Monday 31 March 2014

‘a Penguin Book’

Romek Marber, born in Poland in 1925, was deported at the age of 14 to the Jewish ghetto of Bochnia. Marber’s grandparents, mother and sister were sent to the death camps, along with almost the entire Jewish community. Marber himself and around 200 others were saved by a German officer, Gerhard Kurzbach, who was in charge of a workshop employing forced Jewish labour. On a night in August 1942 Kurzbach required his workers to do overtime and locked the workshop gates; the following morning, when the labourers were let out, they found the ghetto empty.

(In 2012 Marber spoke at a ceremony honouring Kurzbach as one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous among the Gentiles – that is, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, at risk of their own lives. [In 2002 my wife’s father and his wife were also so honoured.])

Marber came to the UK in 1946. He applied for a grant, studied at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, and became a graphic designer. In the early 1960s Marber was hired by the art director of Penguin Books, Germano Facetti, to give the Penguin crime series a new design. Marber recalls: ‘At the time Penguin cover design was in a muddle, drifting from one design to another, diluting Penguin Books’ identity, reputation and goodwill. I came to the conclusion that the cover design must unite the titles in the Penguin Crime series. This would be achieved by uniformity of all or some of the components that make up a cover …’

The photo above, top, shows some of the crime covers in the gallery of the University of Brighton, where last week I stumbled across a small exhibition devoted to Marber (but which made no mention of his background). Below the covers is the ‘Marber grid’, which was also applied to the non-fiction Pelicans and to fiction. The first three fiction covers below date from the early 1960s; the second two are from the 1970s, after the Marber grid was sidelined. I clearly remember seeing the new covers for the first time – a Saturday afternoon in the 1970s in WH Smiths in Harrogate. It felt like the end of civilisation as I knew it (it wasn’t). Thank you, Romek Marber, for furnishing a good part of my reading life so distinctively.

Footnote: Germano Facetti, the Italian-born Penguin art director who hired Marber, was himself arrested by the Germans in 1943 and survived the forced-labour camp of Mauthausen. Jan Tschichold, who was born in Leipzig in 1902 and came to Penguin in 1946 and set the text design rules for the following decades, was arrested by the Nazis in March 1933 and managed to escape to Switzerland the following August.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

The cut-price Faber poetry books

For two years I’ve been buying the occasional Faber poetry book from Judd Books in Bloomsbury, where they are priced at £2.95 or £3.95. There’s a shop in Oxford where the same books can be bought for £2. It’s not far from the Albion Beatnik bookshop, run by Dennis Harrison, who is hugely supportive of poetry and runs regular readings and is annoyed, to put it mildly, that many of the same titles he has to order in at regular prices are available down the road for a song.

When one of my own in-print titles (Paleface, 1996) started turning up in Judd Books and the Oxford shop, I asked Faber what was going on. Matthew Hollis told me that he had ‘instituted an inquiry’; I suggested it might be simpler to just ask the sales manager, or walk up to Judd Books and ask where they got their stock from. The Faber Sales and Marketing Director eventually explained that ‘from time to time, we do modest stock reductions in order to control inventory and therefore costs. This is very much standard practice in the industry as I am sure you are aware. We pay royalties of 10% of net receipts on these sales.’

‘Modest stock reductions in order to control inventory’ is partial remaindering. One obvious effect is to aggravate regular booksellers who wish to keep even single titles of backlist poetry in stock.

Last November Faber sold off 50 copies of Paleface for £13.50 (that is, 27p per copy, less than half the price of a first-class stamp). I am due to receive royalties of £1.35.

Did it not occur to Faber to offer those copies to me, the author, at the same price? I’d have certainly taken some; Faber would have achieved their desired stock reduction and no booksellers would have been aggravated in the process. This seems to me a pretty obvious way to go.

(But I suspect this option wasn’t even considered. In my own experience, Faber’s communication with its authors is not good. For example, two years ago a man who taught me at university wanted to get in touch, so wrote to me c/o Faber, the publisher of my poetry and a place where I worked for 14 years, asking them to forward the letter; his letter was returned to him with the message that they didn’t know who I was. While working freelance for Faber in recent years, the publication date of a book I was project managing was postponed for a year without anyone telling either the author or myself; in another instance no one at Faber could give me the author’s contact details (I had to find them myself on the internet); for other books I worked on drafts that were not final, so had to redo the work; etc.)

