Monday, 4 November 2019
The days are shorter and more crowded, but here are four things I want to mention.
1. The opening this Thursday, 7 November, of the annual themed show curated by Natalia Zagorska-Thomas at her Expurgamento studio in Camden, London: this year, boxes, interpreted by artists as they will. Joseph Cornell gets in there – obliquely; boxes are not always straight lines and right angles – and some CBe writers/artists too (writers are rarely just writers). This is the 8th annual show curated by N Z-T, who has also showed individual artists. Does her decision to run the gallery in a way that bypasses certain common assumptions about money affect the art itself? Go and see. 132D Camden St, NW1 0HY; open weekends 11 to 6 until 8 December, weekdays by appointment (07799 495549).
2. Julian Stannard (published by CBe) has a new book, or catalogue, or something of both, because the poems come with art by Roma Tearne. Published by Green Bottle, Average is the New Fantastico will be on the CBe table at the Small Publishers Fair. Launch at the Poetry Society on 21 November. It’s a lovely thing, the result of artist, writer, publisher and typesetter working together, without stepping on one another’s toes.
3. Black Lives 1900 – a book of ever larger format and containing even more images, based on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, published by Redstone Press. Visually and emotionally stunning. Max Porter: ‘Good lord this book is incredible … a civil rights and graphic design landmark.’
4 That Small Publishers Fair I’ve mentioned: here. All the publishers will be under 5ft 8 ins. Friday/Saturday, 15/16 November, 11am to 7pm both days at the Conway Hall, London; free to come in and browse and talk and pick up books and put them down and maybe even put down some cash, too.
5. Bookselling context: Foyles is now owned by Waterstones, which has already eaten Dillons and Books Etc and Hatchards and Hodges Figgis in Ireland and which itself is owned by a hedge fund which has also bought Barnes & Noble in the US, and all of these places are being headed up by James Daunt, who himself still owns Daunts and said earlier this year that he’d pay the Waterstones booksellers a living wage if he could but he can’t, and the systems are creaking. The given and accepted line is that Daunt is a saviour of the book trade, and that this ‘consolidation’ is necessary to counteract Amazon.
6. I can’t count. I can count, actually. Last month, October, CBe sold 146 books out of the distributor’s warehouse, giving £762 sales income, from which 13% plus VAT will be deducted. I paid more than that for printing the new book, Paul Bailey’s Inheritance, a book by an author who has been publishing for over 50 years, twice Booker-shortlisted, etc.
Almost certainly two of the three books mentioned here, and possibly all three, will not be on the shelves of Waterstones. All of them, however, will be at the Small Publishers Fair.
Friday, 4 October 2019
CBe has been operating low-key – just one book so far this year, and I’m down from five cats to three – but news of its demise has been greatly exaggerated.
New book: Inheritance by Paul Bailey – who has been publishing novels for five decades and whose first novel, At the Jerusalem, 1967, is being reissued this month (with an introduction by Colm Toibin) by Head of Zeus. (For why that odd name, see this equally odd explanation, which claims that the name is ‘not a tribute to Zeus himself but to his daughter Athene’.) Lately, Paul Bailey has been writing poems. Good ones. Available now from the website.
Also happening: Diane Williams, whose Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was published by CBe in 2016, will be at the London Review Bookshop on 8 November, talking with fellow CBe author Lara Pawson (This Is the Place to Be). Event details here. The current LRB features a new story by Diane Williams.
CBe will have a table at the Small Publishers Fair in the Conway Hall, London, on 15 and 16 November. As well as CBe titles there will be copies of a lavish new book from Green Bottle Press comprising poems by Julian Stannard (What were you thinking?, CBe, 2016) and artwork by Roma Tearne.
On the Saturday at the book fair – 16 November – I (me: Jack Robinson) will be talking about Good Morning, Mr Crusoe, which was published in April this year on the 300th anniversary of the first publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. I’ll also be talking about the book on a BBC Radio 4 programme about Defoe’s book scheduled for November. Racism, misogyny and class privilege have been embedded in the political structures of the UK by Crusoe. If you think I’m over-egging it, please read the book and engage with its argument before telling me I’m a snowflake. The B-word occurs only glancingly in the Robinson book, on a single page, but I’m not arguing with Observer review’s angle: ‘Jack Robinson uses Crusoe to analyse the mad act of self-maiming we call Brexit.’
Thank you, everyone who is still on board.
Saturday, 15 June 2019
Bite-size CBe, part 1: 1–41 (written in 2014)
1 After months of batting cover try-outs back and forth, one of the books still had a name spelt wrong on the cover. The mis-spelt editor had noticed this on the proofs but had assumed it was a joke. My fault.
2 Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan was an editor’s dream: 40 lines arriving out of the blue as an attachment to an email asking if I’d like to read more, from an author who had never before had anything published, and the book going on to win a literary prize. The title tells it true: this is Rocky’s workshop when I visited him in 2009 in Inverness-shire, during the early stages of his complete restoration of a 1929 Brooklands Riley from a rusted chassis:
3 I did a short print run of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts with a colour cover for a shop which said that trying to sell the standard edition was like trying to sell a brown paper bag. Some of those are still in a box – free to anyone who orders any other title from the website and asks for one.
