not an expert

The Economics of Publishing

A street scene of four-storey brick and concrete buildings with a bookstore at ground level
Even in sleepy Innsbruck with its fixed book prices, all is not well in any end of publishing. The Wagner’sche in the Museumstraße, Innsbruck (they own the first two storeys of the white building, and the second storey of the brown one).

One of my jobs is as a freelance writer, and it is a hard time for us. Advances and royalties are falling, and professional writers in a rich country earn an average of 10k a year from their writing (CAD, USD, GBP, EUR … the currencies vary but the numbers are similar). Elaine Dewar has seen a study that only 7% of the revenues of the Canadian publishing industry are paid to authors; I hope she names it in the print version of ‘The Handover’ and puts it next to how much goes to the publisher and how much to retailers, printers, server farms, and other middlemen and service providers, because another source estimates 10% to the writer, 10% to the publisher, 10% to production, and 70% to various middlemen. Chart writers’ incomes from their writing and you find a hockey stick: the top 5% of authors in the UK earned 42% of the income. If you follow novelists you will hear about the death of short fiction as a paying proposition in the 1970s, the midlist death spiral in the 2000s, or changes in search rules on Amazon or Facebook which devastate creative people’s sales. The central problems are, probably, that they keep inventing other forms of entertainment, and that so many people want to be writers even if the pay is bad. These days if you are interested in history you can watch YouTube or read blogs about books and swords instead of opening a book that someone paid for. (That said, I would really like to see some data on book sales over the last 10 or 20 years … right now all I have is anecdotes).

Now, people like Kris Rusch or Dean Wesley Smith will remind you that many writers change pen names as casually as some people change their clothes, and that surveys of writers are often answered by wannabes who do not write, do not finish what they write, do not put it on the market, and do not keep it on the market until someone buys it. If a favourite writer vanishes or only publishes a book now and then, they may well have switched to a new pen name or be spending time writing a different genre. However, I don’t see any reason to think that there were more wannabe writers in 2014 than 2005 to drive down the average income, and pay rates for short fiction have not increased much since the middle of the last century, while the value of a dollar or a pound has collapsed (the Science Fiction Writers of America, for example, count works paid at least 6 cents a word as professionally published … back in 1940 a penny a word was typical, but the penny was worth 17 times more). If rates are falling, clearly writers have to publish more to earn the same.

Talking about the publishing recalls the fable of the blind man and the elephant: everyone assumes that their little corner of the industry is the model for the whole. So in this post, I would like to talk about the situation in some kinds of publishing which are not as famous as novels.

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Cross-Post: Reddit Breaks Without Javascript

Seems functional at first, but none of the links work and that big sidebar at the left won’t go away! reddit in late April 2018 without scripts.

Sometime in mid-April 2018, Reddit joined the crowd of sites which don’t work without Javascript. Its pages do not appear blank, but none of the links work, and the start of each line in the main part of the page is covered by an almost completely empty column at the left which cannot be removed.

A number of blog hosts have joined this trend recently. Here is Confessions of a Community College Dean at

Confessions of a Community College Dean without scripts, Note how the body text overlaps the sidebar rather than wrapping at the end of the column. Long paragraphs extend outside the browser window entirely so that only the first 100 or so characters are visible.

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A Tag from the Bard

One would think that someone coming this way on a cycle with headlights and reflectors would need to watch out to the right and bear a little bit left, since cyclists coming from the left can see you coming and slow down if they want to make the turn onto the... Continue reading: A Tag from the Bard

2017 Year-Ender

This picture combines deer, hockey, and a snowless New Year … what could be more Victoria than that?

Another year ends in the manner of the one which ended Xenophon’s Hellenica: after terrible battles and startling results, there is not peace but confusion and disorder. Xenophon’s perplexity lead to a Sacred War, 300 dead lions on the plain of Chaeronea, and the King dead in an abandoned carriage as his conqueror bent down and took his seal with clean white hands. As for me, I am getting to know the local deer and my old library.

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2016 Year-Ender

Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!
Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!

