Friday, 21 May 2010

Gambling by candlelight

There are times – yesterday’s party for Marjorie Ann Watts’s book was one – when I think this whole thing (I mean CBe) is a bonny wee babe well worth all the nurturing she demands. There are others – when I look at my bank statements, which show that because of the amount of time CBe devours my freelance income has halved in the last couple of years – when I think it’s not worth the candle.

This morning was one of the latter. I need to sell more books. Because CBe does not mesh well with the business models of the major online retailers and the chainstores, which assume a volume of sales beyond the reach of small presses, I’d put in an application to the Arts Council for some funding to invest in a new website (more information about the books, downloadable excerpts, integrated blog, etc) and a spot of e-marketing (newsletters, that stuff) to increase direct sales. And today I got the reply: ‘I am sorry to tell you . . .’ The application ‘met the criteria’ but there was ‘competition for funds’ and ‘we had to make difficult choices’.

The track record, I still believe, is persuasive: fifteen titles (fiction, poetry, a screenplay, a couple of books that refuse to be categorised; four translations) published since November 2007; a fiction prize, a poetry prize, three shortlistings; review coverage in the TLS, Guardian, Independent, Irish Times, Scotsman, etc, as well as the poetry magazines and a number of literary blogs; and a reaching out to new audiences (‘If those who never touch poetry tried a few pages of [Natural Mechanical], they might become converts’, Glasgow Herald; Knight Crew produced as a youth opera at Glyndebourne in March this year, with three BBC TV programmes to follow in June; a BBC film adaptation of another of the books – more on this later – scheduled for October). All this has been achieved from a start-up cost of just £2,000, and with no external funding.

There are some good things about having little or no money. A launch party at the Foundling Hospital would be nice, but I don’t have to worry about that because it’s out of the question. And when I offer an advance or payment for rights, I can simply say this is what’s on the table, puny though it is, take it or leave it. Still, any introductions to the Earl of Southampton will be welcome. Any mention of the Olympics will not.

Of course I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end (there are five, maybe six more titles lined up; two in October, the others next year) and no publisher has any ‘right’ to public money. The expression ‘the game is not worth the candle’ seems to derive from something written by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 and alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. A game is what publishing is. There are more important things: the ability to love for one, and to write, to write well, another. Publishing is about fiddling around, getting this thing done and then the next, and it can be done well or badly but it’s a long way secondary to the above. Gambling by candlelight seems right. Trouble is, it’s addictive.


Anne said...

Publishing is important. It's how we vain writers find an audience. You know that all too well - and how is the next collection coming along?

Commiserations on not getting a grant. They are so perverse, these grant-giving bodies, that they probably thought you were doing well enough without them and decided to give money to presses who'd never won/win any prizes. Sigh.

The titles I've seen from CB editions have been so consistently good I might even be tempted with a subscription to your list, whatever. It's small enough, and the brand is strong. Have you thought of that? Well, there must be at least half a dozen people as mad as me, and it would be more fun than membership of the PBS.

charles said...

Anne, thank you. A subscription scheme is an idea worth pondering. Yes, there are probably half a dozen people mad enough to join (those are the core readership); but I do worry about committing to a schedule stretching far ahead. (Another traditional way for small presses to raise money is running poetry or short story competitions with entry fees, but a definite NO to that.)