4 Naive early error: to assume that a fair few of the people I’d worked with in publishing would buy a book or two. In fact most people who work in the trade expect to get books for free. There have been honourable exceptions.
5 Best CBe-related headline (relates to Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3, McKitterick Prize 2008, one of the first four CBe books in 2007 and now published by Bloomsbury):
6 Number of trips to Blissetts in Acton, who print most of the books, in 2013: not logged, but around 20 at a guess. Chris the printer once house-sat my cats; during that period he was side-swiped by a fork-lift truck and sent to hospital; bandaged, patched up, he bypassed the queue for painkillers at the hospital pharmacy and instead came back to the house, fed the cats, drank the malt whisky I’d left him and went back to work.
7 Speediest printing turnarounds: ordering a reprint from Blissetts one afternoon and collecting the books the next day. Sending files of a new book to the other printer, ImprintDigital in Devon, and receiving a proof copy for approval next day in the post.
8 Number of trips over to the distributor Central Books in Hackney Wick with boxes of books in 2013: 16. Regine in the upstairs office once asked me to sign copies of my own old poetry books; a warehouseman in the downstairs delivery space comments on my very occasional TLS pieces. These people read books and they care. Below, Central Books, a very fine building:
9 A box of a given size holds more slim books of poetry than 200-page novels; the slim books are also cheaper to post. On the other hand, all boxes of books, whether containing poetry or fiction, are heavy. A large proportion of peasants’ work used to consist of carrying things; this manual-labour aspect of the job is something I enjoy (which explains in part my dilly-dallying about ebooks).
10 It’s pouring with rain as I lug boxes of books from a Tube station for a book launch at Waterstones Piccadilly (it was going to be in an art college, but the author had been having a hard time and she really did need a place where she could wear a dress), and I’m running late and I’m thinking, this is OK, this is publishing, and I’m saving money. At another book launch I’m drinking in the Colony Room in Soho and because I’m happy I sign a fat cheque for membership and the club closes a few months later and this is OK too. But I could have saved a little money there.
11 Number of trips to the post office in 2013: 139. Best conversation overheard while standing with CBe book packages in the queue: woman in front of me, very loudly, to man standing in doorway: ‘And you shagged that bitch down the Askew Road and you didn’t even wear a rubber.’ Man moves forward, I think he’s going to hit her to I step between them. Man to me, quietly: ‘Fuck off. I’m having a private conversation with my wife.’
12 Highest sales out of Central Books to date (i.e., not counting sales from the website, and people/bookshops I’ve talked into buying direct) for titles published before the end of 2013: just under 1,000. Lowest: just over 10. I look at these numbers, look hard, as if they’re trying to tell me something. It’s a kind of staring competition, who blinks first.
13 Is there any other trade in which shops can order the wares and then, if they can’t sell them, return them and get their money back? With books this is standard. Except on the occasion on which I sold several hundred copies of a title to a chain of bookshops which several months later wanted to return most of them and have their money refunded. No, I said. And because I’d sold them direct, and there was nothing about returns on my basic invoice, they were stumped. A tiny and incidental victory.
14 Most over-qualified book-carrier: Anthony Thwaite, OBE, born 1930, carrying bundles of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew on his trial shift as a warehouseman in 2009:
15 I’m not sure that Shakespeare & Co in Paris, where the CBe authors Beverley Bie Brahic, Gabriel Josipovici and Wiesiek Powaga read on an evening in November 2010, ever paid for the books sold but it was fun. Below, Sylvia Whitman, brandishing:
16 Built in 2011, a roadside shrine to St Nicholas Lezard, patron saint of small presses, whose ‘paperback of the week’ columns in the Guardian have featured seven CBe books:
17 The man in the rear-view driving mirror on the website home page is my father, 1940s I think. (He wasn’t a reader. When he was courting my mum he took her to a wrestling match; she, then working as a librarian at the Brotherton in Leeds, took him to the first play he’d seen. He died aged 51.) The children on page 70 of Nights and Days in W12 are my own, many years ago; the writer in the café on page 107 of the same book is a man I’m vaguely related to (son of a cousin) and he wasn’t just idling: his first novel will be published this year.
18 The man who was in prison for 22 years and sent me his writing from there, and then we met in a café in Shepherds Bush market. The woman who called round with her portfolio of poems and modelling photos: this one, she said, pausing at a photo in which she’s lying on a sofa and wearing about 3 millimetres of clothing, would be good for the cover? Her mother had doubts. What did I think?
19 The manuscript of Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue really was found in a drawer of his office desk on the day after his death: this is not a literary conceit.
20 Two things that give Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking a slight period feel: you can’t now smoke in restaurants and cafés, and the classified football results on radio at five o’clock on Saturdays are no longer spoken by James Alexander Gordon.
21 The average age of the authors published by CBe in 2010 was 80-something. I tried and failed to sell a story on this to The Oldie and Saga magazine.
