Monday 27 April 2015

The creepiness of stock photos

Stock photos are often just plain wrong, often hilariously so. Early this year the Tories illustrated their slogan ‘Let’s Stay on the Road to a Stronger Economy’ with a photo of a road near Weimar in Germany. In 2009 the BNP promoted an anti-immigration campaign with a photo of a WW2 Spitfire plane – one belonging to a squadron flown by Polish pilots. (Wiki: ‘By the end of the war, around 19,400 Poles were serving in the Polish Air Force in Great Britain and in RAF.’)

And even if they’re not wrong, they’re creepy. For a take-down of stock photos of office life (those teeth), see this Buzzfeed selection, helpfully paired with extracts from the books shortlisted for last year’s Bad Sex Award.

The ones that currently irritate me most – because I’m among the prime target audience for the ads they are used in – are the ones illustrating anything to do with ‘retirement’: rural or seaside settings, clothes in pastel shades, deckchairs, hammocks, golf. And if I were one of the grandchildren who sometimes feature in these stock photos, I wouldn’t be just irritated, I’d be angry. Education, health and politics itself given over to business management; a blindness to the effects of climate change; increasing inequality between rich and poor, a housing crisis as never before – this is what they (we) are leaving behind, these grandads and grandmums, as they stroll off into the sunset with their ISAs and their pensions and their wistful smiles.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Dunbar’s number

Say, around 150.

Earlier this month The Bookseller published a summary of a survey in which 812 writers ‘with experience of being traditionally published’ were asked how they felt about their publishers. There’s nothing startling or conclusive here, and anyway it’s just a bunch of numbers, which can be interpreted how you will. Someone from the Publishers Association is quoted as saying that it’s ‘particularly gratifying … to see such strong positive responses to the value of, and role provided, by publishers’. Someone from the Society of Authors is quoted as saying that publishers are ‘falling down’ on care for their authors. Someone who is both an author and an ex-publisher says there’s a ‘culture of passive-aggression in publishers’ dealings with authors, like authors are exotic, crazy creatures who can’t possibly be listened to’.

‘Small presses’ are currently in fashion. I think I simply mean that they get talked about, and people have opinions about them and the opinions tend to be favourable. They may even get written about in the colour supplements, alongside organic food, boutique hotels and a range of products that describe themselves as ‘hand-crafted’, though the word ‘small’ is rarely quantified.

There’s a Wiki article on the Dunbar number, with references and further reading: ‘a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable relationships’. Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist and writer (some years ago I copy-edited two of his books). Wiki again: ‘By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group.’

Up to around 150, you can get by on hunch and trust. The more you go over this number, the more restrictive the rules, the more enforced the norms.

A while back, when people asked me about sales of CBe books, I used to say that the whole thing could keep going on sales of around 150 copies per title. I’m not sure this was actually true; it just felt true. These days, I don’t use that number: though there are titles that do sell no more than that, there are others that sell a fair whack more, which has led to a change in expectations, both those of others and often my own.

Expectations are tricky. (Once, after agreeing to publish a certain author, I backtracked when I realised she expected me to deliver sales in the thousands and there’d be trouble if I didn’t.) I’d like to sell more books, while knowing that I can’t handle more than four or five titles a year, and logistically I simply couldn’t cope with publishing a mega-bestseller. While working within an economy that generally measures success in numbers of sales, I distrust ‘growth’ as an end in itself. Some years ago I applied for a post as my own worst/best enemy, and I got the job.

Friday 17 April 2015


Yesterday evening there were three of us loitering at the entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens, the road where all the embassies are, two policemen and me in my suit, a thing I never wear. I think they were thinking, he’s smoking, not good, but he doesn’t look like a terrorist, he’s wearing a suit. I was thinking, it’s cute how policemen always go around in pairs these days: always someone to share your existential loneliness with, on this journey through life.

If you are a racist sexist lying scumbag and you have to attend court for sentencing, your lawyer will almost certainly advise you to wear a suit.

