operational/logistics roles as outlined above. The other danger with self imposed enfiefdom is marginalization. It is far easier for an author with their own admiring circle to get stuck into rote than one where the editor and publisher see more of what is going on in the wider world.
    Amazon, in this discussion, falls squarely into the logistics/operations role. While they do attempt to recommend books – at least for me their recommendations are crap.
    To contrast, look at what Baen has done with their Free Library, and also the very useful data which Eric Flint has exposed on the Baen/publisher/author side with respect to how the existing system actually works.
    For Flint – to paraphrase – the money is all in the initial run of sales. Exposure and marketing is the one and only factor which drives this initial run – royalties from publications once out a year or more are individually negligible. However, the role of these older publications isn’t a permanent revenue stream – they also represent additional touch points by which new readers and potential fans can be reached.
    The picture built is thus dramatically different than what Yglesias, et al seek to propagate.

  26. I have now published three ebooks, most recently Blowing Smoke: Essays on Energy and Climate, with a foreward from our gracious hostess. It includes versions of guest posts here like Clean Coal, Shell Games, and Tipping Points. My experience largely agrees with Yglesias. I suspect this new format will do to traditional publishers what the internet is doing to mass media.
    Ebooks reach wide audiences on multiple platforms simultaneously. IBooks, Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, Kobo, Google ebooks, … No middlemen cuts, no literary agent taking 10% off the top for just making introductions to publishers who then don’t market most books anyway but want to leave you with a very small royalty for pretending to do so.
    Using an epublisher helps with formatting, copyright, cover art, and such. They also cover all the commercial arrangements with the various ebook ‘stores’. Don’t even pretend to do marketing beyond initial categorizations and press releases. A fair deal; I get half of the sell price, they and the platforms (like Amazon) divide up the other half per whatever arrangements they have in place. Print rights and foreign language rights are separate and retained, in case one of the books becomes sufficiently popular somewhen to justify a print bersion or a translation.
    The books are richly illustrated in the sense of (necessarily) colored graphs, charts, photo images, schematics,… , which make ideas easy to comprehend. In ebook format they can still be priced cheaply (I picked $9.99 out of the air). I seriously explored what a print version of the first book would have cost. Nobody would undertake a press run except at my expense (self publish); too expensive and risky given all the embedded color imagery. Print on demand ( now possible with multimillion dollar Xerox machines) would have required a price well north of $30/bound copy even in paperback because of the production costs of the many full color embedded images
    Having literally hundreds of books on my tablet simultaneously sure is handy for reference and when traveling. Increasingly there are important books only available in ebook format. One that many denizens might find particularly interesting is Anton Uriate’s Earth’s Climate History, published in 2011 through Amazon Kindle. He is a Spanish professor trained in geology and geography, a paleoclimatologist cut from very different cloth than Michael Mann.

    • Thanks, Rud, for information on e-books.

      Would I still be able to publish my autobiography as an e-book after posting individual chapters in the public file of my Dropbox as they were written?

      I want the story distributed as wide as possible, since I believe the survival of mankind is threatened by unreported decisions made in 1945 to hide the force of life:

      • I think so, although the copyright might be a little weak.
        Self publish or publish with an ebook publisher? Those still have gatekeepers who decide whether to take the book on. Self publish is ‘easy’ with print (you pay to have the book produced, and you market and ship it yourself. It is pretty hard for an ebook unless you plan to independently sell a (compressed) .pdf like Bob Tisdale does. Even if you focus only on Amazon Kindle, you still go through their ebook prescreening process, and they still behave like a publisher.

  27. I am a luddite. I’ve never bought an ebook, I probably never will. I still have drum texts that I bought in college 25 years ago that I routinely work from. I just dont believe ebooks will ever work like that. Every e-anything I’ve ever bought disappears eventually or becomes incompatible in some way. Not so with my copies of syncopation, stick control and accents and rebounds which still has the little fake mustache my bandmate inked onto George Stone’s fac.

