Monday 30 November 2009

Good wine, onion soup and the price of books

From a US newspaper report on the book wars: ‘Since 1981, French law dictates that both large chain booksellers and independent booksellers sell the same titles at fixed prices. This has allowed small independent bookstores to maintain their businesses . . . Gallimard Publishing House editor Jean Mattern commented, “On a national level there is an extremely strong will to keep the diversity of these independent bookstores alive, because these stores serve as a kind of guarantee for the future of independent publishing as well.”’

Saturday 28 November 2009

Season of lists and mellow bookishness

Alan Hollinghurst in the Guardian (28/11/09): ‘I’ve been intrigued by what seems a new development in that slightly dreaded form, “the long poem” – three really vital books that wed the momentum of prose fiction to the imagistic concision of poetry. After Adam Foulds's gripping re-creation of the Mau Mau rising, The Broken Word (Cape), have come two books from the excellent new CB Editions: JO Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the 70-page biography of an adventurous boy from Skye whose feats of improvisation are related in easy but apt free verse, and Christopher Reid’s riveting The Song of Lunch, a tiny narrative disproportionately rich in exact observation, sorry comedy and controlled pathos. After reading Reid you start to wonder why fiction-writers bother with all the padding and padding about of prose.’

Wendy Cope in the Observer (22/11/09): ‘[Christopher Reid’s] The Song of Lunch (CB Editions) is a witty narrative about a publisher meeting an old flame in an Italian restaurant. The story is sad, as well as funny, and very enjoyable.’

Buy Natural Mechanical and The Song of Lunch from the website – or, why not, any two titles – and Jack Robinson’s Recessional will be added free.

Friday 27 November 2009

Distressed retail, bad plumbing

Whenever the plug has been taken out of the bath in recent weeks, water has been coming through the kitchen ceiling and showering the vegetables. The plumbing of the bath, shower and washing machine has been a bit iffy.

Meanwhile Borders has been losing money. Borders bookshops, that is: originally owned by Borders US; bought in 2007 by Risk Capital Partners, who reduced the number of shops; bought again in July this year by Valco Capital Partners (‘the private equity division of Hilco, the distressed retail specialists’, according to The Times), who themselves appointed Clearwater Finance to find a buyer, who failed to do this, and who put on standby the administrators BDO Stoy Hayward, who then found they had a conflict of interest because they have dealings with Borders US. The pipework, again, has been iffy, and the water pouring through the kitchen ceiling has been anything but clear, and Borders has gone into admin.

Now the good news. Larry the plumber has this morning bashed a hole through the house wall and solved (fingers crossed) the bath problem. And down in Brighton, where a bookshop event for Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew had been arranged for next Thursday at, you guessed it, Borders, Nicky has managed to relocate the event to the Jubilee Library.

Booksellers will lose their jobs. The reduction in the number of big chain bookstores may mean that the surviving ones will individually become more powerful (God knows). But right now, no sermon on the state of the publishing and bookselling industry. Instead, huge thanks to the individuals who have stepped in to deal with the immediate mess: Larry; Jen at the Jubilee Library; Marcus at Borders in Brighton.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Go, little book

Another cheapskate publisher who’s too mean to fork out for flimflam on the cover. (Photo courtesy of ‘a friend’: thank you.)

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ – on the other hand, most browsers in bookshops have nothing but the cover to judge by. On the third hand, it’s what’s inside the cover that determines whether it’s going to stick around. You do what seems right for the book and then say, with Chaucer, ‘Go, litel bok . . . And red whereso thow be, or elles songe,/ That thow be understood, God I biseche!’

Or, with Robert Louis Stevenson:

‘Go, little book - the ancient phrase
And still the daintiest - go your ways,
My Otto, over sea and land,
Till you shall come to Nelly's hand.

How shall I your Nelly know?
By her blue eyes and her black brow,
By her fierce and slender look,
And by her goodness, little book!’

Sunday 22 November 2009

You see?

