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At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 13
Wednesday November 29, 2000

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. Scholarly Journals and Predatory Pricing
2. Steve Martin at the National Book Awards Ceremony
3. Audio Books Online
4. A Season of Gladiators
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words

1. Scholarly Journals and Predatory Pricing
There are lots of reasons why the publishing business is in such terrible shape, but here's one you don't usually hear about: the price of scholarly journals.

The scholarly journal business is one of capitalism's best kept secrets: the writers write for free; the reviewers review for free; all copies are sold by subscription so there are no losses from distribution returns; there is no page design to pay for; production costs are low and often can be foisted off on the authors; the demand is almost completely inelastic (no matter what you charge, the subscribers have to pay it). If you think these are the ingredients of a profitable business, you're right. Profit margins for scholarly journal publishers run about 40 percent, a return usually only experienced by dealers in illicit drugs.

When you have extremely low costs and no limits on retail prices, multinational corporations are bound to take notice, so it should come as no surprise that virtually all scholarly journal publishing is now in the hands of a small number of giant corporations, including Reed Elsevier (with 1,200 titles and $1.1 billion in journal-related revenue annually), Wolters Kluwer, Springer-Verlag (a unit of Bertelsmann), Harcourt General, and John Wiley & Sons. These companies love this business so much that they keep trying to acquire each other. Just this month, Reed Elsevier agreed to buy Harcourt for $3.5 billion.

Whether or not the consolidation of journal publishing is justified economically (when the acquisition of Harcourt is complete, Reed Elsevier will have 1,700 titles), there is one thing that is certain: it has caused an increase in the cost of journal subscriptions. Since 1986, the consumer price index (the most widely accepted measure of inflation) has increased 4.28 percent per year. But journal price increases average nearly three times that: 11 percent annually. In the same 14-year period that inflation has increased general price levels 80 percent, the average cost of a journal subscription has tripled. That's on average. Specific cases can only be described as atrocities. A subscription to Anatomical Record costs $3,595; one to Synapse costs $2,195. A Reed Elsevier journal called Brain Research costs $16,000 a year! Brain research is worth quite a bit, of course, but bear in mind that by industry averages, over $6,000 of that is corporate profit.

(There is an interesting irony in journal publishing in that the journals are nearly all bought by the libraries of colleges and universities, which pay the salaries of the people who are published in the journals. "We pay faculty members to undertake research," said Myles Brand, president of Indiana University, in a recent New York Times article, "and then we buy it back. We pay twice.")

Serious libraries have no choice but to pay the multinational publishers' outrageous prices. But library budgets are not increasing faster than inflation, if they are increasing at all. In order to manage their ballooning journal subscription fees, the libraries cut back on their book acquisition budgets. Libraries are actually buying fewer new books now than they did a decade ago. Some publishers (particularly smaller ones) rely on library sales, especially to support serious and mid-list books. A book with an initial print run under 2,000 copies can perform reasonably well for a publisher just on library sales. But shrinking acquisition budgets are closing off this market.

Will the situation improve as more and more journals go electronic and publish over the Internet? Not likely. Reed Elsevier is currently raising the fees on electronic journals to recoup an investment it made in its electronic line: adding search functions, inter-journal links, and new ways to access them.

Most of the information in this piece can be found in a New York Times article that treats the subject more temperately than I do: Note that NYT lets you read its articles for free but requires that you register with the site.

2. Steve Martin at the National Book Awards Ceremony
"The evening was smoothly guided by actor/author Steve Martin, who noted that since he had become known as a writer, his income had dropped and he now got smaller tables at restaurants, accompanied by 'people who have not picked up a check in 12 years.'" From the November 16 PW Daily for Booksellers, an e-mail publication from Publishers Weekly Magazine. To subscribe, fill out the form at

3. Audio Books Online
In the early 1970s there was a daily show on public radio called "Radio Reader." I don't know if it was locally produced or if my favorite station was buying it from the network. The show was pretty simple: it was a guy reading books -- not just bits of books but whole books. He was a skilled reader and very expressive. He read about a chapter per show. I heard nearly all of All Creatures Great and Small that way and wouldn't have known of the book's existence otherwise. Herriot's book became a hit and a television show sometime after that.

