Sunday, 21 November 2021

CBe Season Ticket

When I was eight years old I wanted to be a bus driver. Since 2007 I’ve been driving a bus called CB editions and although when you get on you can never be completely sure where the bus is going – it doesn’t always stick to the same route, sometimes it goes a little off-piste – the views out the window are lovely.

You can buy tickets from the website. You can also buy a Season Ticket. This is the new name for the Lockdown Subscription, which was first offered at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020 – since when, a number of readers have come back for repeat subscriptions. New name but everything else stays the same: ‘For £70, you’ll receive one CBe book per week in the post for a period of 10 weeks. (£7 per book, free delivery, and sometimes I’ll throw in two books rather than one.) UK addresses only.’ All the books on the website are available, plus Will Eaves’s Murmur and Agota Kristof’s The Notebook. To tell me which books you want – or which you don’t want – just email

It works like a Book Token: you choose your own books. People have been known to buy subscriptions – sorry: Season Tickets – as presents for friends and family. Just saying.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Not cricket

Above, title page of a book sent to me last week by a CBe author who knows I like cricket. Bought in a charity shop, which feels right. First published 1936, ‘revised and reprinted’ 1946. There was a world war between those dates but you’d hardly notice, reading the book. 'The Author': buttoned-up.

It’s not cricket: ‘said to mean that someone's behaviour is unfair or unreasonable’ (Collins English Dictionary). ‘If behaviour is not cricket, it is not fair, honest or moral’ (Cambridge Dictionary). Yorkshire cricket’s defence against the testimony of Azeem Rafiq, Yorkshire cricketer, about racism in Yorkshire cricket was – for as long as they could hold the line, for as long as they and not Rafiq held the power to decide what is ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’ – that it wasn’t cricket.

I’m invested. I’m Leeds-born and I’ve watched not just Jonny Bairstow but his dad, David Bairstow (who played for Yorkshire and England and killed himself). I’ve even written a novel about cricket. And in football I follow Leeds, who signed one of the first black players to play top-flight English football, Albert Johanneson, I watched him too, who got monkey chants every game and who died alone in a Leeds council flat, his body not discovered until a week later, a quarter of a century ago, yesterday, today.

Yorkshire cricket is institutionally racist, clearly. (No sport has more obvious links to empire than cricket.) As is this country, as are dictionaries and Eng Lit and a whole lot of publishing and me, I grew up within these institutions. Stop arguing the toss; stop putting quote marks round that phrase. I’ve been trying to make this not about me, but I am implicated. Is Rafiq going to win Sports Personality of the Year in December (for lit readers, it’s kind of the sport Booker Prize)? I want that.

Monday, 1 November 2021

'Reading it is a joy'

Authors chase reviews, me too – validation, credibility. Someone else likes the book, besides your mum and your publisher. Your dad? Good question. Reviews rarely increase sales unless they are cumulative, one review and then another and another, momentum gathering, the book beginning to trend. And the delivery of most reviews, despite the reviewer having paid attention and written carefully, is perfunctory and formulaic, especially the group reviews. But indulgently, going for it, I’m pasting here the complete (‘In Brief’) TLS review by Norma Clarke of Leila Berg's Flickerbook, which happens to be a foundation CBe title (see previous blog post), because it’s as good as it gets.

'Leila Berg was in her late seventies, a noted children’s author, champion of comprehensive schools and progressive education, and crusader for children’s rights – and especially the right of all children to read for pleasure (and find images of themselves in books) – when she decided to relive her own childhood and youth. She was emphatic: Flickerbook was a reliving, not an act of remembering, and it was traumatic to write. It was the last book she wrote, though she lived another fifteen years, dying in 2012 at the age of ninety-four.

'Reading it is a joy; brutally honest depictions of childhood feelings liberate the child within. No retrospective adult reasoning softens the account. Her parents are monsters. “He hates me”, she writes of her father. He gives her black looks and doesn’t speak to her. She hates him. (He had wanted a boy.) As soon and as often as she can, she absents herself from home. Growing up in a working-class Jewish district of Salford, she has the cultural riches of Manchester on hand: concert halls, theatres, free public libraries, music shops where she can listen to music without quite finding anything she wants to buy with her carefully saved bus fare.

'Clever, impassioned, often enraged, she has to work the world out for herself. “Nobody tells you anything.” Why is Jewish bread different from Christian bread? Why did two boys at infant school bang her head against a wall and accuse her of killing Jesus? A teenager in the 1930s, she joins the Young Socialists and campaigns against fascism. She is an activist. She likes boys, likes her own body, doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to be owned or live her mother’s life but enjoys sex (and writes beautifully about it). Her lover joins the International Brigade and is killed in Spain. A second lover likewise. “They die so fast in Spain.” The volume ends with Chamberlain’s announcement of war with Germany and the sound of the first air-raid siren “swooping, scooping, sickening”. Soon there will be many more deaths.

'Memory flickers like a loose lightbulb; “flickerbook” is another name for flipbook – a series of pictures that when flicked through produce the impression of a moving picture. Flickerbook proceeds through glimpses and vignettes, short paragraphs and big leaps, but there is more of a narrative structure than the title might suggest. It is artful in the best sense, and a radical experiment in memoir-writing. Very quietly the important themes are developed: integrity, honesty, inclusiveness, freedom of thought. Some parts are very funny, and it is through a shared sense of humour – they laugh at Marx brothers films – that young Leila forms a guarded late friendship with her widowed father. This reissue is wholly welcome.'

