Sunday 30 December 2007

A(dvertising) to Z(ink)

Advertising costs – around £360 for an eighth of a page in one issue of the TLS. Thinking laterally, and missing the target entirely, I placed the following ad in the Personals of three issues of the London Review of Books (among the itinerant nuns and deviant orientalists and wine-stained bibliophiles seeking one another’s souls and bodies):

‘Imagine yourself, dear reader, sitting in your favourite chair with your book and “your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array”, and every so often you look up and say, even if there is no one else in the room but the dog, “Hey, switch off the TV and listen to THIS” – and you start reading aloud. That book is a CB edition ( A free book for the first six readers who can name the story from which the nine drinks are quoted.’

The ad resulted in zero book sales but did locate fans of Donald Barthelme around the world (the free books have all gone), including a lit prof in California and one Melissa Zink in New Mexico. Melissa makes art that attempts to render the experience – rapturous, unsettling, absorbing – of reading. She has sent me a book that catalogues her work, The Language of Enchantment. Think Egyptian funerary clay statues, think Joseph Cornell boxes, think Schwitters collages, think folklore and font foundries and many other things. The whole encounter has been worth far more than the cost of the ad.

Friday 28 December 2007


Thirty letters today, with cheques for 24 for 3: a continuing after-shock from the Guardian review. I have run out of envelopes to post the books in. WH Smith in King Street have run out of envelopes. The nice local stationery shop that gives me a big discount is closed. On the phone, Jennie tells me to look at a wonderful, sad poem by Les Murray called Letters to the Winner.

Why don’t they buy the other books too? (Because they don’t know about them; some of the buyers who have found the website do buy the others.) If they like 24 for 3, they’ll surely like the other titles. Or maybe they won’t like the book at all, and they’ll curse me, Jennie and Mr Lezard too for leading them up the garden path and robbing them blind. Nothing I can do about that except say, weakly, that we never set out to please everyone, just enough to keep this boat afloat.

The book that next needs some publicity oxygen is Eric Houston’s The White Room. 24 for 3 is bright and sharp but The White Room burns deeper, smoulders longer. If it doesn’t pick up some sort of cult following I’ll weep in frustration. A fuse needs to be lit.

A thing we need to face up to, now – I’d been keeping this out of my mind until post-Christmas, which it now is, just – is that whether there’s money or not, there have to be more books. That sounds like a threat. But it can’t just stop. (Well, it can, and there’d be an appealing perversity about that – going out on a high after we’ve only just arrived – but there’s also curiosity about what’s round the next corner. And new titles are being conceived; we’d like them to go to full term.)

PS – speaking into the void, but just in case there’s someone listening: a fine way to keep financially alive would be if some bigger publisher were to buy rights to publish one or more of the CBe titles mainstream, and get them to the readership we are not equipped to reach.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Another thing

about that picture (below, Ménage à trois, etc). The deal with Gypsy Rose moving into the household seems to have been that George Davis would teach her how to write. I know the photo is posed, but it illustrates not a bad lesson: the more you write, the more you should throw away. And take off your shoes.

Ménage à trois, quatre, cinq, six . . .

This is the photo from the website (well, the book covers alone were hardly going to draw in the punters). It’s Gypsy Rose Lee, and she’s writing her novel The G-String Murders, and the date is 1941, and what I hadn’t realised when I first saw the photo and fell in love with it (or those legs) was that this must be her room in 7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn, because that was where she was living at the time. Down the landing was Carson McCullers, also writing. On the floor above were Auden and Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Downstairs was George Davis, the magazine fiction editor who had got this unlikely ménage together. Among those who also stayed for a time were Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright and Klaus and Erika Mann (who Auden married, to get her a British passport). When Gypsy Rose Lee moved out (too, too messy, these writers), Paul and Jane Bowles moved in. Salvador Dali dropped by, Leonard Bernstein . . . They were young and their lives were chaotic but a surprising amount got written. (There’s a long Muldoon poem about 7 Middagh Street in Meeting the British.)

Now, let’s say you’re a latter-day George Davis and somehow you’ve acquired a three-storey terraced house in Hackney – who would you put in there? Six names, say, from contemporary literature, music, maybe art, film, fashion . . . Mix them up. It’s all a bit Big Brother-ish.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

Christmas: an antidote

The two sixteen-year-olds in this house have received, among their Christmas presents, a couple of books in the Penguin Great Ideas series: David Hume, On Suicide, and Schopenhauer, On the Suffering of the World. This is good, bracing stuff, like a walk in the fields after too much pudding. As is Simon Rae’s Faber Book of Christmas, whose index includes entries for adultery, atheism, disaster, drunkenness, illness, prison camps and war.

