Wednesday 22 May 2019

'Not currently available'?

On the one hand, CBe is a ‘successful’ small publisher. One of the books published last year has won the Wellcome Book Prize and has co-won the Republic of Consciousness Prize and has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths, etc, and has sold more copies than any other CBe title. On the other hand, the two other books published by CBe last year have sold fewer than 100 copies – as have around a fifth of the titles published by CBe in the past 12 years, books I’m no less proud of having published.

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.

Wellcome Brook Prize, 2019

[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.