Wednesday, 22 May 2019

'Not currently available'?

On the one hand, CBe is a ‘successful’ small publisher. One of the books published last year has won the Wellcome Book Prize and has co-won the Republic of Consciousness Prize and has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths, etc, and has sold more copies than any other CBe title. On the other hand, the two other books published by CBe last year have sold fewer than 100 copies – as have around a fifth of the titles published by CBe in the past 12 years, books I’m no less proud of having published.

All CBe titles in print are in stock with the distributor, Central Books, and can be ordered from there by any bookshop. Most independent bookshops, however, source their stock only from the main wholesalers, so if Gardners or Bertrams do not hold a book in stock, it’s likely that that a bookseller will tell a customer ordering that book that it is not available. This happens often. Over 90 per cent of CBe titles are not in stock with the wholesalers; how they choose which books to buy in I don’t know; I only know that I cannot choose for them. (When the wholesalers do take a book into stock, they buy it in from the distributor at a discount of well over 50%.)

A sales agent can be helpful here – that is, a person/organisation whose job is to hustle booksellers to buy in the books and nag the wholesalers to stock them. For some years CBe did have a sales agent (although during the first year with the agent, sales were fewer than in the previous year, with no agent). Since dropping down to publishing just two or three books a year, CBe has done without a sales agent – because they concentrate on pushing new titles, not the backlist; and because in addition to an annual charge they take a cut (10% + VAT) on every book sold out of the distributor (on top of the distributor’s cut), regardless of whether they had a hand in effecting those sales.

Am I being mean here? Would paying a sales agent increase sales to the point where that payment earns itself back, and more? I don’t know. The evidence in favour is not compelling. In the months before last Christmas, CBe was one of six London-based small presses who hired (at a cost of several hundred pounds each) an experienced, enthusiastic book-trade person to visit pretty well every bookshop in London to promote our recent titles in person. He reported back that the booksellers who knew of CBe were ‘unfailingly happy’ to see him. I supplied him with sample copies to give away where appropriate. Total sales resulting from this exercise: two or three (fewer than the sample copies given away).

Because Blush, published late last year, was a new thing for CBe – images and text, equal status – I conducted a similar exercise myself, visiting bookshops that might not be familiar with CBe books (Tate Modern, Camden Arts Centre, Whitechapel, Photographers Gallery), talking to the managers where necessary and leaving sample copies. Result in sales: zero. Result in sales of Good Morning, Mr Crusoe after getting some Guardian publicity and an Observer review in the week of publication: ordered by half a dozen bookshops, mostly single copies, and not in stock at the wholesalers. (Don't even try from Gardners: 'Not available to order'. Neither book is in stock with Amazon.)

This post is about context, in which the glamour days of prizes and shortlists are far outnumbered by the humdrum and head-banging days. Of course we all (writers, publishers) think our books deserve shelf space in the bookshops, but don’t even think of submitting to CBe if you assume I can get you that.

Wellcome Brook Prize, 2019

[This post reproduces a CBe newsletter sent on 7 May 2019]

A red dress in the form of a neural tube, designed by Helen Storey (daughter of the novelist and playwright David Storey, on whose work I once wrote – around half a century ago – an 8,000-word essay) and her sister Kate, a developmental biologist, on display at the Wellcome Institute. And Will Eaves, winner of the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize last week.

CBe is thumpingly proud to have published Will Eaves’s Murmur (and before that, The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop). The generous goodwill heading towards the good Will (and CBe) in the past week has been heartwarming – thank you, all.

‘Unanimous,’ said the chair of the judges. The book was turned down by some much better-resourced publishers (I’m not spilling beans, this is on record). Ten years ago, when CBe published its first collection of new poetry, J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the head of the Poetry Book Society told me that many people would be ‘surprised’ that they had made it a Recommendation (it went on to win the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and be shortlisted for a Forward Prize). That was in 2009; in 2019, the presence of small-press books on shortlists is almost expected.

Critical acclaim and the logistics of getting the books out there don’t, for small presses, mesh. For the latter, the bigger publishers are better: sales and marketing departments and channels and systems, which means overheads, which in turn means they are unlikely to take a punt, and even if they do they’re not going to concentrate financial resources on a hunch. Jobs are at stake, people’s livelihoods.

