The Power to Sell Books

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Scottish writing is in great shape. Scottish publishing is not, and nobody is doing anything about it. Could it be because we have no power?

By power here, I mean the ability of a publisher to promote books to generate enough sales to keep going. The general ball park figure for a publisher ‘keeping going’ would be anywhere between their selling 2,000 and 10,000 copies of a book.

For that to work, a few different people need to pull some weight. Publishers need to produce good, if not great books and that’s already happening in Scotland. We’d also need lots of authors, and Scotland is spoiled for those more than anywhere else I can think of. But without a healthy publishing industry, these writers will always be published elsewhere.

That’s where the ‘promote books’ bit comes in. For a long time there has not been any other model for selling 10,000 books other than the print media writing about it. There are platforms such as festivals where books are promoted, but without the arbitration, sponsorship and direction of the press, festivals are not going to help. You may think Scottish newspapers and broadcast media are doing a grand job because they are promoting Scottish writers, but what we fail to notice is that they do not promote Scottish publishing. In fact I will argue there is a prejudice against Scottish publishing.

I like the image of everyone pulling their weight. The state has a part to play too, and if the Parliament can encourage one kind of growth by giving Amazon £2.5million of our Scots pounds, I can only ask why the Parly can’t encourage growth in the publishing business the same way. Perhaps the Parliamentarians haven’t noticed how epic Scottish publishing is? Publishers don’t even need that much money — honest! — but if publishing is to be valued as a prime Scottish industry then perhaps it should be treated as such.

Not wishing to exclude the rest of Scotland, I’d like to talk about publishing as industry in Edinburgh.

On greeting The Marquis Tseng and his delegation from China on their visit to Edinburgh in 1886, Lord Provost Clark commented to the former Chinese ambassador that ‘Edinburgh had not ever much in the way of manufacture.’ I wonder if he was correct, and what if any manufacture could the city be known for? I wonder if after the financial services and tourism industries have been considered, isn’t publishing and its attendant trades something that Edinburgh has going for it in terms of manufacture?

I think Edinburgh still aspires to this, given its UNESCO City of Literature status, the Scottish Book Trust, Poetry Library, and the many whatnots of literary tourism there are there. There is a huge concentration of publishers, editors and writers in Edinburgh, and so there are many reasons Edinburgh presents itself as a literary city. But that is a literary city yes —and not a centre of publishing. I’d argue that Edinburgh and Scotland can easily be a centre of publishing, and that Scottish publishing can compete properly in the world, if it’s properly supported, and also taken seriously by the press.

Because I am published in Scotland and because I admire Scottish publishers I’ve never been able to stop myself from counting how many of these publishers are honoured in our media — but it’s always been next to nil. I’ve taken a recent consecutive run of The Scotsman and broken down its book coverage because I thought that might be a good way to show you what I mean. I hope the table is self-explanatory.

By Books Covered I am including the various advertorial and promotion methods open to books editors, including review, interview and in the case of The Scotsman, the ‘Poem of the Week.’ I’ve listed the names of Scottish publishers covered so that you can make your own mind up about this token system:

Issue of The Scotsman Books Covered Scottish Books Publisher Covered
4 May 2013 13 1 Freight
20 April 2013 13 1 New Voices Press
27 April 2013 15 1 Argyll Publishing
18 May 2013 15 2 HappenstanceCanongate
25 May 2013 13 1 Dundee University Press
1 June 2013 13 1 Polygon
8 June 2013 13 1 Canongate
15 June 2013 14 1 Humming Earth
22 June 2013 7 0
6 July 2013 24 3 Sandstone PressItchy Coo

Black and White

13 July 2013 9 1 Canongate
20 July 2013 9 1 Edinburgh University Press
27 July 2013 8 1 Birlinn
3 Aug 2013 9 2 Stewed RhubarbCanongate
TOTALS 175 17

So that’s just a few weeks’ worth of coverage counted in one of our papers, which doesn’t amount to anything other than a little anecdotal evidence. But I’m pretty sure the picture is fair and that this ratio has been set at this level for decades. Last Christmas, Radio Scotland’s Book Café pulled the same stunt. Scottish publishers would have valued any sales boost at all, but the show chose to spend up of ten minutes promoting a new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. If I brought in Noam Chomsky here, he would remind me that this is perfectly in character with the work of corporate media, which exists to create and sell audiences. It’s a vicious circle, because there’s no point in traditional media covering anything as insignificant as Scottish publishing, because no audience for it has been created in the first place.