If you are a politician on some TV debate, or just going to hang around in public with ‘the people’, your minders will almost certainly insist that you wear a suit.

When my sons were at school, a new rule was enforced: all males in the sixth form had to wear suits. To prepare them for ‘the world of work’. (I was in full-time employment for over 30 years, in schools and offices; I can’t recall ever wearing a suit, not once.) The same rule applied to male teachers. Going to a parent-teacher meeting was like attending a convention of estate agents.

There are suits and there are suits, of course. For a close look at possibly the finest suit in the history of the world, see Todd McEwen’s essay ‘Cary Grant’s Suit’ (it’s in his How Not to Be American, 2013; or online from Granta, if you’re a subscriber): ‘North by Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit. The suit has the adventures, a gorgeous New York suit threading its way through America …’

I could do suits, I think, but it would take a lot of practice, years and years of wearing a suit every day, until the fit felt natural. As it is, on the very rare occasions when I do put on a suit, I feel as if I’m expected to make a 'pledge', or sell someone a grotty flat for an absurd amount of money, or I’m about to go down for a minimum number of years.

Thursday 16 April 2015

An alternative manifesto

But this weather is lovely and I can't be bothered, so here's something from a book called Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing by Robert Paul Smith:

That was the main thing about kids then: we spent an awful lot of time doing nothing. There was an occupation called ‘just running around’. It was no game. It had no rules. It didn’t start and it didn’t stop. Maybe we were all idiots, but a good deal of time we just plain ran around.
Many many hours of my childhood were spent in learning how to whistle. In learning how to snap my fingers. In hanging from the branch of a tree. In looking in an ants’ nest. In digging holes. Making piles. Tearing things down. Throwing rocks at things.
We strung beads on strings; we strung spools on strings; we tied each other up with string, and belts and clothesline.
We sat in boxes; we sat under porches; we sat on roofs; we sat on limbs of trees.
We stood on boards over excavations; we stood on top of piles of leaves; we stood under rain dripping from the eaves; we stood up to our ears in snow.
We looked at things like knives and immies and pig nuts and grasshoppers and clouds and dogs and people.
We skipped and hopped and jumped. Not going anywhere – just skipping and hopping and jumping and galloping.
We sang and whistled and hummed and screamed.
What I mean is, Jack, we did a lot of nothing.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Un-American activities

Do you walk on a pavement or a sidewalk, turn on a tap or a faucet, change your baby’s nappy or diaper? Do you write to someone or write someone, look out of the window or look out the window? The latter are interesting, because though less obvious than basic differences of vocab, the American elision of the extra little prepositions so dear to the British can still affect the rhythm of a sentence.

See this blog post, which refers to differences between the American (Grove Press) and British (CBe) editions of the Agota Kristof trilogy. (For the record: the translation of The Notebook by Alan Sheridan, a Londoner, was Americanised for the US edition, then de-Americanised for the CBe edition; The Proof and The Third Lie were brought into English by two other translators, one British and one American, and some local changes were made to the versions published in the US before the CBe texts went to print.)

Then see this Tim Parks piece (also linked from the blog post referred to), in which he records his tussles with an American copy-editor over not just vocab but how to indicate time and temperature, and units of distance and currency, and the placing of certain words in a sentence, and not beginning a sentence with a number, etc.

The Harry Potter books were, apparently, ‘thoroughly’ Americanised (or -ized) for the US. Do they do this to Ishiguro? (Alan Bennett? Virginia Woolf? Dickens? Would we even think of reverse-doing this to Miranda July, Ben Lerner?) At one point when I was working for Faber I was paid to Anglicise a Paul Auster novel; for a later novel someone decided, sensibly, to just take the US setting, change the prelims a bit, slap a Faber logo on it, and not bother about that split infinitive.