In the modern radio market, which basically comes in two flavors (NPR news and top 40 music), such a show could never get backing. So those of us who like to listen to books while driving have to get them on cassette. Audio books are on sale at bookstores, and many public libraries have lending collections of them.

For a quick survey of modern audio book retailing, you can check out ( There you will find the usual suspects (Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, Tom Clancy) on cassette for prices in the $20-$30 range. They seem overpriced to me, but what do I know? I mostly read used books. The audio book industry took in about $2 billion in 1998, which was about 10% over what it did in 1997. For a point of comparison on the $2 billion figure, candidates for national office (the presidency and both houses of Congress) in the recent U.S. elections spent just over $1 billion on campaigning. So as an industry, audio books are about twice the size of national elections. Both are pretty small potatoes in an economy that racked up $273 billion in retail sales during this past October. (An obvious, if irrelevant, point being that we'd probably all be better off if the elections money were spent on audio books instead of commercials based on the assumption that voters are simpletons.), in addition to audio books, also features old radio shows and downloadable audio. The downloadable audio is significant, because it shows where things are heating up in the audio book industry.

You've probably noticed the stories in the news about Napster, which is a sort of network that allows users to trade music files. Napster got into trouble with the record industry's plutocrats, who believe they are being robbed when customers trade music among themselves rather than buying it from them. In addition to raising a lot of issues in the area of intellectual property, Napster illustrates something else: sound compression technology is now good enough for desktop computers to make sound files that approach CD quality but are small enough to send around computer networks. The compression technology most widely used for Internet audio is MP3. Software applications that play MP3 files are cheap or even free. Casady & Greene, for example, makes one called Soundjam MP Free for Macintosh ( If you want to create as well as listen to MP3 files, you can get Soundjam MP Plus for 50 bucks. I am sure there are comparable deals in the Windows software market. (If you want to create MP3 files rather than just listen to them, though, you should check knowledgeable reviews of the software; some of the compression applications create pretty lousy audio.)

MP3 books are more than just an unobtrusive button on the site. There are several sites engaged in the business of selling MP3 books, and the business could be poised for growth. A website called has been offering audio books for download since 1997. seems to be the 900-pound gorilla in this business. It has a $5 million investment from Microsoft, a deal with Random House to create an Internet-only "audio imprint," and an arrangement with to be its exclusive supplier of downloadable books. Besides offering MP3 books, it has been trying to build traffic by offering a weekly "show" by comedian Robin Williams. Other sites in the biz include, Voquette, and

Depending on your computer setup, you may not see much convenience in having spoken books on MP3 files. But there are now on the market a number of MP3 hardware players. These devices are comparable to the size and weight of a portable tape or CD player, and they range in price between $50 (after rebate) and $300; You can connect an MP3 hardware player to your computer and load it up with some portion of your MP3 collection, then listen to it like a Walkman. Technically, it should not be difficult to outfit your car with an MP3 player eventually. For all I know, it's already being done. This, then, gives a new dimension to the ebook discussion. You can not only download books to read, but you can download books to listen to as well.

For a news article on the Internet and the audio book industry, see "Why Aren't Online Audio Books More Popular?" at

4. A Season of Gladiators
The movie Gladiator recently came out on videocassette and DVD. Connoisseurs of gladiator movies will find it entertaining and far more sophisticated than the cheap knock-offs of Spartacus that played in so many drive-in theaters during the 1960s. But in fact, its story is nearly as bizarre as the plot of a cheap knock-off: a Roman general is enslaved, is sold to a gladiatorial company, and proves himself in the arena, finally facing off with the emperor.

For my money, the 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie, Spartacus, is both more satisfying and more believable than Gladiator. Spartacus, the story of the slave rebellion in 71 B.C., was written by Dalton Trumbo from the novel of the same name by Howard Fast. Fast, who was blacklisted, could not find a publisher and published the novel himself in 1951. Since then, the book has sold millions of copies and just appeared this past May in a new mass market edition.

Ah, the power of movies to drive book sales.

The Hungarian writer, Arthur Koestler, published a novel called The Gladiators in 1939 about the exact same slave revolt. It was translated into English and published by Macmillan in 1949. Even in translation, it is an engrossing book, and its story is so similar to that of the movie Spartacus that until a few hours ago I believed the movie was based on it. It wasn't until I was researching this piece that I found about the Howard Fast novel. But Koestler's novel, far from selling millions of copies, is nearly forgotten. It is so rare that if today you want to buy a hardback copy in excellent condition, it will run you 250 bucks.

