Friday 10 May 2024

Newsletter May 2024: voters, book-buying and stickers

In the elections this month more than half of the eligible voters in London, where I live, didn’t bother to vote. In the council elections across the UK, which so puffs itself as a model of democracy, the turn-out was even smaller. Even in General Elections around a third of eligible voters simply do not care. The lowest turn-outs are in places that would benefit most from political change.

Roughly the same proportion of the population who don’t vote also don’t buy books. Both mainstream politics and publishing appear to take that level of apathy as a given and devote all their resources to chasing returns from those who have signed up. Chasing their tails? (An academic paper on ‘Environmental Effects on Compulsive Tail Chasing in Dogs’ is here.) Media coverage doubles down on this, crunching numbers and ingrown toenails while not bothering to let me know that many other European countries have higher voter participation (Poland, last October) and book-buying numbers than the UK.

I don’t claim that CBe has any strategy for reaching out; I speak to the converted, because these are the channels. But because I don’t have to win an election or keep shareholders in clover I can publish, for example, this: Do Not Send Me Out Among Strangers, by Joshua Segun-Lean. Sparse text, plenty pictures. As with a number of other CBe titles, there is no established readership for this kind of book. It will find its way, or it won’t; either way, the book is now here and I’m proud to have published it.

Some of the mistakes I make are plain stupid. The first print run of Do Not Send Me Out Among Strangers was fine except for a word missing in the title on the title page, my fault entirely. And a bad typo. A corrected run is in train, but some of the books sent out will have stickers on the title page. Let me know if you’d prefer everything to be unstickered and perfect.

This coming Sunday, the 12th, I and Kathleen Shields, the translator, will be talking about Jean Follain’s Paris 1935 on a Zoom event hosted by the indefatigable David Collard. If you’d like to attend, please see here.

Tadeusz Bradecki’s The End of Ends, also published this month, arrives alongside a new annual prize which ‘crosses the borders between artistic disciplines, genres, subject matter and cultures. Put simply, it celebrates books in which story-telling fiction and non-fiction writing combine in an original way.’ Nothing tricky here; this is regular CBe territory. The website for the prize is now live.

Two reprints this month, at present available exclusively from the website: Fergus Allen, New and Selected Poems, which was first published by CBe in 2013, and Carmel Doohan, Seesaw, first published in 2021. I wrote about these and the practice of reprinting – and remaindering – more generally in a blog post last month.

The new CBe titles published so far this year are Lara Pawson, Spent Light; Katy-Evans-Bush, Joe Hill Makes His Way into the Castle; Jean Follain, Paris 1935 (trans. Kathleen Shields); Tadeusz Bradecki, The End of Ends (trans. author and Kate Sinclair); and the Joshua Segun-Lean book. Total cover prices, £55.96. Or: the Season Tickets (UK only) on the website home page, those five plus another of your own choice for £45; or 12 books for £80, free UK postage. Have a look at the previous books. Here, for example, is a new review - online today – of Philip Hancock's House on the A34. You don’t even have to choose, you can let me do that, in which case Leila Berg’s Flickerbook is always going to be one of them. Please do vote, and do buy books.

Friday 26 April 2024

On print runs and reprints

The number of copies I order when I send a book to print largely depends on which side of the bed I got out of in the morning. Sometimes I guess about right. Sometimes not: of certain titles whose print runs I ordered in buoyant, optimistic mood on a sunny day, I have many more copies than I realistically expect to sell.

When a book sells out, to reprint or not to reprint? This is hard. A number of titles first published by CBe are now with bigger publishers so this is their problem, not mine. Some titles, very few, I’ve let go out of print. Some titles sell only a handful of copies a year but feel core to the list, so I keep them in print. Each book is a special case.

Above, new reprints of Fergus Allen, New and Selected Poems (first published by CBe in 2013) and Carmel Doohan, Seesaw (first published in 2021). The original editions had brown card covers and endsheets; the reprints don’t, because the prices of the printer who offers the brown-card option have risen steeply. And the cover prices of these reprints are higher than for the original editions – because printing costs have increased generally, and because when I order a very short run (as for these reprints) the unit price goes up.(There are still some copies of Seesaw available from the website at the original price.)

Conversely, of course, the bigger the print run, the lower the unit cost. It’s tempting. And money being money, the risk of having to pay storage for unsold stock can be covered … The water gets murky here, but let’s say you are a poet who is published by Faber, who expect your book to sell well because they are Faber, but if it doesn’t here’s the get-out: remainder merchants. To whom, when a title stops selling, they will off-load copies, while still keeping some in stock. See, for example, the website of Pumpkin Wholesale, who currently offer 36 Faber poetry titles (including five by Christopher Reid and four by David Harsent, plus others by Muldoon and Hofmann and Paterson and Ishion Hutchinson et al) at knock-down prices.

