Friday, 15 May 2015

The first ebooks from CBe

At long last, CBe is dipping its toes into ebook waters.

The first two ebook editions are Not So Barren or Uncultivated: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830 and No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917. (Print editions of these are still available from bookshops and from the CBe website, and a third volume – 1917–1942 – will be appearing in print later this year.) These are anthologies: they present extracts from the writings of, well, British travellers in Finland, introduced and with linking passages by Tony Lurcock. Compiled over many years, they are also labours of love – for Finland, and for (some of) the travellers.

Being neither short fiction nor poetry, these books sit a little awkwardly on the CBe list, but they are very welcome. Tony Lurcock originally approached me for advice on how to self-publish the first volume. I started reading. ‘In the Introduction I have presented the writers against the background of their times, describing some of the cultural, social and literary ideas which they reflect. Themes such as “the picturesque” can then be mentioned in the body of the book without further digression. It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all. That is the way with anthologies.’ My italics. I was seduced.

We learn, through the travellers, about not just the landscape of Finland but its progressive social character. Finland is ‘undoubtedly the best educated nation in the world’ (Young, 1911); it was the first country in Europe to enfranchise women (1906) and to elect them to parliament (1907); in 1908 Travers sets off eagerly ‘to the only civilised country in Europe, the one place where women have got their full rights’.

We witness the bemusement of travellers when experiencing the sauna and naked bathing – ‘This was my first experience of a bath à la Finnoise, and I am not anxious to renew it, for to stand in puris naturalibus and be soaped from head to foot by a buxom lady (even of mature years) is somewhat trying to a novice’ (Harry de Windt) – and local food and drink: ‘A supply of Finnish beer, a sort of attenuated rhubarb and magnesia tends to gravitate the solidities, but it is funny stuff’ (George Francklin Atkinson); ‘With regard to that brown rye-cake of Lapland, I brought a piece home to England, which my dog saw and annexed. He is a fox-terrier of lusty appetite, and he tried to eat it. He tried for a whole afternoon, and finally left the cake alone on a lawn, very little the worse for the experience’ (C. J. Cutliffe Hyne).

But perhaps the chief pleasure of the books lies in the linking commentary of Tony Lurcock, whose style has an odd affinity with that of many of his travellers. Here is Captain Batholomew Sulivan (who later sailed with Darwin on the Beagle): ‘Sometimes we meet a small boat with two or three people in it, and a cow standing as quietly as possible, though looking too large for the boat to hold in safety.’ Here is Lurcock: ‘On the evidence of the various accounts given by travellers, one may say confidently that the Great Coastal Road was not great, not always coastal, and not always even a road.’ There are not many books of this kind, and possibly none in which the content and the style and temperament of the compiler combine so happily.

For sale from Amazon: here and here. The Amazon pages carry some 5-star reader reviews for both books.

(Coming next, ebook editions of two of my own poetry collections: Paleface, 1996, and The Age of Cardboard and String, 2001. The print editions were once published by Faber.)

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


Get over it, I tell myself. I worked for them in-house for 14 years, and then freelanced for them for a few years, before they dumped me without any notice or reason why, and I’ve published books with them. So, to get it over with:

1. After querying to Matthew Hollis why copies of one of my own books were being sold in remainder shops for far less than I as author would have to pay Faber to buy them, which was pissing off not just me but a number of independent bookshops who want to keep Faber poetry in stock, he opened by asking me why was I being so oppositional. For starters, because Faber was breaking contract. (There are many other Faber authors who are being treated in this way.)

2. Basic incompetence in sending out work to freelance editors. A book missing half its contents. A book sent in two versions without any indication of which was the correct one. A book sent in early draft form (so the work had to be redone). A book whose publication was postponed by a year without either the author or the copy-editor/typesetter (me) being told this. A book that was to be co-published with a US publisher: I wasn’t told this when sent the book, nor was I given any contact details for the editor (I had to find him online). A book with two co-editors who were both, I was told, very helpful and ‘hands-on’: one of them, I then found, had had cancer for several months and his involvement was nil. Proofs sent to me for checking and indexing that included superseded material that should have been ditched at an earlier stage, and would have been if anyone in the office had bothered to read what they were sending to be typeset. (Previous to this, by the way, in-house, an Alan Bennett book that the sales had decided was to sell for £25. It was edited and designed and typeset. The page extent had to be bigger, we were told, for the £25 cover price. So redesigned at proof stage, pushed out, resulting in bad page design and cost of re-indexing. And then they decide to sell at £20 after all.)

3. Miserliness. Freelance, I text-designed from scratch at least a dozen books without any payment. Offered £75 for text design for design of one book, I queried the previous non-offers and was told too late for that, my fault for not asking, which I guess it was. Querying rates for typesetting, I was told that the current standard rate was way above what I’d agreed to several years previously, and was still invoicing at, but no chance of retrospective payment. That they hadn’t advised me of the revised rate when it started operating was my fault, not theirs. I asked a manager person about this and she invited me in to lunch and we went to a falafel bar and paid separately.

