Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A short history of CBe in 41 bites

Off-cuts, paper cuts, 2007 to now:

1 After months of batting cover try-outs back and forth, one of the books still had a name spelt wrong on the cover. The mis-spelt editor had noticed this on the proofs but had assumed it was a joke. My fault.

2 Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan was an editor’s dream: 40 lines arriving out of the blue as an attachment to an email asking if I’d like to read more, from an author who had never before had anything published, and the book going on to win a literary prize. The title tells it true: this is Rocky’s workshop when I visited him in 2009 in Inverness-shire, during the early stages of his complete restoration of a 1929 Brooklands Riley from a rusted chassis:


3 I did a short print run of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts with a colour cover for a shop which said that trying to sell the standard edition was like trying to sell a brown paper bag. Some of those are still in a box – free to anyone who orders any other title from the website and asks for one.

4 Naive early error: to assume that a fair few of the people I’d worked with in publishing would buy a book or two. In fact most people who work in the trade expect to get books for free. There have been honourable exceptions.

5 Best CBe-related headline (relates to Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3, McKitterick Prize 2008, one of the first four CBe books in 2007 and now published by Bloomsbury):


6 Number of trips to Blissetts in Acton, who print most of the books, in 2013: not logged, but around 20 at a guess. Chris the printer once house-sat my cats; during that period he was side-swiped by a fork-lift truck and sent to hospital; bandaged, patched up, he bypassed the queue for painkillers at the hospital pharmacy and instead came back to the house, fed the cats, drank the malt whisky I’d left him and went back to work.

7 Speediest printing turnarounds: ordering a reprint from Blissetts one afternoon and collecting the books the next day. Sending files of a new book to the other printer, ImprintDigital in Devon, and receiving a proof copy for approval next day in the post.

8 Number of trips over to the distributor Central Books in Hackney Wick with boxes of books in 2013: 16. Regine in the upstairs office once asked me to sign copies of my own old poetry books; a warehouseman in the downstairs delivery space comments on my very occasional TLS pieces. These people read books and they care. Below, Central Books, a very fine building:


9 A box of a given size holds more slim books of poetry than 200-page novels; the slim books are also cheaper to post. On the other hand, all boxes of books, whether containing poetry or fiction, are heavy. A large proportion of peasants’ work used to consist of carrying things; this manual-labour aspect of the job is something I enjoy (which explains in part my dilly-dallying about ebooks).

10 It’s pouring with rain as I lug boxes of books from a Tube station for a book launch at Waterstones Piccadilly (it was going to be in an art college, but the author had been having a hard time and she really did need a place where she could wear a dress), and I’m running late and I’m thinking, this is OK, this is publishing, and I’m saving money. At another book launch I’m drinking in the Colony Room in Soho and because I’m happy I sign a fat cheque for membership and the club closes a few months later and this is OK too. But I could have saved a little money there.

11 Number of trips to the post office in 2013: 139. Best conversation overheard while standing with CBe book packages in the queue: woman in front of me, very loudly, to man standing in doorway: ‘And you shagged that bitch down the Askew Road and you didn’t even wear a rubber.’ Man moves forward, I think he’s going to hit her to I step between them. Man to me, quietly: ‘Fuck off. I’m having a private conversation with my wife.’

12 Highest sales out of Central Books to date (i.e., not counting sales from the website, and people/bookshops I’ve talked into buying direct) for titles published before the end of 2013: just under 1,000. Lowest: just over 10. I look at these numbers, look hard, as if they’re trying to tell me something. It’s a kind of staring competition, who blinks first.

13 Is there any other trade in which shops can order the wares and then, if they can’t sell them, return them and get their money back? With books this is standard. Except on the occasion on which I sold several hundred copies of a title to a chain of bookshops, which several months later wanted to return most of them and have their money refunded. No, I said. And because I’d sold them direct, and there was nothing about returns on my basic invoice, they were stumped. A tiny and incidental victory.