‘At least CB editions don’t try to outdo other publishers in the garishness of their covers,’ remarked a blog review of last year. Not least for reasons of thrift: what the typographic covers bypass is the whole longwinded process of the author preferring one image and me another and the designer going her own way – and then this: when we do find the perfect photo for a book (in this case, a CBe title for next May), and the author is happy and I’m happy and the photographer is happy to take a free book or two in lieu of a fee, there’s still a spanner lying around for someone to throw in. The girl in the photo, taken two years ago, is now with an agency that says using this photo on a book cover would be ‘detrimental to her career’, so no release.

The photo in question is beautiful (and also unsettling and funny), and so is the girl. It cannot be – can it? – that her agency minder thinks that having her on a book cover implies she reads books, and that this an unsexy thing to be implying? If so, the minder clearly hasn’t seen any of the several photos around of Marilyn Monroe reading (one of which was used on a recent Faber cover).

Wednesday 18 November 2009


Brighton today, where I took books and flyers for a Knight Crew event on 3 December at Borders in Churchill Square – where, alongside Nicky Singer talking about the book, there’ll be some of the children involved in developing marketing ideas for the opera, and prizes too: books, opera tickets, hoodies with the Knight Crew motif . . . For those at the back of the room whose attention has been wandering, a recap: Knight Crew will be staged at Glyndebourne next March as a youth opera, with 6 professional singers and 60 young performers recruited from local schools and community groups; and the making of the opera is being filmed with Gareth Malone for a BBC documentary.

But first is the book, and for this you don’t have to wait until March. In fact you could go to the CBe website and buy a copy right now.

Nicky’s website is here; the Knight Crew opera website is here.

Monday 16 November 2009


Here’s the get-together of books shortlisted for the Popescu Prize for European poetry in translation. The ‘winner’ gets his/her prize at an event on Thursday. Dante, meet Constantine Cavafy – oh, I know your work well, I’m so pleased at last to – Gabriela, come and join us – so sorry, Ms Shvarts, that your flight was delayed – Monsieur Ponge, I’m afraid if you must smoke your cheroots you’ll have to . . . oh, never mind.

There’s a magic about this assembly that no other prize in this season of prizes can match. It’s to do with the poems made available here having been written over several hundred years, and in many languages; and it’s to do with celebrating the names in small-size print, the translators, whose work always serves something other and larger than themselves.

Sunday 15 November 2009


Was it worth it? – sitting for two days behind a table at the book fair. Well, I was stuffed with a cold, and overdosed on Sudafed to keep me breathing, so I couldn’t have got anything else done; but that’s no answer. And the financial reckoning is only a part of it. More than enough books were sold to cover the payment for the table, but I think very few of the folk travelling from outside London (Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Norway . . .) covered their costs for the trip. It’s to do with conversations, new people, common interests (Judy Kravis from Road Books on the next table knew Grace Paley, was hugged by Grace Paley, and taught Ponge to literature students in Ireland; the chap behind the CBe table above, by the way, is Toby, sitting in while I took a coffee break).

A visiting friend remarked, amazed, surveying the crowded hall: ‘All these people are interested in books!’ There was that, but there’s a more specialised common interest here in books (and pamphlets, cards, posters) as objects of design (some handmade, some printed in tiny editions), and text-heavy CBe is far from being one of the main gang. Design here is often at least as important as content, sometimes is the content. As a celebration of the variety of bookmaking, this annual event is a glorious thing; and I felt more comfortable here than I would do in a more commercial book fair, or even one devoted exclusively to, say, poetry publishers; but I doubt this is CBe’s natural habitat.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The front line

This is me at last year’s Small Publishers Fair looking a bit glum, looking a bit bored. Although truly I enjoyed it – being stuck behind a table like being in the dentist’s chair: no rushing to do things, no emails or phone calls demanding immediate response; just being there, at the mercy of passing strangers.