22 The causes of death of over 500 writers, composers, etc, are listed in This Is Not a Novel by David Markson, who himself is one of three authors who have died since their books were published by CBe. (The youngest was Erik Houston, at the age of 37. His novel The White Room was one of the first four titles; it’s now out of print but I still stand by it. He was a concert violinist who played around the world, then teacher. He had one of those very rare afflictions. In hospital, there was a day when he was technically dead for something ridiculous like ten minutes, and then was alive again. And then, later, not. I think about Erik a lot.)
23 In the flat of Dai Vaughan – who died in June 2012; whose Sister of the artist CBe published in February 2012, a month and a bit after he’d sent me the manuscript – there were tiny sculptures that he’d made out of Edam cheese. Last year I made things out of crushed beer cans; before all this started there was a period when I made ships (and a mermaid) in bottles.
24 The CB of CBe was not intended to be just me. Long story. (Nor, at the time of the first four books, were there any plans to do more.)
25 There is a customer who has bought one copy of every single CBe book direct from the website and I have no idea who this person is.
26 Entering a book for a prize that required an author photo, I sent a photograph of the author’s poem titled ‘Self-Portrait in Shades’ because I had no other visual evidence to offer, and nor did he and nor did the internet. Offered readings, the author responded: ‘I’d prefer not to.’ I can understand this. I can understand it very well.
27 When one of the books wins a prize – to date, a fiction prize (McKitterick, best first novel by a writer aged over 40), a translation prize (Scott Moncrieff), and the really freaky thing of each of the three first poetry collections from CBe winning the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (and each of them also being Forward shortlisted) – I feel like a parent watching their child in the school nativity play: pride, even though one knows it’s just a play, and next year there’ll be a different Mary and Joseph.
28 That some agents are willing to accept my minuscule offers for rights to publish fiction is due to the extreme generosity of larger publishers who wish to buy rights to cookery books and the memoirs of footballers.
29 The agent who accepted my offer for UK rights and then spent what must surely have been more than my offer on getting the contract checked by their legal department, which suggested I add in something about second serial rights, which I did, though I still don’t know what second serial rights are.
30 The big-name agents who simply don’t reply to emails, and the mainstream publishers too, and others. It may be company policy. More likely, in any company over a certain size there’s an assumption that receiving and opening an email or envelope is a sufficient task in itself. If anything else needs to be done, there are servants for that.
31 Or if they do reply, they do so with same degree of attention as a former literary editor of the Observer who, after I’d sent him the first four books, all prose fiction, and then followed up by sending again, assured me that he’d passed on the books to the poetry editor.
32 There is a clause in the standard contract that basically states that if after signing the author gets an offer from someone richer and better-looking, altogether more eligible, then the author is free to go off with them, as long as I can have the first four months. It’s a sort of prenuptial.
33 I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere and thought, good for them, I was wrong. On the other hand, I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere, by publishers posher than me, and thought, I was still right. On the third hand, I’ve turned down a book and two years later changed my mind and emailed the author at 5 a.m. in the morning to ask whether it has been placed elsewhere and by lunchtime the book was on track.
34 February 2013, letter from Arts Council England: ‘I am sorry to tell you …’ Three in a row. Ho-hum. (Can one apply to the Arts Council for cigarette money, for alcohol money? Without those two legal drugs there’d have been nothing.) The three stages of reaction: (1) slump; (2) shrug; (3) a light-headed sense of freedom.
35 What continues to surprise is how much can be done without any funding at all, and with small amounts of money. Back in 2007, £2,500 covered the printing & binding of 250 copies each of the first four books, author advances, a basic one-page website and a couple of lunches for proofreaders. CBe has been, roughly, self-sustaining ever since but only because editing, design, typesetting, time, etc, are not costed in.
36 Letters addressed to ‘The Accounts Department’ or to ‘The Reviews Manager’ or ‘The Art Director’ or ‘To whom it may concern’: the cat (one of five) who resides on my desk stirs, stretches, yawns, curls back on the low heap of manuscripts.
37 The emails asking for my ‘submission guidelines’. I honestly don’t care: email attachment or hard copy, double-spaced or single, margins wide or narrow, name on every page or not, whatever. If you write and want to send, then just do. It’s not for me to tell you how.
38 The Circulating Library – the idea was to send off a bunch of free books, asking the recipients to pass on to others after reading, and so on (and thereby expand awareness of CBe and maybe generate a few sales from the curious) – was a drowned duck: no emails from happy strangers, not one (as far as I know) extra sale.
39 This desk in the living room, but also the in-town office: the café on the first floor of Foyles, Charing Cross Road. (Deals have been done there, on backs of envelopes. And all praise to that shop, which actually asked to stock the books, rather than me having to make the first move.) If it’s too busy, the Pillars of Hercules. Once, the place around the corner where you can get a bottle of wine for a fiver.
40 The two points in time at which I knew the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair was worth the effort: (1) when in 2011 I was being shown a church hall in Exmouth Market by the woman who was in charge of hiring it out and her labrador dog, chasing a ball, went skittering and scrabbling across the recently polished floor; (2) lunchtime on the day of the first fair when, out for a cigarette, I said to the busker in the street, Brooke Sharkey, there was a book fair going on, and she said she’d move on, and I suggested she come in and do a set onstage instead and she did. (The book fair was repeated in 2012 and 2013, with over fifty presses participating; from 2014 CBe is ducking out, leaving it in the more than capable hands of Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly.)
