Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Repost: π with Jesus

Enjoy our annual repost of 2017's π with Jesus, mostly meant as a reminder to eat yer pie today, but also because we are up to our eyeballs in Life -- all good and wonderful, but busy and one thing after another, from audition prep for The Music Man, to children turning 18, to helping young people buy cars, to having a college senior and a kindergartner at the same time. 

It's the second week of Lent, which means that observance has lost its zest. I don't know about you, but I'm yearning for a bit of chocolate. Not a bright, hopeful yearning; a dry, intellectual, arid yearning, because I know I'm not going to eat chocolate anyway. I just want it because it's better than not-chocolate.

So we search for a reason to celebrate, and not the corny-beef celebration of St. Patrick's Day dispensations (which St. Patrick would have disdained) but something rounder, to bring us full circle. And lo! It is Pi Day, 3.14. But we cannot fudge on Pi Day without bringing it into some greater religious context. And not just the context of "God made it, and it is good," because God made chocolate too, and we're not eating that.

Of course, the key question is: would Jesus have known about Pi? Not known-known as God knows all things, but as a person growing up in a first-century Jewish culture, in the course of his human knowledge would he have been likely to encounter the concept of Pi?

Dr. Google offers us thoughts on "mathematics in ancient Israel pi", presenting The Secret Jewish History of Pi:
The relationship between a circle’s diameter — a line running straight through cutting it into two equal halves — and its circumference — the distance around the circle – was originally mentioned in the Hebrew Book of Kings in reference to a ritual pool in King Solomon’s Temple. The relevant verse (1 Kings 7:23) states that the diameter of the pool was ten cubits and the circumference 30 cubits. In other words, the Bible rounds off Pi to about three, as if to say that’s good enough for horseshoes and swimming pools. 
Later on, the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who knew that the one-third ratio wasn’t completely accurate, had a field day with the Bible having played fast and loose with the facts, arguing in their characteristic manner that of course it depended on whether you measured the pool from the inside or the outside of the vessel’s wall. They also had fun with some of the Gematria – the numerical value – of the words in the original passage, which when you play around with them a bit indeed come a lot closer to the value of Pi, spelling it out to several decimal points.
"Secret" here might be a bit sensationalistic, seeing as 1Kings is not exactly an occult piece of literature. The Journal of Mathematics and Culture May 2006, V1(1) offers us a more scholarly explanation via Lawrence Mark Lesser's article "Book of Numbers: Exploring Jewish Mathematics and Culture at a Jewish High School":
A value of π can be obtained from I Kings 7:23: 
“He made the ‘sea’ of cast [metal] ten cubits from its one lip to its [other] lip, circular all around, five cubits its height; a thirty-cubit line could encircle it all around.” 
It appears the value of π implied here is simply 30/10 (an error of 4.5%) until a student asks if we need to consider the tank’s thickness -- given three verses later as one-handbreadth, so the inner diameter is 10 cubits minus 2 handbreadths. (Of course, this is also a chance to discuss issues of measurement!) Using the Talmudic value of 1/6 cubit for one handbreadth, the inner diameter becomes 9 2/3 cubits and dividing 30 by 9 2/3 yields more accuracy (error: 1.2%). Applying a more subtle and technical approach to I Kings 7:23 (see Posamentier & Lehmann 2004 or 20 Tsaban & Garber 1998), the ratio of gematrias for the written and spoken forms of a key Hebrew word (for “line”) in that verse is 111/106, which when multiplied by 3 yields a very refined approximation for π : 333/106 (error: 0.0026%). Very few words in the Torah have different oral and written forms. 
By Jewish Encyclopedia [Public domain or Public domain]

Jesus was well versed in the law and the prophets, and it is not a stretch to assume that the account of the building of Solomon's Temple and the fashioning of the great pillars and vessels of bronze was known to him. Could he have known about pi? Could he? Should we doubt his scriptural knowledge? Listen to this.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:46-50)
Do you not understand? Jesus, in the Temple itself, astounding the teachers with his knowledge and his answers, and talking of his Father's house -- the very house for which the bronze vessel was created*? Even his parents could not understand Pi, as happens with so many parents dealing with their children's math.

My friends. The Scriptures themselves proclaim Pi. Take and eat.

*Not actually the very house, since it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and not the very basin, since 2 Kings tells us that the Chaldeans destroyed it. But still.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Art of the Backlist Book

 Back in 2020, fresh from the experience of my own novel being published by Ignatius Press and then publishing MrsDarwin's Christmas novella independently under out imprint of Oak & Linden Press, MrsDarwin wanted a reading copy of Fr. Robert Hugh Benson's classic book The Friendship of Christ. Used copies in good condition were hard to find, and so she went on Amazon and found a paperback copy for $5.00.  The problem was, that copy was the one shown here on the left.

Not only was the cover itself aggressively ugly and the interior formatting bad, but the person who had set it up (using a print-on-demand service, which allows people to publish books at very low cost, because copies are only printed and bound as orders come in) had clearly got a bad scan of the original book off the internet and thrown it up on Amazon with no proof reading.

Originally published in 1912, Benson's book had an Edwardian notion of formatting and punctuation. He used Roman numerals frequently in making biblical citations, and the scanning program had in many cases not recognized these Roman numerals correctly, turning them into a jumble or Arabic numerals and letters: the sort of mistake which could turn Psalm 3 into Psalm 111.