Is Gladiator accurate? It doesn't have to be, of course, since it's only a movie. But in at least one particular, it is off-target. The movie gives the impression that the average gladiator's lifespan was probably a few days. But Joy Connolly, an assistant professor of classics at Stanford, points out that most gladiatorial combats ended short of a kill. And the final confrontation, between the emperor and the gladiator, was just too outlandish for me to accept, so I looked up the emperor (Commodus) in the encyclopedia. It turns out the real story was just about as bizarre as the movie. Commodus was one of those insane Roman emperors so well loved by Hollywood studios. He insisted on appearing in public in gladiatorial costume. That he would dress himself up like a slave when he was supposed to be an emperor and that he insisted he was the reincarnation of Hercules excited a great deal of public opposition to his rule. A group of senators finally plotted his assassination, which they accomplished by hiring a professional wrestler to strangle him.

I'm not the only one who has been thinking about ancient Rome lately. The magazine Lingua Franca in its November issue asked a group of classics scholars to recommend the best recent books on ancient Greece and Rome:

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1999) by James Davidson and Religions of Rome (1998) by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price (Recommended by Richard Jenkyns, professor of the classical tradition at Oxford University).

Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination (2000) by William Fitzgerald and Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (1998) edited by David S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly (Recommended by Joy Connolly, assistant professor of classics at Stanford).

Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. to A.D. 250 (1998) by John R. Clarke and Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (1998) by Thomas A. J. McGinn (Recommended by T. Corey Brennan, associate professor of classics at Rutgers).

A World Full of Gods: The Triumph of Christianity (2000) by Keith M. Hopkins and The Shape of Athenian Law (1995) by Stephen C. Todd (Recommended by Keith Hopwood, lecturer in classics at University of Wales).

Archaic and Classical Greek Art (1998) by Robin Osborne and Hippocrates's Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (1998) by Helen King (Recommended by James Davidson, professor in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, London).

Most of the recommended books are published by university presses, so they will probably be a little slow to turn up at used book stores. If any of the titles interests you, however, have a look at the article, which includes each recommender's reasoning:

5. Messages to the Editor
History and Media Personalities

I enjoyed this issue of At The Margin [#12], particularly the article on the history being written by media personalities rather than trained historians.

My take on it is that the role of historical studies has changed as a discipline. The pressures to produce (and what you produce) are very different today than what they were 30 years ago. When I was a grad student in history, PhDs were built on minutiae. You found an incredibly obscure piece of history and became an expert in it, and if you were good you might turn it into a microcosm of larger issues.

Typically, books were commercialized doctoral theses. "A" Scholarship was judged on methodology, not conclusions. Today I think sweeping histories that enjoy commercial success are "B" scholarship. They are not based on methodology, they do not contest existing scholarship. The credibility of the history comes from the media personality whose byline appears on it. Readers do not want to check out sources or footnotes. They want their history to unfold just like their evening news. And if Tom Brokaw is presenting it (the way he presents the 6:00 news), then it must be true.

Steve B

[Editor's Response: And sometimes readers want their history written by novelists; see the next message.]

History and Thomas B. Costain
Just thought I would clarify something in your last issue:

Although Thomas Costain did write a number of romances, several of the books you mentioned are not fiction. The Last Plantagenets, The Conquerors, The Three Edwards, and The Magnificent Century are all histories of England.

Costain's command of romance fiction has stood him in good stead: each of these histories is thoroughly entertaining and readable, and is written in a narrative style that make it quite accessible and delightful to read.

Thanks, Deede Bergeron

[Editor's Response: Thanks for the information about Costain. He was more versatile than I gave him credit for.]

At The Margin has 772 readers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 771 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (

6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to

Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence:
The coming of Diotti to America had awakened more than usual interest in the man and his work.

I'm waiting for your guesses. Thanks to Brian Doyle for suggesting this one and providing the material.

Last Issue's Sentence:
The lake was cold, black, evil, no more than five hundred yards in length, scarcely two hundred in breadth, a crooked stretch of glassy calm shadowed by the mountainsides that slipped steeply into its dark waters and went plunging down.

Nobody tried to guess this time.