From the table then you can quickly see the ballpark figure is running at 10% coverage. Twenty years ago my own publisher lobbied to have more Scottish books featured at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which had in his calculating, less than 4% of its featured titles as Scottish. The Edinburgh Book Festival was not impressed with this provincial haranguing however, and changed its name to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, properly swerving the issue. I don’t know how they are doing these days — I may well have to check — but my point here is that this has been this way for a long time.

And part of me thinks 17 out of 175 looks all right — about 10% as perhaps planned. In terms of UK sales Scottish publishers probably don’t account for that much, so I don’t know — but maybe this is good? The Scotsman is certainly consistent, representing at least one Scottish press each week, and better still, other than the three Canongates in this slice, everybody gets at least one shot. With at least 52 publishers in Scotland that means everybody is getting their fair call — which is one plug a year? I don’t know. Nowhere in The Scotsman’s mission statement does it say that the paper has any obligation to cover Scottish books, but the paper has to exist for some reason — and yet I would still like to see the figure 2 or 3 times what it is. This is because if Scottish publishing was validated in the eyes of a national media, then an audience for it would certainly arise.

My opinion is that because the newspapers and broadcast media are tied to audience figures, they can’t afford to mess with non-profitable sectors like Scottish book publishing. It’s also possible that our newspaper books editors don’t consider Scottish publishing of good enough quality. I see public money spent on writers and then there’s the example of Amazon, above — but not only do the writers need support less than publishers, they are in their most successful incarnations published in England. Muh! This is in fact the only way Scottish writers can get their books ‘out there’.
I would argue that publishing is something that we can be proud of and would love to see some real publishing power back in this country. It might even make The Scotsman look good too. The latest Julian Barnes book would make a great example. Already reviewed by The Spectator, The Times, the Guardian, The independent, The Telegraph, The LRB and numerous, numerous other outlets, why would this title need a further review from The Scotsman? Please provide your own answer!

Here is mine: There are nearly 70 million people in Britain and only two dozen of them are books editors. All these editors know each other and must keep up their consensus, or else ALL may be out of a job. Publishing is an extremely precarious industry and it relies on this consensus — but I’d ask people to look at their national media and see for themselves what the editors are promoting. At present it stands at one token Scottish title out of every dozen.

While I’m asking the press to do more to strengthen publishing, this is only a part of the battle. After all, the traditional media has lost much of its value —a publisher may still covet a book review in a newspaper or an appearance on The Culture Studio —but the importance of these is diminishing with newspaper staffs decimated by layoffs and consumers turning to alternative news sources.

At the moment then, the only way to know that Scottish publishing even exists, is to look at the blogs — Books from Scotland is a good one to start with, although there are plenty others out there who care enough to write about Scottish books. For the meantime, and if The Scotsman wished to revive its readership, the message to the paper is You Could Do Better.

You have it in your power to help.

Read more On The Books Pages (Link = http://peterburnett.info/the-books-pages )

My plug: http://www.fledglingpress.co.uk/store/products/the-studio-game/

Comments (32)

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  1. George Gunn says:

    Good article, Peter, and timely. I think the Scot gov has not engaged with Scottish Cultural production in any meaningful way. They tend to favour showpiece events which they view as marketing. Creative Scotland should be shut down and re-born. If they are waiting for independence to change this then it may be too late. The problem that publishing as it exists in Scotland at the moment, in the way that it impacts on writing, is that the writers write what they think will get published and the publishers are looking for the next big thing so we exist in a world of spurious phenomenology where the truth is that nobody knows anything but everyone is playing safe. Scottish literature needs a strong vibrant and brave – and well funded – publishing industry if our literary culture is to truly thrive. Personally I feel there are enough bright young people here who are interested in publishing, books and literature to make that happen, and it really wouldn’t take much investment form the Government to make it a reality. They just need the tools to do the job. There is an untapped audience within Scotland and without for this because people are searching for optimism, for an alternative narrative – and if you are working in Scottish publishing at this time you have to be an optimist otherwise you would crawl under the bed and never come out.