Very soon – in fact now – publication of Murmur will be taken over by Canongate, who are using the basic CBe cover design but going orange (below). (There’s a prenuptial clause in the CBe contract that says that if someone fitter and/or richer approaches, then the author is free to go with them; and this is fine, in fact it’s terrific, I don’t own the writers I publish and Will’s book will be published to more readers). If you want one of the very few remaining CBe editions of the book, order from the website quick.

Roughly a fifth of the books that CBe has published have sold fewer than 100 copies.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Text & photographs: 3 books

Books in which text speaks to photographs and vice versa: not a new thing, but here’s a recent cluster.

A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma. Published by Cassava Republic Press; foreword by Teju Cole. Journeys across African cities ‘from Dakar to Douala, Bamako to Benin, Khartoum to Casablanca’; memories, encounters, meditations on migration and the meaning of images; a stunning selection of black-and-white photos by African photographers, some of them anonymous, some from archives. This is a deeply moving and completely brilliant book.

Blush. Texts by Jack Robinson – with citations from a range of fiction and non-fiction – and colour photographs by Natalia Zagórska-Thomas – including many of her own artwork – investigate the cultural and social history of the blush from the late 18th century to the present day. Published by CBe (and if you can’t think of what to buy X or Y or even Z for Christmas, here’s your answer: go to the website page and press the ‘buy now’ button).

Sottoripa. Poems by Julian Stannard set in Genoa selected from his books from 2001 to What were you thinking? (CBe, 2016); a bilingual English/Italian edition, with excellent black-and-white photographs of Genoa. Published by Il Canetto Editore, Genoa. Many of these poems I've read before; in this new setting they appear as new.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Goldsmiths Prize / Will Eaves: Murmur / publicity

Will Eaves: he’s a writer (of novels, poems, other things: we live in genre-fluid times), a serious one (this is a life commitment) and also a very funny one (comedy is more inclusive than the other thing) and an angry one (‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’? – I can see what the man was getting at, but about many things it is simply too late to wait for the recollection stage), and from his writing he doesn’t make an inch of the miles of money needed to ‘make a living’ and he’s on this year’s shortlist for the Goldsmiths Prize (full list here) and about the latter, to put it mildly, I’m pleased.

Pleased, despite the reductionism of lit prizes, which take their form from what is increasingly (and depressingly) the only show in town, capitalist competition, winner takes all. But we work from where we are, which is not where we used to be (say, a century ago, when so-so poetry collections sold in their thousands and writers were paid many thousands of £££ by magazines for a single short story). Reading being no longer central to the culture, publishers are a little desperate for publicity for their books, to get them known to more than friends and family, and the prize culture has become embedded.

Some prizes are more equal than others. There was a twitter flurry this week following the announcement that the Women’s Fiction Prize (sponsored by Deloitte, Baileys and NatWest) had decided to charge publishers ‘a small fee of £1000 for the 16 longlisted entries, in addition to the existing fee of £5000 – which remains unchanged – for each of the six novels shortlisted’. The Costa Book Awards charge publishers £5000 for each book chosen as a category winner (as well as requiring at least 50 free copies), plus another £6000 for the overall winner. The Dylan Thomas Prize and the Man Booker Prize also charge publishers of shortlisted books several thousand £££ for non-transparent reasons such as ‘contributions towards publicity costs’. (For comparison, total set-up cost for CBe in 2007: just over £2000.) A number of the smaller presses are thereby excluded from these competitions (and even if they did enter books that were shortlisted, would lose money, because sales income would not meet costs).

The Goldsmiths, thank god, is one of the prizes that are free to enter. As is the RoC Prize (whose prize money is spilt between authors and publishers) and the Jhalak Prize (and, on the poetry subcontinent, the Forward Prizes and the T. S. Eliot Prize). It’s maybe worth noting that the above fiction prizes were established in response to the perceived exclusivity of the longer-established prizes.