41 The stuffed gorilla that sat outside the CBe/Eyewear pop-up shop in Portobello Road in July last year appears to be one of a limited edition made for the California zoo where Koko (born 1971) lives. How it came to a junk shop in the Askew Road, Shepherds Bush, I have no idea. (Below, Koko on the right; on the left, seated, Wiesiek Powaga, translator from the Polish of Stefan Grabinski’s In Sarah’s House and Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie and other work.)
Bite-size CBe, part 2: 42–64 (written in 2016)
42 February 2016: the new people at the post office are at the counter and the queues are long this week. Farewell to Jay and his wife (below), after 43 years’ service. Every single CBe book ordered from the website since 2007 – a number in the thousands – has been taken by me to their counter for weighing and posting. I’ve seen them at least three times a week, often more. Unwittingly, they have been by far my most regular co-workers in this little venture.
43 A rough audit of how the writers I’ve published have come to me. Author recommended to me by a writer already on the CBe list or by a close friend: 13. Me knowing an author’s work or coming across it and chasing it: 11. Unsolicited submissions: 6. Submission through an agent: 3. Can’t remember: 1.
44 Submissions: despite the huge amount of time and effort that they have put into their writing – and in many cases money too, in fees for CW courses – the great majority of people sending me work skip the 30 seconds of online research it would need to find out who, actually, they are sending to.
45 Number of titles (not including those published this year) published by CBe that have sold fewer than 100 copies through the distributor, Central Books: 15. Number of titles that have sold more than 1,000 copies through the same route: 4.
46 Money is necessary and also embarrasses me. Here is Anne Carson’s theory of money: ‘It’s just the inverse of the usual theory, which is that all money, indeed all numbers in life, should get to be bigger. But it doesn’t make sense that they should get bigger – why bigger? – so if you just switch it around and think all numbers should get smaller, it makes life better.’
47 I’ve hardly evolved from the times when ‘debt’ carried a lingering stigma and the purpose of a man was to be a ‘breadwinner’. As a writer (and especially as a writer who wanted to start a family), either I had to write books whose sales made me a living (which was never going to happen), or I took jobs and wrote on the side. (The oldest writer on the CBe list, Fergus Allen, 94, had a similar outlook: a working career, then publishing his first book at the age of 72.) I don’t claim this attitude is ‘right’; fear is involved, and playing safe. But I do take a perverse pride in CBe’s record of publishing more than 40 books over 9 years without any ACE money.
48 2014 was the glitzy year: Beverley Bie Brahic winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translations of Apollinaire; May-Lan Tan on the Guardian First Book Award shortlist; Will Eaves on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist; a re-issue of Agota Kristof’s The Notebook selling well and being on several ‘books of the year’ lists. I wore a tie.
49 This: different writers I’ve published meeting one another – at a reading, an event, a party, or just online – and clicking. Readers too. I could very easily get sentimental about this. Family. (Despite families being, in media-speak, either ‘hard-working’ or ‘dysfunctional’.) This kind of by-play has been the richest thing.
50 Social media. Facebook aggravates, and I aggravate in return and get in a mess. Twitter’s lighter, funner. CBe has, I think, a low-level, intermittent core following, some of whom do one platform but not the others, some of whom read the irregular newsletter but nothing else, and a least a couple of whom never go online at all, so I probably do need to keep all the channels open, a way of reminding that I’m still around. That’s all.
51 Ebooks. The books about Finland are available as ebooks because there may be English-speaking potential readers in Finland who are keen to buy but baulk at the postage costs for a printed book. Two of my own poetry collections, first published by Faber, are now available exclusively (as they say) as CBe ebooks. Take-up has been less than tiny.
52 Printed books are the CBe thing, but I’m not 100 per cent Luddite. I read a lot of things – poems, prose – online. Online writing doesn’t need to bow to the design restrictions of the printed page, and this can get interesting; to publish a 64-page poetry book (the standard delivery system for poetry over my lifetime) and then issue it as a 64-page ebook doesn’t feel interesting at all.
53 UK orders from the website are free of any postage or packing costs. For orders from Europe (and yes, that does include Ireland) and ‘rest of the world’, there’s a little clickable menu on every book page that adds on a postage cost. It’s surprising – but maybe not – how many people ordering from outside the UK don’t see this. Do I send them a school-teacherly email asking them to send postage? Do I just shrug and send the book anyway? It depends on my mood.
54 I’ve done this twice: taken on an ‘intern’ and paid them a sum of money and then been stumped as to what to ask them to do.
55 Oh, yes: I got one of them to teach me how to make spreadsheets. But then I never followed through. The old system – writing numbers down in columns in a ledger – isn’t broken so doesn’t need fixing.
56 My dad (who died 60 years ago) had a ledger in which he kept track of the business of a farm he ran: wages, cattle bought/sold, tractor repairs, etc. I remember it, and have lost it. It seems pretty clear that I am trying to re-create that ledger. It also seems clear that the way in which CBe publishes – printed books; the lugging around of heavy boxes; the queuing at the post office; the tiny sums of money and the small-scale-ness of it all – is essentially a 1950s way, with a couple of technological advances (the internet, digital printing) added on.
