Posts Tagged ‘books’

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Orphan Books

December 23rd, 2009

The New York Times has published its annual list of ‘buzzwords of the year’. Two have been derived from book publishing, in which fotoLibra has a vested interest as publishers constitute our largest single market.

The words are ‘Vook’ and ‘Orphan Books’. ‘Vook’ is a neologism and ‘Orphan Books’ is a phrase rather than a word, but we’ll let that pass. Let’s deal with Vook first: its etymology is a combination of Video and bOOK content, in other words the killer ebook I described in this blog post without using the word vook. More recently, I got rather excited by this ad for Sports Illustrated which pretty accurately delivered what I was looking for in an ebook, only as a magazine. So what would this be? A vazine? Videodical? A Vag (Video mAGazine)?

Anyway, the first time I ever heard the term ‘vook’ was when I read the article this morning. So I’m not aware of it as a buzz word.

Orphan Books are defined by the New York Times as “volumes still in copyright but out of print and unavailable for sale, and whose copyright holders cannot be found.” The article says that the term ‘Orphan Book’ first rose to prominence in 2007, but “peaked this year with the fierce discussion over the proposed Google Books settlement.”

Orphan Book has a completely different meaning for me and many other authors and publishers. The real Orphan Book is one that is orphaned at birth, a tragedy shared with genuine orphans.

When an editor commissions a book and leaves the firm before the book is published, that creates an orphan book. Within a publishing house, the editor’s rôle is to deliver the best product he can, and to do that he has to talk up his babies to publicity, sales, marketing and of course the board. His books are better than the books from the other editors in the house; they are more marketable, better written, more intelligent, bigger sellers, indeed seminal. Few can remain unimpressed at the sight of an editor firing on all 16 cylinders to promote a favoured author or title at a sales conference.

But if that editor is no longer there to defend and promote the title, what happens to the book? I can tell you from bitter experience — it’s forgotten. There’s a contract, so the company is obliged to issue the book, but because no one remaining in the company is interested, it is not so much published as released into the community.

Three of my books were orphan books: Follies: A National Trust Guide: commissioned by Robin Wright (died shortly afterwards) and Liz Calder (left to found Bloomsbury). Eventually published by Jonathan Cape, 1986.

Architectural Follies In America: commissioned by Buckley Jeppson of the Preservation Press. Buckley left, the company was acquired by John Wiley & Son and the book was eventually published by them in 1996.

The Encyclopaedia of Fonts: Commissioned by Jane Ellis. Jane left over a year before a new managing director eventually allowed the book to trickle out in mid-December. Eventually published by Cassell Illustrated, 2005.

So where does the New York Times get Orphan Books from, to mean this quasi-legal grey area? From Google, of course. Google is not a book publisher and does not use a book publishing vocabulary, so it created this term to describe what is in fact a minute sector of the market. How many titles are we talking about in Google’s definition of an ‘orphan book’? How many books are there where the copyright holders cannot be found? Who is looking for them? How hard are they looking?

If I owe somebody money, they always manage to find me. But if money is owed to me, the difficulty of tracking me down becomes exponentially greater. Creating a snappy phrase — even by appropriating one that’s already in use within the trade for a common occurrence — gives visibility to an otherwise overlooked and unimportant sector of the market.

And interestingly it might help to divert attention from much larger, yet less transparent, activities being carried on elsewhere.


There used to be a stable of magazines in London all with the same name format: Books and Bookmen, Art and Artists, Dance and Dancers. I wonder if they’d have been interested in Prophecies and Prophets as a title.

I was musing on this because this weekend our good friend Mike Shatzkin is coming to stay. He describes himself as a publishing consultant, others call him a publishing guru, I like to think of him as a publishing prophet. He would probably refute this. Few people have ‘Prophet’ on their calling cards (though I did meet a gent from Microsoft who had ‘Director of Publishing Evangelism’ as his job title on his cards). Mike is very keen on e-books, and sees them as the future; I’m keen, but not quite as keen, and see them as part of our future.

The best prophets are inevitably Jewish. Mike proudly claims to be a fourth generation atheist.

Was Mohammed Jewish before he started Islam? (there’s a good example for never starting something you can’t stop). Prophets of Doom. Only Jesus prophesied Good News, and even then only after you were dead. St Paul took a more pragmatic view: ‘where there are prophecies, so they shall vanish away.’

What’s the difference between prophecies and predictions? Prophecy has a more religious ring to it, but the best predictors have to be viewed as prophets. They certainly attract their followers. Jim Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation blog, always a good read, works hard to present Jim as a prophet, with links to his literary agent, movie agent, lecture agent, ad agent and so on. Perhaps the more dogmatic and absolute the prediction, the more likely it is to be viewed as a prophecy,

On the whole maybe we’d better keep on regarding Mike as a publishing consultant. No serious prophet should stick around to see if his prophecies will come true. And nobody got rich by prophesying good news.