The sentence is from The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes. It was published in 1968 by Harcourt, Brace & World. The jacket of a 1969 paperback edition says it spent 10 months on The New York Times Bestseller List. It also says this about the book:

"The chest had been hidden in a lake high in the Austrian mountains. The secrets buried there were as deadly as an unexploded bomb. Men had been killed because of it, and sudden death stalked all who searched for it.

"Bill Mathison, a hardheaded young American, did not know that his routine business trip to Salzburg was to become a macabre journey through the dark and violent underworld of spies and murderers.

"Death waited for him in the shadows. So did love. Two beautiful women... and one of them would betray him."

Helen MacInnes wrote more than 20 thrillers in the political intrigue/espionage category. Nearly all of them were best-sellers. If you do a Google search ( on her name, the search engine returns 2,240 pages, but few of the pages say anything about her other than that the page's owner likes reading or collecting her books. The "Women in American History" site of Britannica Online, however, has a short biography and a photo of her (

She was born in Scotland in 1907. She was a trained librarian and held an M.A. degree from Glasgow University. In 1932 she married a classicist named Gilbert Highet, with whom she collaborated in doing German translations. They moved to New York in 1939, where Highet taught at Columbia University. They became naturalized citizens in 1951.

MacInnes began writing novels after she moved to New York, and her first, Above Suspicion, was published in 1941. It was an immediate success, as were most of those that followed: Assignment in Brittany (1942), While We Still Live (1944), Horizon (1945), and Friends and Lovers (a love story, 1947). She then shifted from writing about World War II to writing about the Cold War with Neither Five Nor Three (1951), Pray for a Brave Heart (1955), Decision at Delphi (1960), The Venetian Affair (1963), and Message from Malaga (1971). Her last book, Ride a Pale Horse, was published in 1984. She died in 1985. Several of her books were made into films.

Her readers like her realistic characters and her credible portrayal of espionage, which she credited to thorough research. If you want to know the titles under which 13 of her books were published in Swedish, Christian Henriksson created a page for that:

Helen MacInnes is credited with a popular quotation: "Expect the worst and you won't be disappointed." Her papers are at the manuscript division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Princeton University Library, and their organization reflects her training as a librarian. The collection includes the manuscripts of 22 novels. For each novel, the library generally has a pencil manuscript, various versions in typescript edited by MacInnes herself, galley proofs, page proofs, associated correspondence, and scrapbooks including reviews, notices, and other printed material. Want to write the definitive critical assessment of Helen MacInnes? You'll need to spend some time in Princeton.

7. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

A Literary Reading Log
One way to expand your enjoyment of a book (and sometimes even to understand it better) is to keep a log of your reactions. This page tells you how to do it and offers some tips.

Imagery and Perception Are the Same Thing
If you're one of those people who sees scenes as you read, you might be interested to know that your brain is reacting in exactly the same way as if you actually see the scene. This story tells how some Canadian experimenters used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) on volunteers to show that to the brain, seeing and imagining are pretty much the same thing.

Banned Books
What do Hamlet, the Bible, Silas Marner, Candide, and Fanny Hill all have in common? You've probably already guessed. They have all been banned by some entity or other. There are a number of banned books sites on the web, but Banned Books On-line is interesting because with the description of each book, there's a link to an on-line version of the book.

Beast Fable Society
Headquartered at the Division of Language and Literature of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, the Beast Fable Society is "an international community of writers, scholars, critics, translators, teachers, a students whose shared purpose is to promote creative, scholarly, and professional activities related to the beast fable and its sister genres." The Society's next international congress will be held at Marrakech in Morocco in July 2001.

Mostly, We Eat
This is a reading club that has lately gotten a lot of publicity from the likes of The New York Times and Oprah's Book Club. The members meet over dinner to discuss books. Their website explains how they are organized and describes the books they've read and the food they've eaten. It could be good information for people starting reading groups. It also features a RatingZone-powered book guide. If you register and tell it some books you like, it will recommend others you will like.

If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.

A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
Dust Bunnies, cat hair, and mildew are not all you will miss with e-books. How about the friendly camaraderie and helpful advice of our highly trained professional staff (and those still in training). You'll miss the feel of original editions, and the choice of different editions and bindings. You'll also miss more than a few bucks because a good used book almost always costs far less than an e-book.

Avenue Victor Hugo is your bricks and mortar alternative. Let us know what you're looking for. You can even give us a price range! You'll find us at

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