57 The price of a new book of poetry should, surely, be index-linked to the cost of a packet of cigarettes. On the whole this seems to be the case. (Except for Faber: £10.99 for 64 paperback pages?)
58 I made a half-hearted attempt, about two years ago, to stop publishing. And then realised that, as with smoking, stopping is a lot more difficult than simply carrying on. But I can cut down.
59 The course of Sonofabook magazine, whose first issue was published in spring 2015, has not run smoothly: delays, illnesses. I came to believe that there was a curse on it. Someone suggested I rename it The Accursed.
60 In the agent’s office there is a cricket bat, and we talk about cricket as well as books. That this agent has poets on his list, and also the son of the teacher who got me through Eng Lit O-level at school, feels good. Minutes after leaving, I buy a bunch of Victorian lantern slides from an antiquarian bookshop. Two of them show watercolours of worms. I come home and read Darwin on worms: ‘Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.’
61 Helpful tips. CBe author Dai Vaughan’s advice to ‘aspiring writers’: ‘Be sure that a life of humiliation and disappointment is what you really want.’ Me on lesser things: for editing you need to be awake and alert; typesetting can be done while reasonably hungover.
62 Burger vans (below). The left one is outside the printer in Acton, the right one is outside Central Books in Hackney Wick, the distributor. Snap. I collect boxes from the former, bring home and re-pack, and deliver them to the latter (17 trips in the past year). If just 2 or 3 boxes, by Overground; if more, by car. (Central’s building is perhaps my favourite in London: see photo in previous post.)
63 Inpress are asking me what my ‘targets’ are for the sales of the new titles. I have a feeling this is going to end badly.
64 Ron Costley, text designer at Faber while I was there, died in February 2015. Guardian obituary here. Anything I know about design, I have from him. When I wasn’t sure, when I had about six different ways in play of putting text to page or cover and had succeeded only in confusing myself, I’d email Ron and we’d go to Pizza Express. House red, extra chili flakes. He was a great supporter of small presses in general. It’s not the same without him.
Bite-size CBe, Part 3: 65–91 (written in June 2019)
65 If a book is ordered on the website from a local address, I sometimes deliver it by hand (thus saving on postage). I post it through the letterbox, no small talk required. Record delivery time to date is around 30 minutes from website order.
66 Four bookshops that have been particularly supportive. Muna Khogali’s Book & Kitchen in Notting Hill (but not a main street, so little random footfall): superb coffee and food as well as books; closed in 2017. I miss that place. Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford: talk, coffee, jazz, hard-to-come-by translations and US books, ‘a wealth of browsing interest and serendipity’; closed in 2018. Volume bookshop: but it’s in Wellington, New Zealand, and shipping costs from the UK distributor are prohibitive. Notting Hill Books: more of a shed than a shop, selling second-hand books and review copies, run by Sheila Ramage from 1968 to 2012, when illness forced closure. Below: inside Sheila’s shop:
67 I once wrote that CBe is ‘a little machine for reading aloud to strangers’ (I’d forgotten that, until it was quoted back to me). In different voices. Reading aloud is a lovely thing to do (I sometimes read to Sheila in her care home: see previous bite). It’s one of the reasons why people have children: captive audience. Some writers are excellent for reading aloud; others are not, and I think the latter are failing an important test.
68 Another little venture that failed to fly (see bite 38, the circulating library) was the Flappers: A3 sheets printed in colour both sides with images and text which interacted to produce an odd new form of narrative. Folded down to postcard size, they could be addressed, stamped and posted as postcards (or put in an envelope and posted as a letter). The images came from early 20th-century postcard concertina booklets (also in the photo below); the texts were written in the voices of a 10-year-old child (Genova) and a confused Englishman in 1914 (Bruxelles). Very few sales. Were they cards or posters or pamphlets? No one knew.
69 I can skip swimming with dolphins, but a thing I hankered to do before I die was publish a lit magazine (this bite elaborates on number 59, above). I got some ACE funding for this in 2015. Its distinguishing feature: each issue after the first one was to be guest-edited by a writer or critic I admired. Sonofabook ran for just two issues. First guest editor: his dad got ill and died. Second guest editor: her child was diagnosed with an incurable disease. Third guest editor: her dad got ill and died. There was clearly a curse on this, and I called a halt. A portion of the ACE grant was paid back.
70 The other distinguishing feature of that magazine was this: very few contributors per issue, but a lot of pages for each. Another magazine editor told me that if I was chasing sales, this was a bad idea: pack ’em in, as many as you can, because their mothers buy copies and often more than one.
71 For the books, there has been no ACE funding. Apart from three subsidies for translated books, which have gone to the translators, and generosity from a supporter of the trilogy of books about Finland, no external funding at all. Start-up cost (in 2007) was £2,500. Since then, CBe has been entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers/readers/buyers. Basically, I’m a miserly Yorkshireman.