Nothing illegal is going on here, but regular booksellers who want to stock those titles have to pay more to Faber to order them in than, for example, I can buy them for at second-hand shops who also stock remainders (such as the excellent Judd Books). Faber contracts used to promise, maybe still do, that if they remainder stock they will offer the books first to the author; but I’m pretty sure Reid and Harsent and Muldoon et al have no idea this is happening. When I last queried this practice with Faber they avoided the word remaindering altogether, talking instead of ‘modest stock reductions in order to control inventory’ and assuring me that this is ‘standard practice in the industry’.

Asking about stock levels takes you into Wild West territory. I’ve heard talk of boxes of books that have fallen off the back of a lorry. Sometimes it’s cheaper to pulp books rather than keep them on the warehouse shelves. Publishers are not known for being sentimental.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Newsletter April 2024

The Free Verse Poetry Book Fair has woken up and will be at St Columba's Church, Pont Street, London SW1X 0BD this coming Saturday, 20 April, 11.30 am to 6.30 pm, free entry. Full details here. CBe will have a table. We have history: the first Free Verse fair, held in September 2011, was organised by CBe. Above, the one remaining poster from that year. It was a response to Arts Council cuts in funding to a number of poetry presses that year: give them, at least, a chance to show their books to the general public.

While putting that book fair together, I talked with Katy Evans-Bush and she said, Oh, you mean a draughty church hall with bearded men and big-bosomed ladies standing behind trestle tables? Yes, exactly that. I’m a Seventies guy. It was in a church hall, with the remains of last year’s Christmas decorations still hanging from the rafters. Katy said: Some readings, at least. Chrissy Williams organised the readings. So we did it, without funding, and there was a tube strike that day but people came, lots of people, and it worked. We did it again the next year, and the next and the next, and Joey Connolly joined the gang and we got Arts Council funding to pay travel costs for small presses based outside London. The point being: no hierarchy, the big publishers (Faber, Cape, et al) getting just the same space as everyone else. More presses each year, it was hard work, and the fair is now run by the Poetry Society.

That was a good thing Katy Evans-Bush told me. Here’s another good thing from Katy: Joe Hill Makes His Way into the Castle, published in February this year. Copies on the table on Saturday, of course. And copies of the French poet Jean Follain’s prose book Paris 1935, published this month. And copies of the new issue – out this week – of Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, which includes an essay by me on independent publishing. This issue (cover image below) is guest-edited by Nuzhat Bukhari – copies of her book will be on the table too, Brilliant Corners.

And copies of Caroline Thonger and Vivian Thonger’s Take Two, one of last year’s CBe titles, a joint excavation of childhood (and later) in a fractured family in London in the 1950s and 60s. An absorbing in-depth interview (70+ minutes) in which the authors speak to Stella Chrysostomou of the wonderful Volume books is here.

And copies of Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs. JG curates A Personal Anthology: since 2017 he has sent out a weekly email in which guest writers write about 12 short stories; their choices and the featured authors are archived on the Personal Anthology website. My own choice of stories – not my Desert Island selection, more a gathering that came together at the time I made the list – will be online on Friday of this week.

As always: 6 books of your own choice for £45, 12 for £80, free UK postage: Season Tickets on the home page of the CBe website.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Venus of the Hours

Lost for years, then found yesterday, and the place for it also found: Venus of the Hours, screenprint by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley, 1975. Anything that I know about designing books – and this is more to do with hunches and play within a pared-down aesthetic than anything you can pick up on a course – I learned from Ron Costley (1939–2015: obituary here: he lived in ‘book-strewn’ house), who is now back alongside some of the books he helped me put into the world.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Paris, spring

This month’s new CBe title – following Lara Pawson’s Spent Light in January and Katy Evans-Bush’s Joe Hill Makes his Way into the Castle in February – is Paris 1935 by Jean Follain (1903–71), a prose book by a French poet I deeply admire. The translation by Kathleen Shields is the first full version in English. I think I first knew of the book from August Kleinzahler’s poem ‘Follain’s Paris’ in Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, 1995, which mines phrases and scenes from Follain’s book. Since the start of CBe I’ve always wanted to publish Follain – back in 2008 I wrote to Christopher Middleton, asking if I could publish the translations of Follain’s poems that he was working on, but he had promised them to Peter Jay at Anvil – and now I have and it has been worth the wait.

