Saturday 26 November 2011

‘A world of shadows and decoys’

Yesterday was the annual get-together of the small presses who are members of Inpress, an organisation which in principle is a wholly good thing: given the lack of conversation between, say, Waterstone’s and any individual small press – they big and corporate, we in our back-bedrooms: the gears don’t mesh – Inpress steps in with the combined clout of several presses joined together and starts talking.

Patrick McGuinness gave an opening talk that hit the right note: both encouraging – his writing has been enabled by several small presses (Smith/Doorstop, then Carcanet for his poetry, Seren for his fiction, others too) – and realistic, demonstrating how at every stage of the process the odds are stacked against small presses. For example: it wasn’t until his recent novel, The Last Hundred Days, published by Seren, was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, that it was deemed worth reviewing. Please send us review copies, asked the broadsheets et al. You’ve already got them, said Seren, who had logged their sending-out. But they had somehow gone astray. Please send again.

Patrick McG’s novel – now shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize – charts the final period of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. It depicts ‘a world of shadows and decoys, double and triple bluffs’; in which the lies ‘eat away at you until you believe nothing’, until the very capacity for belief dies away ‘into irony and cynicism’; in which offices are peopled by ‘regional secretaries, vice-ministers, provincial chiefs . . . they looked as if they both felt and provoked fear in equal measure. Another of the system’s equalising mechanisms.’

The system of the British book world is not the Ceausescu one, but it’s still dispiriting. I’ve banged on before about how heavy discounting actually forces up the cover price of books, and has been a major cause of hundreds of independent bookshops closing down (‘independent bookshop numbers have fallen by more than a quarter since 2006,’ the Guardian reported last month, using figures from the Booksellers Association). Very few bookshops stock titles outside the predictable range; very few newspapers review outside that range. And to get more CBe books into shops – which is what Inpress set out to do – is a process both strange (involving buyers and sellers talking about books which in most cases neither of them has read) and expensive. If Waterstone’s do stock a CBe £7.99 book I get – after the wholesaler’s discount and the distributor’s cut and the Inpress cut and VAT on those – under £3; deduct from that the author’s royalty and the cost of printing-&-binding and we’re down into the pennies. (And if I costed in editing, design, typesetting, etc, I’d be into sub-zero.)

We can change the system (bring back the Net Book Agreement, or at least legislate – as France and Germany do – to restrict discounting). Unlikely, that. We can work around rather than within the system (book fairs, mobile bookshops). I never set out to be a dissident, but it seems it comes with the job.

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