Thursday, 1 September 2011

Add to cart

The revised CBe website is now up. It’s not singing-and-dancing, but there are tweaks: each book has its own page, special offers, that stuff. I’d like to sell more of these books; I am not, by temperament, a salesman; the site feels to me OK.

I am, of course, inordinately proud of the books. (I hadn’t realised, before starting this thing, that a publisher can be more simply proud than an author; the author is always dogged by that ‘but it could have been even better’ feeling.) In the past year CBe has published three poetry books: one is on the Forward Prize shortlist, one is on the Forward First Collection Prize shortlist and has a PBS Recommendation, a poem from the third is in the Forward anthology and the author is reading at Aldeburgh in November. Previous: McKitterick Prize (best first novel by a writer aged over 40) in 2008; Aldeburgh Poetry Prize 2009; shortlisting for a European poetry in translation prize; other shortlistings. Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch was broadcast by the BBC as a TV film with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman; Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew was staged as a youth opera at Glyndebourne, with a BBC series of programmes about that.

Some good breaks as well as books. But given that I had no expectation that this adventure would continue beyond its first four books in late 2007, and that I don’t publish to win prizes, the above paragraph is bizarre.

There are occasions when prizes can be helpful to a small publisher but as a reader and writer I shy away. (CBe publishes mainly fiction, but I don’t think I’ve read a single novel even shortlisted for the Booker, never mind the winners, since Coetzee’s Disgrace.) Likewise many other aspects of the present book culture. Books as show business (the Edinburgh Book Festival is a cattle market, not even an efficient one; I sent some books up last year for a reading by a CBe writer and they lost them). Writing as a professional career (with courses and qualifications and all that grooming). The idea (lurking behind the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council and the mission-statement business-speak of public arts organisations) of literature as being ‘good for you’. [Insert Bolaño quote here.*] Not to mention the bland indifference – it’s not active dislike and it’s nothing personal, it’s just the standard behaviour of institutions grown too big for their roots – to small presses shown by the big retailers, the broadsheets and other arbiters of what gets attention.

None of those things has anything to do with my personal reading and writing – of which CBe is an extension by other means. Some engagement with the mad world is of course necessary, if the books aren’t just going to moulder in boxes, but CBe will stay small. (The entire team consists of printer Chris, down the road; distributor Bill, at Central Books; web-man Alan; and me. No designers (except for two of the covers), no typesetters, no publicity or marketing folk, no envelope-stuffers. No receptionist, no nightwatchman. No water cooler. No spreadsheets. And no external funding; I’ve applied twice to the Arts Council for sums of under £5K and twice been refused.)

Fortunately, books are not expensive to produce. Compared to films, obviously, but compared to pretty well all the other arts too. (I used to wish I was an artist, mainly because I wanted a studio – a den, a playroom – and now I’m glad I escaped that.) But to keep the show on the road, I do need to sell them too. Off you go to the website. Press the ‘Add to cart’ button more times than you really want to, and give me a good reason to get away from this desk and join the queue at the post office.

* Bolaño: ‘Writers today . . . are no longer young men of means unafraid to inveigh against the norms of respectable society, much less a bunch of misfits, but products of the middle and working classes determined to scale the Everest of respectability, hungry for respectability . . . They pursue it desperately. And in order to attain it they really have to sweat. They have to sign books, smile, travel to unfamiliar places, smile, make fools of themselves on celebrity talk shows, keep on smiling, never, never bite the hand that feeds them, participate in literary festivals and reply good-humoredly to the most moronic questions, smile in the most appalling situations, look intelligent, control population growth, and always say thank you.’

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