4. A few instances. Ezra Pound, Selected Poems and Translations, ed. Richard Sieburth: I was given this to copy-edit and design and typeset. Reading the introduction, I became aware that this was a major book, a bringing together of the US and UK publishing strands of Pound’s work, to be published in cooperation with New Directions in the US. Faber hadn’t told me this, nor had they given me any contact details for the editor. I found an email address for Sieburth on the net, and he spelt out the project. He sent new files (though I’d been told by Faber that the files they’d given me were final). New Directions were already working on the book: their designer was going through the previous Pound editions, coming up with informed suggestions for the design of this edition. I suggested to Faber that rather than typesetting separately, which would result in the editor having to correct two completely different sets of proofs, with different line numbers, they let New Directions do the job and buy in the setting. Eventually, they agreed. They did pay me for several needless hours of work, bless. Samuel Beckett, Collected Poems, ed. Sean Lawlor and John Pilling. They had been assured by Faber that the inclusion of a series of short poems, of previously disputed authorship, had been agreed by all parties. At proof stage, these poems were relegated to an appendix at the insistence of one of those parties. At the next proof stage, these poems were deleted entirely, at the insistence of another of those parties. The surviving editor was not a happy man. Basil Bunting, Collected Poems, ed. Don Share. They have had the book a decade, more.

5. Dependence on the nous of others, despite their staff of salaried editors. Deborah Levy, Swimming Home – first published by And Other Stories, then by Faber, coming a little late to the party. Eimear MacBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, prize prize prize prize, now with Faber but don’t tell me that they didn’t reject it before all that.

6. Basic arrogance. I’ve written before about the poem from a CBe book that they printed in a Faber anthology without any credit, with mis-spelling of the translator’s name, and crediting to her of another translation she had nothing to do with; and late payment; and no copy of the book, as per the agreement. Hollis’s response was that the book was on a tight schedule. Bless. No small press that I know would be so irresponsible.

By the way: D. H. Lawrence in the Faber poet-to-poet series: he did not die in Venice, as the back cover still says, still says, several reprints after I first pointed out, very gently, the error, at proof stage before the first edition.

6. Getting through. I’ve emailed editors, sales people, Faber Factory about ebooks, over the years, repeatedly, always by name, and had no reply. About interest in backlist authors, about contact details for authors or agents, etc. Illustration: for months I tried to get Faber interested in having a table at the Free Verse: Poetry Book Fair, and they were going to have meetings to discuss this, and eventually, a week before the event, someone phones me and says yes, they’re interested, and I say good, it’s on this particular Saturday, and he says Oh, that would be be a problem, they can’t do Saturdays. Bless.

7. Faber’s grant of £40K a year from the Arts Council for the Faber pamphlets series, announced at the same time as cuts to Arc and Enitharmon and others, was outrageous. I queried this with Antonia Byatt at ACE; she suggested that this was enabling new talent to benefit from Faber’s sales and marketing expertise, which is a reasonable argument, but when she gave me sales figures it rather fell apart.

8. The Faber Finds list, which brings out-of-print golden oldies back into print, is a scam: the first design was simply bad, the new is hardly better, and to charge what they do for these books (almost all of which can be bought cheaper and in their original editions from, and reissue them without any passion or apparent interest (in the form, say, of an introductory essay by someone championing the book, as NYRB do), smacks of simple money-making. As does the Faber Academy.

9. The above para is about branding: the Faber name on your shelf, on your cv. A brand earned by its wonderful backlist, and by some of its frontlist. Not by the last book I was paid to work on: ‘Do snakes have arseholes? Does the Queen spit or swallow?’

Monday, 4 May 2015

Small pre-Election rant

The 1997 General Election was held on 1 May, a sunny day. In the afternoon, my twin sons’ 6th birthday party in the garden, and then in the evening and long through the night a continuing euphoria as many of the adults stayed on and we watched, seat by seat, the landslide Labour victory, and indulged in the belief that our kids were going to be safe, more than safe, were going to part of the kind of society that we so wanted for them. Next day, the new dawn (bliss was it), Robin Cook’s ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy and much else.

My sons are now 24, graduated, in debt, live in London. Today, the Guardian reports that ‘first-time buyers need to earn £77,000 a year’ to get on the laughingly called ‘housing ladder’; another Guardian report today mentions the 900 migrants drowned in the past month while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, to get to the promised land of Europe.

On Thursday I vote. I don’t, honestly, yet know who for. I don’t even know whether I’m going to be voting on principle or for the best way I think my vote can count in the local circumstances. I haven’t watched any of the TV debates but I haven’t been immune to the reporting and I feel blistered by the echo-chamber gap between the vision speeches and the pettiness of the to-&-fro: who is responsible for the ‘deficit’ and who not, who is going to impose a ‘mansion tax’ and who not, who will freeze child benefits and who not, who is going to impose a ‘cap’ on immigration and who not, who is going going to hold a ‘referendum on Europe’ and who not, who said what to who and oh no they didn’t yes they did.

The above pic is a screen-grab of Aneurin Bevan – who not just got the NHS set up but seems to have suggested that housing should be nationalised. Food, clothing, shelter: not one of the vying parties, in one of the ten richest countries in the world, is guaranteeing these for all their citizens. They are mediating the pressure of a form of capitalism they’ve laid flat on their backs to. Rich world, poor world: arguments about immigration caps simply miss the point. Sort it.

I’m angry and confused, course I am. (See the downloadable pdf of Recessional on this CBe page, written in 2009, at a time when the financial meltdown offered a window for a rethinking of the whole structure and we just let it go by, go by.) Looking back to to that sunny day in 1997, looking now at where my children are, I feel shame. Not guilt, which is a different thing. I can’t feel bad all the time; today was good (weather, food, reading, one deeply funny incident); I (deeply privileged) cultivate my garden, and on Thursday will scrawl an X. But not in any much hope. The main feeling I have is waste: there is so much intelligence and kindness in this country, and they’re being failed.

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.