A slightly different (but related) matter: Is all publicity good publicity? For some readers, publicity over a certain pitch can be off-putting (to the extent that I can feel, if a book has already got that many readers, it doesn’t need me). In recent months I’ve read at least three much-praised novels – of the kind whose covers punctuate my twitter feed, and which usually get at least as far as a couple of shortlists – and found myself (a) wondering what the fuss was about; (b) suspecting that the high praise had set up expectations that got in the way of my appreciating them; and (c) acknowledging that if it hadn’t been for the praise/publicity, I might never have started reading them anyway. Will Eaves’s Goldsmiths-shortlisted book, Murmur, has received some high praise: ‘has achieved one of the pinnacles of novelistic endeavour’; ‘as bracingly intelligent as it is brave’; ‘a poignant meditation on the irrepressible complexity of human nature and sexuality’; ‘a weaving, witty text packed with insight about the future’; ‘has achieved the holy grail of modern prose’ – you get the picture. There will certainly be some readers who will wonder what the fuss is about, and who may even dislike the book at least in part because expectations have been set up and then not met. Liking the book is not compulsory, but I really want Will Eaves to be able to afford some jam for his toast in the mornings: buy here. If, after buying the book from the CBe website, you don’t like it, give it to a charity shop and write me a letter (address on the imprint page) explaining why and I’ll refund the purchase price.

[This post has also been sent as a newsletter: there are overlaps, but different people tune in to different places.]

Friday, 21 September 2018

Night thoughts

This book was a charity-shop buy last week. I’d heard of the author but had read nothing by him before. The train on the jacket looks Polish, said a friend. Toby Judt, the back flap informs me, ‘was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, in addition to being the Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995’.

First, the form of the book. Judt was visited by a ‘motor neuron disorder’ (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The body shuts down, bit by bit. Not the mind. Wedged into bed each night – utterly passive, unable even to scratch – and insomniac, he let his mind scroll through his life until ‘I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased’. In the morning, with the help of an assistant, the night’s work is transcribed into the matter – essays? feuilletons? – this book consists of. ‘I don’t know what sort of a genre this is.’

Content. Food, cars, Green Line buses. Class, work, migration, education, sex, ‘identity’. ‘I am struck by the man I never became.’

Declaration of interest: Judt was born (east London, working class) in 1948, I was born (Leeds, middle class) in 1951. I know uncomfortably well many of the foods and cars and confusions he talks about. He was a volunteer worker on a certain small kibbutz in Israel in 1967, I was a volunteer worker on the same kibbutz in 1969.

The Memory Chalet is a short book. The nights were finite: Judt died in 2010, aged 62. There are many good, loving memories, and Judt praises Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister 1945–51 ‘who presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history’: ‘Attlee was an exemplary representative of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reformers: morally serious and a trifle austere. Who among our present leaders could make such a claim – or even understand it?’ Judt went to a state school that got him into Cambridge, where the teaching was good. ‘As in so many other respects, I think our generation was fortunate: we got the best of both worlds. Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall – for which I confess that my own generation, since risen to power and office, is largely responsible.’

That last bit is the killer. How has our generation – or at least the white male slice of it, the luckiest and most privileged cohort in Western history – managed to so fuck things up that here we are now with Trump and Brexit?

Writing – more accurately, thinking, and dying – in 2009, Judt saw it coming: ‘We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself – the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies – will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.’ And yet for all his intelligence and compassion and curiosity (already fluent in several European languages, he learned Czech in his forties) . . . As a historian, Judt almost certainly understood better than most of us how good can so quickly turn bad.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Robinson: appendix 3 – Gerald Brenan

[Robinson was published in 2017. Written in the months following the EU referendum, it argued that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has had a crippling influence on British education and politics; latter-day Robinsons in Kafka, Céline, Patrick Keiller, Muriel Spark, Sherwood Anderson, Ian Crichton Smith and others were also discussed. This is the third appendix, catching up with Robinsons discovered since the book was written; previous ones look at Robinsons in Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene.]

