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.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The new kid on the CBe website

A first for CBe: another publisher’s book up on the website – Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, the first book from a new press, Les Fugitives: see here.


What gets published in the UK and what doesn’t is a mystery. Among my reading & re-reading over the last month: Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals, trans. Christopher Isherwood, and Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasumari Kawabata, both from the 1980s/90s Picador Classics: why are these books no longer in print? Two memoir books by Grégoire Bouillier, available in translation in the US but not the UK. A novella by Ann Beattie, who has been publishing since the 70s, and I can’t see a single book from a UK publisher. Books in translation are currently more widely noticed and read than they have been for decades – thanks to, among others, Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Pushkin Press, and Christopher Maclehose – but even among English-language writers there’s a huge array that don’t get through to the UK except by way of NYRB or Dalkey Archive: Renata Adler, Alfred Hayes, Dorothy Baker, W. M. Spackman ...

The decisions of the big publishers about what to publish may increasingly be determined by statistics. According to a piece in the current issue of The Author on the gathering of data (Amazon, for example, can tell ‘if you finish a book or not, and how long it took’ – though this presumably applies only to ebook sales), there are companies who collect ‘reading data’, and ‘they are then using it to shape publishers’ publishing, sales and marketing efforts’.

Or, at the bottom end of the scale, you can simply read a book and like it so much that you want to do something about this, to celebrate it. So you find a way to publish it. It’s how CBe started, and also Les Fugitives. (Neither of us set out to be a ‘publisher’. For seven years I’ve bought ISBNs in the minimum batch number, because I’ve never seriously planned to do more.) There’s an affinity here. CBe is proud to have the book on the website.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Agony aunts & uncles: the lit advice column

Some first-world writerly problems (each of which is true, in the sense that they are actual questions that I’ve been asked):

‘I’ve sent work to a publisher/agent I like – how long should I wait before either contacting them again or giving up on them? (Six months? A year? Longer?)’
‘I’ve got an agent who is asking for changes, and if it gets as far as an editor, which of course is what I’m aiming for, then they’re likely to ask for changes too, maybe even back to what I’ve changed it from, so how do I negotiate this?’
‘I have a publisher but it really didn’t work out on the last book and I’d like to test the market but I don’t want to totally piss off my present publisher …’
‘I’ve now got enough rejection slips to decorate the spare bedroom – is there a special glue for this, or is ordinary wallpaper glue OK?’
‘A book I published a decade ago is now available as an ebook – but the publisher didn’t tell me he was doing this, nor has he offered any money …’
‘My publisher has broken the terms of the contract we both signed: they’ve postponed publication beyond the agreed time limit/ sold off stock to remainder shops without offering them to me first – what can I do?’
‘I really hate the cover they’ve given my book. I know the contract says that they have the final say-so, but it’s my book, and they’ve trusted me enough to take it on and I’ve been in this business for decades and every decision by a marketing dept has flopped …’
‘Does a pink cover mean gay? No problem with that. I’m not gay, as it happens. But I don’t want to be type-cast.’
‘When I go to the publisher’s summer party, should I or shouldn’t I get drunk? What are the pros and cons?’
'Some work I published a while back is now being put on the web, on people's blogs - is this wrong and should I be doing something about it (what?), or is this how the world now runs?'
‘I’ve been invited to read at a lit festival 200 miles way, and for me this is a big thing but they’re not offering even travel expenses. Yes or no?’
‘I’m mid-list, and have made a living out of my books, but now they are ejecting me. The reputable smaller publishers wouldn’t be interested: they want young, they want work that “challenges” (ha-ha). Should I self-publish? Isn’t this a form of defeatism?’

I don’t know. I don’t know enough to know, I don’t even know what ‘enough’ might mean. So I’m thinking about a forum where these questions might be answered by a panel of so-called experts, who may well contradict one another but at least it’s a place to discuss. Say, a legal/copyright person; an agent; a mainstream editor and and a small-press editor. An agony-aunt/uncle column. Along the lines of, for example, the sex advice column in the Metro, one of whose experts is James McConnachie, on the basis presumably of his having written The Rough Guide to Sex but he is also the editor of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors and he knows the business and I think he'd be good on this too. And many of the questions are transferable.