I have now been blogging for three years, three months, and a day. Traffic has roughly doubled every year since 2014 to the dizzying heights of 20 unique visitors and 40 page views per day and ten comments a month. My post on learning Sumerian is still popular, as is my outline of “Armour of the English Knight,” my confession of error about the historical fencers, and my posts on whether we have any evidence that the Greeks used glued linen armour and on the scale armour from Golyamata Mogila. No other posts received more than 300 visits in the year.

Amongst people who like to write on the internet in English, there is a meme that 2016 has been an especially bad year. For many people, that is political news and the death of favourite celebrities. For me, it is sickness, a serious illness in my family, and watching people react to that political news in ways which are very human but make the problem worse. From ever-fiercer posturing against evil outsiders, to shouting louder and louder about the meaning of events, to sitting down and writing another column which attempts to predict the future using the same methods which just failed to predict the present, a lot of people are doubling down on strategies which they know do not work. But as I look back, I notice a big contrast between the real world that I live in and the artificial world of the media (from blogs to newspapers).

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Quote Dump

As always, citation implies neither approval nor disapproval.

A specialist in early medieval archaeology spells out one big problem with the modern fixation on fitting ancient people into boxes and assigning them distinctive labels:

Before I start, though, I want to address the obvious criticism of the topic, which is that modern scholars work a lot on identities, but did past people care as much? Certainly it can be argued that early medieval people did not say very much about identities, and nor do modern people, outside academia. But they did not say very much about a lot of things that modern scholars obsess over, such as gender, ethnicity, social age, or sometimes even aristocracy or nobility. The only social categories that they wrote much about were ones with precise legal importance, status that had implications for property and legal rights.

It is almost certainly the case that the inhabitants of sixth-century northern Gaul did not think of themselves in terms of many – perhaps most – of the categories that I have discussed here, although some of those aspects of their identity were remarked upon and thought of as important. Nevertheless, even if entirely modern in its framing, I think that, if theorised in sophisticated fashion, the concept of identities and their interplay provides a valuable means of analysing past societies and, on that basis, thinking about the present.

– The thinly pseudonymous Historian on the Edge

I’m writing about this now because these vulnerabilities illustrate two very important truisms about encryption and the current debate about adding back doors to security products:

1) Cryptography is harder than it looks.
2) Complexity is the worst enemy of security.

These aren’t new truisms. I wrote about the first in 1997 and the second in 1999. I’ve talked about them both in Secrets and Lies (2000) and Practical Cryptography (2003). They’ve been proven true again and again, as security vulnerabilities are discovered in cryptographic system after cryptographic system. They’re both still true today.

– Bruce Schneier, “Cryptography is Harder than it Looks,”

The re-enactment world in general, but the Roman one in particular, is very prone to breakaways. I have heard recently of a group of only six breaking in half as egos clash.

– Chris Haines, “History of the Guard,”
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A tabby-coloured cat turns halfway around and stretches its neck from a bed of greenery to a paved terrace
A stray cat at the Iman Khomeni monument, Tehran.

It has come to my attention that there is a shortage of pictures of cats on the Internet. Although I am not equipped to deal with most global problems, my trip to Iran has armed me to fight against this one. There are also some dogs and lizards, but my photos of birds on the wing did not turn out very well, and other bloggers seem to have squid covered.

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On Data Protection Day, Support a Free Project

Today is Data Protection Day. I don’t know all of my gentle readers, and I do not give unsolicited advice to strangers, so I won’t nag you to change your habits. There are plenty of people and groups which can give better advice to people interested in data security and privacy than I, including the GNU Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Bruce Schneier, and Eleanor Saitta. What I would suggest is that you throw a few dollars or Euros in the pot of some of the free software and online services which you use.
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No Words Left

A Schludernser street scene. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2015. I find that after this week I do not have any words left. Rather than fake it, this week I thought I would post some Vinschgauer and West Coast fauna. Some BC fauna. Photography by Sean Manning... Continue reading: No Words Left

Becoming a Source

A country Bahnhof in southern Germany (Herbertingen, Spring 2014). Photo by author. On Sunday the 13th Germany announced that it was imposing customs inspections on the border with Austria in response to the flood of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and the horn of Africa and the reluctance of countries to the... Continue reading: Becoming a Source