Publication date is officially in mid-April but I’ll start sending out the pre-ordered copies this this week. There’ll be launch party on 23 April at the Centre for Literary Translation at Trinity College, Dublin – email I if you’d like to come. The photo on the cover is by Dora Maar. A Sonofabook blogpost giving the flavour of the book is below this one, here.

Next month’s title, available for pre-order on the website, is The End of Ends by the Polish theatre director Tadeusz Bradecki. It is about, writes Francis Spufford on the back cover, ‘nothing less than everything … Anyone miserable at being marooned on this island of cynical banter and self-protective irony should read The End of Ends to be reminded of what it sounds like when art is taken seriously.’ Non-fiction, but includes an embedded novel.

All new titles can be included in the Season Tickets (6 books of your choice for £45, 12 for £80) available from the home page of the website.

CBe will have a table at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair on Saturday, 20 April at St Columba’s Church, Pont Street, London SW1X 0BD.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Leek soup: Follain and Gogol

Above, Jean Follain, Paris 1935, translated by Kathleen Shields and published by CBe this April; and Nabokov on Gogol.

I imagine that for Follain, arriving in Paris in 1924 from the provinces aged just twenty-one, first impressions must have been dominated by the press, bustle, noise and sheer variety of people. So many of them! All somehow co-habiting in the same place! In the book that he wrote about Paris after living there for ten years, he attends to the churches and gardens and monuments but it’s still people who dominate his pages: flower sellers and rag collectors and barbers and cobblers and dressmakers and saddlers and typographers and salesmen and abattoir workers, shop assistants and shoplifters, priests and policemen and prostitutes and their pimps, schoolchildren and students and retired professors and bankers and magistrates and concierges, artist’s models and musicians and lovers and lion tamers …

Nabokov in his book on Gogol delights in Gogol’s ‘spontaneous generation’ of peripheral characters who have no plot-business to be there but just are. At the end of a chapter in Dead Souls, for example, after a drunken Chichikov has gone to sleep, ‘one light alone remained burning and that was in the small window of a certain lieutenant who had arrived from Ryazan and who was apparently a keen amateur of boots … He kept on revolving his foot and inspecting the dashing cut of an admirably finished heel.’ Nabokov: ‘Thus the chapter ends – and that lieutenant is still trying on his immortal jackboot, and the leather glistens, and the candle burns straight and bright in the only lighted window of the dead town in the midst of a star-dusted night. I know of no more lyrical description of nocturnal quiet than this Rhapsody of the Boots.’

Gogol again, with soldiers spun off from an adjective: ‘the day was neither bright nor gloomy but of a kind of bluey-grey tint such as is found only upon the worn-out uniforms of garrison soldiers, for the rest a peaceful class of warriors except for their being somewhat inebriate on Sundays.’ Nabokov: ‘It is not easy to render the curves of this life-generating syntax in plain English so as to bridge the logical, or rather biological, hiatus between a dim landscape under a dull sky and a groggy old soldier accosting the reader with a rich hiccup on the festive outskirts of the very same sentence.’

Follain too enjoys spontaneous generation. A man ‘passes near the bar with flaking paintwork, with its sign in yellow letters that have forked tips and a shading effect that required a lot of work on the part of the handsome whistling painter in his bowler hat and white overalls’.


A pigeon escaped from a laboratory, missing part of its spinal cord, totters on a pavement. Some cruel girls study him; one of them, exquisite as an Italian Madonna, has her arm in a sling because she was injured by a violent, amber-skinned lover.

She used to hold little teacups between her fingers so delicately that young men in silk hats would be overcome with emotion. Once she went home through very quiet streets on the arm of an elderly gentleman and quivered when a whinnying horse broke the silence.

Inside their lodges the concierges still live among their knick-knacks and cats. […] The wireless spreads news from around the world, famous speeches, less magical than the gossip on the grapevine that the housewives peddle to the concierge on rainy evenings. They talk while their husbands grow bored, waiting for leek soup in the tiny dining room where the old parents died.

Sardine tins are treacherously attractive; when he opens them with the key that is always too small, the poor fellow who eats alone in his room sometimes injures his hands and gets a nasty cut. A small, feeble, highly strung person almost sees red when he hears a tube of macaroni snap, as hard and brittle as his next-door neighbour’s arteries, the neighbour who gesticulates with his long hands. In damp streets where stalls are laid out, fish gleam with a slight ammonia smell […]. At the entrance to a dark corridor a second cousin from the country makes an appearance, biting into a raw carrot.

And these little flourishes (hands are very important to Follain):

the painted rose decoration above a brothel door in Grenelle at high noon, the obscure graffiti on a church wall in a district built in the Second Empire, the gesture of a suburban child who in a moment of joy beneath the sky, lays his dirty little palm with outstretched fingers on the burning wall.