Jack Robinson: A Picaresque Novel (1933) by George Beaton is a rum book. For starters, more play with pen-names: Beaton is Gerald Brenan, who had Bloomsbury Group connections and is best known as author of The Spanish Labyrinth (1943) and South from Granada (1957). Growing up, he enjoyed neither school nor his home life, and disliked his father, an ex-infantry officer in the Boer War who ‘had a mania for giving orders in a sharp, rude voice, for the consciousness of exercising power was his greatest pleasure’, with a vengeance: ‘He belonged to an utterly different species of humanity from myself.’ Aged 18, Brenan set off in secret with a friend to walk to China; they got as far as Bosnia, a tramp of more than 1,500 miles.

Before the end of the first page of the novel Jack Robinson’s father has died and the family house has burned down. To escape from his mother – ‘the state of my clothes and my general respectability and decorum were the chief pegs of her existence’ – Robinson decides to run away to sea, but before the sea even comes into sight he falls in with a shifting population of tramps, beggars, pimps and prostitutes, and he remains with them until the final page of the book, when he returns home, where his mother is ‘ironing some white shirts and chatting to a neighbour’. The most lively conversation in the book is between the teenage Robinson and a woman – not exactly a prostitute, but she lives off her rich lover – who, before she takes him to bed, tells him ‘it never rains but I wish the rain would go on coming down until it covered the whole world and everyone on it was drowned or turned into fishes . . . I love destruction.’

Robinson is distinguished by a paralysing inertia. While begging on the streets of London, he is offered work as a cabin boy on a steamer bound for South America, but ‘My feet were chained to these flat grey pavements, my eyes were riveted to these smoke-plumed houses – for among them rather than within me seemed to lie the conflicts that were just now engaging me and which did not leave me sufficient energy to part from them. Unsatisfactory as I felt my life to be at this time, I had neither the desire to evade it nor the force to alter it.’ Grandfather Crusoe’s assumption of agency is drained entirely; this is a Robinson alienated both from society and from himself. Jack Robinson carries the bleak suggestion that there is no sea to run away to, that the only places you get to when you run are doss-houses and begging on the streets, and the only escape from those is back to a mother who is ironing shirts and chatting to a neighbour. (She takes in washing and ironing for cash, I assume, given that to the reader’s knowledge there is no man in her life except her runaway son.)


The second book Brenan published under the pen-name George Beaton is even rummer. Doctor Partridge’s Almanack for 1935 (1934) purports to be a series of fragmentary prophecies by Dr Partridge, astrologer and author of almanacs, with a preface by ‘G. Robinson, Practising Astrologer’. (Dr John Partridge, 1644–1715, was a historical person. In 1708 Jonathan Swift, writing as Isaac Bickerstaff and with the intention of exposing Partridge’s quackery, predicted that Partridge would die on 29 March of that year; when Partridge wrote on 2 April that he was still alive, and advertised in newspapers that he was ‘not only now alive, but was also alive upon the 29th of March in question’, Swift replied that his statement was demonstrably untrue, as ‘no man alive ever writ such damned stuff as this’.) According to G. Robinson’s introductory account, Partridge died in 1727 and was buried in a cellar under a house in Fitzroy Street; 190 years later, Partridge is stirred back into life by a rat nibbling his finger; learning from nearby talkative bones of the current state of the world (‘Is there never to be an end? Must the world grow more bloodthirsty and more feeble-minded with every century?’), he determines to offer ‘to mankind a complete calendar and recital of their fate’ – ‘less with the view, I doubt not, of converting them to the hard creed of Cessation than of relieving them now at this present of some of the fever of life by cutting off their expectancy’.

