Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Apprentice goes publishing

In next week’s episode of The Apprentice, the teams have to ‘create’ a children’s book. And sell it.

I know the whole point of The Apprentice is that it’s a parody of how business actually works. I suspect that the reason for the series’ success (umpteeen years) is because it often gets pretty close to the bone.

Disclosure: I am not a poet/novelist/memoirist/whatever, though I’ve published under those guises: many collections of poetry, some of them shortlisted for the Forward, the TSE, the Whitbread, a Cholmondeley prize in the mix; and a prize-winning short novel (that one I’d stand by); and a short-story collection, and other things; and it’s clear to anyone who wants clarity that I’m an also-ran. There are worse things to be. If there are winners, there are also-rans. Someone has to make up the numbers. Your’re fired. I’m fine with that. I now, by accident, publish.

About publishing, I have ‘unresolved issues’. The ‘writer’, canonised, in her/his room with a view and a dog to walk; the middle-management of publishers, their ‘expertise’, their expense-account lunches; the bookshops with their upscale stationery on the ground floor, Moleskine notebooks and Pantone mugs and their ‘staff picks’; the dreary ‘can’t wait’ on Facebook when anyone announces they’ve won some prize or are about to have a new book out; the polite applause at readings; the self-congratulatory consensus that small presses are ‘a good thing’. I despise it, and do it.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Do reviews sell books?

Reviews click in during the brief period after the stage when authors attempt to get their book to publishers (a process that can take years) and before the stage, say about six months after publication, when a book becomes a has-been, an also-ran (infinity), and almost no bookshop is going to give it shelf-space. A brief window, and because it’s so brief people get a little desperate.

The whole idea being, surely, that if X or Y – neutral people, not on the publisher’s payroll – goes on public record as saying this is a book worth readers’ attention, then more people are likely to buy the thing. Reviews are a form of free advertising. (Other things also: they are a continuous forum for discussion of books; but from the publisher’s perspective, the other things are secondary.)

Do they actually work, as a lever to increase sales? Sporadically. At the top end, a review by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian of a CBe book will add another 100 sales, often more; at the lower end, a review of a CBe poetry book in, say, Poetry Review or Poetry London may not sell a single copy; ditto, though it’s nice, a TLS review. They are good for a filleted phrase for the cover of the author’s next book, or for her application for a grant, but sales, no. What reviews primarily do (and this may seem pathetic, but it’s not) is simply endorse a book’s existence: they pay attention, and if no one pays attention then the book doesn’t even, effectively, exist.

In the given, received hierarchy of review-land, what a publisher’s publicity department is ideally hoping to net is a lead review in a broadsheet national newspaper – despite declining sales of print newspapers, and despite reduced space for book reviews in those newspapers. (Who, seriously, reads them?) Worth mentioning also, because though it seems pretty obvious to me, even in the book world I don’t think it’s generally understood: newspapers are newspapers, and their decisions as to which books to give review space to are determined more by whether a book is news (e.g., a new book by someone whose name readers will recognise) than literary merit.

At the lower end of the received hierarchy are blog reviews. I don’t need, I hope, to say that the online reviewing and discussion of books are, at their top end (invidiously, I’ll mention John Self’s Asylum, which has been running for how many years?), more informed, more intelligent, more open, than almost any print reviewing. And why blog reviews are not quoted more often on the covers of books, and above the broadsheet quotes, is simply down to the conservatism of the whole industry.

(Digression: 50 years ago, the stereotypical mainstream publisher’s office comprised: erudite but inarticulate-in-meetings editors, mostly male; bright and pretty young folk, mostly female, in publicity/marketing; hard-drinking production people; sales and accounts people, mostly male, strayed in from other possible and more lucrative jobs; and the post-room guy, best in the building. I don’t think much has changed. Mainstream publishers are basically estate agents, selling other people’s property for as much as they can get.)

What does sell books is a happy combination of the various opportunities for notice: print and online reviews, shortlistings for prizes (which by themselves make almost no difference at all), word of mouth (including Twitter).

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A numbers game

To get into Frieze Art Fair (in London last week; 160 galleries showing work; visitors were advised on the website: ‘Please remember, Frieze London is an event for galleries to conduct business’ - if you were there just to look, just to enjoy the art, you were there on sufferance) cost £35 (plus booking fee, plus £5 cloakroom fee for your bag). Tickets were sold out. To get into the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London last month (80+ publishers) plus all events was free; ditto to the All Tomorrows’ Publishers book fair over yesterday and today (CBe table above), which included many of the UK’s most important small presses and work more adventurous and interesting than much of that put out by the mainstream.

Number of visitors to the poetry book fair, I’d guess several hundred; to today's book fair, fewer. Given that this is London, one of the capitals (both cultural and business) of the West, and given the growth in recent in recent years of creative writing courses (there must be thousands of students on these in London alone: anyone got any figures?), and given also that both events had ACE funding and the organisers put in a huge amount of work and could not have been more welcoming, these figures are pretty pathetic, no?

