Sunday, 1 August 2021

On selling books

[Drawing by Nick Wadley]

In July 2013 I and another small-press publisher took a pop-up shop in Portobello Road to sell our books. He, Tweedledum, strode out into the street and attempted to press-gang passers-by in to the shop. I, Tweedledee, stood behind my table and occasionally, if someone was standing in front of my books for a suspicious length of time, offered some chat about them. Neither of us was cut out for this.

I began CB editions in 2007 after a lifetime of reading books but with no experience of attempting to sell them. I am not a natural salesperson. (I am writing this while reading Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart by Irmgard Keun, trans. Michael Hofmann: ‘I have no aptitude for business. I don’t think I could even go bankrupt successfully.’) I worry that that if someone buys a book they won’t like it, and they’ll have a lingering distaste for me ever afterwards. I tell this someone about other books than the one in their hands that they are about to pay for, but now maybe not. I give people every opportunity to have second thoughts. If they insist on buying, I’m so stupidly grateful that they are offering me money they could otherwise spend on wine or food or cigarettes that I offer them a discount. I’ve had tables at book fairs where I’ve been so just part of the furniture that I’ve basically said, I can ignore you too, don’t even dare to buy a book from me.

To an extent, I’m offering here a caricature of myself that is not dissimilar to the publicity-shy image promoted by certain writers who turn out, on closer inspection, to have been very good at publicity: dedicated aversion worked in their favour. Somehow, I have managed to sell a few books: a few thousand of a couple of the titles, before another publisher pounced or my license to publish closed or I just ran out of steam. But I’m still better at not selling them: fewer than a hundred copies of several titles that were no less worth the publishing than the ones that touched a sweet spot.

A sweet spot is what everyone working in publishing is employed to reach. There are a lot of books and very few sweet spots on offer. The consequence is a level of hype – in press releases, in the puff quotes on book covers, on Twitter and other social media – that smacks of desperation. How many most-eagerly-awaited-books-of the-year can there be? (At the time of writing, I feel for Sally Rooney as well as for Simone Biles: the publishing business treats its sweet-spot authors as the sports business treats its athletes.) Another consequence, at an individual level: you work in publishing and that’s good – you’re selling books, as you might be selling dog kennels or cutlery or porn or liver sausage, but books are different, aren’t they? – but it gets tricky when your job description includes the promotion of books you may have some difficulty with (Jordan Peterson, for example). It might be cleaner to be selling dog kennels.

Selling books also involves, of course, the logistics of how a book gets to a reader, a medieval process that involves distributors, wholesalers, sales agents and reps, all of whom take their cut before a book even gets on a shelf of a bookshop – which down the line, if it’s just taking up shelf space, can return the book and get their money back (in which case I will have not only not sold the book but paid a number of people for the privilege). Because of all the little cuts along the way, no one gets rich unless they are involved with a book that sells in high volume – and the system is geared more to those books than to the ones that sell in single copies to very occasional buyers. (Capitalism: we can tinker at the edges, with grants and bursaries, but this is the bed we’ve made and now we have to lie in it.) All the people involved in this process tend to be nice, book-loving people; but life is short and it’s rare for them to actually read the books they are selling. They are selling from the puff-quotes; they are selling blind. Another twist is that aggressive discounting by Amazon serves to force the cover price of a book up.

But the biggest twist in the tale is that by and large – on the whole, more or less, give or take, for better for worse – the distribution system does (creakily, and with hiccups) work. Because it is so stretched out, breakdowns between the various players are not uncommon, and at these points it’s up to me to chase and bang heads together. That I’m not cut out for this (see above) is not an excuse. I publish books; a part of publishing is selling. Here’s a sentence from Some Gorgeous Accident by James Kennaway tracking Fiddes, a doctor, a decent man who does good work (and is eventually struck off and disgraced; but that’s another story), wondering ‘why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money’: ‘There was such awful, English arrogance in that.’ There absolutely is.

Monday, 28 June 2021

A song-and-dance man

‘So who was ever going to remember Jack Robinson? Especially as that summer, Jack Robinson simply ceased to be, simply sidled away, his time was up, never to return. Who was going to remember? Except himself of course, publicly but cryptically, every time he said, “Oh just an old song-and-dance man.”’That’s from Graham Swift’s Here We Are, one of whose main characters has the stage name Jack Robinson. I’ve used the pen name Jack Robinson myself over the past dozen years but in The Other Jack I’ve let him sidle away, his time was up. Readers have commented on Twitter that the book is variously ‘a marvellous romp’ and ‘faintly nihilistic’. The book is available here.