14 Most over-qualified book-carrier: Anthony Thwaite, OBE, born 1930, carrying bundles of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew on his trial shift as a warehouseman in 2009:


15 I’m not sure that Shakespeare & Co in Paris, where the CBe authors Beverley Bie Brahic, Gabriel Josipovici and Wiesiek Powaga read on an evening in November 2010, ever paid for the books sold but it was fun. This is Sylvia Whitman, brandishing:


16 Built in 2011, a roadside shrine to St Nicholas Lezard, patron saint of small presses, whose ‘paperback of the week’ columns in the Guardian have featured seven CBe books:


17 The man in the rear-view driving mirror on the website home page is my father, 1940s I think. (He wasn’t a reader. When he was courting my mum he took her to a wrestling match; she, then working as a librarian at the Brotherton in Leeds, took him to the first play he’d seen. He died aged 51.) The children on page 70 of Nights and Days in W12 are my own, many years ago; the writer in the café on page 107 of the same book is a man I’m vaguely related to (son of a cousin) and he wasn’t just idling: his first novel will be published this year.

18 The man who was in prison for 22 years and sent me his writing from there, and then we met in a café in Shepherds Bush market. The woman who called round with her portfolio of poems and modelling photos: this one, she said, pausing at a photo in which she’s lying on a sofa and wearing about 3 millimetres of clothing, would be good for the cover? Her mother had doubts. What did I think?

19 The manuscript of Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue really was found in a drawer of his office desk on the day after his death: this is not a literary conceit.

20 Two things that give Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking a slight period feel: you can’t now smoke in restaurants and cafés, and the classified football results on radio at five o’clock on Saturdays are no longer spoken by James Alexander Gordon.

21 The average age of the authors published by CBe in 2010 was 80-something. I tried and failed to sell a story on this to The Oldie and Saga magazine.

22 The causes of death of over 500 writers, composers, etc, are listed in This Is Not a Novel by David Markson, who himself is one of three authors who have died since their books were published by CBe. (The youngest was Erik Houston, at the age of 37. His novel The White Room was one of the first four titles; it’s now out of print but I still stand by it. He was a concert violinist who played around the world, then teacher. He had one of those very rare afflictions. In hospital, there was a day when he was technically dead for something ridiculous like ten minutes, and then was alive again. And then, later, not. I think about Erik a lot.)

23 In the flat of Dai Vaughan – who died in June 2012; whose Sister of the artist CBe published in February 2012, a month and a bit after he’d sent me the manuscript – there were tiny sculptures that he’d made out of Edam cheese. Last year I made things out of crushed beer cans; before all this started there was a period when I made ships (and a mermaid) in bottles.

24 The CB of CBe was not intended to be just me. Long story. (Nor, at the time of the first four books, were there any plans to do more.)

25 There is a customer who has bought one copy of every single CBe book direct from the website and I have no idea who this person is.

26 Entering a book for a prize that required an author photo, I sent a photograph of the author’s poem titled ‘Self-Portrait in Shades’ because I had no other visual evidence to offer, and nor did he and nor did the internet. Offered readings, the author responded: ‘I’d prefer not to.’ I can understand this. I can understand it very well.

27 When one of the books wins a prize – to date, a fiction prize (McKitterick, best first novel by a writer aged over 40), a translation prize (Scott Moncrieff), and the really freaky thing of each of the three first poetry collections from CBe winning the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (and each of them also being Forward shortlisted) – I feel like a parent watching their child in the school nativity play: pride, even though one knows it’s just a play, and next year there’ll be a different Mary and Joseph.

28 That some agents are willing to accept my minuscule offers for rights to publish fiction is due to the extreme generosity of larger publishers who wish to buy rights to cookery books and the memoirs of footballers.

29 The agent who accepted my offer for UK rights and then spent what must surely have been more than my offer on getting the contract checked by their legal department, which suggested I add in something about second serial rights, which I did, though I still don’t know what second serial rights are.