    1. Thanks George,

      ‘Personally I feel there are enough bright young people here who are interested in publishing, books and literature to make that happen, and it really wouldn’t take much investment form the Government to make it a reality.’

      I couldn’t agree more. Writers are so well funded, and I don’t see why we can’t be exporting them ourselves, and I think both press and gov need to alook at themselves, and help create the market.

      While I know they do good work, The Scottish Book Trust employs 36 people, and it will be 38 by the end of the year. A bit of a WTF statistic that . . . but imagine a publisher even a quarter of that size in Scotland, how much it could do, and the kind of international leverage it could muster for distribution?

      As an aside, I heard James Kelman announce last year that his annual earnings totalled £15k – – – not that it’s relevant, but all those 38 people will be paid MORE than him! LOL.

      I feel the press has the first duty here to show its readers that Scottish publishing EXISTS and that it is worthwhile. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Douglas says:

    George, the first two lines of the new Creative Scotland annual plan reveals all you need to know about that organisation. It reads:

    No part of this document may be reproduced in any format without the prior permission of Creative Scotland.

    1. Watch out Douglas, you just reproduced a part of it . . .

      1. Douglas says:

        Aye, I was thinking that Peter.

        I can expect a chap at the door in the early hours… from a portfolio manager presumably….

        Very interesting article by the way.

  3. Jean Urquhart says:

    Interesting article. As part of The Ceilidh Place we have a (very) small bookshop which I like to think has a reasonable selection of some of the best of writers who live in Scotland. I hesitate to use ‘Scottish writers’ because most of the writers I know resist the term themselves and I understand that. You are right, I think, to raise the issue of finance in all of this as I believe that the reason well known writers in Scotland are published by publishers in the UK is about money and even more importantly about distribution and ultimately, sales. Many an author has been first published by a Scottish publisher and subsequent books are published elsewhere; the reason is that they are paid better and the book will appear on bookshelves across the UK with the result of more sales. I love the fact that we have so many small publishers in Scotland, but the investment needs not only to be with them but also with the author and a good distributor. Buying the work of Scottish authors, doesn’t mean supporting the Scottish Publishing industry and there’s the rub. Success for the writer can result, understandably, in them leaving their original publisher and heading for what we know as the ‘big’ publisher. The whole issue is worthy of debate as to how we break this vicious circle.

    1. Hi Jean, you’re right that distribution is a problem in Scotland, although I know some companies are working hard to crack this. Like you I don’t like to get bogged down in being a ‘Scottish writer’ or whatever else, but businesses are not so nebuolous when it comes to identity. We have plenty exciting publishers located in Scotland, who are breaking their heads against a wall, sometimes. I think they’re brave, publishing so many books safe in the knowledge that the Scotsman’s books editors are in this case going to ignore them – – it’s sad. There will definitely be a distribution model out there for us, to sell our books here and the world over. As it stands very few Scottish publishers can get books distributed even in England. Thanks for the comment, and I really like yr shop by the way.

  4. Grasshopper says:

    Can’t disagree with an excellent summary of the current position. And of course the review of coverage in The Scotsman coincides with the decision to revamp the Saturday magazine, and in one breath decimate the space available for book reviews in total, far less those from Scottish publishing houses. As you see above 14, or 15 becomes now 8 or 9. It’s just not good enough.

    The Herald carried out the same cull a year or two ago, and lost at least one reader as a result, the Saturday edition having survived my general ditching of the paper purely for the book reviews. Now The Scotsman no longer graces the Saturday morning reading table either; another fall in sales, matched by a rise of one for The Guardian.

    And so tomorrow I’m off down to the excellent Atkinson-Pryce bookshop in Biggar, to do my reviews in person. And I know thaat Scottish writers and publishers will have much more than the 10% of space allocated by our press.

  5. Hi Peter, thanks for a really interesting article!

    As a young Scottish publisher, and a graduate from a Scottish publishing studies course, I just thought I’d chuck my tuppence in as well.

    I agree with everything you say above, but there’s another problem with Scottish publishing that never seems to be discussed or addressed.

    The fact is that, in order to find employment, basically all the people we’re training to be publishers in this country have to go to London or Oxford once they’ve graduated. I’ve lost count of the number of brilliant, bright and talented graduates who would love to stay in Scotland but just can’t, simply because the job opportunities aren’t there. If all the best young publishers go to England for their careers then what hope does Scottish publishing have?