(All relative, of course. Tickets for next Saturday’s West Ham v Chelsea match are available at ‘from £112’. West Ham ground capacity 35,000, Chelsea 41,000.)

I don’t lose much sleep over this. I think I like it this way, while being well aware of the smugness that attaches to that (the doctor Fiddes, who works in a charity hospital, in Kennaway’s Some Gorgeous Accident, ‘wondering why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money: there was such awful, English arrogance in that’). But I’m still curious:

Why (in my experience) are most art students keen to attend art fairs and exhibitions, but creative writing students (in general) not interested in book fairs?
Why is there, both financially and in public interest (7.7 million visitors to the Tate galleries in 2012/13, plus almost double that online), such a gulf between the art world and the literature world?

Answers on a postcard.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Book sales, tractor repairs

Everything is written down, in columns, in a big red book. (My father ran a farm in the early 1950s: I remember seeing a ledger with numbers written down in columns in black ink – wages, sales, transport, hay bought, tractor repairs – and then the ledger was lost, and sometimes I think that the whole of CBe has been an attempt to reconstitute that ledger, which seemed to me a very grown-up thing.)

In 2013 I took some photos of my red book (one of them above) for a blog post in which I noted similarities between my columns and an exhibition of Outsider Art then on: obsessive repetition, endless tiny marks. (Outsider art is produced, Brian Sewell wrote in a review of that exhibition, ‘by anyone who is, at one extreme, intelligent but mildly unhinged, and at the other, either entirely lacking an IQ or raving mad’.)

The information in my red book is not stored digitally. (What happens if the house burns down? I was asked today. Good question. As also, what happens if the national grid goes down, if the internet implodes?)

I’ve never made a spreadsheet (I associate spreadsheets, for some reason, with motorway service stations). Can you run a publishing outfit for eight years without making a spreadsheet? And by handwriting every address label, and lugging boxes of books from printer to distributor’s warehouse on public transport, and queuing at the post office almost every day rather than using a franking machine? (And without Arts Council funding, and without interns?) Apparently yes.

I don’t want to make a fetish of this, I really don’t. Nor do I want to become Bartleby, the prototypical ledger-clerk: ‘I’d prefer not to.’ This is all just how it’s happened; my old-fogeyism wasn’t calculated, was never intended as either protest or manifesto for slow publishing. But now that Inpress (the wonderful company that represents the titles of many small presses to the trade) is equipped with the kind of database that all the big publishers take for granted, and requires digital info fed into it, and now that my columns are becoming narrower (40-odd books in print) than my eyesight is comfortable with, I think I’m going to have to, as they say, upgrade.

Monday, 5 October 2015

On interns in publishing

What do interns actually do?

Maintain databases, I guess. Read submissions and write assessments. Attend meetings, write minutes. Proofread. Tweet. Serve wine at book launches. ‘Admin’. Check things, research things. Take stuff to the post office. Photocopy. Look busy. Have bright ideas. Do what people generally do in offices, which are strange places. Make tea.

I assume that if you’re aiming to get a job in publishing, applying for an internship is now the conventional first step. And often, now, the second and the third step too, because the waiting to be in the right place at the right time – when an actual job vacancy occurs – can be long. (Take a book with you.)

A lot of internships are unpaid – which means, obviously, that they’re an option only for people who can afford not to be paid, and which doesn’t do much to change the traditional profile of people-who-work-in-publishing. A few publishers do pay: Verso, for example, pays the London Living Wage, currently £9.15 per hour. Should the ones who don’t pay be named and shamed? Should authors refuse to place their books with them, and readers stop buying the books they publish, until they do pay? I think yes.

Unpaid labour has become normalised. Internships at the big publishers are over-subscribed, and the application process is as competitive and bureaucratic as it is for any actual job. This situation – hey, we can get people to do stuff without paying them! – has come about partly because of the de-unionisation of publishing. In most jobs I had in publishing from the late 1970s, the companies recognised the right of their staff to be members of a union, usually the Book Branch of the NUJ, and the annual pay review and many other things were negotiated, not imposed. The current website of the NUJ Book Branch is bleak; the last item on its ‘news’ page is dated 2009.

I get emails every week from people who want to intern (or that thing called ‘work experience’). Many are seriously well qualified – they know the publishing scene (some have already interned for other publishers), they speak two or three languages, they have read widely, they do other things too and they do them well (photography, music, film, graphic design). They want to engage. They are completely sincere and they are completely competent.

I’m hamstrung on this. I generally write replies along the lines of thank you, really, but no space, no money, and anyway I’m useless at delegating. Which is all true but is not a sufficient response to the genuine desire of many to be of help, in any way.

I don’t actually need anyone to attend meetings, make tea, take stuff to the post office. I do need help, everyone needs help. I need – with 40+ plus books in print and it’s still just me at a desk in the living room – less an intern than a deus ex machina: someone who sees both what’s being done and how it could be done better, or more efficiently, or differently at least, and runs with that, for the London Living Wage.