Misprints – a historical flash story

Photo by Tim Green via Flickr Creative Commons.
A press from a later era – Photo by Tim Green via Flickr Creative Commons.

William McKenzie sighed as he stared out the window of his father’s print shop. Once again, Alexander Davies was leading a small gang up the street, some in kilts and some in britches, mud and filth spattering their stockings. Davies’s daughter Mary had been William’s friend since their fathers shared their printing business, back when presses first reached the city and everyone was printing Bibles. He missed her more than he could say.

“Charles McKenzie, you wretch, I want my books back!” Davies yelled as he approached the shop. He had a cudgel in his hand. The men behind him carried torches and clubs.

“My books, more like!” William’s father leaned out of the window next to him, screaming for all the gathered crowds to hear. “I’ve the only licence to print that almanac in Edinburgh. Filling it with side notes and spelling errors doesn’t make your printing legal.”

The books lay in a heap at the back of the store, where they’d been hastily dumped after the midnight raid on Davies’s print shop. Filled with curiosity, William picked one up and started leafing through. Mary did most of Davies’s type-setting, and it wasn’t like her to make mistakes. Was something amiss?

“I’ll call out the justices on you!” Davies yelled.

“I’ll call the sheriff on you!” the elder McKenzie responded.

“I’ll sue you flat broke!”

“I’ll chase you out of town!”

“I’ll…” The back and forth continued with all the agile wit of two unimaginative elders, while William peered at the pages of the book. There were letters in the wrong places, but something about them seemed odd. There was only ever one to a page, and near the top, where they would be easy to find.

Grabbing a scrap of paper and a quill, William started noting them down. This looked like a code, and he could only think of one person who would put it there. If something was the matter with Mary then he desperately wanted to know.

“That’s it!” Davies screamed. “If you won’t come out then I’ll burn you out!”

A flaming torch sailed through the window and a junior printer rushed to douse the flames. Another landed on a heap of loose papers, which immediately ignited, sending men scurrying to beat out the fire. Smoke clouded the air, and there were sounds of violence from the direction of the front door.

Reaching a page without errors, William set the book aside and stared at the long string of letters in front of him: iloveyouwilliammckenziewillyourunawaywithmemary.

A quick slash of the pen divided them into words. His heart raced as the meaning sank in.

“What are you grinning for?” his father growled. “Grab a cudgel – our business is at stake!”

“Sorry, Pa.” Paper still in hand, William unbolted the shutters at the back of the shop and leapt out into an alley that stank of piss and pigs. He had never been happier in his life. “I’m off to business of my own.”

* * *


Copyright claims in 17th-century Scotland genuinely turned to violence at times, as well as many contentious legal disputes. Costs, profits and pride made for high stakes in the early days of print. Next time you see a video taken off YouTube for copyright infringement, be glad no-one got beaten up over it.

If you enjoyed this story then you might like more of my historical fiction – check out From a Foreign Shore, my collection of historical and alternate history stories, only 99c on Kindle.

Copying Myself Could Be Plagiarism – the Weirdness of Ghostwriting

Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.
Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Working as a ghostwriter leads to some odd situations. One that struck me recently is that I could commit an act of plagiarism just by using my own words.

Not Owning My Work

As a ghostwriter, I don’t own the copyright on what I produce. There are hundreds of thousands of words out there that I crafted but that have someone else’s name on them, whether it’s the name of a real person or a made up name. Not only am I not associated with those words – I have no legal claim on them.

Legally speaking, I’m effectively not the author of those words. Someone else owns them.

Riding the Roundabouts

Recently, I’ve started to return to territory I’ve covered in previous works. For example, I’ve been writing about the Tudors. So when I did that, I opened up previous writing assignments I’d done on them. If nothing else, it would save me from replicating my research – why reinvent the intellectual wheel? I’ll even copy and paste something I’ve written before into the working document, so I can keep track of what elements I still want to include. But I have to be really careful that those same phrases and patterns of words don’t appear again. Because if they do, I’ll be plagiarising work that belongs to my client, which would be illegal and bad for my career.

Favourite Phrases

It’s weird not to be able to copy myself. Weirder still to think that, sooner or later, I’ll probably do it by accident. If I come up with a phrase I really like and use it a ghostwriting project, what are the odds that it won’t occur to me again later? And if I forget that I used it before, then a tiny bit of repetition slips into the mix, and I can come close once again to plagiarising myself.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I have a great job, and when I ghostwrite I accept the consequences of that – I get my money, I lose my words. But it’s very strange to think that, however unlikely it is, I really could break the law just by writing in my own voice over and over again.

Think of the children – e-reading’s messy future

Have you thought about where e-readers are taking us? I don’t just mean emptier shelves round the house and less weight to pack for holidays. I mean the bigger changes that they’ll bring, as change ripples out through the institutions built on old technology.

Yesterday’s post provoked some interesting responses about publishing, and I’ve written before about why kids will still want old style books. But there’s so much more to it than that. Because our default concept of reading is based on privately owned paperbacks, but the reality of books is far more complicated.

Mike Licht


Glenatron mentioned textbooks in response to yesterday’s post. And he’s quite right – they could be vastly improved by using the benefits of an electronic medium. They could be repeatedly revised and updated, colleges and schools buying into the updates instead of whole new books. No more battered, out of date books with notes in the margin and penises crudely scribbled onto the photos.

But getting there is very complicated. Because for schools to use e-books in classrooms they first need e-readers, but to justify the e-readers they first need the textbooks to go on them, so there’s a tricky circle to be broken. Not to mention the risk of e-readers going missing – schools will probably need them cheap and sturdy.

Then there’s a bigger academic issue, because part of how we legitimise knowledge as correct and of value is by publishing it through established academic houses and then keeping that edition of the book set, unmoving and easily referenced for years. That’s an approach that doesn’t work so well with the changes going on.

E-readers have the potential to radically change both education and the knowledge economy around it. But it’s going to be a tricky thing to do.


This was another point raised in response to my post yesterday, this time from Sheila. Our model of publicly shared books – which is to say the library system – is built around books that are trapped on the physical page. New lending models and legal frameworks will be needed to cope with lending e-books. Those new models could make books more accessible than ever, or shackle the electronic age with assumptions from the paper one.

And what about libraries as public spaces? If we start borrowing and referencing by download from library webpages, how will those centres of communal activity be supported, never mind the experience and wisdom of the librarians?


When a book’s published electronically it’s much harder to stop people copying it, just like with music. And that has huge implications.

I could go on for hours about this one. Suffice to say that old models of intellectual property are poorly designed for the modern age, but big companies insist on wielding them to hold back their profits against the inexorable tide of change. It’s not just copyright – look at the pharmaceutical companies getting outraged about life-saving knock-off medicines, or King’s battles to protect its dubious gaming trademarks.

The best companies will respond by innovating to appeal to customers and by finding ways to profit in an age when you can’t realistically stop low level copying. Others will continue on the defensive, keeping the lawyers busy as they go down fighting. The end results should be innovation and a richer culture, but the journey there may be messy.

What have I missed?

What are the other implications to the shift to electronic books? What angles have I missed? Leave comments, share your wisdom.

Just don’t try to stop people copying your opinions – that one’s a losing battle.


Picture by Mike Licht via Flickr creative commons