Nobody could have foreseen this

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Albeit for very large values of 'nobody'. In 2006 I wrote the following, with regards to John Ramsden's Don't Mention the War: The British and the Germans since 1890:

[...] what's with having the endnotes not in the book itself but on a website? Do they think websites are permanent? Will the 10 pages omitted from the book really improve its profitability by that much? It’s better than none at all, I suppose, but it does potentially diminish the book's useability for research purposes, now and in the future. For shame, Little, Brown, for shame.

And of course, four years later the website no longer exists; the domain name is not even registered any more. It doesn't help that Ramsden died last year, so there's probably nobody looking after his electronic-academic legacy.

Luckily this is a trend which hasn't taken off -- at least not that I've noticed in recent book purchases. But Guy Walters at the Daily Telegraph disagrees (citing Ramsden's website too, which floored me since his post seems to have gone up this very day!) He thinks that the practice of moving footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies from books to the web is becoming more common. I do hope he's wrong.

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18 thoughts on “Nobody could have foreseen this

  1. Erik Lund

    It's the coming thing! By the time the web page goes down, any worthwhile reader will have long since downloaded and ripped a copy and put it on the torrents. And the book will be old and boring like some boring old person who is always talking about how they used to be not boring, and you're saying, like, "hey, Hilary Duff, aren't you, like, 30 now?"

    On a more serious note, haven't we always been worried about the coming extinction of the footnote?

  2. I will never ever ever abandon the footnote, not while I have AJP Taylor's shining example of the waspish aside to look up to:

    ...there were few real secrets in the diplomatic world, and all diplomatists were honest, according to their moral code.1

    1It becomes wearisome to add 'except the Italians' to every generalization. Henceforth it may be assumed.

    (From Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery In Europe, 1848-1918)

    I don't know who the contemporary masters are; Richard Evans seems to do a nice line in put-downs.

  3. I get cross enough when books use endnotes, not footnotes - it's irritating having to flick halfway through the book to check a source rather than just scan to the bottom of the page. With the advent of Google Books limited preview it also means you can sometimes read endnotes but not the relevant chapter, or vice versa.

  4. For me it's like photo credits in print. You certainly notice they're not there when you need them, and the credibility of the quality of the author and publisher goes right down.

    Given my experience with trying to co-ordinate the web and print for publishers, I reckon it'll be a while before the temptation to 'web-footnote' is likely to significantly grow, given the antediluvian outlooks of many publishers. However when a flag of 'cost saving' is waved, with however false accounting, who knows?

    The flipside is (was?) the reluctance of much formal academic to accept anything that was only published on the web, whatever it was. I presume that's gone out now, like fagging. We all cite Airminded, don't we?

  5. If cost is the issue then it makes much more sense to publish the entire book in e-form (very likely the future for commercially marginal monographs); this at least guarantees the permanent connection between text and notes.

  6. Errolwi

    I'm in the process of reading my first non-fiction end-noted ebook (on iPhone). The endnotes are hyperlinked, and work moderately well. As the end-note 'chapter' has to be loaded each time you jump to it, it is a little clumsy. I would prefer end-notes for each chapter to be included at the end of the chapter, to cut out the reload. I don't think that treating footnotes as annotations (i.e. some kind of pop-up when you hover over the ref number) would work well in practice - as the ePub 'standard' doesn't actually specify how to handle annotations, so different software/publishers would give different results.

  7. Post author

    Alan's nailed it for me. The important thing is that the notes and text not be separated like this, so that in whatever form the book is used the notes will always be accessible. Put another way, who does putting the notes on a separate website benefit? It's hard to see that the reader gets much out of it, and that's who we should be thinking of.

    Commenting on my Cliopatria cross-post, Jonathan Dresner suggests that if publishers want to do this, perhaps they could put an 'archival' edition on Google Books with the full set of endnotes. This might satisfy Sharon's requirement here of a proper archiving strategy -- which I agree is the very least publishers should do in this situation. But I'd rather they didn't do it at all.

  8. Neil Datson

    To follow on from Jakob's mention of Taylor, surely the greatest practitioner was Edward Gibbon?

    Firstly there are his brilliant little ironies. Then, for the salacious pleasure of the classicist, there are the dirty bits in Latin. Or, as he put it:

    'My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the decent obscurity of a learned language.'

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  10. But this was not a commercially marginal monograph - it was a book aimed at a general readership, albeit with John's rigorous historical sense behind it. I think that the choice he was offered was another chapter to explore a huge subject or endnotes in the text. I can understand why he chose the extra chapter, on the basis that the bulk of readers would not look at the endnotes, and that those who wanted to refer to them would actually have a more useful resource if they could see both at once (either on screen or printed off) than if they flicked between the two. I have little doubt that had John lived he would have made damn sure the web page stayed live. I will see what I can do about trying to rectify the situation - if the publishers are still selling the book, I think they've got a duty to sort it out.

  11. Richard J

    It's still on sale - I picked it up in p/b just the other day. Admittedly I have just raised an eyebrow on asserting that Le Queux wrote the first 'Germans invading Britain' story; the enemy in the Battle of Dorking are fairly unambiguously the Prussians, IIRC.

    (Favourite waspy footnotes in modern historians - Andrew Gordon's in the Rules of the Game, and NAM Rodger. The latter's bibliographies are always worth a skim through.)

  12. Post author


    It would be great if you could get Little, Brown to restore the website: I agree, they have a responsibility here. Let us know how you get on!


    I'd raise an eyebrow too, but then would start qualifying my own eyebrow-raising -- Chesney wasn't really worried about the malign intentions of Germany, just about the backwards state of the British Army, whereas Le Queux was worried about both, so he's much more in the Germanophobic line, and he really did kick off the Edwardian invasion genre. Of course, then there's Childers, which is anomalously early, but technically not an invasion story... and so on. I think this helps explain the joy of waspish footnotes: look, here's somebody prepared to stop looking at every side of a question and actually express an opinion of their own!

  13. Richard J

    That's a fair counter-point - the Franco-Prussian war had finished only a few years previously, so they were the most obvious hypothetical enemy to use.

  14. I mentioned this to Mrs JDK, the academic book publisher (what exciting dinner conversations we have) and Dan's "I think that the choice he was offered was another chapter to explore a huge subject or endnotes in the text" is an acute point - however probably after a classic author over-run. A publisher will cost a book on a proposed size, wordcount etc; at that stage the 'either-or' choice isn't going to be part of that kind of discussion. ('I need 100,000 words to do the subject justice' - 'no you'll get 80,000', doesn't exclude proper other matter.)

    After the 10% over-length and cannot-be-cut cut manuscript arrives, discussions are had, the publisher may enter the sort of conversations Dan's touched on. It is possible to shove extra pages in, but the knock-on problems are potentially exponential.

    (In the magazine business, for instance, forward purchasing of the paper can be critical and 10% more is simply not there or available to be bought at the cost - but I digress.)

    The crux is if Guy Walters is correct that it's a growing option, as Brett reads it. I don't think it is, more publishers trying (in a very publisher way) some of the options, many of which will prove dead ends. While Guy's blog is interesting, some of his data lacks depth and he's been had with at least one convincing looking (aeronautic) junk history item. So kids, if someone offers you web-only footnotes, just say 'NO'. That will be a factor.

  15. Post author


    Just say no is generally good advice. But I do worry whether or not, say, a struggling scholar trying to establish a career would be able to do that if a top-tier publisher offered them a book contract but with web-footnotes.

    What aeronautical junk history has Walters been had with? I don't read his blog regularly.

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