In addition, Fr. Benson had used the numbering of the Psalms in the Douay Rheims Bible (the standard English tradition at his time) which are numbered differently from what Catholics would find in modern translations.

Since we had just had the experience of laying out a book for publication, and MrsDarwin was so filled with indignation of the shoddy product which was being put in the hand of the reading public with an interest in Fr. Benson's writing, we decided to put out our own reprint edition.

We started with a freely available scanned online text, but then MrsDarwin spent 20+ hours comparing it line by line with a photographic scan of the original 1912 edition, identifying all the mistakes in the text-scan and correcting them.  She also provided updated scriptural citations so that readers could find Benson's references in a modern translation of the Bible.

I searched for an appropriate image for the cover, and found it in a detail from Giotto's The Last Supper, which shows Jesus among the apostles.  I bought the rights to a large, high quality image of the painting from a stock photography site specializing in historic art, and designed a simple, but I hope elegant, cover, inspired by the types of covers used by Penguin and Oxford World's Classics reprints.

Then the challenge was to get the book visible on Amazon.  Left to itself, Amazon will show the cheapest edition of a book available, unless some other edition sells much more. 

However, I couldn't price our edition lower than the cheap one already dominating on Amazon, because with our more readable formatting selling it at $5 would mean selling it at cost.  We couldn't beat the $5 edition already out there.

So instead, I decided to price our edition at $9.99.  This seemed like a fair price for a well made trade paperback reprint of a public domain work, and it would allow us to make three dollars in profit on each copy sold, which mean that I could pay for amazon placement ads to make our edition the top of the stack.

Although Amazon sometimes chooses to feature various other editions of Friendship of Christ at the top of its results, our sponsored product ads always show up near the top.

No one will ever get rich selling copies of Friendship of Christ, but there is a steady backlist demand for it.  Since publishing our edition at the end of 2020, we've sold about 300 copies per year, or a bit over 1000 copies total.

We end up spending about $200/yr on Amazon product ads in order to remain the top result whenever anyone searches for Friendship of Christ, so our total profits per year on the book are perhaps $700.  Not princely, but not bad for a few weeks of intensive (and enjoyable) work doing proofreading and formatting, it's at least a project that pays for itself and it provides readers a much more readable and attractive book than the cloud edition.  You can see it for sale here.

I'd always kind of meant to try our hands at more reprint projects, but things had been busy and we hadn't got around to it until I got fired up by a poorly made copy of The Great Gatsby a friend had bought for her daughter's high school class.

The 200-page book was crammed down into 110 pages and printed with narrow margins in an oversize 6x9" format, making it look more like a pamphlet than a book. (The cheap edition is the second from right.  Ours is the one on the far right.)

There were multiple cheap editions like this on Amazon, and they were taking up all the top slots when you looked for The Great Gatsby. There were editions from real publishers like Scribner's and Penguin, but they were far down the list, probably because Amazon had already squeezed their profits so much they couldn't afford to pay for top placement.

Not just that, but the top cheap edition had multiple printing errors in it. For instance, in the section where Nick reads the list of resolutions written by a youthful Jay Gatsby, the list was completely unformatted with strange block characters scattered through it. The editor had not even proof-read the online text they used. (Cheap edition at top, ours at bottom)

So we decided to see if we could pull off the same gambit on a much more popular text. We started with the full text of Gatsby from Gutenberg, but we then checked it line-by-line against the original first edition text. We also discovered from the Fitzgerald Archives at Princeton that Fitzgerald himself had made several corrections in his 1925 copy of the first edition, changing or adding words and phrases.

We incorporated all of these changes (which we documented in an Afterword) and added a second Afterword with a selection of the original 1925 reviews of the novel. Then we laid it all out and created a cover with the same care we'd used on our own books.

It's listed on Amazon now, and it remains to be seen whether product ads declaring "Avoid cheap print on demand editions!" will be enough to lure readers away from the badly formatted $5 editions. (Our edition at right) I was particularly pleased with the little roadster line graphic I spent a day designing for the bottom color bar. After reading about the history of the "Celestial Eyes" painting by Francis Cugat which appeared on the cover of the original edition, I knew that we needed to use the painting on ours as well.  Fitzgerald apparently loved the cover, and said that he "put the painting into the book", which from his letters appears to mean that the painting inspired him to add the thematic image of the billboard with the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg.

Once again I'm trying to beat out $5 competition with a $9.99 book, and it remains to be seen if sponsored product ads which say "Avoid cheap print on demand editions!" and product copy which explains "Unlike bargain-priced print-on-demand copies, this volume is attractively formatted with clear, readable text and standard margins. As in the 1925 original, the text of this edition runs to 200 pages. Cheap versions which compress the text to 120 pages or less are cramped and hard to read." will be enough to win over customers from the cheapest editions.

It may be that while it's possible for us to win on a comparatively small backlist item like Friendship of Christ, that there are simply too many people willing to spend money on promoting bad, cheap editions of Great Gatsby for us to win out.

Still, we have very much enjoyed the process of putting out nice, clean reprint editions of books which are afflicted with shoddy reprints. If there are any books which you've been frustrated to find primarily represented by bad reprints, that you'd like us to consider tackling, let us know which books they are.