    I was stubborn and have stayed in Scotland since graduation, but it has been hard work – and I’ve had to start my own publishing business rather than find a job with a pre-existing one.

    I just wonder why this problem isn’t talked about more, and why there hasn’t been any concrete steps taken to address the issue? Isn’t this the kind of thing that Publishing Scotland and the Scottish Government should be looking at – possibly with the help of the publishing studies courses at Stirling and Edinburgh? Of course I’ve maybe just missed out on the conversations about it, but it does strike me as a serious issue.

    1. Investment I think. I mean you would have had more luck trying to get a job at Amazon, I presume.

      I think Publishing Scotland would probably like to look at this, but they have some problems. As I mentioned above, Scottish Book Trust has a staff of 38, and PS has a staff of 3, plus 3 PT people.

      Also their lobbying power is severly limited by the fact that some publishers, including one of Scotland’s largest, won’t have anything to do with them, which is their right. I’m sure MSPs don’t even know that Publishing Scotland exists, however.

      I think you are very brave to be publishing in Scotland just now, knowing that the press will ignore you and distribution isn’t going to be possible. For my own part, I think The Scotsman would look really good if it bucked up its ideas about what to cover, but I am aware this is quite, given they are tied to corporate interests above the heads of their own writers and editors. For their part, their objective is to create a market for English and other publishers in Scotland.

  6. Abulhaq says:

    Neglect, benign or deliberate, of our national patrimony is something we have down to a fine art. The acquired syndrome of the Scotch cringe /inferiority complex carried around by our “opinion leaders” as an mark of our complaisant subordinacy to the great anglo-american-centricizing conceit of a “world culture” that is, let us be in no doubt, predatory and tyranical in pursuit of its globalizing mission, is a default mode even the best of us click into when faced by its sun-shrouding hulk. Publishing was one of industries. Edinburgh through its many printing houses was a major agency in the promotion of the English language as a cultural tool. In fact we, as a people who acquired English, have done more for its modern intellectual status than the English themselves. “Scotch reason” provided dictionaries, encyclopaedias and reference works. Along with the Irish and the Welsh we have indulged the hubris of our neighbour’s tongue like catamites in a seraglio. Of course we do not acknowledge our particular rôle in that light but seen from outside the territory it looks very much like providing special services to the master: Shameful!
    After independence I hope we get a collective grip of this “vice” and banish it from our consciousness. Our cultural patrimony needs our urgent attention. Let us be constructively selfish for a change.

    1. Great comment, thanks. Let the banishment begin.

  7. Douglas says:

    Well, exactly Abuhaq, Edinburgh was once the publishing capital of Britain and it´s hard to think of a more influential city in terms of English and literature outside of London. The Scots even invented the study of English Literature as a discipline under its former name of Belles-Lettres. That said, I don´t necessarily share your harsh judgement on the past, we are all children of our time, and Scotland was a much poorer country then.

    In any case, the question today is, will independence actually change anything in this sense? Creative Scotland has all the hallmarks of a New Labour creation, but it is in fact an SNP creation. We heard that there was going to be this big change in the Creative Scotland model, but I haven´t seen any. The literature post they were advertising last month was still paying 37,000 grand a year plus pension etc. How many Scottish writers earn that? Surely one way of finding if somebody really has a passion for literature is to peg the salary of the arts facilitator, not “administrator”, to the average salary of a Scottish writer?

    As for the corporate language, it is an affront to people who work in culture. They contaminate us with the sordid language of finance and the jargon of banking, the “eat all you can on the tax payer” culture which has bankrupt the country, the world of portfolio managers, investments, in short, the language of the enemy. If the people who run Creative Scotland are using the language of the enemy, the most likely thing is that they are the enemy too.

    The board of Creative Scotland should be sacked. The glaciers of Europe move at a faster rate than they do, and the SNP are going to lose votes if they don´t do something about this soon, because my guess is that not many of Scotland´s artists would want to get on a platform with the SNP if Creative Scotland carries on as it is.

  8. I don’t think independence will change anything in this sense, all quangos are effectively the same through history, though I like yr point about Creative Scotland seeming New Labour, but actually being SNP.