The Penguin books are perfectly sized to fit into your jacket pocket when you go out for that walk. Hume: ‘Religious principles are also a blemish in any polite composition, when they rise up to superstition, and intrude themselves into every sentiment, however remote from any connection with religion.’ The Schopenhauer includes a brief section on books and writing. ‘The art of NOT reading is a very important one. It consists of not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time . . . A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.’

Sunday 23 December 2007

A breakthrough?

Yesterday’s Lezard piece in the Guardian was, of course, the dream review, for both author and publisher. (Actually, last week I did dream of a review of one of the books: it was in the Independent, and was so badly typeset that no one could read it.) Especially as the publisher happens to be tiny: how else is one to make potential readers aware of the books’ existence, except through the voice of a well-respected reviewer writing in a public forum?

Between yesterday and 6 p.m. today, 50 books have sold online. Every one of those sales is directly attributable to the review. And this is despite the review suggesting envelopes and cheques, and not mentioning the website. (Presumably folk googled CBe and found the website for themselves.) A letter has gone off to the Guardian Review with the website details and mentioning the three London indie bookstores that have shown immediate and direct support: the London Review Bookshop, Crockatt & Powell, John Sandoe – maybe we can spin out this media exposure. Daunts in Holland Park and Marylebone High Street have also taken them, but just one copy of each and they won’t be taking more before the new year. A couple of others have said they’ll get back to me; we know what that means, but after that review it might mean something different.

Frisbee and football in the dark in the park this afternoon. (There were dogs with little lights on their collars, so their owners could see them in the fog: it must be Chiswick.) Followed by the first bottle of Languedoc from the wine-dealer-in-the-next-street (RW henceforth). It’s good.

(I still can’t get italics on this thing, I suspect because I’m on a Mac and using Safari. Nor can I do the links as I want to – I mean where I mention for example the review and it appears in blue and you click on it and it takes you there. Another day I’d be worrying this through, but today – 50 books sold, and the Languedoc – no.)

Saturday 22 December 2007

A Christmas present

Oh, this is nice.

Last Saturday I stood in the cold from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. behind a stall at the Christmas bazaar in my local park, foolishly trying to sell books to punters who were more interested in hand-knitted dog blankets. And over the week I’ve been developing a convincing strain of cynicism, just in time for Christmas. I’ve been moaning about book-folk especially – the ones who work in publishing and newspapers, and who expect to pick books off shelves, or trees. (If you worked in a chocolate factory, you wouldn’t go out to BUY chocolates.)

And then today, in the Guardian, the estimable Nicholas Lezard, a man of most excellent taste, takes notice of one of the CB editions. More than that, he describes the moment when he ‘fell in love with it’. He goes on: ‘24 for 3 contains some of the tightest, cleanest writing I have seen in a long time. Both serious and playful, this is the best example of style revealing the contours of the interior that I have seen all year.’ And on: ‘This is a little marvel of a novella. It’s funny, clever, illuminating, deeply kind-hearted, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s not self-indulgent: things happen in it, surprising things, like in an old-fashioned novel, yet it’s perfectly contemporary; and every word has been chosen with subtle care. It is, on its own terms, just right. I wonder if it’s too late for it to go on the Orange prize shortlist.’

And in case anyone’s wondering about the other books, he mentions that ‘the other CB books are, I have discovered, well worth checking out (it would appear to cater for works which might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers).’

I have nothing to add.

Except the the Guardian has a readership of 1.29 million (although I doubt that all of them get as far as page 15 of the Review section). And according to the newspaper's own Reader Profile, 'our readers spend more time in pubs, bars or restaurants than readers of any other quality daily title'.


I have just discovered a man in the next street who deals wine from his house. I went round: he bought books, I bought wine. A little pocket of civilisation. And there is a woman in this street who gardens for a neighbour and gets yoga in return. Could you run a whole national, international economy on this basis of local exchange? No. This machine I’m typing on is, I guess, the result of massive investment for even more massive profit; and I like it. But the background big-business macro structure doesn’t preclude the local micro deals, in fact should enable them to thrive.

The CB editions books cost £2,000 to produce. 250 copies of each book. Some expert help was provided by friends and colleagues in exchange for free books, a lunch, the odd bottle of vodka. 50 copies of each book go out free (the authors, newspapers, etc). Sell 100 of each title – 400 copies in all – for an average of a fiver apiece and we’ve covered costs. Sell more and there’s money in the kitty for new titles next year.

