Thursday 28 May 2009


The Salon de refusés meandering in the previous posts is essentially about who pays for what. Getting some good books published that otherwise may never see daylight, yes, but the means involves switching the money around.

Money, ah. Salt Publishing currently has a nasty (but charmingly named) budget deficit and is asking people to buy books – see their website. Sounds obvious, but part of the reason for this situation is that even to many of those who applaud the whole idea of publishing non-mainstream books, the point seems not to have struck home: if you don’t buy, then there’ll be no books.

A comrade in the US reminded me today that one of the regular ways for small presses to raise money is competitions. Poems, stories: charge an entry fee you can get away with, and even after you’ve paid the ‘well-known’ judge and paid and published the winners you should still come out on top. In the US there are hundreds, thousands of these. As my correspondent writes: ‘Part of the whole pobiz thing in the USA: MFA programmes churn out graduates who go into teaching MFA programmes (cash cow for universities) who need to publish . . .’ It happens here too.

I would prefer not to. (Bartleby – reissued recently, by the way, by Hesperus, with an intro by Patrick McGrath.) ‘Wherever there is judging, there is always injustice,’ says a very minor character in War and Peace. Not reason enough in itself; there’s plenty of injustice around without any competitions. More a temperamental aversion to the whole winners-and-losers thing: good books, yes, but (I repeat from somewhere else) a best book is a mythical beast.

To money, I am not averse.

There’s that good story about Lincoln (told in, I think, an Annie Dillard book): a lobbyist offers Lincoln money to vote a certain way and Lincoln pretends he hasn’t heard; doubles the offer and Lincoln brushes him off; doubles again and Lincoln wearily shakes his head; doubles again and Lincoln explodes in fury, ‘How dare you attempt to bribe me?’ Lobbyist, bemused: ‘Why so angry so suddenly?’ Lincoln: ‘Because you were getting damn near my asking price.’

Monday 25 May 2009

Salon des refusés (2)

Further to the below . . . Logical conclusion: a sidelist alongside the main CBe books. For books which are absolutely good but which don’t exactly fit the CBe profile or/and for which I simply don’t have the money to fund myself. And for which the finances would be different: the writers themselves pay the printer and pay CBe a one-off fee for everything involved in producing and publishing the book, in return for which they get all the sales income.

In that the financial risk is taken by the writers themselves, this is self-publishing. In that the books have been chosen by CBe, come out under the CBe imprint, are sold through the CBe sales channels, etc, it’s conventional publishing.

Any publisher could do this. It’s very possible it’s happening already – but without the details being disclosed, neither publisher nor author willing to be associated with anything that smacks of self-publishing. Because self-publishing, for generally good reasons, is a term that booksellers, lit eds, everyone in the business, authors included, recoil from. But readers – as long as they like the book they’re reading, I don’t think readers give a damn about who’s paid for what.

When I try to put figures on this, figures that would mean it’s actually financially worth my while to put in the time and work, for books with small print runs the idea starts falling away. But right now there’s an increasing number of good books being turned down by mainstream publishers; and the smaller presses, while doing much of the work the big ones are giving up on (finding new writers, publishing for minority readerships, etc), have little money and can’t do everything; and in principle this seems to me a workable notion.

(PS: I did once suggest, to the Great and Good publisher I parted company from about four years ago, the idea of a Little Brother list – maybe half a dozen books a year; new writing, work in progress, the kind of work the estimate-sheets would normally tell the G-&-G publisher not to take on; single part-time editor, tiny advances, minimum production costs and publicity. Any work that was well received could move into the main list during the next season; and any work that failed to take off, well, at least it would have had its time in the sun, and no one would have lost any serious money. G-&-G, of course, wasn’t interested.)

Saturday 16 May 2009

Salon des refusés

Rejected by the jury of the official Salon in 1863, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe was hung in the Salon des refusés. (Digression: I once saw a play by David Pownall that opened with the actors arranged exactly as in this painting; one of the two men was Marx, the other Freud, though I have may have misremembered the Freud one.)

Writers A, B, C, D and E are all established authors with prizes, good sales records and cuttings files of good reviews, and they are all now sharing the experience of having their new books rejected by the mainstream publishing salon. The new book of writer F was accepted but then had its publication postponed indefinitely. Writer G was at one point a household name but now has no book in print, and no publisher is interested in reissuing them. (And these are just the ones I’ve happened to meet in the past few months; there must be many more.)

There’s a recession, but that’s more of an excuse than an explanation; writers A to G are safer bets than many. We’ve been heading here for some time: corporate takeovers; business models concentrated on the bottom line; investment in marketing for the books that are assumed to be the hot sellers, to the exclusion of others; high overheads making the publishing of anything risky a loss-making activity.

Meanwhile, technology. Traditional litho printing obliged you to print in high numbers to get a decent unit cost; digital printing allows you to print short runs, even individual copies, for little money. Writers A to G tend to nod off here; for them, me too, books are for reading and writing, not haggling over with printers. But during my back-room years (a humdrum life, but at least I didn’t have to stand up and spout nonsense at sales conferences), I picked up, largely by accident, some of the non-writerly stuff (it’s not difficult), and I'm now helping writers A, B and C to self-publish.

The usual advice on self-publishing – don’t – generally still holds. It’s not enough for the book to be a good book; you need access to some form of media publicity to get it noticed and sold. But at least there’s no reason now why the book itself should be any less well edited, designed and printed than a book from a regular publisher. And these days – just as Manet shared wall space in 1863 with Cezanne, Pissarro, Whistler – the company you’ll keep in the Salon des refusés is becoming increasingly renowned.

Friday 15 May 2009


The CBe edition of Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, is reviewed by Lee Rourke in this week’s TLS: ‘Beverley Bie Brahic’s translation is wholly in keeping with Ponge’s own premiss . . . that he should “never sacrifice the object of [his] study in order to enhance some verbal turn discovered on the subject”. These new translations never interfere with Ponge’s vision, and things do not lose their thingness. We can be grateful to both the translator and CB editions for bringing the unique work of Francis Ponge back to the attention of English-speakers.’

Monday 11 May 2009

‘Let this be it’

Weeks since the last post . . . Excuses to offer, expenses to claim? None. I’ve been reading Mavis Gallant: genius. Short stories are not chapters in novels, she warns: read one, go away and live a bit before you read another. Not easy, given the temptation of the next page and the next. How does she do what she does? Her stories are more strange and original than their fluency and apparent old-fashionedness suggests. Often the big ‘events’ – a death, a betrayal – happen offstage or between the lines, while the page is printed with ephemera – snatches of dialogue, a glance at the people sitting at a neighbouring table – that say everything.

I’ve been aiding and abetting two writers, both well-reviewed and with good sales records, who cannot find a mainstream taker for their new books and have decided to take the alternative route. Despite it being such a rocky one. A phone call this morning from a reader who praised the new Jack Robinson book and asked me how I sell – oh, a distributor, mail-outs, copies sent off to the lit eds, visits to favourite bookshops, and, I suppose, word of mouth. The response (with honourable exceptions) is sluggish. (And my occasional frustration that of the local grocer who overhears voluble support for local, small-scale businesses from people driving by to Tesco’s.)

The above picture – on the left, Robert Fergusson (1750–74), a contemporary of Burns; his first poems were published in 1771; two years later, according to the Oxford Companion, ‘he developed manic-depressive symptoms, and died not long after being shut up in the local Bedlam.’ On the right, an Edinburgh girl in the sunshine reading Natural Mechanical. ‘If you read only one poem a year,’ says the current catalogue from John Sandoe (Books), ‘let this be it.’