    • Nickels

      Ebooks have their time and place. If you are travelling on a plane it saves carting several big heavy books around and for general travel you can carry around a lot of reference material.

      in both cases it means you can pick and choose the book you want to suit your mood out of dozens you might have on your device

      In general, at home, I prefer a proper printed book and rarely use an ereader.


      • Makes sense. It think my real issue is not so much the technology as it is the distrust of companies milking for every cent and an objection to DRM of any kind. I dont want to buy anything that someone can take from me or censor without (theoretically) encountering my second amendment right (I dont actually own a gun).

    • Nickels, once you buy and download an ebook onto some reader machine (I use an iPad with the iBooks and Kindle apps) it is yours. The simple ability to change font size (rather than don reading glasses), hyperlink, bookmark, key word search, annotate, and highlight (all available in both apps) make ebooks more user friendly than paper books IMO. And embedded color illustrations are a joy. What made high school and college textbooks so expensive is now a thing of the past. Bad for the school bookbag industry, but good for students and teachers.
      Kindle even allows gift copies to anyone anywhere. Only disadvantage is I cannot gift author signed copies, like I wish could send to Judith.

      • Ok. Well, on your suggestion I’ll keep an open mind about them if I ever get cornered into no other options !

  28. The elephant in the publishing room is copyright.

    In the US, and possibly elsewhere, copyright on books and music expires 70 years after the death of the author/creator, which is absolutely ludicrous. This artificially raises the price of popular works, which admittedly are a small but very lucrative minority (think Agatha Christie and Disney) – but nevertheless it is a dead hand on dissemination and publishing of those works. The heirs, who get a windfall for something they had nothing to do with creating, are sitting pretty.

    What does this have to do with academic publishing? Well, the mega-publishing companies cover the risk of their other products with the revenue from milch-cows like Christie and Disney. There would be few, if any, scholarly publications that survive the death of the author by 70 years.

    Over time, the milch-cows will decrease in number and value as more and more creators electronically self-publish or come to arrangements like that which Rud described above. So in the medium to long term, it is certain that the publishing model will have to change.

    Just as the printing press changed everything, e-media will change everything – and for the better, for the same reasons, IMO.

    Great discussion!

    • Agreed. Strange that patents last 20 years but copyrights last 70.

    • Hi Johanna. Yes, copyright is an elephant in the room. But I see different issues than you cite, and also different issues from my daughter’s ( who is a licensed attorney specializing in international intellectual property, especially copyrights).
      70 years is way too long for ebooks, but maybe not for Darwin’s Origins.
      But there are much larger issues. Many blogs (see WUWT) claim everything they post is copyrighted. Comments? Guest contributions from others? Other’s Charts promoted from comment to post? A complete mess. (and that term is used advisedly by this non-practicing but licensed attorney)

      Because my books use copious illustrations, I have had to be very careful (epublisher insists). Self created images, no problem. Government doc images usually (not always) do not claim copyright. Scientific paper images usually do, and you have to rely on the US fair use doctrine, which does not have equivalent precedent in Europe. My post here and book essay Shell Games provides numerous examples. That doctrine is also how I ‘repurposed’ some ‘copyrighted’ Greenpeace and WWF images from their fund solicitations. Should advertising/ solicitations even be copyrighted –perhaps except as an entirety or as a trademarked (different than copyright) slogan?
      My second book was held up almost 6 months just getting residual republication image permissions in writing for the remaining images. In the end, I avoided one roadblock by spending two days to recreate in Excel a graphic from US public information that was ‘copyrighted’ as published by an advocacy organization. The changes? colors of the various categories, and their stacking order, since all the data was public in the first place. I sent the ‘reproduction’ to the ‘copyright holder’ who was nonresponsive for several months, and got a green light in two days. I used my version, not theirs, anyway. Really useful copyright law!?!