As outlined in a second preface, this one by ‘Professor Blish’, the worldview of ‘our great Partridge’ holds that ‘discord, folly, strife and confusion [are] the permanent condition of the world and of each separate human being’, and humankind must therefore ‘learn to look forward with a perpetual increase in longing to the great reconciler and deliverer – that is, to death’. Dr Partridge is a doomy fanatic, but unlike others of that ilk he has a light touch. Some sample entries … January 9: ‘If you wish to obtain a reputation for stinginess, give a large dance or evening party.’ January 31: ‘This is a good day for poets and novelists to burn their manuscripts, for painters to tear to pieces their canvases and for lovers to put their heads into gas-ovens.’ February 1: ‘On this day a man called Timothy Pippin will found a New Religion of universal love, in which all those who do not believe are to be anathematised, imprisoned, tortured, flayed, and roasted.’ February 19: ‘This is an unlucky day for barmaids and for all people who live under railway bridges.’ March 22: ‘This is an unlucky day for those who collect tram tickets and while away their lives gazing at rivers and seas.’ May 28: ‘On this day the world will not come to an end, however many reasons there may be for desiring it.’ June 13: ‘If you have not lost anything lately, pray to St Anthony of Padua and he will lose it for you.’ June 15: ‘St Modestus was so modest that in 63 years he never once removed his pants.’ November 8: ‘Any reviewer disparaging this almanack will drop dead on the spot.’ November 11: ‘On this day the European nations will give up their offensive weapons, such as hockey sticks and motor horns and insect powder, and take to strictly defensive ones, such as tanks and aeroplanes and poison gas, which are much more likely, as everyone knows, to keep off war.’ December 26: ‘O world, world, world, world, if you do not come to an end before next year is out, I, Dr Partridge, have done with you.’

Brenan later distanced himself from Jack Robinson (‘there is no book of mine that I dislike more’) but he remained fond of Doctor Partridge’s Almanack, for ‘a certain command of language as well as a pessimism that seems to forecast the days of Stalin, Hitler and the atom bomb’. He wrote the book ‘without any previous plan or intention and almost as though the words were dictated to me’. In the prefaces his memories of the First World War and of a doomed love affair (along with ‘some rather inappropriate Old Testament imagery’) ‘combined to set up an atmosphere of horror, disgust for life and melancholy that is so far-fetched that it is always on the point of toppling over into absurdity’.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

One new, one old

I’d almost forgotten this blog exists. The output this year has been pathetic. But now that fewer people (I think) follow these creaky old things, I’ll put more effort into it. The excuse to get going again is publication of CBe’s second book of the year, City Works Dept. by Philip Hancock. Ken Loach: ‘Phil Hancock’s insights are precise and authentic – he is part of the great tradition of writers who capture the true spirit of working-class life.’ More information – and a ‘buy now’ button – here.

Meanwhile, since downscaling CBe a couple of years ago I’ve had more time to read, and most of the books I’ve been reading have not been the ones you can buy in bookshops, either because they are out of print or because bookshops don’t have the space to stock them (even the new ones tend to vanish after a few months, to be replaced by the even newer). So I’ve been using online shops. This is what they are for: getting hold of books that even the very lovely local independent bookshop doesn’t have in stock, the shop which itself is often going to have difficulty ordering in if the book is not in stock with either of the two major wholesalers (which most CBe books are not: another story). Online booksellers are, for my purposes, necessary and wonderful.

I’ve also been re-reading from my shelves. This one, for example, by Natalia Ginzburg:

A man leaves Italy to go to live with his older brother in the US. He’s a man with bony legs and cold hands and the reasons why he goes to the US are unclear even to himself: ‘I’m someone who doesn’t know what to be and who stares at everything indecisively.’ The City and the House consists of letters written to the man by members of the close group of friends he was a part of before he left, and his own letters to them, and letters between the friends. Over the course of two and a half years people fall in and out of love, marry and separate, worry about money and old age, work and cook meals and make mistakes and die (of illness but also guns and knives). A soap opera? Yes, in a way, but all the events happen off-stage and any melodrama is filtered through the medium – letters – in which the events are recounted by one character to another, retrospectively. A step back. Taking another step back, an unnecessary step, I could say it’s a novel about how people explain (or fail to) their lives to themselves, which sounds like a private activity but can’t be because we are social beings. It’s very subtle, very moving. It was written, I think, in the early 1980s (it was first published in Italy in 1985, and by Carcanet in Dick Davis’s English translation in 1986) – probably the last years in which a contemporary epistolary novel was possible, before letters largely gave way to email, so it’s a book you read historically but it hasn’t dated.

Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues has recently been re-issued by Daunt Books; her Family Lexicon will follow in September. Good. And good, too that Penguin have recently re-issued novels by Alfred Hayes, who I’ve written about before. (Who decides which books get published and which not? God, obviously. And who decides which books get translated from one language into another, and which out-of-print books get re-issued? Same person. He/she works in mysterious ways.)