Naively, I thought that selling 100 copies of each book was not too hard a target. And that to achieve that, I wouldn’t have to have any dealings with the chain bookstores or Amazon (a rant about the latter will follow at some stage). The mailing list, the mini-website, word of mouth, a few independent bookstores (a paean of praise for these will also follow) – enough, surely: because the combination of these should be able to reach into the subculture of readers who are interested in good writing and slightly offbeat books, and in a country (a city, even) this wealthy and this populated that readership should be large enough to sustain my tiny venture.

I may be wrong. Early days. If I am wrong, and if I want to do more titles next year (which I do – not least because it’s fun), I’ll have to think about begging for grants. Not nice: the form-filling, the audited accounts, the becoming professional and proper rather than amateur and improper. I’d rather not have to do this (Bartleby?). I said so last week to a man who has run a small and superb poetry press for decades, and he nodded and replied: ‘Keep it hedonistic.’

Friday 21 December 2007


Battonya, Hungary, c.1930. More about this place later.

These I have read

These books (among others, and apart from re-reading Penelope Fitzgerald) have given me much, in the past year. Posted to give you – even though there is no you, yet: heck, this is Day 1 of this thing – some tiny inkling of where or what or who I am.
Edgardo Cozarinsky, The Moldavian Pimp
Isak Dinesen, Last Tales
Gert Hofmann, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl (Why has apparently no UK publisher has taken this? Why does this question need to be asked?)
James Kennaway, various novels: short, written late 1950s and 60s (he died in 68), much of them narrated through dialogue, typically two or three people in a room with the emotional intensity pitched so high there’s barely room for the scene-setting stuff; and mostly out of print.

4 Books

I’m selling something: books. Four of them, and they are good books, and each of them is roughly the price of a packet of cigarettes, and I am not being very successful, just now, at selling them. A few are out in the world, making their way, but most are in boxes, around me. They are published by CB editions, which is me. Here they are:

I know very little about most things but I do know something about books. I have read many, and written a few, and have worked in publishers’ offices for donkey’s years, and when I say these are good books, trust me. They have sentences in them that will do things to you that nothing else can, and you think: how did he, or she, do that, with those words?

I like that, when I read: to be surprised, and made to wonder. It doesn’t happen often. One of the reasons for what I seem to be doing is that so few of the books I sit at this desk copy-editing (and typesetting, proofreading) have this unexpectedness; and if no one else was going to put these particular four books between covers – all of which, I believe, do have this quality – then I had to do so myself.

The other day I picked up a couple of publishers’ catalogues for spring 2008; now they are in the bin, because they promised so much but were so quickly depressing. Like porn mags: the over-designed come-and-get-me covers, the hype, the sultry or solemn or pouting faces. Doubtless there are some good books in there; I do believe this; but paraded like this, they blur into one another. Publishing – mainstream publishing – is in a bad way. And the argument from the more high-minded ones that they have to publish celebrity biogs, etc, in order to subsidise the poetry, etc, doesn’t wash. The end never justifies the means. They publish the safe-bet high-gloss stuff in order to survive in the manner they’ve become accustomed to: big offices, large staff, multimedia promotion campaigns. To publish good books you don’t need any of that.

There are, thank god, some fine and noble publishers around. They tend to be small ones. Telegram Books, for instance, which I’ve only recently found – wonderful.


So. I don’t want a blog, I told her, at the time she was starting one, because . . . Oh, lots of reasons. Probably all the usual ones, but mainly because it’s – isn’t it? – a form of masturbation, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, if it becomes regular, a habit – daily, for god’s sake, isn’t that what these things are? – it loses something, maybe its whole point. Diminishing returns. It becomes something like washing the dishes and I’ve got enough of those things in my days already.

Other main reason being that I doubt I’m suited to this. I tend to stand back, let others talk. Except sometimes, and then I hear myself and am frankly disgusted. This goes back: I remember not putting up my hand in class even though I knew the answer because people would look at me and I’d blush.

Now, many many years later, I’m all in favour of blushing, a wonderful thing. Nothing to be ashamed of at all. It’s a lovely word too: blush (the 'sh' doesn't end, goes on, just as you blush more the more you are aware that you're blushing). As is, though not as good, shame. (For maybe a year I’ve had the ghost of a detective story of sorts hovering at the back of my head, about an amateur criminal, a beginner. Who commits some very minor, almost incidental crime – not even that: a faux pas, a peccadillo – and then, because of the shame he, or she, would feel at being found out, almost unwittingly commits a much more major crime to cover up the first one. I’m guessing that this may be how a lot of crimes enter the world.)

I’m going through an odd phase of being shameless.