30 The big-name agents who simply don’t reply to emails, and the mainstream publishers too, and others. It may be company policy. More likely, in any company over a certain size there’s an assumption that receiving and opening an email or envelope is a sufficient task in itself. If anything else needs to be done, there are servants for that.

31 Or if they do reply, they do so with same degree of attention as a former literary editor of the Observer who, after I’d sent him the first four books, all prose fiction, and then followed up by sending again, assured me that he’d passed on the books to the poetry editor.

32 There is a clause in the standard contract that basically states that if after signing the author gets an offer from someone richer and better-looking, altogether more eligible, then the author is free to go off with them, as long as I can have the first four months. It’s a sort of prenuptial.

33 I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere and thought, good for them, I was wrong. On the other hand, I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere, by publishers posher than me, and thought, I was still right. On the third hand, I’ve turned down a book and two years later changed my mind and emailed the author at 5 a.m. in the morning to ask whether it has been placed elsewhere and by lunchtime the book was on track.

34 February 2013, letter from Arts Council England: ‘I am sorry to tell you …’ Three in a row. Ho-hum. (Can one apply to the Arts Council for cigarette money, for alcohol money? Without those two legal drugs there’d have been nothing.) The three stages of reaction: (1) slump; (2) shrug; (3) a light-headed sense of freedom.

35 What continues to surprise is how much can be done without any funding at all, and with small amounts of money. Back in 2007, £2,500 covered the printing & binding of 250 copies each of the first four books, author advances, a basic one-page website and a couple of lunches for proofreaders. CBe has been, roughly, self-sustaining ever since but only because editing, design, typesetting, time, etc, are not costed in.

36 Letters addressed to ‘The Accounts Department’ or to ‘The Reviews Manager’ or ‘The Art Director’ or ‘To whom it may concern’: the cat (one of five) who resides on my desk stirs, stretches, yawns, curls back on the low heap of manuscripts.

37 The emails asking for my ‘submission guidelines’. I honestly don’t care: email attachment or hard copy, double-spaced or single, margins wide or narrow, name on every page or not, whatever. If you write and want to send, then just do. It’s not for me to tell you how.

38 The Circulating Library – see here: the idea was to send off a bunch of free books, asking the recipients to pass on to others after reading, and so on (and thereby expand awareness of CBe and maybe generate a few sales from the curious) – was a drowned duck: no emails from happy strangers, not one (as far as I know) extra sale.

39 This desk in the living room, but also the in-town office: the café on the first floor of Foyles, Charing Cross Road. (Deals have been done there, on backs of envelopes. And all praise to that shop, which actually asked to stock the books, rather than me having to make the first move.) If it’s too busy, the Pillars of Hercules. Once, the place around the corner where you can get a bottle of wine for a fiver.

40 The two points in time at which I knew the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair was worth the effort: (1) when in 2011 I was being shown a church hall in Exmouth Market by the woman who was in charge of hiring it out and her labrador dog, chasing a ball, went skittering and scrabbling across the recently polished floor; (2) lunchtime on the day of the first fair when, out for a cigarette, I said to the busker in the street, Brooke Sharkey, there was a book fair going on, and she said she’d move on, and I suggested she come in and do a set onstage instead and she did. (The book fair was repeated in 2012 and 2013, with over fifty presses participating; from 2014 CBe is ducking out, leaving it in the more than capable hands of Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly.)

41 The stuffed gorilla that sat outside the CBe/Eyewear pop-up shop in Portobello Road in July last year appears to be one of a limited edition made for the California zoo where Koko (born 1971) lives. How it came to a junk shop in the Askew Road, Shepherds Bush, I have no idea. (Below, Koko on the right; on the left, seated, Wiesiek Powaga, translator from the Polish of Stefan Grabinski’s In Sarah’s House and Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie and other work.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I loved this blog. Viva CB editions.

Nellissima said...

I also loved it. More than I can say.