This coming Friday and Saturday, 13th and 14th November, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, WC1R 4RL, nearest tube Holborn, I’ll be there again – with the CBe books of course, but also with the Ken Garland books of photographs I posted about some time ago but can’t recall when, and a new Christopher Reid publication never before offered. You need to be there, you really do. To leaf though books and maybe buy one; to gossip, pass time; to distract, charm or harangue me; to be part of something that’s more than worth your while.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Aldeburgh 2009

Seagulls (14: a sonnet) on the roof of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh yesterday morning, waiting to find out who’d won the 2009 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize . J. O. Morgan with Natural Mechanical is who.

In an October post I quoted Barbara Epler on editing; here’s how that quote continues: ‘And after you do the best you can, you enjoy the beautiful book and people’s pleasure in it. There is the more rare delight of a great success, of a marvelous book reaching a wider audience: the pleasure, as Graham Greene said of the success at the time of William Gerhardie, of watching your horse come in first. Merit doesn’t always have its own reward and when it does, that’s exhilarating.’

Of course there’s more to be done. Anyone who’s read the book knows it should be not only on the poetry shelves of every bookstore but also on the memoirs, children’s and true stories shelves, and in every school too. But meanwhile, Saturday: I was there, taking books, and taking in a reading and Philip Levine in conversational mode – funny, serious, laced with the occasional expletive (a particular occasion being a scenario in which he’s stuck for four hours in a lift with Ben Jonson): this is something the older-generation Americans do so much better than the Brits. And going for a long walk along the beach in brisk autumnal weather, which is also exhilarating.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Restaurant review: Zanzotti’s, Soho

This week’s TLS has a review of Christopher Reid’s ‘surprisingly successful and innovative’ The Song of Lunch, alongside his Mr Mouth and A Scattering. Given that the review remarks ‘how far Reid has matured and moved on’ since the early collections that established his reputation, it’s worth noting (and asking yourself, if there's no one else around, why this is) that all the three new books under review come from publishers so small they’re not even on the radar of the Poetry Library’s list of 69 small-press poetry publishers.

Also briefly reviewed in the same issue of the TLS is Simon Rae’s Unplayable, a children’s cricket book (published by Top Edge Press, designed and typeset by CBe last summer): ‘The dream of the unplayable bowler, the natural who can barely understand the game but can beat all-comers . . .’

Monday 2 November 2009

‘The most original book I have read this year’

That’s the heading for a 5-star review of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew on ‘This is – and isn’t – a book about street gangs being drawn into knife crime, about warring factions on two tough estates; about a weird baglady. Yes, the kids are believable – the gang leader and his challengers; the geeky boy who shouldn’t be underestimated. But there is something else going on in this story – an astounding, highly original twist that gradually reveals itself – and soon you will realise this is a whole different story from the one you thought you were reading.’

A similar line is taken by Angela Kiverstein in the Jewish Chronicle: ‘Teenage passions are played out against a background of grim estates, gang feuds and knife crime and told in authentic street language. That’s the story on one level but, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that something deeper and more extraordinary is going on. To explain would be to pre-empt the pleasure of discovery.’

A blog review of the book by David Hebblethwaite starts off by referring to the very thing the above notices want readers to discover for themselves; but really it doesn’t matter what your point of entry into the book is. Knight Crew ‘draws on one of the most fundamental of all British stories, a story which deals in archetypes. Nicky Singer has brought together the old and new to craft a fable that demonstrates the enduring relevance of even the most apparently well-worn legends, whilst asking questions about the world in which we live today.’

The above are good notices, but not yet good enough. For small presses especially, the amount of kissing, licking and generally leaning on people you have to engage in to get any attention for a book is usually out of all proportion to the actual results; but just occasionally someone will pick up the book and SHOUT, and kiss you back, and I’m still hoping for that.

(A PS to the previous post: I did once know the ghost writer of a celeb biography who, after the book was published and got some good reviews, decided that he did after all want his name on the title page. Too late, said the publisher: you signed the contract, you’re a ghost and you stay that way.)