From the back cover: ‘My granny used to say, when she saw me getting teary over a film we were watching on TV, “It’s only a story.” When Robyn’s bike was stolen and I offered sympathy, she responded, “It’s only money.” A woman once said to me, grinning from ear to ear, “It’s only sex.” To someone despairing of the judges’ decision, I want to say, “It’s only a book.” But it is never only anything.'

Another finishing off, this time with Finland. Tony Lurcock’s Not So Barren and Uncultivated: British travellers in Finland 1760–1830 was published by CBe in 2010. It grew into a trilogy: two more volumes followed, each of extracts from British observers of Finland with introductions and linking commentaries by Tony Lurcock. And now there are four: the final, wrapping-up volume is published this week. It include Finns in England as well as Brits in Finland and perspectives on the sauna and Finnish education. Finish Off with Finland: A Miscellany is available here.

The Lockdown Subscription continues: 10 books for £70, post free in the UK. Available from the website. It’s not a vaccination but it’s still worth having.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Writing on death row

In James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice Frank Chambers gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. In the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There Ed Crane gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. While they are on death row, both characters write down their versions of what has happened – Ed for a magazine that’s paying him 5 cents a word, Frank writing the book the reader is reading. Writing is not going to save either of them from the noose or the electric chair, so why?

Every so often – sometimes not for weeks, sometimes every hour of the day – I do wonder about the trust that is placed in the written word, a trust at least as widespread among those who don’t regularly read or write as among literary folk.

Both Cain’s novel and the Coen Brothers’ film echo the ‘True Confessions’ of prisoners awaiting execution in the early 18th century that jump-started the English novel. Jack Sheppard’s first-person account (‘as told’ to Daniel Defoe) of his robberies and his several escapes from prison has everything that many readers expect of modern fiction: crime, Houdini-like breakouts from chains and manacles, love interest, betrayals, kindness to an elderly mother and an abiding concern with ‘justice’. He is telling his tale, he insists, ‘to satisfy the curious, and do justice to the innocent’. Sheppard’s words gained authority from being spoken ‘on the brink of eternity’. Aged 22, Sheppard was hanged in November 1724; a third of the population of London followed his progress from Newgate in an open cart to the gallows at Tyburn. 

Frank, Ed and Jack Sheppard – none of them is exactly innocent, but they all want to get their stories out into the world and they trust the written word to do them justice. Not legal justice, which is hit-or-miss: except in books, most rapists, murderers and corrupt politicians aren’t even brought to court. The very basic justice they want – like most of us, and we are all on death row – is to be paid attention to. Which doesn’t sound much to ask but in fact is huge.

To trust something (or someone) is a wager, a gamble. There’s a thrill in that; it’s a large part of why we do it. There are no guarantees. It could be a stupid mistake. It’s probably rash to trust in things made from the ordinary stuff we use to order coffee, say hello and goodbye, curse, praise, grumble, get through the day with others – language is implicated in the confusion of the world, language is not innocent. (But what else have we got that could do the job any better? Set a thief to catch a thief.) It’s probably also rash and it is certainly vain to trust that our written words will outlast us: posterity is a tease, most books have a very short shelf-life.

To believe that one is worth being paid attention to is itself vanity. Some people don’t have this, or recoil from it – Jonas Milk in Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel, for example, who is suspected of the murder of his wife, who has disappeared. He didn’t do it; in fact he loves her, in his way, but it’s not a way that either his neighbours or the police can get their heads around: ‘They hadn’t understood him, or else he hadn’t understood the others, and this latest misunderstanding was beyond all hope of being cleared up.’ There’s a tree, a clothes line, a chair, and a brief pause before Jonas hangs himself: ‘He had a momentary impulse to explain everything in a letter, but it was a last vanity of which he was ashamed, and he rejected the idea.’ Luckily – not for Jonas, who was destroyed, but for readers – Simenon had the necessary vanity to do the job on behalf of his character.

I’m vain too and I’ve written a book about books, mostly, titled The Other Jack. I have a surely not uncommon awkward relationship with the whole matter of books. Justice is in the index but also jokes and happiness and self-loathing and privilege and umbrellas. The book can be ordered here. Or it can be part of a Lockdown Subscription, available on the home page. We may be coming out of lockdown but the cost – £70 for 10 books, post free – is still locked down, and it’s a bargain.

