Thursday 28 February 2008

Showing them off

It really wasn’t that long ago that Foyles had a payment system ‘apparently designed by a Victorian lunatic’ (John Walsh): to buy a book you first had to decode the shelving system, then queue to get an invoice, then take the invoice to someone in a zoo cage and pay your money, then take the receipt back to the person at the first desk (who in the meantime had been sacked).

These days, the people there like books, and know about them and how to sell them too. This isn’t a cosy place, in the way the smaller independents can be; any retail space over a certain size now aspires to the condition of an airport departure lounge (swivel that stand and you expect to pick up a pair of sunglasses, before moving on to the duty fee); but the shelves hold surprises and indicate that the buyers are free to choose what they buy (the CBe books, for example, are just in the Charing Cross Road shop; and yesterday I noticed some Dalkey Archive titles in the South Bank shop that are not in Charing Cross Road).

If publishing is about choice and making good writing available to readers, then the independent stores that take books from small presses, and bring in books from abroad, are effectively publishing as well as selling. One step further would be this: independent stores with their own imprints, editing and designing and printing their own choice of books. (City Lights is the obvious precedent.) The only reason why I can’t point to present examples of this (beyond the occasional one-off book) is, perhaps, because the folk who run the independent stores already work all hours of the day and are up to and beyond their borrowing limits. But it will happen.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Spot the review

Two new reviews of CBe books. Not in the Telegraph, Times, Independent, Time Out, LRB, Literary Review, none of those places I sent the books out to, and I doubt you’ll find them unless I give you a clue. (Unusual books get reviewed in unusual places.)

Erik Houston’s The White Room is noticed in Monocle magazine (with the above photo), deep among the ads for slinky dresses and shoes and handbags (there’s even a full-page ad for one of those cases on wheels that air hostesses trot around with): ‘a beautifully crafted tale of interlocking lives in London and Norway, imbued with a Scandinavian melancholy’. Which is nice, but this is not a mellow book, oh no (and it’s also absurdly funny).

‘Great approach, gentle rhythm, perfect pitch’ – Jennie’s 24 for 3. ‘Making fun of cricket is easy work, but only rarely has the game been so gently and generously played with as here.’ In the Canberra Times, Australia.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Naming names

An ex-colleague writes (someone I used to send freelance work to, proofreading and the like, when I worked in a publisher’s office, which wasn’t all that long ago but feels like ancient history): she’s starting up a new bookshop in May, in Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The space, she says, is tiny; but there’ll be room for lots of children’s books, and books from the small publishers that excite her (Eland and Telegram are two of those she mentions), and her enthusiasm is huge. May she thrive.

This seems a cue to name a few names: John Sandoe, the London Review Bookshop, Crockatt & Powell, Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, Daunts in Holland Park, Foyles in Charing Cross Road, Heywood Hill, the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney, the Calder Bookshop. Some of these places I’ve wandered into with a bag of CBe books and started talking; with others, more recently, the approach has been from them to me. All have taken books, and started selling them. Not one has queried the lack, on the books, of a printed barcode.

(In contrast, my local Waterstones – which I believe has licence from on high to stock a few locally sourced books at the manager’s discretion – mumbled about lack of space, not the right time of year, no barcodes, the near impossibility of taking the books unless I go through the main distributor they deal with. And Amazon? A joke. I’d have to pay an annual fee; books would be sent to them at my cost, they’d pay me no more than £2.40 per book and only after they’d sold the books at whatever price they choose, and – I know this from the experience of others – I wouldn’t see any money at all until after months of repeated requests. There’s a way of getting the books into Amazon’s ‘used & new’ subsection but there are copies already there, presumably the ones sent out for review that vanished.)

Some obvious things get said about independent bookstores whenever there’s a newspaper article about them: the staff know about the books they sell, because they read them themselves; they often know their customers too, because the shops are embedded in the local community. But the main point is this: there’s an art (doubtless a science too) to bookselling – it has to with knowledge and choice (what to leave out as well as what to put in) and enthusiasm and lots of personal relationship stuff – and the independent stores have the conditions in which this art can best flourish. The chainstores may make more money but their bureaucracy and hierarchy obstruct the art. Given the size of the book market, the scale of it, the chainstores and Amazon are probably reasonably efficient mechanisms for shifting product from warehouse to punter; but for anyone for whom either buying or selling a book is more a interesting activity than paying your electricity bill, the independent stores are the only places.

