Wednesday 28 May 2008

I cut my finger

Lowest number of posts per month: my hours are filled. Today I found myself talking with – by email, phone or on Skype – an editor in the US, a rights manager in Paris, another one in Germany, another one at a university press in the US, two agents in London, two translators, an author and an accountant; and briefing the man who’s doing the new CBe website for next month; and designing and typesetting a screenplay. And postponing yet again the regular freelance hackwork I rely on for an income. This was supposed to be a hobby, not a job. There are warning signs: fewer books being read; and cutting myself on the lid of a tin of coconut milk when I was hurrying to make a Thai curry for supper.

Why? I mean, beyond enjoyment, which it still is, because it’s new and the people I do this conversing with are nice. This, for one thing: Michael Hofmann’s translation of his father’s last novel, Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl, which CBe will be publishing in the UK in the autumn. ‘Europe’s belated answer to Lolita’ – Gabriel Josipovici, TLS (International Books of the Year 2004). ‘Probably the zaniest, gloomiest, and funniest thing you’ve read in a long time, if not ever’ – MH, in the Afterword. It came out in the US in 2004; I can only assume that other UK publishers have been busy on the phone for the past four years talking to their accountants and website designers.

Friday 16 May 2008


Annual Book Industry Awards this week, apparently. I wonder what they actually win (book tokens?). I don’t understand these things; though I did notice, on the website, that one of the people shortlisted for the ‘Award for Industry Achievement’ was also one of the judges. But the bookseller of the year is Foyles, and they are also the chain bookselling company of the year (with five branches, compared with the several hundred of, say, Waterstones), and I’m not arguing. They are big and ancient but they seem to operate like your local friendly independent, and this is a neat thing to do. A few months ago a man at Foyles actually contacted CBe and ASKED for books, and made an initial order for ten of each title, and sold them all, and paid us.

A (publisher) to B (bookseller) to C (customer): not a complicated route, you might think, hard to get lost on the way. But when the big systems come into play . . . Neilsen’s ‘BookNet services are used widely by thousands of companies in the industry to send or receive orders, ensuring that the supply chain runs with speed, efficiency and accuracy.’ I should have known. When CBe started and I registered the books with Neilsen BookData they put me onto a system that would alert me by email to book orders. No emails came; then, by post, some cancellations of orders I’d never received; then someone phoned from a distributor to ask where were the books they’d ordered several weeks before. I called Nielsen, was put through to someone, was put through to someone else. I had, it turns out, been ‘set up incorrectly’. They were very sorry about this.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Modern business practices no. 374

People will ‘get back’ to me, and don’t. This is normal. Ditto things not being posted, information not being passed on, the dead not being resurrected.

I blame two things. One is those encyclopaedic databases in which, if you add one piece of information, everything else magically recalculates itself. They have a knock-on effect on the people who use them: now, if someone in an office takes a phone call or opens an email, they believe that everything consequent on that message will happen automatically, so they don’t actually have to do anything themselves. The second thing is ‘effective communication’, which promises to mend broken marriages, increase your profit margins and solve all your other problems too: there’s a point at which the actual content begins to erase itself. Those meetings, which are often about other meetings: everyone has a turn to talk, but on listening they pass. So words become abstract sounds, a form of ambient music. (Brian Eno: ‘Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’)