72 Nor has CBe run a competition with entry fees, which is a traditional fundraising strategy for small arts ventures but seems to me a little dubious: I’d be raking in money from many people who have no realistic chance of winning a prize (and I might end up having to publish work that I don’t actually like). Nor has CBe crowdfunded. I do understand this – it bypasses the bureaucracy of applying for public funding and enables well-wishers to express their support in a very practical way – but it depends on having friends with disposable income and the crowdfunding field is becoming a little overcrowded so no, sorry, I’m not going to pledge £20 for another eco-anthology, even if I do get a free tote bag.
73 Tote bags. “Worth £9.99” says the ad for the LRB offering me a free one if I subscribe. Seriously? Can I have some clothes pegs instead? Tote bags as ubiquitous accessories for bookshops, publishers and prizes are an odd phenomenon. (Someone, somewhere, is collecting them for their rarely visited museum of ephemera.) Also those wobbly things on stands called banners.
74 The Bookseller, 17 January 2017: ‘Indie publisher CB Editions is to wind down its operations this year, as founder and sole member of staff Charles Boyle goes into semi-retirement.’ On Sunday, 21 May of that year, I was lured into a surprise party at the Seven Stars in Carey Street, Holborn, given by CBe authors and friends. It was possibly the proudest and most humbling day of my life. The following night, 23 people were killed and 139 wounded in a bomb attack at a concert in Manchester.
75 ‘Semi-retirement’ leaves it open. Half full, half empty? As with some of my other addictions – smoking, alcohol, the novels of Alfred Hayes and Elizabeth Bowen – it’s really much easier to carry on than stop. Albeit at a slower pace. The average number of CBe titles per year used to be four or five; one mad year there were nine; it’s now down to two, or perhaps three.
76 The day when I get no emails from a company in India or California offering to upgrade the website is a rare day.
77 Update on bite 17, above: there’s more traffic on the roads (photo below, playing on the website home page photo, also below, which shows my father in the 1940s). Since CBe’s start-up in 2007 small presses have become a thing. They were a thing for several previous decades, of course they were, but now that they are winning prizes and getting reviews (many of those subsequent to the prizes) they are a different thing, incorporated into the establishment. It’s one of the ways capitalism works. Books from small presses are almost expected to win prizes: it's not a proper prize unless it has a small press on the shortlist. Though the prizes that require the publisher to pay several thousand £ if a book gets onto a shortlist or wins (as a ‘contribution to publicity costs’) – ones sponsored by big non-literary companies among them – are still unwelcoming.
78 Update on bite 8, above: Central Books, afflicted by rental hikes in Hackney Wick, have quit their grand warehouse building there and moved out of town, into Essex. But they are still visitable: a round trip of roughly three hours, inclusive of tea and a cigarette.
79 The climate has changed. One of the first CBe books in 2007 was written by me, male, under a female pen-name, with first-person female narration. I couldn’t do that now. I wouldn’t attempt to. (By the way, Don DeLillo published a novel in 1980 under a female pen-name. He later asked for it to be ‘expunged’ from a bibliography.)
80 There’s a perceived worthiness about small presses that bugs me (a bit; there are worse things to get angry about, every day). There’s no reason to suppose that small presses are run by a smaller proportion of venal and dodgy people than any other enterprise (banking, politics, the armed services, the church, charities, estate agencies, organic juice bars). As a writer, you don’t necessarily get better editing and design from small presses, as compared with the big publishers. You don’t get more publicity, marketing or sales. You do get, I think, more individual attention. You’re less likely to be passed around from one department to another (there aren’t any departments to pass you to).
81 The relationship between small presses and big publishers is mysterious (as are all relationships; as is the matter of which books become ‘successful’ and which not). Will Eaves’s Murmur: that so many readers have taken it on (it sold more copies than any other CBe title), exercising their own intelligence in response, has been heart-warming; on the night it won the Wellcome prize I was told by someone who works for a big publisher that if the book had been published by them, Big Pub, it wouldn’t have taken that course, it might not have even been entered. Too late to find out.
82 There’s a clause in the basic CBe contract with authors that’s a pre-nuptial (see bite number 32): if someone fitter, richer, better-resourced, comes along, then the author is free to go off with them. Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch went to Faber. Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 went to Bloomsbury. May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break went to Sceptre. Will Eaves’s Murmur has gone to Canongate. Without payment to CBe for publishing rights. Other CBe books have been re-published in the US, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, without payment to CBe. This is fine. I don’t own the writers I publish. If you think I should be making money here then you don’t get it.
83 All CBe titles in print can be ordered by bookshops from the distributor, Central Books, but most independent bookshops source only from the main wholesalers – so if Gardners or Bertrams do not hold a book in stock, it’s likely that that a bookseller will tell a customer ordering that book that it is not available. This happens often. Over 90 per cent of CBe titles are not in stock with the wholesalers; how they choose which books to buy in I don’t know; I have no leverage to choose for them.
