Thursday, 8 October 2015

Book sales, tractor repairs

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 October 2015

On interns in publishing

What do interns actually do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Poetry Book Fair, the Forward Prizes

The handwritten date on the above is 5 October 2011. It’s a photograph I picked up from a shop in central London that was conducting an after-hours yard sale (big places go bust no less easily than small places; I once got a year’s supply of posh envelopes free from an office clear-out around Holborn), and I picked it up while walking from the Tube to the Waldorf Hotel in the Aldwych to meet Dennis Nurkse and Nancy Gaffield, whose names are also on that photo and who were shortlisted, respectively, for the main Forward Prize and the Forward First Collection Prize that year, the winners to be announced a little later that evening in Somerset House, just over the road, so not far to proceed after we’d pro-actively celebrated with champagne, jumping the gun.

I really can’t remember who won, that year. I do remember sitting in the courtyard, a little drunk, in drizzling rain, with Dennis, and bidding farewell to William Sieghart, founder of the Forwards, as he cycled bumpily off across the cobbles.

The Forward Prizes have moved on. They are now a much more public event, run with gusto by Susannah Herbert and Maisie Lawrence, with readings on the Southbank – see here for what’s happening next Monday. Back in 2011, there was a little newspaper flurry about the shortlist for the main prize comprising male poets only. In 2015, the judging panel is entirely female. Nod, sigh, bless. CBe has had a generous amount of free wine from the Forward Foundation: two poets shortlisted for the main prize (Nurkse, Brahic), three for the first collection prize (Morgan, Gaffield, O’Brien), and now this year Matthew Siegel for the first collection and Andrew Elliott for the single poem (chosen from Sonofabook magazine). People ask me who’s going to win and I wish they wouldn’t because I’ve read some of the books but by no means all. That’s the judges’ job, not mine.

The other reason I remember 5 October 2011 is because that very morning a stunningly beautiful 19-year-old woman knocked on the door and asked if a publisher lived here and claimed to be a poet and did I want to hear relationship stuff or politics, the former, but she rapped the politics too and I was seriously impressed and then we looked at her modelling portfolio and in particular the photo she thought would be good for the cover, bare millimetres of clothing, but her mum disagreed, what did I think? I thought, after careful consideration, that I probably wasn't the right publisher for her.

Publishing is about the most fun you can have during working hours. Is that why there are so many of us? There are eighty poetry publishers participating in the Poetry Book Fair at the Conway Hall in Holborn, London, this Saturday from 10 a.m., the annual gathering of the clans. Come along, if you haven’t got anything better to to do. Such as?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Further to the preceding: authors / badgers

Longevity is an issue. And finite resources. Not just people living longer and therefore the burden on the NHS and the pensions mess but, to bring in a little self-interest, books.

Ian McEwan is 67. Think about this. If he keeps healthy, and he does look pretty fit, he’s going to write another 7 or 8 books, and they are all going to be published, because of his track record if nothing else, though I’d love there to be other reasons too and there may be, and all the books are going to get media space. At a time when the readership for the kind of ‘literary fiction’ he writes is not just precarious but diminishing, and mainstream publishers are cutting down their slots per year for this kind of work. (Slots per year: not many, and the authors with reputation have books in the queues for these slots. The question for many very good newish authors therefore becoming not how do I get published, but how do I jump the queue. Or do it otherwise.)

I’m 64 myself, same generation. Not only did my lot hog the grants for university, and all the available housing when it was just about affordable, and the jobs, and the travel to Palmyra in Syria (me above, sometime in the 70s, looking sorry for myself, how dared I) but the publishing lists too. (I haven't even mentioned class, race, gender. Do I need to?) And are still hogging.

So, yes, six books per author max. Or maybe cull us. It would free up a lot of space.

