Friday 28 May 2010


Christopher Reid and Jerry Hall – last seen in public together at the Costa prize do in January, an event recorded in a very nice photograph of them in OK magazine – are being re-united at the Hay Festival. Jerry will be choosing passages to read from The Song of Lunch, and the event will be broadcast tomorrow night on Sky Arts1 at 7 p.m. Those without Sky (me neither) may catch a fleeting glimpse on the Sky Arts website.

PS (Sunday): I'm not getting far with the website. Only as far as a photo of Mariella F above an ad asking if I'm worried about dying unexpectedly and offering to sell me peace of mind for as little as a fiver a month. I think that may be far enough.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Fünf Tage. Ein Spiel

The first Test match of the summer started this morning at Lords, and in the post came a German publisher’s catalogue featuring Jennie’s book (published over there in July). Shoes are a less culture-bound visual image than a cricket ball, and Mick Jagger has more international clout than Nick Lezard: this is unarguable, and Jennie is pleased. (For those who haven’t been following – and cricket is a long game, in which much of what happens seems to happen when you’re looking away – the English title is 24 for 3 and it’s published here by Bloomsbury.)

Wednesday 26 May 2010


Amazon’s position on Are they funny, are they dead? today is that it is ‘temporarily out of stock’, which at least rings true, compared with yesterday’s ‘not yet released’, which wasn’t true. Possibly they have ordered in a couple of copies. Possibly this is in response to the above, which is what I sent on the form linked from the site which publishers can fill in with blurbs and reviews and the like. Of course I was hoping that this might be uploaded directly onto the book’s page, but possibly Amazon’s automated system isn’t completely automated and there’s a person who reads things. Possibly. Not that he/she’s going to talk to me. Anyway, I’ve got better things to do.

Monday 24 May 2010

The Dunbar Number

I have, as readers of the most recent posts will know, a bruised forehead after beating my head against Waterstones (who say that Funny/dead is not yet printed) and Amazon (who say it is not yet released) and Facebook (who say my email address is ‘not valid’) and BT (who cut me off for a couple of days last week) and the Arts Council (whose number, given to me to discuss my failed application, appears to be the number only of an answerphone) and . . .

In a Facebook conversation last night – I mean an across-the-supper-table conversation about Facebook, not one on Facebook – a friend (who has a friend who in turn has over 3,000 Facebook ‘friends’) mentioned Robin Dunbar. Ah yes (I once copy-edited one of his books). There is a Dunbar Number, not an exact one but hovering around 150: ‘The way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation . . .’ (For more, see here; and then his books.)

Go above that number and the bonds of trust and obligation fray, loosen, break up. And I have a hunch that once an organisation (social, commercial, whatever) increases over a certain size, many of its operations (and their attendant bureaucracy) tend to work against the aims for which it was originally set up; and measures to increase ‘efficiency’ can result in the whole thing becoming unfit-for-purpose. (The education system comes to mind.)

The Dunbar Number happens to be a sort of default number for CBe: for most of the titles, if I sell around 150 I haven’t lost money. The problem here is that to find those 150 readers, and certainly to find more, I have to engage with institutions (the aforementioned Amazon and Waterstones among them) for whom the Dunbar Number is so piddling it’s hardly worth their bothering about, and nothing to do with trust and obligation.

Stendhal claimed he wrote for ‘the Happy Few’ – very possibly the Dunbar Number.

Sunny review weather

My suggestion on Friday that you take Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? outdoors and read it in the sunshine seems to have been taken up by Hannah Stoneham in France, and the result is this review on her blog: ‘There is a clear-sighted surrealism and a willingness to ask questions at the heart of this collection. It contains shrewd observations about everyday life, and much humour as well. My favourite story is “A Vivid Imagination” . . . This story is a wonderful piece of whimsy and an exercise in incredulity and imagination. Watts satirises the pompous and celebrates the freethinking . . .’

