Sunday, 1 May 2016

Writers' mini-biographies

I mean, those little single-para biogs that usually appear on the very first page of a book, or on the back flap if it has flaps. They are introductions: reader, meet X, who lives in Gothenburg. There’s not room for much more info, but often they list an author’s previous titles (which are listed again on the second page, in case your memory is seriously short-term), and if relevant a prize or two (many of these with strange names: the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust award, the Ballygowrie Prize for Irrelevance). Plus, optionally, something on marital status, children, pets; previous jobs (fur trapper, peanut vendor); and a surprising number of writers still divide their time between one place and another.

CBe tends to be relaxed about these. ‘Patrick Mackie lives in Gloucestershire’ is all you get at the start of The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints (launch party at Daunts in Holland Park this Tuesday, 3 May, 6.30: if you’re curious to know more, come along). There are no author photos on any of the books. Two of the books carry no biographical information at all. In the case of Andrew Elliott, when someone requested life info and a photo I simply sent a photocopy of his poem ‘Self-portrait in Shades #2’ (from Mortality Rate). It has been rumoured that I am Andrew Elliott. I am not. On the other hand, I am Jack Robinson and Jennie Walker (‘has published, under a different name, several collections of poetry’).

I don’t think a lack of information need be confusing. I don’t think it really matters. I’m aware that many people do sometimes want some cut-and-dried hard facts about the author of the book they are reading. In the interests of clarity, here’s a screenshot of a website’s reply to a request for information about the CBe (and now HappenStance and Cape) writer J. O. Morgan:

PS: a fine review of Julian Stannard’s What were you thinking? is published in the Herald today, this bright May morning:

Monday, 25 April 2016

The shape of things

Don Paterson’s introduction to his little Faber anthology (part of their 101 series) of sonnets gave a lot of space (I can’t quote because I don’t have the book to hand) to the shape of the sonnet, proportion of width to height. The sonnet shape is roughly exemplified by Malevich’s 1932 Red House (which was on the cover of the original edition, 1990s I think; later editions dropped it, a shame). The Malevich, above.

The sheer shape of it has to do with the sonnet’s persistence. Portrait, not landscape. It’s roughly the shape of the notebook you carry around and write in, and of the A4 paper you print your poems and stories on when when you send them out (for those places that still don’t take online submissions) and of the magazine (except for Stand) or book that they may, god willing, get printed in.

I’ve been wondering (as one does) why the standard delivery system for poems in my lifetime has been the roughly sonnet-shaped book of 64 pages, in which so many of the poems have occupied a single page. The 64 (or 48, or 80, etc) has had to do with with a certain period of printing technology, which required a page extent divisible by 16, and needn’t apply to digital printing, but the basic shape? There’ve been other delivery systems in the past, but even the scroll was portrait not landscape.

Television and cinema screens are landscape. So are computer (but not tablet or smartphone, unless you swivel) screens – yet almost certainly, the window on the computer in which you do your writing is portrait.

About a decade ago an exact contemporary of mine (we were in the 6th form at school together; then he sailed off on a fishing boat to Iceland; much later, he had twin girls in Scotland, I had twin boys in England, all born within the space of about a year, a Shakespearian comedy in the making, and we met up; and then he died) published an online translation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune with links, artwork, video things, innovatory for its time, and I got a little excited: if online rather than printed book becomes the regular delivery system, the shape of a poem (or page) that I’m used to becomes just one of a possible many?

So far, it seems not. There are writers whose default medium is the screen rather than the A4 or printed-book page, but nothing (or very little) to date whose format simply has to be something other than portrait. (Correct me; I live a sheltered life; I may be wrong, often am.) The interaction between traditional publishing and online is generally dull. Ebooks are convenient, but reproducing print in an online form that mimics that of printed books is hardly an innovative use of the medium.

It’s possible – no? – that just as a wheel has to be round – a square wheel wouldn’t function as a wheel – a poem has to be portrait rather than landscape. For various human reasons. There are only so many words that a reader can take in per line before getting befuddled (text design kicks in here: type size and leading and line measure, to make the reading experience as reader-friendly as possible). For the length that one breathes out before needing to breathe in. In, out.

All kinds writing and reading key in. The lovely kerching when, writing on a typewriter, you have reached the end of a line and have to lever the carriage back to the left again and the page jerks up a little. Watching on the Tube someone opposite reading a book: the way their eyes move from left to right and back to left, and again, and again, the rhythm of it. It’s how people watch tennis. The shape of the buildings in which we, many of us, live, and do our reading and writing and all the other things we do. (I’ve spent a good proportion of my life going up or down stairs.) Further, some kind of predisposition to vertical hierarchy: upper-middle-lower. The ‘conscious’ and the ‘subconscious’ – as though these things were arranged in layers, levels, vertically.*

* ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things together at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’ – Yehuda Amichai, ‘Nina of Ashkelon’

PS: The title of this post is cribbed from a 1999 book published by Reaktion (and designed by, guess who, Ron Costley): Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things. He’s sharp and witty. ‘Umbrellas are relatively complicated contraptions which refuse to work just when they are needed (when it is windy, for instance).’ ‘Why do machines stutter? The answer is, because everything in the world (and the whole world itself) stutters.’ ‘Roofs are devices to make us subservient.’ ‘Until recently our world consisted of things: houses and furniture, machines and motor vehicles, clothing and underwear, books and pictures, tins and cigarettes.’

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The new brown

From 2007 to now, all (well, almost all) CBe books have had brown card covers. These, as the website puts it, ‘allude with respect and thanks to the paperback London Magazine editions published by Alan Ross in the late 1960s and early 70s’ – a series designed by Ron Costley, who I’ve written about here before and who died last year. For a number of reasons – a main one being that I don’t want to be limited to printing with a printer who carries the brown card as regular stock – I want to change.

Alan Ross also published a hardback series. Here are three off the shelves: Bernard Spencer (1965), Tony Harrison (1970; ‘Loiners’, by the way, are people from Leeds, as I am); Tomas Transtromer (1972; translated by Robert Bly).

Keeping the Alan Ross and Ron Costley link, here (below) is what I’m thinking of for the new look. As before, usually no cover image (but yes if appropriate). First print runs of a new title will have flaps, reprints probably not. All new titles like this; and any existing titles that run out of stock and that I’d like to keep in print will move into this design. Any thoughts?

Saturday, 9 April 2016

'No flair but he plods on'

In the interests of accountability and full disclosure, here are quotes (all genuine) from my school reports between 1959 and 1964 (which I found last night while looking for something else):

1959 He is a neat, reliable worker.

1960 Rather slow progress.

1961 With more practice he should improve.
Moderate. He does not think fast enough.
He tries hard but is sometimes disappointingly inaccurate.
Rather slow. A more incisive approach would help.

1962 There are signs of improvement.
Trying hard but finds the work difficult. Never really shows his ability in exams. Working under stress seems to worry him.
Quality at the moment not impressive.
He finds advanced work difficult but has time on his side.

1963 No flair but he plods on.
Slow progress.
Rather pedestrian pace so far.
Elementary mistakes mar his compositions. Much ground remains to be covered.
Moderate standard but time is still on his side.
He plods on but finds none of the work easy.

1964 Works hard but the syllabus has become a tall order.
He has made progress but much of his work is below the standard required.
He is doing good work though a little slow.
Less confused but still not readily capable with grammar.
He is an excellent Scout, Secretary both of Library and Bird Club. He has played good rugger. His reading at the Carol Service was quite splendid.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

On the afterlife of deceased books

One of the books that meant the world to me and still does is Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – a memoir in fragments, telling her life from birth in 1917 (Manchester working-class Jewish background) up to the moment when, on a bus, she hears of the outbreak of the Second World War. Granta published it in 1997. It went out of print. I went to see Leila Berg in around 2008, wanting to re-issue the book with CBe. That didn’t happen (long story). Leila died in 2012. Not one of her books (she published around 50) is currently in print.

Some more books that have meant the world to me and that are now out of print (or in print but only just, to the point where they may as well not be; or in print, just, in the US but not here): Alfred Hayes, In Love; James Kennaway, Silence; James Buchan, Slide; Gianni Celati, Voices from the Plains; Denis Johnson, The Name of the World; Aleksander Wat, Selected Poems; Hanna Krall, The Woman from Hamburg. I could go on, of course I could.

What happens to books when they die?

If they are very, very lucky, they get get re-issued by NYRB – a completely superb publisher whose list I could live off, whose re-issues are well designed and carry expert and passionate introductions from contemporary writers. Less lucky, they get re-issued by Faber Finds – which is, compared to NYRB, tacky: no introductions, badly designed, print-on-demand, over-priced. Barely lucky, they have an afterlife on abebooks or amazon ‘used & new’ (Flickerbook is there for a penny; I’ve bought so many copies myself and then given them or ‘lent’ them that I’m happy to see it still flickering). Or on a trestle table at a primary school summer fair, which was where I picked up Nina Fitzpatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, another book I’d go to the wall for. Or they get a post on one of those blogs that specialise in dead books. No luck, then no afterlife at all.

Earlier this year, someone I was talking to about my vain attempt to bring Flickerbook back into print used the F-word. ‘Oh, no point in fetishising books’ – something like that. I’m thinking that he’s maybe right. Books can die, vanish. Almost all of them do just that. Survival is pretty random. Ars longa, vita brevis is just one of those things your granny tells you.

Friday, 1 April 2016

On the BBC

The BBC is embedded in my life. The first TV we ever had coming into the house: 1950s, black and white. I remember it being delivered, and where to put it. I remember Andy Pandy, and Bill and Ben. I have no memory of the switch to colour. I was allowed to stay up an extra half hour to watch Tonight, presented by Cliff Michelmore, who died last month. The Wednesday Play: David Mercer, Dennis Potter, David Rudkin, Cathy Come Home. I remember watching these with my mum and feeling awkward, I think both of us, when there was sex.

A lot of people still do watch TV. Occasionally, I do too: some sport, some films. And then, recently, an episode of the BBC’s costume-drama adaptation of War and Peace, and most episodes of The Night Manager, which was awful for so many reasons: sexist in its treatment of the female characters, racist in its treatment of the Middle Eastern characters; almost no acting, because of the poverty of the script (does anyone seriously think that looking serious and quizzical at the same time is good acting?); plot-heavy, while whizzing by so many holes in that; sex and violence input at quota percentages. All-star posh cast. Lavish scenery. £18 million, I’m guessing, from the mention on the BBC’s own website that it cost around £3 million per episode.

(There was a Guardian piece in the past day or so about a number of the male lead actors having a particular Oxford private school background in common: the continuing triumph of rich white males.)

The BBC is publicly funded through the licence fee, and is independent of political control. Good. But it is not independent of market control: most of the money we give it goes into fancy things that can sell to foreign networks. When they have to make cuts, they cut the bits that show on their minority channels, the bits that are surely the whole point of public broadcasting – that it doesn’t have to be dependent on the market. I have never really understood why the BBC has to be engaged in a ratings/numbers battle with the commercial channels: the latter depend on advertising revenue, so of course they have to appeal to as many viewers as possible; the whole point of the publicly funded BBC is that it bypasses that, so why can’t it just be good? BBC is currently not, by any stretch, a ‘jewel in the crown’ of anything. I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Bite-size CBe, part 2 (42–64)

Bites 1–41, written in 2014, are in the previous post.

42 February 2016: the new people at the post office are at the counter and the queues are long this week. Farewell to Jay and his wife (below), after 43 years’ service. Every single CBe book ordered from the website since 2007 – a number in the thousands – has been taken by me to their counter for weighing and posting. I’ve seen them at least three times a week, often more. Unwittingly, they have been by far my most regular co-workers in this little venture.

43 A rough audit of how the writers I’ve published have come to me. Author recommended to me by a writer already on the CBe list or by a close friend: 13. Me knowing an author’s work or coming across it and chasing it: 11. Unsolicited submissions: 6. Submission through an agent: 3. Can’t remember: 1.

44 Submissions: despite the huge amount of time and effort that they have put into their writing – and in many cases money too, in fees for CW courses – the great majority of people sending me work skip the 30 seconds of online research it would need to find out who, actually, they are sending to.

45 Number of titles (not including those published this year) published by CBe that have sold fewer than 100 copies through the distributor, Central Books: 15. Number of titles that have sold more than 1,000 copies through the same route: 4.

46 Money is necessary and also embarrasses me. Here is Anne Carson’s theory of money: ‘It’s just the inverse of the usual theory, which is that all money, indeed all numbers in life, should get to be bigger. But it doesn’t make sense that they should get bigger – why bigger? – so if you just switch it around and think all numbers should get smaller, it makes life better.’

47 I’ve hardly evolved from the times when ‘debt’ carried a lingering stigma and the purpose of a man was to be a ‘breadwinner’. As a writer (and especially as a writer who wanted to start a family), either I had to write books whose sales made me a living (which was never going to happen), or I took jobs and wrote on the side. (The oldest writer on the CBe list, Fergus Allen, 94, had a similar outlook: a working career, then publishing his first book at the age of 72.) I don’t claim this attitude is ‘right’; fear is involved, and playing safe. But I do take a perverse pride in CBe’s record of publishing more than 40 books over 9 years without any ACE money.

48 2014 was the glitzy year: Beverley Bie Brahic winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translations of Apollinaire; May-Lan Tan on the Guardian First Book Award shortlist; Will Eaves on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist; a re-issue of Agota Kristof’s The Notebook selling well and being on several ‘books of the year’ lists. I wore a tie.

49 This: different writers I’ve published meeting one another – at a reading, an event, a party, or just online – and clicking. Readers too. I could very easily get sentimental about this. Family. (Despite families being, in media-speak, either ‘hard-working’ or ‘dysfunctional’.) This kind of by-play has been the richest thing.

50 Social media. Facebook aggravates, and I aggravate in return and get in a mess. Twitter’s lighter, funner. CBe has, I think, a low-level, intermittent core following, some of whom do one platform but not the others, some of whom read the irregular newsletter but nothing else, and a least a couple of whom never go online at all, so I probably do need to keep all the channels open, a way of reminding that I’m still around. That’s all.

51 Ebooks. The books about Finland are available as ebooks because there may be English-speaking potential readers in Finland who are keen to buy but baulk at the postage costs for a printed book. Two of my own poetry collections, first published by Faber, are now available exclusively (as they say) as CBe ebooks. Take-up has been less than tiny.

52 Printed books are the CBe thing, but I’m not 100 per cent Luddite. I read a lot of things – poems, prose – online. Online writing doesn’t need to bow to the design restrictions of the printed page, and this can get interesting; to publish a 64-page poetry book (the standard delivery system for poetry over my lifetime) and then issue it as a 64-page ebook doesn’t feel interesting at all.

53 UK orders from the website are free of any postage or packing costs. For orders from Europe (and yes, that does include Ireland) and ‘rest of the world’, there’s a little clickable menu on every book page that adds on a postage cost. It’s surprising – but maybe not – how many people ordering from outside the UK don’t see this. Do I send them a school-teacherly email asking them to send postage? Do I just shrug and send the book anyway? It depends on my mood.

54 I’ve done this twice: taken on an ‘intern’ and paid them a sum of money and then been stumped as to what to ask them to do.

55 Oh, yes: I got one of them to teach me how to make spreadsheets. But then I never followed through. The old system – writing numbers down in columns in a ledger – isn’t broken so doesn’t need fixing.

56 My dad (who died 60 years ago) had a ledger in which he kept track of the business of a farm he ran: wages, cattle bought/sold, tractor repairs, etc. I remember it, and have lost it. It seems pretty clear that I am trying to re-create that ledger. It also seems clear that the way in which CBe publishes – printed books; the lugging around of heavy boxes; the queuing at the post office; the tiny sums of money and the small-scale-ness of it all – is essentially a 1950s way, with a couple of technological advances (the internet, digital printing) added on.

57 The price of a new book of poetry should, surely, be index-linked to the cost of a packet of cigarettes. On the whole this seems to be the case. (Except for Faber: £10.99 for 64 paperback pages?)

58 I made a half-hearted attempt, about two years ago, to stop publishing. And then realised that, as with smoking, stopping is a lot more difficult than simply carrying on. But I can cut down.

59 The course of Sonofabook magazine, whose first issue was published in spring 2015, has not run smoothly: delays, illnesses. I came to believe that there was a curse on it. Someone suggested I rename it The Accursed.

60 In the agent’s office there is a cricket bat, and we talk about cricket as well as books. That this agent has poets on his list, and also the son of the teacher who got me through Eng Lit O-level at school, feels good. Minutes after leaving, I buy a bunch of Victorian lantern slides from an antiquarian bookshop. Two of them show watercolours of worms. I come home and read Darwin on worms: ‘Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.’

61 Helpful tips. CBe author Dai Vaughan’s advice to ‘aspiring writers’: ‘Be sure that a life of humiliation and disappointment is what you really want.’ Me on lesser things: for editing you need to be awake and alert; typesetting can be done while reasonably hungover.

62 Burger vans (below). The left one is outside the printer in Acton, the right one is outside Central Books in Hackney Wick, the distributor. Snap. I collect boxes from the former, bring home and re-pack, and deliver them to the latter (17 trips in the past year). If just 2 or 3 boxes, by Overground; if more, by car. (Central’s building is perhaps my favourite in London: see photo in previous post.)

63 Inpress are asking me what my ‘targets’ are for the sales of the new titles. I have a feeling this is going to end badly.

64 Ron Costley, text designer at Faber while I was there, died in February 2015. Guardian obituary here. Anything I know about design, I have from him. When I wasn’t sure, when I had about six different ways in play of putting text to page or cover and had succeeded only in confusing myself, I’d email Ron and we’d go to Pizza Express. House red, extra chili flakes. He was a great supporter of small presses in general. It’s not the same without him.