Paris with its lilies, muck and gold, its inscriptions on columns or mouldings on grey houses, its women at café terraces wearing hats decorated with sprigs and flowers, or the hand turning the doorknob, or the glove being taken off to reveal the hand when the evening newspapers appear.

Nabokov noted that Gogol, to achieve his effects, employed a distinctive form of ‘life-generating syntax’ that can be hard to render ‘in plain English’. Follain too. Kathleen Shields writes In her introduction: ‘Follain has developed a unique prose style. The focus shifts from habitual practices to one-off events and from general statements to specific examples. The writing piles on more and more relative and prepositional clauses, so that the information within the sentence can be presented in an unexpected order, zoning in from the general to the particular within a single phrase or disconcertingly alternating between definite and indefinite articles and between singulars and plurals … Past and present tenses can switch places within the same paragraph … I have kept as many of these unusual features as possible in English.’

Where do the whinnying horse and the second cousin with his raw carrot come from? From a very particular way of writing. This is not a guide book. Nor is it a novel – it’s something more delicate than that. ‘In this beautiful Paris there are only lies, happy or sad.’

Saturday 2 March 2024

2 pence

Alan Brownjohn died on 23 February. A fine poet and a lovely, genial, generous man. Wonderfully colourful Romanian suits. Decades ago, long before the internet, one of the newspapers, possibly even the Torygraph, though Alan would have hated it, used one of his books as an example in a piece that parsed the economics of publishing. I am almost certainly the only person who remembers that long-ago page. That says something about me: that there’s always been a nation-of-shopkeepers aspect to my interest in publishing. Let’s go again.

Say the cover price is £10. Bookshops which have set up their own account with the distributor (in CBe’s case, Central Books) buy in books at a negotiated discount off the cover price. Most independent bookshops buy not direct from Central but from the wholesaler Gardners, which has a monopoly on this, and Gardners (quote from their website) ‘normally ask for 60% discount off the RRP’. Sometimes more. So in most bookshops a CBe book with a cover price of £10 will have been bought by Gardners from Central for £4 in order to reach the bookshop. Before passing on that £4 to CBe, Central will deduct their own fee (15% + VAT) and the sales agent’s fee (10% + VAT), which brings the amount payable to CBe down to £2.80. That’s my net income per copy, and I pay 10% royalties on that (I’ve already paid the author an advance on royalties when taking on the book, often £500). So CBe’s take is now down to £2.52. The printing cost is, say, £2.50 per copy. Which leaves CBe with 2 pence.

Could I print cheaper? For large print runs the cost per unit comes down, but CBe books are short-run books. And if I’m putting a book into the world – adding to the world’s sheer stuff – I want, obviously, this book to be a decent thing, so I’m going to add in from the extras on offer, as I think right for each book: endsheets, flaps, inside-cover printing. I’m currently paying around £3 per copy, which dunks that 2-pence profit into the red.

CBe has no Arts Council funding and I haven’t even mentioned design, typesetting or time, because if I costed those in this would make even less financial sense. So not a business model. More a declaration that it can’t be done without privilege (I’m 73, no mortgage, pension, know-how picked up in previous employment: kill me) and luck; but with those it can be done. For sixteen years and still running. So yes, a model of sorts. An anti-business model. And if the whole thing feels about to collapse, every day, that feels right.

The photo above: Jean Follain, Paris 1935, translated by Kathleen Shields. One of the books I was just waiting for: the first English translation of a prose book by a French poet (1903–1971) I am not a little obsessed with. And have written about. An old-style brown-cover book with gold endsheets, it had to be (though the retro brown covers come from a printer who charges artisanal-bread prices), but I wanted a photo too, so had that (by Dora Maar, 1935) printed separately and every copy will have that photo stuck on, one by one, by me. No mainstream publisher would do this. Paris 1935 will be published in April but is available from the website now for pre-order.

Meanwhile, Gardners: they basically don’t care, because I don’t make them enough money. A book I published early in February was listed on their website until yesterday as ‘Not available to order’, despite the book being in stock at Central since before Christmas – which means that anyone asking for that book in a bookshop supplied by Gardners in the month of publication was told Sorry, can’t get it. A ‘problem with a spreadsheet’, I was told. I doubt they will have that problem with the new Sally Rooney.

The predicament I’m describing here is that of many small presses. CBe is far from alone.

And the usual: please buy the books. The difference to CBe between a book bought in a shop and a book bought from the website is, even after postage (up again in April, the fourth rise in two years), the difference between 2 pence and the cost of a flat white. And the Season Tickets: the whole backlist (the ones still in print) at your mercy.