Also in the past few days, a review on another blog of In Sarah’s House by Stefan Grabinski: ‘Each of the six tales in this collection translated by Wiesiek Powaga are satisfying in the way you might expect from a man known as “the Polish Poe” . . . Dreams, memories, history; the past is reaching out to grab the protagonists in these tales and, in much the same way as Steven Moffat kicked of his tenure at the helm of Doctor Who, the danger lurks in the corner of your eye, or, even worse, at that moment when you choose to close them. Don't blink.’

(According to Amazon this morning, Funny/dead ‘has not yet been released’; according to Waterstones last Friday, it’s not yet printed. In fact it’s been available from the distributor for six weeks. It’s in stock at certain independents – Sandoe’s, Bookseller Crow, LR Bookshop, others – but if those are not local then, until the giants wake up, your best chance of getting hold of a copy is the CBe website.)

Friday 21 May 2010

Brick wall

Today a would-be purchaser of Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? went into the Hampstead Waterstones to buy a copy and was told it’s not yet in print.

That shop is Marjorie Ann’s local bookshop. She is known to the staff; she has even been in there with variant roughs of the cover, asking – and taking – their advice, and everyone was very friendly. The book has been available from the distributor, Central Books, since early April. In January the Waterstones ‘independent publishers coordinator’ told me he had ‘alerted the relevant buyers’.

The Waterstones children’s fiction buyer has said encouraging things about Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which was staged at Glyndebourne as a youth opera with great reviews in March, and there’ll be three BBC TV programmes about that in June, presented by Gareth Malone; whether you’ll be able to buy the book in Waterstones I cannot tell.

Selling the books – no, just making them available – is damn hard. And it’s not just the chainstores. Last year I sent catalogues and personal covering letters to around a hundred independent bookshops; not a single order resulted.

Worth the candle? (See last post, below.) Yes. These are good books. But my forehead is deeply bruised.

Gambling by candlelight

There are times – yesterday’s party for Marjorie Ann Watts’s book was one – when I think this whole thing (I mean CBe) is a bonny wee babe well worth all the nurturing she demands. There are others – when I look at my bank statements, which show that because of the amount of time CBe devours my freelance income has halved in the last couple of years – when I think it’s not worth the candle.

This morning was one of the latter. I need to sell more books. Because CBe does not mesh well with the business models of the major online retailers and the chainstores, which assume a volume of sales beyond the reach of small presses, I’d put in an application to the Arts Council for some funding to invest in a new website (more information about the books, downloadable excerpts, integrated blog, etc) and a spot of e-marketing (newsletters, that stuff) to increase direct sales. And today I got the reply: ‘I am sorry to tell you . . .’ The application ‘met the criteria’ but there was ‘competition for funds’ and ‘we had to make difficult choices’.

The track record, I still believe, is persuasive: fifteen titles (fiction, poetry, a screenplay, a couple of books that refuse to be categorised; four translations) published since November 2007; a fiction prize, a poetry prize, three shortlistings; review coverage in the TLS, Guardian, Independent, Irish Times, Scotsman, etc, as well as the poetry magazines and a number of literary blogs; and a reaching out to new audiences (‘If those who never touch poetry tried a few pages of [Natural Mechanical], they might become converts’, Glasgow Herald; Knight Crew produced as a youth opera at Glyndebourne in March this year, with three BBC TV programmes to follow in June; a BBC film adaptation of another of the books – more on this later – scheduled for October). All this has been achieved from a start-up cost of just £2,000, and with no external funding.

There are some good things about having little or no money. A launch party at the Foundling Hospital would be nice, but I don’t have to worry about that because it’s out of the question. And when I offer an advance or payment for rights, I can simply say this is what’s on the table, puny though it is, take it or leave it. Still, any introductions to the Earl of Southampton will be welcome. Any mention of the Olympics will not.

Of course I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end (there are five, maybe six more titles lined up; two in October, the others next year) and no publisher has any ‘right’ to public money. The expression ‘the game is not worth the candle’ seems to derive from something written by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 and alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. A game is what publishing is. There are more important things: the ability to love for one, and to write, to write well, another. Publishing is about fiddling around, getting this thing done and then the next, and it can be done well or badly but it’s a long way secondary to the above. Gambling by candlelight seems right. Trouble is, it’s addictive.