I have some sympathy for the American copy-editor of Tim Parks. My first work in publishing, mid to late 1970s: I persuaded an editor to let me copy-edit a manuscript (about 18th-century Scottish bookbinders), then borrowed Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing from a library to learn how to do it. The usual UK guide for when to italicise and hyphenate and use caps and when not, how to punctuate direct speech, etc., is OUP’s New Hart’s Rules. US copy-editors have their equivalents. All of these gospels are more than useful; you cannot copy-edit without them (and copy-editing is as necessary as it is humdrum, by which I don’t mean to say it’s not a skill, or interesting, it is; and you can earn some money). But there is a category difference between changing double to single quotes, or unspaced em-dashes to spaced en-dashes, and the inserting ‘of’ in ‘I look out the window’.

Parks, wondering why ‘house style’ in the US is so ‘aggressively enforced’ – ‘to the point that when one rereads work one has written for The New Yorker it no longer seems like your voice at all’ – ends his piece thus: ‘Or could it be that the long American hegemony has bred an assumption that American formulations are inevitably global currency and should be universally imposed?’ Imperialism again, or still. If so, pointless; as much a rearguard action as was me being paid to Anglicise Paul Auster. The whole notion of any standard ‘American usage’ or ‘British usage’, if understood as applying to anything more than the decorative (single or double quote marks), is a bit barmy: even within these countries, writers write from north or south or west or east (D. H. Lawrence: ‘All childhoods are provincial’), and from very specific cultural backgrounds, and many not in their ‘mother tongue’; and many writers in English move from one side of the pond to the other, and absorb different street & speech rhythms that feed into their writing.

Among the several recent new translations of Madame Bovary, the Lydia Davis is presumably in US English, the Adam Thorpe in Brit English. Either is fine by me, as long they’re consistent within their own covers. It was a degree of consistency that I was aiming for when I fiddled a little with the translations of The Proof and The Third Lie. Though I still think you can tell that each of the books in the trilogy had a different translator.

Friday 3 April 2015

Selling: a mystery (and an old book)

End of March is, for some historical reason, the end of the financial year, and I’ve been adding up numbers and finding that in the last April-to-March year CBe has sold around 20% fewer books than in the previous year. Despite the Guardian First Book Award shortlisting for May-Lan Tan and the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisting for Will Eaves, and the enormous support that the Agota Kristof books (start here) have had during the year.

At its core, at a level untouched by statistics and analysis, publishing (like writing, like reading) is a mystery. One of the first four books, back in 2007, by an unknown author, sold over 500 copies in just a few months without my having a distributor, any representation, any track record, and without any author readings. (It was then taken over by another publisher.) On the other hand, sales through the distributor this past year for a book that was shortlisted for a prize during the year, and that had reviews to kill for, and whose author has been appearing at festivals, were minus 5 (that is, more returns than sales). One of my favourite books on the list sold 8 copies last year; another sold 1.

And 2014/15 was a good year. This is, surely, how it will go on, with most years being so-so rather than good. (I’ve paid for consultation on how to sell better, and found it sympathetic but largely unhelpful. I don’t think magic wands exist.) I am not complaining (and not just because there’s no one to complain to): in terms of enjoyment, the seven years of CBe easily trump any previous work. I wasn’t expecting anything different; I wasn’t expecting anything.

Meanwhile, two or three submissions ping into my in-box most days. Each year, several hundred; each year, CBe publishes just four or five books, at least one of which will be a new book by a writer CBe has previously published (a backlist: accumulation). So I’m going to say no no no x a hundred for each yes, and maybe a couple of maybes, even though more of those submissions than you might think are not just publishable but good, and more than good, writing.


Back in 2007, another of the first four books – numbered 01 – was The White Room by Erik Houston. Total copies sold: 199. Reviews: 0. I’m still deeply fond of that book. It is now out of print. Erik died in 2010, aged just 37. I have just one copy. This week, two reminders of that book: on Tuesday I found that John Sandoe’s still have 3 or 4 copies in stock; this afternoon, someone added a comment to a five-year-old blog post about Erik and the book (see here), asking where they might find a copy.