      I completely agree with you that the tide is turning in favor of intellectual freedom, no different than after Guttenberg printed the Bible and put monk scribes out of business. It is moving fast right now, and precedent based law is of course lagging. Another reason for using an epublisher to spot any major unintentional copyright infractions.

      Hope you will get and enjoy Blowing Smoke. Savor each stand alone essay.
      Regards from the front lines.

  29. Good to have an author’s perspective on the ongoing Amazon debate. Pleased to say there is 100% transparency and lots of author involvement in marketing across all John Hunt Publishing imprints.

  30. For me, the only downside of Amazon’s growth has been the demise of the browsing function at physical bookstores as these disappear. There is no recommendation system or electronic sampling system I’ve seen that approaches the discovery potential of being able to physically browse volumes.

    In principle, a sufficiently nimble (and unencumbered by publishers’ copyright paranoia) interface could allow a virtual shelf that approximates the ability to pick up, peruse, and see the neighbors of a book on a physical bookshelf. In practice, on those rare occasions when I do visit a physical store I end up finding and buying (or occasionally showrooming) way more books than I ever do online. Just try the exercise of looking online at the index of a book to see how it treats some item you know about or are curious about, skimming those passages, looking at another item, seeing who blurbed it, reading the author’s credentials, etc. It is so clunky (and often blocked by missing pages not made available for sampling) compared to the meat-space alternative that it is easy to give up.

  31. What incredible stupidity. Yes large corporations have old tired business models. BUT Amazon are essentially doing the same job as traditional publishers. They just have a different medium and business model.

    People want to only go to a few outlets to get what they want (e.g. AppStores). Like traditional publishers, they will in the end decide what gets published and what does not – or rather what gets uploaded and what does not.

    We could’ve all written books and had them printed off in the past. But we needed to find a distributor. The publisher took care of all that. Digital distributors do the same thing by providing a reliable place for people to shop online!

    Think this guy needs to think a little harder before writing such short sighted dross.

    • BUT Amazon are essentially doing the same job as traditional publishers. They just have a different medium and business model.


      Like traditional publishers, they will in the end decide what gets published and what does not – or rather what gets uploaded and what does not.

      The big difference is that it costs traditional publishers quite a bit to publish a book, while it costs Amazon pennies (at most!) to host another e-book.

      In fact, it’s easier, and probably cheaper, for Amazon to just let anybody upload a book within their framework than to spend somebody’s time and effort (which has to be paid for) picking and choosing.

      • Yes, as I said they have a different business model. It’s obviously much better than those of traditional publishers and hence why they’re in so much trouble.

        As for uploading every book. I think that is untrue. I’ve searched for books I know to exist and got no results. Also Amazon can list books according to what they want to sell. So for example books with the same rating (which they can control also) can be placed in order of what suites the company’s values or outlook.

  32. Ebooks have their place, but the tradeoff of convenience is against survivability (those of us who have witnessed the transition from 8 tracks to cassette to CD to DVD to Blu-Ray have a very different perspective than younger types), tradeability (you may “own” the ebook, but you can’t resell it or even lend it to others without lending the physical reader and ebook account), and privacy (all the ebook readers have varying levels of reader surveillance).

    • I’d also note that ebooks for popular/new publications are, in many cases, just as expensive as the paperbacks. As such, it is difficult for me to accept arguments that savings are really being passed on.
      Sure, there is free stuff available. However, the issue with new publications has always been a combination of the logistics of editing/proofreading/copyright – along with the physical print – plus marketing.
      I wonder then if e-reader versions are really more like “organic” labeling – a way to have more affluent readers self identify.

  33. The “risk pool” argument is popular with the far left because they know that far-left movies and books will be commercial failures and know they must be subsidized by commercially successful works. They justify this with the claim these works are “important” and bring “prestige” (note the unironic comparison to healthcare) but what it serves is their ideology rather than some greater good or necessity. See Andre Schiffrin and Pantheon Books as an example of this pushed out into the open in 1990:

    George Will writing about it in 1990: