Monday, 17 October 2016

The man who dislikes the prize-winning book

You know the cartoons of H. M. Bateman (1887–1970). Typically, they show someone who has committed a social faux pas, or has done something other than she/he is expected to do in the context, and the horrified reactions of others. The title of the above is ‘The man who lit his cigar before the Royal toast’. Some other titles: ‘The girl who ordered a glass of milk at the CafĂ© Royal’; ‘The cad who was improperly dressed at the lido’; ‘The man who breathed on the glass at the British Museum’; ‘The culprit who admitted everything’; ‘The guardsman who dropped it’; ‘The builder who finished on time’.

They are very British – all that embarrassment – and they are very clever. The only person who's at ease is the one who's transgressed the codes.

The reader who didn’t think that McBride novel was that special. The reader who thought ditto about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. The reader who found The Vegetarian (winner of the Man Booker International Prize) unreadable. The reader who likes Miranda July hugely but thinks her novel was just bad. The reader who did read one Elena Ferrante novel but didn’t feel he needed to read others. Time for some men: the reader who thinks that Geoff Dyer does sometimes have an off-day, an off-book. The reader who would go to the wall for some of Frederick Seidel’s poems, but by no means all. The reader who thinks John Berger is almost wonderful, but he seems to have no sense of humour. The reader who feels that Knausgard, fine, but I’m not interested enough to read it all, let alone have an opinion about it.

I am interested, a little, in how, for any given book or indeed writer, a consensus seems to gather (often fuelled by what’s generally called the social media, where the habit of agreeing is built in), deeming very good or very bad, and anyone who differs finds themselves – as I increasingly do – in a Bateman cartoon.

(I talked today with a writer who’s been publishing for decades, I mentioned a multi-prizewinning novel, said I didn’t rate it, he said him neither but he was ‘not allowed to say that’. Said lightly, jokingly. But ridiculous.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The locker room

I go there most days, when I go swimming. Aesthetically, these are crummy places, though the one I’m now used to is nicer than many I’ve known, and some I still know. There’s a jokey notice when you come in, putting off women who’ve strayed in through the wrong door.

There’s a TV right above the towel-dump and sometimes it’s on, sport or rolling news, but most often it’s broken.

Women have the same. Different door.

I assume, I think, more conversation goes on in their place, though there’s a sexist assumption. In ours, not much. Some friends in at the same time, chatting, joking. I once heard a man referencing a certain ice-cream shop in Musselburgh, Edinburgh, and inferred he’d been to the same school as I had, decades ago, and this was true, but neither of us were interested in following through.

Maybe once a year, a notice gets pinned up: hair dryers are for drying head hair, not your crotch or your armpits. And for a time, it's observed.

It’s pretty neutral, pretty bland. No banter (weird loaded word) of the kind I remember reading in locker-room scenes in Saul Bellow novels, Chicago, back a few decades. Nothing like the two guys in the Tube, today: “But hey, she’d be good for a hand-job.” Any men saying similar, they don’t now need locker rooms to say it in.

Trump is giving the locker room a bad name, and that’s one of the several million reasons why I have some difficulty with him, why I’m failing to understand how he and I inhabit the same world, and I’d like to defend it. I like the locker room. Stripped down, same-sex nudity in a neutral place: such huge variety in body shapes, and the genitals, a sort of democracy, mine no better or worse. And the tattoos, of course: some, why did you bother, some amazing ones. Some men are extremely tidy, some not. Some men can’t pee next to other men peeing. Some men close the shower curtains, some don't. This is fine.

Something single-sex boarding-school familiarity about this, for me, but not for most of the others. It’s just a place, briefly, I pass into and out of, back into the world where there are also, wonderfully, not just men. Hell is a single-sex locker room, with Trump in it, without exit.

(Incidentally: locker rooms imply locks, and I don’t like having to wear keys so the number option, but I forget my glasses so have to ask others to unlock. The punch-key padlock, not widely known, is the answer.)

A few weeks ago, when I came in from the showers, there was a pigeon that had got in and couldn’t find out, and a staff guy tried to field it and couldn’t and this completely naked tall guy stuck out his arm – Greek god, minus trident – and caught it, and then cupped it, with tenderness. Everyone clapped, spontaneously. What bodies are for, that tenderness. And that reaching out, that rashness, that too, that confidence in the body, which locker rooms do highlight at the expense of a knowledge of Kierkegaard, but I’m fine with that.

Midweek, midlife

Tuesday, so not quite.

Yesterday Diane Williams read (from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine) and talked (with Kirsty Gunn, and the audience) at the London Review bookshop. At a certain point – quite early on – I realised, couldn’t deny it, that I was moved, in ways I hadn’t expected. You put out a book by a US writer who has been, with dedication and perseverance, practising a wholly non-commercial form of writing for a quarter of a century, and also (not least through her editing of the annual journal NOON over fifteen years) enabling other, younger writers – a writer who you think almost no one in the UK has heard of, let alone paid attention to, and you find that she is respected, loved, even.

The youngest person in the audience was three weeks old.

I doubt the Middle Ages knew that they were middle. They aren’t, now; they never were. A fair few of the people in the Middle Ages believed the world was about to end. There are, still, more beginnings than endings.

There are seven events involving CBe writers this week. Last night, Beverley Bie Brahic read (from Hunting the Boar) at the Manchester Literature Festival; tonight she reads in Bolton; tomorrow, Wednesday, she reads with Patrick Mackie (The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints) at the Broadway Bookshop in London E8 4QH). Also tomorrow, Lara Pawson (This Is the Place to Be) reads with Richard Scott at Burley Fisher in London (E8 4AA). No one can go to both: it’s either/or (and I tend to favour both/and). But there’ll be a mingling afterwards.

On Thursday, 13 October, Will Eaves will be performing The Absent Therapist at Vout-O-Reenees in London (E1 8BB). He’s done this before but again won’t be the same as before. This is special.

Same day, Thursday, Diane Williams will be reading at the English Faculty in Cambridge, 4.30pm. (I went there myself, back when; not the best time in my life, and Thursday will be only the second time I’ve been back there – an hour away on the train! – since 1972.)

This is not, for CBe, a typical week.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Want to buy a book?

This week’s TLS carries a review of Patrick Mackie’s The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints: “a welcome onslaught, a carnival of erudition paid out like tickertape …”. In the same issue, Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Gift Shop shares a review with Angela Leighton’s Spills (Carcanet), another prose-and-poetry book. “The Inevitable Gift Shop is a puzzling book, and meant to be so … it is a reminder that prose and poetry can happily coexist, and that publishers might reconsider their customary reluctance to let them do so.” The Eaves/Leighton review occupies a full page. There are photos of both authors, not a usual TLS thing.

The Inevitable Gift Shop is in stock with the distributor, Central Books. But there is currently no way a bookseller or wholesaler can get hold of copies, because when they go into the Central Books website from the buyer’s end it says the book is “Temporarily out of stock”. (Ditto for 27 other CBe titles which actually are in stock at Central. Kristof's The Notebook, for example; and May-Lan Tan's Things to Make and Break, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award; and Dan O'Brien's War Reporter, Forward-shortlisted and winner of the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize: all these books are in stock and yet all these books, according to the current system, cannot be accessed by trade buyers.) Amazon list Will Eaves's book as “Not in stock; order now and we’ll deliver when available”. Foyles online and Waterstones online list it as available, bless them. Or – the whole flipping system comes down to this – you could order it online from the CBe website, free UK delivery, and I’ll put it in an envelope, handwrite an address label and post it tomorrow.

(This includes booksellers: email or call me (07984 798404), talk and agree discount, and I'll send the books. In London, where I live, I'll deliver by hand, next day. This week I hand-delivered to a reviewer in north London with a sharp deadline. CBe has run for 9 years, single-handed, in despite of how the publishing game works, without ACE funding, and it's the best job I’ve ever had. But I don't have much hair left.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Diane Williams and the Conservative Party conference

Diane Williams will celebrate the publication of the UK edition of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine at the London Review Bookshop next Monday, 10 October (more details here) and at the English Faculty in Cambridge on Thursday, 13 October.

Just in time. Following the logic of this week’s Tory Party conference, official government Dept of Culture, Media & Sport policy will soon be: British publishers will have to explain/justify the presence of all non-British writers on their lists. And similar for British theatre companies, orchestras, art galleries, football clubs … (And Oxford Dictionaries will have to revise their definition of ‘economic migrant’ – ‘A person who travels from one country or area to another in order to improve their standard of living’, an entirely non-judgemental definition – to fit the Tory agenda.)

Here’s a link to two stories (one of them in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine) and an interview with DW at The White Review.

Here’s a link to the page at McSweeney’s where some of the reviews of the US edition are excerpted.

Diane Williams is doing things with prose, with sentences, that sometimes make my heart burn and laugh, often at the same time, things that no current British writer is doing. I exaggerate: there are some, if you go looking, hard, very hard indeed. But DW, who has been publishing for more than a quarter of a century, is herself a chief reason why there are such. She liberates others. This is what writers worth their salt do, whether they want to or not. It’s about time we welcomed her.

I doubt, at the LR shop event or the Cambridge event, the whole issue of British/non-British will crop up. Diane Williams is white, and writes in English. She doesn’t fit what the Tories generally mean by non-British – other-language-speaking, other-skin-coloured. But Diane Williams is, I think – I haven’t met her yet – as non-British as they come. As non-British as the Canadian governor of the Bank of England. As non-British as most of the managers and many (most?) of the players in what is claimed as the ‘national game’. As non-British as many of the doctors and nurses who have kept my children, in countless emergencies, alive. As non-British as the Chinese investors they court to keep this ‘tight little island’ (Byron) well-lit and afloat.

I’m conflating things: enthusiasm, anger. Laughter, despair: the usual.

The Arts Council, ACE, meanwhile, committed in its funding decisions to diversity and access, the standard mantra but rightly so, is surely now in even more of a mess, depending on a government that is clamping down, closing off, and the minister - can anyone reading this even name her? Culture in the UK could hardly be taken less seriously - having to toe the line.

A quite large proportion of the CBe books are in translation. This isn’t a deliberate policy, it’s just how I read, and walk about the streets. Last Saturday’s Guardian review of Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins, a novel about young people on the backstreets in Mauritius – try asking any minister in our government where that is; no, don't bother – quotes one of the characters: ‘I read as if books could loosen the noose tightening around my throat. I read to understand that there is somewhere else. A dimension where the possibilities shimmer.’ In isolation, that sounds pat, literary. In context - the character's, mine, yours - it’s not.

Monday, 3 October 2016

A very sober post (with added numbers)

1 There’s a system (sort of) in place for getting books from me (publisher) to you (reader), and it’s in everyone’s interest – mine, yours, the author’s, plus all those along the way who take their cut – that the system works well. For CBe – and, I guess, a number of other presses – it is not working well.

2 The players. The publisher (me). The distributor (Central Books), who fields trade orders. The sales agent (Inpress), who stimulates trade orders on behalf of CBe and a number of other presses: by employing reps who visit bookshops, by meeting regularly with a Waterstones buyer, etc. Also: booksellers (big, small, fat, thin) and wholesalers. And Amazon.

3 Some bookshops (bless you, Foyles Charing X Rd and others) order direct from Central, the distributor: they set up an account, negotiate a discount that will apply to that account, and all flows smoothy. Many bookshops (most?) do not. Typically, a smaller bookshop will order only from Gardners and/or Bertrams, the wholesalers – thus avoiding having to open multiple accounts with multiple distributors, often just for very occasional orders. It makes sense.

4 It helps, of course, if the book the bookseller wants is in stock at the wholesaler. If it isn’t, the bookseller can still usually order it, but the wholesaler will have to source the book from the distributor, and this adds time; the bookseller or customer may well decide not to bother.

5 There are 51 CBe titles in print. Number of titles in stock at Gardners (checked today): 9 (most just single copies; maximum number of copies per title, 3). Number of titles in stock at Bertrams: 1 (4 copies of this). There is misinformation: Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Gift Shop, for example, is NOT “out of stock at publisher”. There’s a hole here, maybe a black one. How big is the hole? How many sales are being, and have been, lost? I don’t know. Tens? Hundreds?

6 Amazon. I’ll try to keep this clean. Of CBe’s 51 titles in print, 9 are listed as “currently unavailable”. This is not true: all these titles are in stock at Central. At least 10 titles are available only through third-party sellers (i.e., the sellers you get through to by clicking the “used and new” link); Amazon itself doesn’t stock or sell them. A surprising number – 17 – appear to be in stock but “only 1 copy left, order soon” – which I suspect is code, perhaps meaning “I’m sure we’ve got a copy somewhere, but where?” Some titles appear to be in stock but will be dispatched “in 10 to 14 days” or “in 1 to 2 months” - which suggests that they are not actually in stock. It’s hard to give precise figures because for a number of titles Amazon itself doesn’t seem to know: look up “collard about a girl”, for example, and you’ll find the book is both “currently unavailable” and in stock (“Only 5 left in stock, order soon”).

7 Another thing about Amazon. Look up “kristof notebook” and you find the US omnibus edition (which is not legally for sale in the UK) not just available, but you can even “get it by tomorrow”; the CBe UK edition is “not in stock; order now and we’ll deliver when available”. Or Suite for Barbara Loden, published by Les Fugitives: the US and French editions are in stock, the UK edition is available only through third-party sellers. Or Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins (co-published by Les Fugitives and CBe): the US edition is in stock, for the UK edition “order now and we’ll deliver when available”.

8 I’m writing this post because of the three CBe autumn titles – Lara Pawson, This Is the Place to Be; Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine; Ananda Devi, Eve out Her Ruins (co-published with Les Fugitives). All are in stock with the distributor and have been released. The Guardian has already carried reviews of the Pawson (“brilliant and uncompromsing”) and the Devi (“this stunning short novel”), reviews that might even prompt a few sales. Except that … Amazon: Williams and Devi not in stock, Pawson “usually dispatched within 1 to 2 months”. Both Bertrams and Gardners, as of today, have no stock of any of the three. Waterstones online have two of the three titles available. Blackwells online: for all three titles, “Sorry, this title is not available for sale at the moment.”

9 I happen to be reading The Alienist by Machado de Assis today. A doctor opens an asylum in a small town in Brazil. “Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that it is not an island at all but a continent.”

Sunday, 2 October 2016

How not to sell books

This blog has been neglected and is looking like my garden. I’m looking a little tired myself. I’m going to restart with something very specific.

At the weekend the Guardian Review carried a very fine review by Deborah Smith of Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins, which is co-published by CBe with Les Fugitives: the last para quoted one of the four characters who are the focus of the book – “I read as if books could loosen the noose tightening around my throat. I read to understand that there is somewhere else” – and ends: ‘It could be a manifesto for reading translated fiction, and this stunning short novel is a perfect starting point.’ Earlier in September, the Guardian Review carried a review by Jonathan Gibbs of Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be: ‘It challenges the reader to examine their own beliefs and decisions as closely as Pawson has examined hers. Brilliant and uncompromising.’

Most CBe books do not get Guardian reviews. Most small-press books do not get Guardian reviews. (It was lovely, in last weekend’s Review, to notice also a review of a book from Uniformbooks. And Lezard, patron saint, on a Peirene book.) Attention has, always, to be worked for, I can't just rely on being beautiful, and – in terms of advance copies sent out, books sent out, contacts sought and nurtured – costs. Necessary costs, because if no one pays attention to a book it doesn’t exist. And even then, reviewed, shortlisted for a prize, attention doesn’t automatically translate into sales: from a review in The Poetry Review, the TLS, maybe one or two extra sales, no more.

But in the Guardian, maybe …

Turn it around: how – where - do people buy books? X, brunching on a Saturday, has read one or both of those reviews over her eggs, or her mushed avocado. She goes to Amazon: ‘not in stock’. She might, if she’s keen, ask at her local bookshop, who will look the book up on the sites of the wholesalers they order in from – Gardners, Bertrams – (they are not, most small bookshops, going to order direct from the distributor, Central Books: too many accounts, too many invoices, keep it simple) – and find also, “not in stock”. Expected date of stock arrival: more than two weeks ahead. X shrugs, buys another book instead. Just possibly, small hope, she notes the name of the publisher and checks out the CBe website and orders from there and I fall in love and we will spend the rest of our lives in bed, reading and fucking, because selling books is just too damn tricky.

CBe has a distributor and an ACE-funded sales agent, to both of whom I pay a cut on every book sold out of the distributor, it’s in their interest to sell, and last week I hand-delivered the Pawson book and the Devi book to three London bookshops because they could not otherwise get hold of the books. At the very heart of the book trade, dysfunctionality and inefficiency. I recognise something there. It’s maybe why I love it. (Also at the heart of the trade, white male privilege, I'm aware of that. Any connection between that and the basic inefficiency?) Next year, back to hobbyist mode: no sales agent, no puff quotes, no organised publicity.