84 A sales agent can be helpful here – a person/organisation whose job is to hustle booksellers to buy in the books and nag the wholesalers to stock them. Since dropping down to publishing just two or three books a year, CBe has done without a sales agent – because they concentrate on pushing new titles, not the backlist; and because in addition to an annual charge they take a cut (10% + VAT) on every book sold out of the distributor (on top of the distributor’s cut), regardless of whether they had a hand in effecting those sales. Am I being mean here? Would paying a sales agent increase sales to the point where that payment earns itself back, and more? I don’t know. The evidence in favour is not compelling. In the months before last Christmas, CBe was one of six London-based small presses who hired (at a cost of several hundred pounds each) an experienced, enthusiastic book-trade person to visit pretty well every bookshop in London to promote our recent titles in person. Total sales resulting from this exercise: two or three (fewer than the sample copies given away).
85 Because Blush, published late last year, was a new thing for CBe – images and text, equal status – I visited art-gallery bookshops that might not be familiar with CBe books, talking to the managers and leaving sample copies. Result in sales: zero. Result in sales of Good Morning, Mr Crusoe after getting Guardian publicity and reviews in the Observer and TLS (the latter admittedly not loud in praise), orders from maybe half a dozen bookshops, mostly single copies for individual customers, and not in stock at the wholesalers. (Don't even try from Gardners: 'Not available to order'.)
86 Neither of the above books is in stock at Amazon. Nor – out of many examples – is the most recent CBe book before those ones (Philip Hancock’s City Works Dept.). If you click the ‘used and new offers’ link, you’ll find you can buy it from other online retailers; but you’ll have to wait for delivery because those places will first have to order in from the distributor. The book you receive will be well-travelled, will have seen a few warehouses; and though payment will have been taken at all of the stations it has stopped off at, you may still get it at less than the cover price. We do like being offered discounts. Even though we know that discounting forces the cover price of a book up, as publishers seek to maintain their margins.
87 The covers of all the CBe books in the early years were brown card, typographic design. In mid-2016 I changed printer and the brown card was no longer available. But I really should have stuck with the brown card – that was the business, that brown card.
88 An idea that might be worth testing: ‘partner bookshops’. That is: bookshops who commit to ordering in all new titles (perhaps at a special discount) and keeping a selection of backlist titles in stock; information about these shops, with photos, would be featured on the press website. (The Ugly Duckling Presse in the US has operated such a scheme for a while. I’m not sure it would work here. Even if buyers of small-press books make up 0.001% of the population in both the US and the UK, that’s still a lot more people in the US, able to support more bookshops, more presses.)
89 Small-press successes over the past decade have been achieved in spite of the entrenched conservatism and inertia of the book trade and the ways in which it works (distribution, reviews, etc.). It’s pretty amazing that small-press books get published at all. I prefer amazement to gloom.
90 Another little idea: on a Saturday, a bookshop makes available to a small press a table to display and sell its books. Sales go through the shop’s till. Win win: the shop’s regular customers encounter new titles; the press’s books encounter potential new readers. A form of pop-up one-press book fair. I did this once in a south London bookshop (now closed) and it worked well.
91 And another idea: buy a second-hand library van, stock it with excellent small-press books, drive it around the UK, stopping off in small towns that can no longer support (because of discounting on the internet, business rates, etc) a bricks-and-mortar bookshop. But I’d need an HGV license. And a different life.
Bite-size CBe, Part 4: 91–104 (written in July 2021)
92 Printing errors. Photo of a man in the tube (taken by Natalia Zagorska-Thomas) reading Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12, which appears from its cover to be upside down but in fact the text the man was reading was right way up.
93 Sheila Ramage, the Notting Hill bookseller mentioned in bite 66 (above), died in February 2020. In the care home I was reading aloud to her Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and I was a little annoyed at the time that we never got to the end. But Sheila’s timing was good: in the last pages we read Jane Fairchild wanders naked through the Big House after a morning of love-making, a scene of great happiness.
94 Sheila (above left) a few years ago at the 101st birthday party of her friend Doris, who has a recent edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in her lap. Doris’s mother was ‘in service’, her father was ‘not educated’, but give Doris the first line of a poem and she could often recite the whole thing. Arguably, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury influenced more lives in the UK than any other book.
95 Graham Swift’s next novel included a character with the stage name Jack Robinson – which was my own pen name for several books from CBe. I wrote to Swift. (I last wrote a fan letter 50 years ago, to Harold Owen, brother of Wilfred and author of a 4-volume memoir, Journey from Obscurity. I got a letter back from his widow, informing me that Harold had recently died but inviting me to tea. I went.) Swift replied. We agree about the importance of happiness. It’s all in the writing, of course, but submissions that offer finely written suffering or yet another dystopia do not entice. Dystopias are two-a-penny, good writing about happiness is rare.
96 I’ve stopped with the Jack Robinson thing. Two of the first four books from CBe in 2007 were written by me and if I was going to lug them into bookshops (I had no distributor, no sales agent) I needed to have a better answer than ‘me’ if any bookseller asked who the authors were. I’m far from being the only writer on the CBe list publishing under a pen name. (More about this in The Other Jack.)
97 Will Eaves winning the Wellcome Prize in 2019 for Murmur (see bite 81). The red dress is by Helen Storey, daughter of David Storey, whose novels were important to me in my twenties. As any child can tell you, the world is both a very big and a very small place.
99 Below is a postcard from Leila Berg in 2008, replying to my request for permission to reissue her Flickerbook, which I felt and still do to be a quintessential CBe book. I went to see her; she was aged 90, and she died in 2012. At long last, in 2021 it’s a CBe book.