The Sales and Marketing Director has offered to sell me further copies of Paleface according to the ‘same arrangement’ by which they sold off 50 copies in November (so presumably 27p per copy). The other poetry books that have been subject to ‘modest stock reductions’ include titles by Auden, Ford, Francis, Harsent, Heaney, Hofmann, Imlah, McKendrick, Muldoon, Paterson, Paulin, Riordan, Walcott, Williams. I’ve asked him if the same offer will be made to these other authors (or, if deceased, their estates), and also to poets published by Bloodaxe, whose sales are handled by Faber Factory Plus.

Partial remaindering of in-print books may well be, as the Faber S&M Director has said, ‘standard practice’. I doubt most authors or book-buyers are aware of this. I’d rashly assumed that if a publisher wanted to reduce stock (to save on warehouse costs), then as a matter of natural courtesy the books would be offered first to the author, before the remainder merchants. Apparently this doesn’t happen. So a new clause covering this needs to be added into the contracts.

Friday 14 March 2014

CBe: next

After CBe’s lie-down this spring – that, at least, is the plan, and a space has been cleared for this by my having taking on no new titles beyond the four new ones just published – I may well be at a loose end. Except that there’s an itch that won’t go away, and I keep scratching it.

A magazine. I know the title, I know the overall look of the thing. Prose, poetry. But not, as in almost all current poetry magazines, a poem by X followed by another by Y and maybe two by Z. Sequences, series, long poems: at least, say, 10 pages per contributor. Prose (fiction, non-fiction, and all stops between) of up to, say, 7,500 words – which might comprise a single piece, or a series of short pieces, or an extract from a longer work in progress. (Any of which CBe might, or might not, take forward to book publication.) Probably no more than half a dozen contributors per issue. Probably no more than two issues per year (I can’t imagine finding enough material I feel strongly about for more than that). Reviews, no. A single initial print run for each each issue, and no faffing with reprints. Print-based, but an online/ebook presence. Quality printing, and payment for the contributors (and for rights for work in translation).

Funding, ah. I’m reluctant to knock again at the door of the Arts Council, having been turned away three times and having thereby built up a kind of perverse pride in CBe having made it through six years without any external funding. Crowd-funding: I’ve heard of both good and bad experiences. So part-funding through taking advertising is what I’m thinking of – probably not from other like-minded presses, which have no budget for this; possibly from university creative writing departments; ideally from outside the box: wine, food, shoes.

Suggestions, comments, welcome, here or to Especially if they’re about conjuring a bit of money out of nothing. A bit of collaboration – cohabiting with a university, sponsorship from Glenmorangie – would be good for me.

Tuesday 4 March 2014


For a while, not a long one, I wrote reports on manuscripts for the Literary Consultancy. For a novel I’d write maybe 3,000 words, usually under suggested headings such as ‘structure’, ‘plot’, ‘characterisation’ – which were useful pegs but really had very little to do with whether I took to the book I was reading or not.

One of the stories I haven’t written involves meticulously building up a character, a ‘rounded’ character, in the usual ways, I guess – description, socio-economic background, habits, fears, desires, all tested out and demonstrated in how they behave in given situations – and then having that character act out of character.

I’ve just re-read the story ‘A Singular Occurrence’ by Machado de Assis – in which a polite, obliging woman becomes mistress to a married lawyer/politician, and they are ‘madly in love’ and he teaches her how to read and he decides to buy her a house and everything, allowing for a bit of bourgeois hypocrisy, is hunky-dory – until one night she goes out into the street and picks up a stranger (a self-confessed ‘good-for-nothing’) and has sex with him. And the lawyer/politician finds out.

Actually that’s not strictly an example of acting out of character, because the woman (‘she had quiet manners and never swore’) is presented entirely through a male narrator in conversation with another male, neither of whom is the author, so a distance is established and the reader hasn’t a direct hold on her character at all. But still, bafflement as to her motivation – ‘accident, God and devil rolled into one … Well, who knows?’ – is at the centre of the story.

[As I wrote this, the Guardian put up a piece on Hanif Kureishi, professor of creative writing at Kingston University, who apparently said on Sunday that creative writing courses are a ‘waste of time’; the Guardian piece recycled the quotes from the Independent piece of yesterday, added some soundbites from other writers opposing that view (‘Oh no it isn’t’) or defending it (‘Oh yes it is’), and threw it open to comment. This is one of the standard conventions of media coverage of bookish matters: seize upon something perceived to be a tad controversial and make out of it a binary yes/no conflict (and profit from any reduction of the issue to personalities). Character-stuff. Meanwhile, there are books to be read, and life.]