On buying books

1 Ashbery, for example. I think he’s a terrific poet. There are times when only Ashbery will do. But I’m not going to buy every new book he publishes because I think I’ve ‘got’ him, and don’t need more of him. Sometimes, browsing in a shop, I’ll pick up a more recent Ashbery than the ones I already have and open the book at random and read a poem that immediately I need, then look at the price and think there's enough Ashbery on my shelves, isn't there, for when I need him. (It’s not as if I need him every day.)

2 Not a few times, of course, while browsing, I’ve opened a poetry book at random to a poem I have to have, and bought the book, and then found that nothing else in the book lives up to that first poem.

3 Lydia Davis a bit similar to 1, above. Do I really need more Lydia Davis? A whole lot of authors who I started reading decades ago are in this category. (I mean, I think, the ones who tend to do more of the same, however brilliantly. Maybe all authors should be allowed to publish only six books, along the lines of the Chinese one-child policy.)

4 Other times, of course, I’ll just buy the damn book. It’s what credit cards are for. The decision whether to buy or not buy can depend on something as not strictly relevant as the weather, how friendly the bookseller is, how many glasses of wine I’ve had, if I’m already doing damage by taking one to the till so another won’t hurt, etc.

5 Even though I may want them now I rarely buy books when they first come out, in their plush first editions. (Besides, there’s something poncy about reading hardbacks: a statement is being made, about money and class etc, and I’m not comfortable with going there.) I’ll wait nine months, gestation period, for the mass-market paperback. If the book turns out to be a disappointment – the last James Salter novel, for example, or the Miranda July novel – then at least I haven’t overspent. Thrift.

6 Most books cost around the same as a pack of 20 cigarettes. They are index linked. This feels about right.

7 Personal recommendations from people I’ve known long enough to know that many of their likings correspond with mine. Most recent example: Shani Boianjio, The People of Forever are Not Afraid – how did this pass me by? I’ve been reading other books in the course of reading this one, so I don’t have to finish it too quickly.

8 The above (personal say-sos) influence me much more than reviews. I suspect that Nicholas Lezard is the only UK reviewer whose enthusiasm for a book actually makes any difference at all to sales.

9 While on reviews, Robert McCrum’s talk at the last Inpress conference opened my dull eyes a little: when he was lit ed at the Observer, which is a newspaper, his choice of which books to have reviewed was to a large extent determined by whether or not they were were news. A new Ishiguro is news, in a sort of socio-cultural way; a new book of short stories by someone no one has heard of is not news. I know the latter may become news, but a newspaper functions to report news, not make it.

10 While on Time (I know I’m not, but I want to get this in somewhere), the argument that no one these days has the time to read, and certainly not to read Big Long Books – an argument often trotted out by champions-lite of the short story – is just daft. Life expectancy in the UK in 1900 for women was about 50 years (less for men, as usual; and skewed by child mortality figures, but still); life expectancy in the UK in 2012 was around 81.5 years. We have more time to read, not less. If that is what we choose to do.

11 Second-hand bookshops, yes, and especially the ones with the old orange and green Penguins: the Alberto Moravias, the Penelope Mortimers, the Muriel Sparks, the Simenons. If you come across a Penguin James Kennaway or Alfred Hayes, and there are not many of these still around, buy. (A thing about second-hand shops – which also applies to charity clothing shops – is this: if there’s only one of a thing available, that in itself makes it more desirable than if there are many.)

12 If you go to a reading or a launch party (I once worked, for two days, for a magazine in which only ships were allowed to be 'launched') and get a free glass of wine, and maybe another and another, are you under some kind of obligation to buy the book that’s being read from? Tricky one.

13 Amazon own AbeBooks and Book Depository and probably your local pizza takeaway too, so it can take a lot of effort not to buy from them, but I do generally make that effort. If a book is in print, you buy from your local independent bookshop, because if you think these shops are a desirable part of any world worth living in you can’t just rely on others. (And the saving on money from buying from Amazon would buy you what, a cappuccino?) If a book is not in print, then any source is allowable.

14 A new and covetable edition of a book I already have and love (or maybe just another copy of same in a second-hand shop): yes, if the book is important to me. It means I don’t have to be so precious about lending out (and not getting back) the copy I already have.