101 At the start of lockdown number 3 in January 2021 I invited CBe writers to send me recipes. The results – cooked, photographed and eaten – are posted on this blog (entries dated between January and March 2021): the 23 recipes include rabbit, squirrel, Stuffed Monkey and (perhaps my favourite) a combination of matzo balls and Thai tom kha soup. And a Spaghetti Western.
103 I’m a thrower-away, not a hoarder. And I lose things. There’s not much of an archive here – a handful of letters, a few old catalogues. The books are the archive.
104 July 2021. An email today from someone who ordered a book several years ago, then sent it back because it smelled of weed and I gave a refund. She is now, she says, ‘comfortable around people smoking weed’ and because CBe is such a ‘small shoestring publishing set-up’ she is refunding my refund.
Wednesday, 22 May 2019
All CBe titles in print are in stock with the distributor, Central Books, and can be ordered from there by any bookshop. Most independent bookshops, however, source their stock only from the main wholesalers, so if Gardners or Bertrams do not hold a book in stock, it’s likely that that a bookseller will tell a customer ordering that book that it is not available. This happens often. Over 90 per cent of CBe titles are not in stock with the wholesalers; how they choose which books to buy in I don’t know; I only know that I cannot choose for them. (When the wholesalers do take a book into stock, they buy it in from the distributor at a discount of well over 50%.)
A sales agent can be helpful here – that is, a person/organisation whose job is to hustle booksellers to buy in the books and nag the wholesalers to stock them. For some years CBe did have a sales agent (although during the first year with the agent, sales were fewer than in the previous year, with no agent). Since dropping down to publishing just two or three books a year, CBe has done without a sales agent – because they concentrate on pushing new titles, not the backlist; and because in addition to an annual charge they take a cut (10% + VAT) on every book sold out of the distributor (on top of the distributor’s cut), regardless of whether they had a hand in effecting those sales.
Am I being mean here? Would paying a sales agent increase sales to the point where that payment earns itself back, and more? I don’t know. The evidence in favour is not compelling. In the months before last Christmas, CBe was one of six London-based small presses who hired (at a cost of several hundred pounds each) an experienced, enthusiastic book-trade person to visit pretty well every bookshop in London to promote our recent titles in person. He reported back that the booksellers who knew of CBe were ‘unfailingly happy’ to see him. I supplied him with sample copies to give away where appropriate. Total sales resulting from this exercise: two or three (fewer than the sample copies given away).
Because Blush, published late last year, was a new thing for CBe – images and text, equal status – I conducted a similar exercise myself, visiting bookshops that might not be familiar with CBe books (Tate Modern, Camden Arts Centre, Whitechapel, Photographers Gallery), talking to the managers where necessary and leaving sample copies. Result in sales: zero. Result in sales of Good Morning, Mr Crusoe after getting some Guardian publicity and an Observer review in the week of publication: ordered by half a dozen bookshops, mostly single copies, and not in stock at the wholesalers. (Don't even try from Gardners: 'Not available to order'. Neither book is in stock with Amazon.)
This post is about context, in which the glamour days of prizes and shortlists are far outnumbered by the humdrum and head-banging days. Of course we all (writers, publishers) think our books deserve shelf space in the bookshops, but don’t even think of submitting to CBe if you assume I can get you that.
[This post reproduces a CBe newsletter sent on 7 May 2019]
A red dress in the form of a neural tube, designed by Helen Storey (daughter of the novelist and playwright David Storey, on whose work I once wrote – around half a century ago – an 8,000-word essay) and her sister Kate, a developmental biologist, on display at the Wellcome Institute. And Will Eaves, winner of the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize last week.
CBe is thumpingly proud to have published Will Eaves’s Murmur (and before that, The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop). The generous goodwill heading towards the good Will (and CBe) in the past week has been heartwarming – thank you, all.
‘Unanimous,’ said the chair of the judges. The book was turned down by some much better-resourced publishers (I’m not spilling beans, this is on record). Ten years ago, when CBe published its first collection of new poetry, J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the head of the Poetry Book Society told me that many people would be ‘surprised’ that they had made it a Recommendation (it went on to win the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and be shortlisted for a Forward Prize). That was in 2009; in 2019, the presence of small-press books on shortlists is almost expected.
Critical acclaim and the logistics of getting the books out there don’t, for small presses, mesh. For the latter, the bigger publishers are better: sales and marketing departments and channels and systems, which means overheads, which in turn means they are unlikely to take a punt, and even if they do they’re not going to concentrate financial resources on a hunch. Jobs are at stake, people’s livelihoods.
Very soon – in fact now – publication of Murmur will be taken over by Canongate, who are using the basic CBe cover design but going orange (below). (There’s a prenuptial clause in the CBe contract that says that if someone fitter and/or richer approaches, then the author is free to go with them; and this is fine, in fact it’s terrific, I don’t own the writers I publish and Will’s book will be published to more readers). If you want one of the very few remaining CBe editions of the book, order from the website quick.
Roughly a fifth of the books that CBe has published have sold fewer than 100 copies.