Monday, 10 May 2021


This is more than just another new CBe book, it’s a new/old one and it’s been waiting for over a decade to happen. When I decided, back in 2008, that there were going to be more books than the first four, I wanted Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – first published in 1997 by Granta, and out of print within a few years despite wonderful reviews – to be one of them. It felt definitive: superb writing appearing out of left field. I wrote to Leila Berg c/o Granta, and somehow that letter got through (many don’t) and she replied:

I went to see her. Leila was in her 90s. She was gracious and kind. For various reasons the reissue of Flickerbook didn’t happen then, but now it has. Leila died in 2012.

Flickerbook told me things: things specific to the life recounted – that of a girl growing up in a Jewish family in Salford in the 1920s and 30s – and things about England and about writing. Although subtitled ‘An autobiography’ the book ends when Leila Berg is aged just 22. It is written – in the words of the website dedicated to Berg’s life and work – ‘in the subjective voice of the author as her childhood self at the specific age being revisited’. It’s a re-living, largely in the present tense (and in this it has elements in common with another new CBe title, Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals).

The website I’ve just mentioned ( is worth exploring. It includes a link to an article by Leila Berg about her life in London during the war, after Flickerbook ends. Anyone who thinks wartime London was bathed in a warm, pulling-together, mutually-supportive ‘spirit of the Blitz’ probably needs to read it.

Two incidental reflections on Flickerbook. One: given Berg’s absolute commitment to the infinite potential of children, and her anger at the way institutional education denies them agency and corrals them onto the consumer belt, she had to write the book in the way she did, from the child’s perspective. (Which is often, on the page, to the adult reader, funny, but it is not at all cute; it is chastening.) Two: Berg, growing up in a Jewish family, constantly notices differences between her own family and others: ‘Christians say Granny. Or they say Nan. They don’t say Bobbie.’ ‘Christians beat boys and girls. Jewish people only beat boys. That is because they think only boys are important. But Christians think girls are important enough to beat too.’ An awareness of being other is a part of who she is. Because the narrative of Flickerbook ends in September 1939 there is no mention of the Holocaust but the conditions for the scapegoating of the Other – in England just as much as in any other country – are witnessed.

This new CBe edition includes an introduction by Ruth Fainlight and, as an afterword, a reprinted review of the original edition in the London Review of Books (where reviews have room to say something) by Hilary Mantel. Here are the endpapers from the original 1997 edition:

Flickerbook, officially published next month, is available now from the website. And can be one of the 10-books-for-£70 Lockdown Subscription if you want it to be. The subscription offer has kept CBe going over the past year and it must taste OK because there are people coming back for second helpings. Meanwhile, Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens, published in April by CBe, has an excerpt published by the Washington Post and a feature on the book in the Los Angeles Times and other US acclaim. In the UK to date, silence. It’s quite hard to sell books.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Working the numbers at night

The gradual release on lockdown has allowed the reopening of not just pubs with gardens and Primark but bookshops too. Good. But I’m not sure that this is going to make much difference to sales of CBe books.

In theory, independent bookshops are almost by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, very, very few independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) have ever stocked CBe titles on a regular basis. When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis – agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

CBe’s trade distributor, fielding orders from bookshops and online retailers, is Central Books. I also sell books through the website – but in a usual year, around five times as many books are sold through Central Books. The past year has not been usual. In fact, the sales pattern has been reversed. April 2020 to March 2021, the numbers of books sold through Central Books was 73% less than the previous year; in the same period, the number of books sold through website orders was 135% more than the previous year. Gross sales income (before deduction of costs) from all sales for 2020/21 was just 11% lower than the 2019/20 figure.

I’m writing here about CBe; other presses will have other tales to tell. The actual numbers involved (as opposed to percentages) are small. Of the 68 titles published since 2007, 22 have sold fewer than 100 copies through Central Books; two titles have sold more than 3000 copies through Central; six others have topped 1000. How to increase those numbers? I could ditch Central Books and try another distributor, or I could ditch the present sales agent (who promotes the list to bookshops) and try another … but publishers complaining about sales agents is as traditional as authors complaining about publishers, and I’m not persuaded that swapping x for y would make a significant difference. I could – in fact I should: I owe it the authors – scale up (adding in marketing know-how and applying for ACE funding to do this), but there’d be no guarantee of extra sales to support the extra costs, and worry about taking on books that I wasn’t confident would sell in numbers would play a much larger part in decision-making than it currently does.