    Getting quangos to work is a different question from independence, but if we can experiment with new models in the future, that would be good.

    Because all quangos are effectively administering public money (ineffectively, of course), perhaps they could be made up of artists?

    People would argue that if this was the case, the artists on the quangos would only favour themselves and their friends. I don’t think that stands, because we have worse kinds of favouritism presently.

    I won’t happen but it is just a thought.

  9. Douglas says:

    Peter, I don´t know about artists running arts agencies, for the simple reason that they would probably prefer to be working on their art. Who would turn up for the board meetings?

    But that´s not the point. There are lots of people out there with a passion for literature equal to any writer´s (I can´t remember who said it, but at a certain moment in life you have to decide whether to become a writer or carry on as a reader), but who maybe don´t have the temperament,or the aptitude or the time or the level of commitment required to write themselves.

    But you must have the passion. And the salaries which are being offered means that these posts will attract lots of people who want the money but don´t share the passion. It is the people with passion who should be running the arts agencies, in all its varieties, and the corporate structure of Creative Scotland can only put these people off, because Creative Scotland talks the language of finance and the City.

    But it´s also about ethics. Salaries must be more or less in line with what writers are earning. The salary exists because the writer is writing, if the writers stopped writing, there would be no job for the facilitator.

    1. I’d like to talk more about artists being involved in arts agencies, but maybe this isn’t the place. Like virtually every other writer published in Scotland, I have another job, and an income from elsewhere. I think if it would boost their income, artists might receive a double benefit from being involved in decision making. You’re right about passion needed, but artists have it, not that bunch. All the admins, board members, journalists, directors and so on, they *always* say: “I’m passionate about the arts!” Maybe they think they are. They maybe think the more money they’re paid, the more passionate they become.

      Do you think the newspapers could do anything to help the situation?

      1. Douglas says:

        I think the newspapers are on their last legs, though I agree with the point you make about book reviews.

        As for artists running their own arts agencies, maybe they would like that, what do I know, though personally I can’t see it.

        All I can say with any degree of certainty is that the same people who have forced us to to talk in terms of “intended outcomes” (what is the intended outcome of “The Trial” or “Exterminating Angel”, how could you ever use that language to talk about a work of art ?) are the same people who signally refuse to apply their own doublespeak to themselves. They did not deliver on their own “intended outcomes” so why are they still in a job?.Which is to say, the board and senior management of Creative Scotland are a parcel of self-serving, self-important, self-satisfied hypocrites and should be removed ASAP. Obviously I don’t include Janet Archer in that, she’s only just arrived.

  10. This is a vitally important topic. A nation that cannot support and grow a healthy publishing industry will fundamentally lack a coherent vision of itself and its future. Many are desperately trying to remedy this dire situation and the only way to do so is to take responsibility work together and make a noise. A lot of noise.

    By our literature and narratives we define ourselves. There is little point in lamenting the lack of coverage for Scottish published books in the Scotsman. However much criticism is levelled at various aspects of the Scotsman’s output it all falls on deaf ears and the paper continues to draw into itself in perpetual decline. In the digital age all print media faces a challenge but some are tackling the problem with better success.

    With a background in one of the older Scottish publishers many years ago – an imprint that like so many no longer exists – I am currently involved in setting up a small press. Our first title In the Wake of the Coup will be published on 2nd September in print, print on demand, and digital editions. However much we may lament the passing of the physical product we can not ignore the changes in the market.

    The online media is growing and Scotland has a number of lively online publications like Bella Caledonia. Why not a books page to add to the reader offering? Bella would require volunteers to do the reviews and could in turn raise income from taking ads from the growing number of small presses. Such collaborations are the way forward because however difficult to maintain output, online publications like Bella Caledonia have growing circulations unlike the lamented Scotsman.

    Like Independence the future is in our own hands and like independence we need to work together to make the future of a vibrant Scottish publishing industry a reality.

    1. I have given up on artists running agencies too, it was just a thought. In some cases I have no idea what these agencies do, but I believe that there was art in Scotland before 1963 or 4 when the Scottish Arts Council was sprung into being, just as I am sure there will still be creativity in Scotland once Creative Scotland have been disbanded and replaced with something equally self-serving, when its day comes.