What May is for

Sitting out late at pavement cafés. Being less in a hurry, wearing fewer clothes, lying out on the grass with a book and watching a fly crawl across the page, thinking of the whole of summer ahead.

And having a party for a book, such as last night’s for Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? at the London Review bookshop, which has a courtyard outside and chairs inside. You start talking to X, who turns out to know Y, and there is Z, who has travelled from Moscow this morning to be here, and you become so interested and involved that you completely forget about the camera in your pocket which you’d brought to record this event, and by the time you remember it the pile of books that would have featured in this record has diminished considerably and you think never mind about the record, the important thing is that it happened and was enjoyed.

There’ll be a piece by Marjorie Ann in the Telegraph magazine in June. I’d like to say there’ll be reviews too, but can’t promise. Meanwhile the weather continues fine, and if you’re looking for a book to take out on the grass and read, Are they funny, are they dead? won’t disappoint.

Sunday 9 May 2010

BYO chaise longue

Work in Progress: next Sunday, the 16th May, 12 to 6 p.m. at The Lexington, 96–98 Pentonville Road, N1 9JB – ‘An informal gathering for writers, readers and underground publishers. From fiction zines to esoteric essays, new translations to art writing.’ CBe will be there, with books (if the volcano so wills: I have to take a brief trip during the week, but in theory will be back in time). And many others. Come.

The flyer for Work in Progress includes the word ‘salon’ – this is the current word for these things. On Saturday I was at a gathering that really did deserve the word: an evening in a private, domestic setting that included a reading, good wine, gossip, mad ideas, chance encounters, everything except a chaise longue. It was organised by Meike Ziervogel (who would look just fine on a chaise longue, and maybe the Arts Council could step in here) of Peirene Press, which, like CBe, got off to a running start with Nicholas Lezard’s Guardian review of its first book.

There are more good publishers in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of by Amazon and the chainstores and the Sunday broadsheets. Take a look at Peirene. And at Lenz.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Tactical voting

My mum, who was definitely not Tory but lived in a solid Tory constituency, once joined the local Conservative Party in order to at least have a say in which candidate they put up. In the circumstances, this seems a neat manoeuvre.

By the way, I don’t know whether this has been officially adopted yet as Conservative policy, but according to the website of Eton College, where Cameron went to school, ‘the Fourth of June will be on Wednesday 2nd June’. You have been warned.

Monday 3 May 2010

Faber at the V&A

At the V&A until the end of May there’s a select display entitled Art and Design at Faber and Faber (or abe and aber, as the first wall caption has it), spanning 80 years and curated by Ron Costley. There are book jackets and covers (some of them period pieces, others – such as Adrian Stokes’s Stones of Rimini – looking as if they had been commissioned yesterday); and page designs too (of books by visual artists – Klee, Le Corbusier – as well as the literary great and good). But probably of most interest are the original artwork, the sketches, the things we don’t usually get to see.

Here is is Lawrence Durrell writing (in capital letters, using a red typewriter ribbon) in November 1956 in response to the cover design he’s been shown for Justine, attempting both to stay on good terms and to express his strong opinions: ‘Thank you so much for the trouble you have so obviously taken ... My idea was something much cruder on a cancer-livid Gollancz yellow. This is more artistic than I meant ... The scribbles on the spine don’t make any sense to me ... Please don’t swear at me ...’

Almost every author has written such a letter/email to their publisher. Cover designs are holy wars, with the author and publisher (and art director, designer, sales department, etc) each believing they are right and the others are wrong. Who wins? Here is Berthold Wolpe replying to Durrell’s letter, ‘which unfortunately did not reach me until Tuesday’: ‘The printer had started printing the jacket and I am sorry to say it was impossible to make any alterations.’ The last person to see the cover before it goes to the printer, that’s who wins.

Sunday 2 May 2010


Some time ago I suggested here that all Chiswick dogs were latte-drinking Nick Hornby readers. The above, seen yesterday, proves me wrong. Something odd here: if you call its name it won’t hear you, you can’t take it home because there’s no contact number, and why would anyone call an ugly deaf male mutt Zelda anyway?