What’s kept CBe going over the past year has largely been the Lockdown Subscription – 10 books of your choice over 10 weeks for £70, with extras thrown in. Thank you to all who have pressed the button. It’s still available. Three new 2021 CBe titles (by Roy Watkins, Dan O’Brien, Nuzhat Bukhari) are now in print, and another two (by Leila Berg, Charles Boyle) are up on the website for pre-orders; any or all of these can be included in a subscription.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Books, beard, soup

Clocks have gone forward, the year already a quarter gone, and here’s a little stock-taking of recent and about-to-be books:

Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, an urgent, angry account of the early months of Covid that borrows the form of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and is approved by the TLS: ‘Aiming somewhere halfway between cheap pastiche and serious homage, Gibbs hits his mark. He nails Autumn Journal’s casual, yawning metres and late-to-the-party rhymes, its balance of didacticism and doubt.’

Simple Annals by Roy Watkins. Comments emailed from early readers: ‘This book is a masterpiece’; ‘Simple Annals is quietly devastating’; ‘The intimacy and the perfectly targeted and delineated images are just very moving. Wonderful’ ; ‘What a find! It's so vivid and gripping’; ‘I have not been so affected by a book in a long time.’ Someone please write a review in a proper public space.

A Story that Happens: on playwriting, childhood and other traumas by Dan O’Brien: four essays written during the four years that Trump was occupying the White House, and during the aftermath of cancer, cannot be about just the craft of writing. If you order this from the website and would like a copy of O’Brien’s poetry collection Scarsdale added in free, write ‘Scarsdale’ under ‘instructions to merchant’ as you check through the PayPal; or send me an email.

Brilliant Corners by Nuzhat Bukhari (not published until May – printout of cover in the above photo, because finished copies not yet in – but copies available in April if you order from the website). A Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Abigail Parry: ‘A collection that is abstract and adamant, sparkling, ruthlessly sharp.’

I have grown a lockdown beard and I have cooked and eaten 22 recipes sent by CBe writers (documented on previous posts on this blog, January to March). Here is the 23rd: from Todd McEwen (The Five Simple Machines; Who Sleeps with Katz), ‘a smoked fish soup I invented myself’: smoked haddock, potatoes (waxy), celery, onion, turmeric, saffron, paprika, stock and wine and milk. This is a very fine soup. CBe has no ‘submission guidelines’ but if it did, here’s how they might begin: send me a recipe first, so I’ll know how your writing will taste.

Note: for technical reasons (wrong kind of leaves on the track?), neither Agota Kristof’s The Notebook nor Will Eaves’s Murmur are available from the website. But they are available to anyone who takes out a Lockdown Subscription.

Monday, 1 March 2021

More books, less food

From April 2020 to February 2021 sales of CBe books out of Central Books, the distributor, were 75% down on the same period last year. I imagine that if CBe was a very big publisher, dependent on volume of sales, this would be disastrous. Given that the actual numbers are pretty small we’ll muddle through, but during Covid selling books direct from the website has been the main means of survival – especially the Lockdown Subscription offer of 10 books (plus extras) for £70 (UK only, free postage). This is still available: see the website home page. Some subscribers come back for second helpings.

The new books so far this year are Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals, a memoir (or re-living) of childhood in Lancashire in the 1940s; and Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens: On playwriting, childhood, and other traumas, four essays written (one per year) during the Trump presidency, with an introduction written during the US elections last November.

A few days before the first UK lockdown took effect in March last year, Jonathan Gibbs began writing what became Spring Journal, a week-by-week record (based on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal) of a bad, exhausting year. We are still looking for ways in which to articulate the experience of living with Covid: this fluent, urgent, angry book helps.

All the new books can be included in the Lockdown Subscription: you choose.

The last several newsletters have featured recipes from CBe writers. With this, just one plate of food, below. This is the 22nd recipe; previous ones are still available on this Sonofabook blog.

22 Sort-of Tagine from Patrick McGuinness (essays next year from CBe). ‘This is from the place of my birth and first childhood, Tunisia … The recipe was never written down, and was always more of a freeform around three fixed motifs: ras el hanout powder, harissa powder or paste, and preserved lemons (the ones in jars are better than the home-made hipster-shop ones because of the large amounts of sour juice which goes into the tagine and tastes delicious in a cocktail too – add it to gin or vodka martini).’ I overdid the lemons but do not regret it.