21 September 2019

Amazon and Authors’ Rights

I’m old enough to remember how ten years ago the publishing industry was up in arms against Amazon for encroaching on audiobook rights.

Amazon’s second-generation Kindle had a “Read Aloud” feature that could produce an audio version of any given text. Not a good audio version, to be sure, but a free one, as long as the text was available.

Publishers and the Authors Guild insisted that any such reading required a grant of the book’s audio rights. Amazon insisted there was no rival recording, simply a reader turning on a feature that produced one word at a time. Eventually Amazon backed down, and publishers could have the “Read Aloud” feature disabled for designated texts.

Meanwhile, Amazon bought Audible, a leading company in the small but growing business of producing consumer audiobooks. In the last decade, with the help of smartphones and fast downloads, audiobooks have become a big moneymaker. Amazon made Audible by far the leading distributor.

This year Audible started to promote a feature called “Captions,” which would convert spoken words into written text. Again, it’s not always accurate, but it shows how far software engineering has come.

And once again, publishers and authors are pointing out that the resulting text is the equivalent of an ebook, and thus an infringement on rights they hold and exercise elsewhere. After an industry outcry, Audible offered to let audiobook publishers disable “Captions” for some books—for now.

This is of course the same story told twice, once in audio form and once in text. The part about Amazon pushing new technology and pushing into new territory, that doesn’t change.

10 September 2019

Mid-Century Modern in the Emerald City

After the original publisher of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went bankrupt, Bobbs-Merrill became the book’s one and only US publisher.

At first Bobbs-Merrill included W. W. Denslow’s illustrations, though not in the original ground-breaking multi-color design that integrated text and art. The company kept the book in print until the World War 2 paper shortages. As the war wound down, it looked for a way to reintroduce the title.

In 1944, Bobbs-Merrill commissioned entirely new art by Evelyn Copelman (1919-2003, also known as Evelyn Campbell and Evelyn Copelman Baker). She created black-and-white art on scratchboard and painted several color plates.

The title page of that new edition stated that Copelman’s art was “adapted from the famous pictures by W. W. Denslow.” Obviously those pictures weren’t the only source. Copelman’s Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Wizard are clearly designed like the characters in the 1939 MGM movie, and her Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion look like hybrids.

Bobbs-Merrill had asked Copelman to create an edition that matched the movie, but it didn’t have rights to the MGM designs. It did own the rights to Denslow’s art, however. The title page claim apparently provided legal cover.

In 1949 MGM re-released its movie into cinemas. Not coincidentally, Bobbs-Merrill gave the book a new push. Copelman reworked her line art and added more plates.

With the book still under copyright, Bobbs-Merrill was the exclusive producer of new copies of The Wizard of Oz. Thus, for over a decade in the middle of the century, Evelyn Copelman’s artwork introduced young readers to Oz.

Then the copyright lapsed in 1956. Reilly and Lee, the publisher of the rest of the Oz series, created an edition with black-and-white reproductions of Denslow’s art in a trim that matched its other titles. Other publishers commissioned their own illustrations. As the years passed, Copelman’s art disappeared from bookstore shelves.

Archive.org, working with the San Francisco and other public library systems, has made a digital copy of a Copelman edition available for borrowing. This is a 1994 Illustrated Junior Library edition, with cover artwork by Michael Zimmer but Copelman’s line art and five plates inside. It’s worth a virtual thumb-through, especially if that’s the edition you remember.

02 September 2019

The Rise of the “Oxford Comma“

A weekend Twitter conversation with editor Harold Underdown and picture book creator Debbie Ridpath Ohi set me digging for the origin of the phrase Oxford comma.”

That’s the currently popular term for the comma before “and” or “or” in a series of three or more, as in “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” The more established term is “serial comma.” Some people are trained to use that comma, others not to.

Punctuation in the eighteenth century was haphazard to the point of being hazardous. In contrast, the Victorians were prescriptivists, and the spread of print culture meant there was a lot to prescribe.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Horace Hart (1840-1916), controller of the Oxford University Press, issued a set of guidelines for that organization’s type compositors and proof readers. His examples show he expected to see the serial comma, but he never pointed it out or prescribed it.

Around the same time, the polymath Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote to F. Howard Collins (1857-1910) about why the serial comma mattered, stating:

whether to write “black, white, and green,” with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write “black, white and green”—I very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally: Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.
Collins quoted Spencer in a footnote of his 1905 book Author and Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists. Collins wrote that book in part because he felt Hart’s guide didn’t have enough practical advice for authors.

The Inland Printer magazine, published in Chicago, quoted Collins’s footnote in a review of recent references for compositors. By the end of 1905, therefore, Spencer’s argument for serial commas was spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. For decades the serial comma has been a standard put forward by The Chicago Manual of Style, the main style guide of the American book publishing industry.

However, some areas of publishing resisted that rule. One was daily newspaper journalism in the US. A serial comma might be little more than a flyspeck, but if we total up all such commas in a week of newspapers, eliminating it might save a significant amount of ink, paper, and time. For decades, therefore, The Associated Press Stylebook has prescribed not using the serial comma unless it was necessary to avoid confusion.

Americans in different fields can thus train themselves either to use the serial comma or not to, in the firm belief that they’re following the most authoritative writing guide. It’s all a matter of which sort of writing they’ve undertaken.

Meanwhile, after World War 2 Britain went through a great punctuation contraction. I’ve written about this before. Double-quote marks became single-quote marks. Periods disappeared from many abbreviations. Newspapers stopped setting off titles with italics or quote marks. And the serial comma was shooed away.

Except at Oxford University Press. As at the University of Chicago Press, scholarly editors continued to see value in the clarity of the serial comma. Posthumously expanded editions of Horace Hart’s rules made that mark of punctuation a standard even as much of British publishing disagreed.

Because the serial comma had become a hallmark of the Oxford University Press, Peter Sutcliffe dubbed it the “Oxford comma” in his 1978 history of the publisher. He credited Collins with establishing the rule, but his own book established a new term for the mark.

“Oxford comma” is thus a retronym, a term coined for something that was once so standard it didn’t need a special designation (e.g., analog watch, prose novel). At one point all British publishers put commas into series of three or more. Now that most don’t, that comma is notable enough to need a name, and “Oxford comma” has a touch of class. It’s quite possible that “serial comma” is also a retronym, forced by journalism developing a different standard.

Harold and I agreed that “Oxford comma” seems like a parvenu synonym for what we’d learned as the “serial comma.” Indeed, Google Books Ngram confirms that authors used “serial comma” and “series comma” starting around 1920. For a long time the terms appeared at about the same rate, but “serial comma” took off in the late 1970s.

Not until this century did “Oxford comma” spread, perhaps pushed by international internet debate. In the Google Books Ngram database (which stops in 2008), “Oxford comma” has overtaken “series comma” and cut into the dominance of “serial comma.” It has not, however, returned to being standard punctuation in Britain.