Some of them have a dog, or similar. And unless you’re in a hurry, you often come out with something – other book, new knowledge, phone number of someone nice – you didn’t actually go in for.

Sunday 17 February 2008


Over on Bookseller Crow’s blog there’s a mention of Joyce Carol Dates (as a Picador cover once spelt her). Easily done. Orphan Pamuk didn’t quite make it into the shops. Lovely mess when the back cover of the filmscript of Trainspotting, referring to the ‘heroin-addicted’ character of Mark Renton, mistakenly printed him as the journalist Alex Renton.

My copy of Cozarinsky’s The Moldavian Pimp lists his previous book as ‘The Bridge from Odessa’. Less transportable, I’d have thought, than the original ‘Bride’. Ted Hughes once published a book titled ‘A Dancer to God’; in one of his later books, this is listed as ‘A Danger to God’. These are the sort of errors that a proofreader corrects only reluctantly. I can imagine others: Dostoevsky, Grime and Punishment; Dickens, Great Expectorations; Elizabeth Bowen, The Horse in Paris.

I once let pass without query (in a biography of Liszt, since you ask) a sentence in which someone was described as feeling ‘as if they were clamped between a mermaid’s legs’ – unimprovably ridiculous. But just occasionally, I know that feeling.

Monday 11 February 2008

Mamet in a box

No page-one CB headlines. W was last seen wrapped in a Polish flag, after the Colony Room reading. Jennie wants me to engineer her a contract to do the authorised biography of Dimitri Mascarenhas (who hits sixes, and ‘is energetic in the field, with a good arm’ – Jonathan Agnew). And you can now buy the books in Foyles (Charing Cross Road), which has over the past few years become one of those shops you go into thinking they can’t possibly stock what I’m looking for and they do, and have a great cafĂ© too.

So, a digression on David Mamet. His London revivals are, I gather, being praised, his New York new plays being panned, and I’m guessing the man himself is shrugging, and chuckling. (I warmed to this man some time ago, when I read his reply to an interviewer’s solemn question about his motives for directing the film of The Browning Version: he went into a long story about a dog that he loved, and the dog was kidnapped, and eventually the kidnappers got in touch to say that he could have the dog back only if he promised to make a film of The Browning Version.)

In 2000 he published Wilson, a novel of sorts, composed of fragments, made-up epigrams, quotes and misquotes, arguments, red herrings and other fish, and footnotes of various kinds and footnotes to those footnotes – much pleasure was had in the design (Ron Costley) and typesetting (Jill Burrows). It’s either a masterpiece or so wilful and indulgent as to be unreadable (from a UK review: ‘The whole thing flew so far over my head, I didn’t even hear it pass. In fact I didn’t even understand the blurb’). (In the book itself a footnote quotes a review of a book titled The Life History of Civilization: ‘either a work of overwhelming invention or a vast pile of shit’.) Or, more likely, it’s neither, but simply one of those books you disappear into for periods of relaxed bamboozlement (taking it lightly: academic seriousness is what it feeds off, chews up and spits out). I lent out my own copy years ago. But today I found another, in a box of free books in a basement corridor: shop-soiled books, or books printed upside down, or books that have nothing wrong with them at all except that – despite the blurbs: tour de force, witty and insightful, coruscating analysis of the moral vacuum at the heart of contemporary society, heartbreaking account of a young girl's coming-of-age – no one wants to read them. Some of life’s good things are still free.

Saturday 2 February 2008

The review lottery

Sending out books for review? A waste of time, advised an acquaintance who self-publishes. It’s like buying a lottery ticket: the chance of catching the eye of the right person in the right mood at the right time of day is minimal.

We did send the CBe books out, and we managed to buy a winning ticket: the Lezard review in the Guardian was a breakthrough, not just for that particular book but because it gives the whole venture some credibility. But there are certain assumptions standing in the way of getting these books noticed (that print-on-demand books are bad; that small-press books are niche, and aimed for a tiny readership), and on the whole that friend was right: 99 per cent of the books sent out for review just vanish.

They are busy people, literary editors. They have little time to actually look at what’s in front of them. I wrote a personal note to one of the broadsheet literary editors, because I used to work with him and there was a time when we talked about the lunacies of the publishing world. I got a friendly reply: he was pleased to note that I ‘have some really good titles forthcoming’ (we have not announced any forthcoming titles) and he would make sure that ‘our poetry editor knows all about CBe' (none of the books is poetry).