It’s easy to print books, hard to get to them to readers. Flickerbook is available from the website here. And the 10-books-for-£70 Subscription offer is still operating, from the website home page.

Friday, 8 October 2021

To writers submitting their work

First, and obviously: given the amount of blood, sweat, tears and toil that you’ve invested in your work, let alone the time and money, it would be perverse not to spend 5 minutes on the Net finding out who you are sending it to. Me. Not ‘Editor’, not ‘To whom it may concern’, not ‘CBe team’. There is no team. Nor are there any ‘submission guidelines’.

You’d know this if you’d read the snapshot history of CBe that’s downloadable from the ‘About and News’ page on the website, but that’s 22 pages long and writers are busy people. Let’s keep this short.

Is your work ‘a good fit for the list’? CBe has no manifesto but, looking at the list of titles I’ve published, I see they’re a bit short on plot and rhyme. I do like ‘proper’ novels, with weather and ‘character development’, but they are not why CBe is here. Just give me good sentences, any time of the day. About a recent CBe book, someone said that it’s ‘unlike even those other books that are unlike other books’; some of the books don’t have a chance of winning prizes because they slip shy of all of the prize categories.

Practicalities. If CBe publishes your work, you get an advance of around £300 against royalties of 10% on net sales and a first print run of maybe 350 copies. That may be that. Around a fifth of the books CBe has published have sold fewer than 100 copies; a few have sold more than 3,000 copies. No ebook. If someone outside the UK is worried about not just postage costs but delivery, I’ll send them a pdf.

I can’t promise you a big presence in bookshops, or reviews. The set-up is reasonably professional – CBe has a distributor and a sales agent – but I don’t have a little black book.

CBe has been publishing since 2007 without Arts Council support (I made three applications in the early days, and then stopped). If CBe’s position on the margins of the publishing industry may be considered arrogant (in its aloofness from the commercial fray) or political, or both, I’ll take that, but this is largely because of an accidental combination of low resources, age (I’m 70) and personal temperament. As I said, there’s no manifesto.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

'What was it like?'

4 October is publication date of Sovetica by Caroline Clark, a book that includes photographs taken in Moscow in the 1980s by Clark’s husband Andrei and a friend accompanied by short texts (poems?) by Clark based on Andrei’s memories of those years. Clark herself lived in Moscow for ten years. To listen to three short audio excerpts from the conversations (in Russian) from which the texts derived, click here. Below, with her own photos of Moscow, Caroline Clark tells how the book came about.

To start with there was the scale of the city with its intimidating perspectives and unbarricadable boulevards. I looked up at the past, across the distances. I was out of context.

The past had never felt so closed off. There were no roads in. One place of refuge for me, Neptune swimming pool, had issues of its own looming over it.

But as I lived there, it became my home. And I came to love a different story that I read in the gentle curves of tram rails rounding a slow corner.

The stool the hairdresser put outside on warm days for her breaks, the old dustbins shaky but still there, benches moored to their fixtures, barricades, walls, steps, railings, urns. Almost all, I’m sure, gone now.

These things had a homeliness about them resulting, perhaps, from the human intention of the design coupled with later abandon. But there was something else: they were telling me something, answering the question I was asked back home so much: ‘What was it like?’

Then A showed me his 3-D slides and all at once I could look into that past. And I could ask, ‘What was it like?’

I love the mechanism of question/answer. You don’t know something. You ask what was it like. You are told. A hole is filled. Or: a door is opened. You discover more to ask. What was it like, what was it like?

I was fascinated by the slides. And fascinated by Andrei's ability to speak about himself and tell a good story. Memories. So embodied they are like objects stored, never varying, ready to be told again. A good story rises up whole. It is told and placed on the shelf. It is unabashed. Simply itself. It comes easily, when needed.

So easy. It shouldn’t be this easy. Oh, it was. Easy and fun and always right. I knew when the texts were right. They felt just so. Just-so stories. They felt light. And set. And as little of me as possible. How novel. Whose are they? Certainly not mine. These words have travelled and belong in a book called Sovetica. I hope you will enjoy it.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Out to lunch

Reading and writing are both essentially private activities, Protestant rather than Catholic, as opposed to publishing, which is more communal and last week involved lunch, twice. Roy Watkins (Simple Annals, published earlier this year: ‘an astonishing achievement’, TLS) came to London from France. Dan O’Brien (A Story that Happens, also published earlier this year: ‘a book for our times’, TLS; and three books of poetry) lives in Los Angeles but is in London right now and was keen to meet Paul Bailey (Inheritance: ‘throw[s] open a whole closed century of English class-shift and time-shift in a loving and piercing evocation of family, childhood, love, loss, sangfroid, survival’, Ali Smith, New Statesman).

And Carmel Doohan’s Seesaw was officially launched last week at Burley Fisher Books (above). Thank you to everyone who came. The Scotsman likes it (Laura Waddell: ‘an unexpected, novel challenge to binary thinking’) and the website page quotes a blog review: ‘CB editions has released many interesting and mind-bending books in the past but Seesaw might be their best one to date.’ To be discussed, preferably over lunch.

Other books are available. For example, ten of your own choice from the website for £70, post-free: Lockdown Subscription from the website home page. It’s been running since March last year and I need to keep this going. Next week will include publication of Caroline Clark’s Sovetica, and a guest post here by the author.

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.