    2. One thing I agree with is “There is little point in lamenting the lack of coverage for Scottish published books in the Scotsman” – – but I continue to look at this example because I am hoping to see the work of my friends and colleagues promoted there. I can’t help myself.

      Still, I agree there is no point because the newspaper are unlikely to change anything, and that’s their loss. It would be great if we could work together to make the future of Scottish publishing vibrant, and I think we are already doing that, it’s just not recognised. Looking forward to Bella’s Books pages being a focal point in all of that changing however . . .

  11. Books editors, those at The Scotsman anyway, they’re too busy dissing the opposition to care about Scottish books, as you can see from this } http://pastebin.com/kpL3U749

    1. That material is on my own website in the downloads section, but in its intended format and with the author’s anonymity preserved.

  12. Geoff Huijer says:

    Very interesting article with comments that give food for thought.

    My Scottish historical fiction was surprisingly (to me) not picked up by any Scottish publisher; I self published in the end. I enquired with the press (including The Scotsman) about sending copies for review but never received a single reply. Most independent bookshops gave no response either and by selling on Amazon I lose money and would lose money if Waterstones were to stock.

    Fortunately, it is selling well via the internet and via Handselled Books in Fife.

    https://www.facebook.com/MassanGowAndTheHoundsOfStAndrew

    http://www.hanselledbooks.co.uk/death-of-a-king-by-geoff-huijer-26230-p.asp

  13. Craig P says:

    You think Scottish book publishing is doing badly, you should see the state of Scottish newspaper publishing. The Scotsman will go out of business before Canongate Press.

    1. Fact is, everybody here has an opinion, so a website represents a distribution of information and ideas on a probability curve . . . and I cannot wait to see how this plays out in terms of arts reviewing. News and reviews are now becoming a process as opposed to the institutionalised approach to media – and this is why there is no such thing as a citizen journalist, but there is such a thing as citizen journalism.

      The influence of a book reviewer like Kelly stems much more from the institution that employs them much more than it does from their own journalistic abilities. ‘Experts’ are just another example of institutionalised trust, because their views come with the endorsement of corporations that work hard at establishing reputations for having important things to say.

      What we are learning on our websites is to trust process as opposed to institutionalised authority.

      You can’t treat social media (such as this website represents) as an institution, ie a place where you can get a single representation of a set of facts or ideas that purport to be some form of truth, not in news, and certainly less so in arts reviewing. Comment threads on the other hand provide scale and variance, the total opposite of the institutional approach which is editing out of information that is regarded as marginal, or regarded as unreliable, in order to distil a single expression of truth in 500 words.

      News also is changing from being a finished product packaged with institutional authority to a raw material . . . and Scotland with other northern European countries led the way the last time this sort of large-scale change in information handling happened.

      I’m talking here about how Luther et al embraced the transformative technology of printing, because they recognised its power to disrupt the established order. The Catholic Church reacted by creating an environment that was hostile to printing and established the Index of Banned Books. The centres of printing, the Silicon Valleys of their day, established themselves in Protestant areas, creating a comparative advantage that persists to this day.

      Soit! There you have it. I think that’s why the comemnt threads of Scottish newspaper websites are full of trolls, and why the comment threads here usually make up the actual story or report.

  14. At the risk of opening another can of worms, I would like to see what the statistics are for the male/female author split of those books reviewed. Mslexia magazine did a big survey quite recently and discovered that throughout the UK, the percentage of books by women reviewed in the traditional media was tiny, compared to those by male authors (and out of all proportion to the number of books by women actually published) .I wonder if the situation is any different in Scotland? A quick and totally unscientific glance at the lists of Scottish publishers, what they publish and which of those books is deemed suitable for review suggests not. As a one time reviewer I remember being very surprised when an editor told me that male reviewers would send in lists of books they wanted to review whereas the women never did. In all my years of sporadic reviewing, I hadn’t thought of doing this. I waited to be asked – more fool me. Now, along with vast numbers of other people, I’m afraid I don’t read reviews in newspapers. They seldom review anything I want to read. Instead, I rely on trusted book blogs, recommendations from friends and (should I whisper this?) Amazon.

    1. Hi Catherine, would you be interested in the female/male split among the Scottish publishers represented in the paper, or in the paper as a whole? I can dig both out for you, although the logic that drives their choice of what to promote is often something as simple as ‘friend of the editor’ . . .

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