15 A friend, when he comes across a book whose existence is not celebrated but which he wants very much to share with others, buys 10 copies (say; sometimes more) and sends them around. Exemplary.

Sunday, 16 August 2015


Driving down a motorway last week – a rare thing: I don’t get out much – I had radio 4 on the car radio and there was Marina Warner (whom I deeply respect) talking about ‘story-telling’. Rag-bag stuff, punctuated by some Satie music and very actorish readings from Moby Dick and Treasure Island. I switched over.

Story-telling festivals, courses in ‘how to tell’ a story … Odd, this cult of the story, of humans as ‘a story-telling species’, the best we can do; I mean, the assumption that telling stories is a good thing to be doing. Religions favour stories; so does the right wing (‘the story of England’); so does the left wing (from what what I remember of her last book, Rebecca Solnit talks a lot about story).

Story-telling may well be a ‘natural’ thing to do – we use them to explain the world to ourselves, and ourselves to ourselves, and when we get it wrong (which is usually the case) we are reluctant to give those stories up. But stories are surely basically conservative, retrospective, an imposing of pattern on experience. They are little machines for containing things. Stories are secondary. (I deeply distrust biographies, which turn lives – which at any given point could go right or left or straight on – into simple narratives.)

I’m as fascinated by stories as anyone else; not least by the way they often turn out to be about something different from what we thought they were about when we told them. They’re not going to go away. E. M. Forster, famously: ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ But the best novels are in at least two minds about their own stories even as they make them up, and it’s this resistance to story-telling that makes them worth reading. (Nothing new here, of course.)

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Wise Blood

The 1970s really were amazing for films. Last night I watched Wise Blood for the first time since it came out in 1979 and it’s even better than I remembered it.

From the blurb on the DVD: ‘War veteran Hazel Motes returns from the war with little waiting for him but the hypocrisies of the over-zealous evangelists that populate his bible-belt hometown … With an upbringing of fire-and-brimstone sermons Hazel has taken enough, and so begins his own rebellious crusade with the founding of “The Church of Truth without Jesus Christ”.’

It’s funny, outrageous and unsettling. One of the reasons it works so powerfully for me is, I think, that it seems not fully in control of its material: John Huston, staunch atheist, is making a film from a novel by Flannery O’Connor, whose writing was imbued with a highly personal, distinctive brand of Catholicism, and for all their shared appreciation of the black humour of the whole set-up, and line by line in the dialogue, at some level important to the whole story they are out of sync. Oddly, the film seems to gain from this.

Another out-of-sync thing: budget constraints and the speed with which the film was made put limits on period accuracy – so that, for example, Hazel gets off a steam train (which they had free use of during filming) and jumps into a 1970s taxi. This, too, works beautifully. The film is timeless. There are bits of plot that fray to the side and aren't pulled in: again, this works.

They had a child do the lettering for the start-of-film credits; Huston’s forename is spelt ‘Jhon’ (twice) and they left it like that (see above; note also that tombstone telephone). (Any other film in which the director’s name is mis-spelt in the credits?) Another mis-spelling: Hazel stares at a tombstone on which the carved letters declare that his mother has gone ‘to become an angle’.

Pretty well all the peripheral characters – the hooker with whom Hazel stays when he arrives in town, the 2nd-hand car dealer he buys his Lincoln from, the drunks in an alleyway frightened by a man in gorilla costume – are played not by actors but by themselves: real hooker, real car dealer (and son), etc.

This was the first filmed screenplay by the brothers Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald. When they were children Flannery O’Connor wrote Wise Blood while renting a room at their family house; their father, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, was at the same time translating Oedipus Rex, from which O’Connor borrowed the self-blinding. The whole film seems to have been one of those semi-magic comings-together of the right people at the right time. Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes is extraordinary. Amy Wright as the teenage girl who wants him is so off-key brilliant that I worry about myself. During filming they all played poker at the weekends.