Wednesday, 22 December 2010
It was a very good evening of drinks and food with our staff (which can be counted on one hand) and some of our authors – all the ones who were not stuck somewhere else because of the weather or were brave enough to face the one and a half inch of snow that has brought the London airports to a halt.
It was a shamelessly self-celebratory party – this was by far our best year and we felt we had to splash out a little bit. But after my introductory Alma speech we also talked about Italian politics, Russian literature, computers, dying pets and the credit crunch. No, I'm lying, we didn't talk about the credit crunch, but somehow Wakefield was mentioned, and one of our editors said that it was Gissing's birthplace. At that point I turned towards Tibor Fischer, who was sitting next to me, and asked him if he liked Gissing. There was silence around the table. I repeated my question and everyone looked on even more puzzled and embarrassed.
"Do I like 'kissing'?" Tibor asked.
"No – no! Gissing, with a G."
Everyone swore I had said "kissing". It's true I had drunk quite a bit by that time and I may have slurred a bit.
First thing this morning I wrote to Tibor and confirmed in writing, being totally sober, that – much as I admire him – I had said Gissing, not kissing.
He replied that he was extremely disappointed.
Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Anyway, I had a great time, and I managed not to get drunk, although there were about thirty bottles of wine on our table, which sat just eight people . . .
Tuesday, 14 December 2010
One of the chaps who was serving wine was called Alex Estorick – and his surname didn't strike me as entirely coincidental in the context of the party room (we were at Robilant & Voena), where the most amazing paintings were hanging. He was remarkably slow in pouring Prosecco into my glass, and apologized by saying that he'd been asked to be careful about the seven-figure Boucher behind him. I peered over his shoulder: it was a real one, not a copy – and signed.
To be honest, I was afraid of brushing against some of the guests, which seemed even more precious than the paintings. Sophie Lewis was not so careful and poured an entire glass of red wine on her evening dress, which she said she had borrowed from her sister.
Tomorrow, for a change, it's panto day in Richmond – Thursday we've got a Christmas party in town with some big-shot stand-up comedian – Friday it's school disco I think . . . Thank God our own Christmas party is a full week away.
Saturday, 11 December 2010
To Mighty Google's move into eBook sales (in the US, so far) – trumpeted to the world on 8th December – Amazon has promptly reacted by launching its own cloud-based eBookstore.
In the meantime, Jamie's 30-Minute Meals has become the fastest selling hardback book in this country since records began (I think). It clocked up around 735,000 as of last week. I wonder how many ebook copies of the book have been sold – if anyone has that bit of information, I'd be curious to know.
So books are not entirely dead for the time being – at least some books. . . There's every reason to remain cheerful.
Tuesday, 30 November 2010
The Tower itself – an unprepossessing red-brick building from the outside – was a true revelation. It appears to have survived unscathed (if much altered) for centuries in the heart of North London, surrounded by Victorian and Edwardian houses and more recent high-rise buildings. The room in which the reading took place, dating back to 1509, was a marvel of pre-Elizabethan wood carving. The wood panels had the texture of very old human skin, and I almost felt I could smell its antiquity. It certainly helped create an eerie atmosphere during Lindsay's reading – the highlight of which was when, asked if he believed in God, he received the first call on his mobile phone for the past ten years, to his consternation and to everyone's laughter.
After a busy weekend cooking a lavish meal for friends and giving the last touches to my Auden translation and an article for an Italian journal, the beginning of the new week was engulfed in a media-created (mainly by articles in the Sunday Times and The Daily Mail) "dispute" between our author Rosie Alison and Amazon. The mini-storm was finally straightened up by a level-headed article by Benedicte Page in the Guardian today. The Guardian also published a lovely review of Houellebecq's The Art of Struggle, as I found out tonight during the launch of the book at the Calder Bookshop.
I am now totally immersed in the edit of Dante's Purgatorio (I'm concentrating on the Italian at the moment), and I have just reached the half-way point. Every time I reread it I just wonder at the sheer quality of it and Dante's incomparable imagination. It's a shame people get stuck with Inferno – for my money (and Gordon Nichols's, the translator) it is the best cantica of the Divine Comedy.
The rest of the week will be as hectic as the first part of it. But I hope I'll be able to catch up with you later on this week.
Thursday, 25 November 2010
My name is Simon Kerr. I’m guest-blogging for Alessandro today to draw the attention of aspiring authors to First Chapter. Alessandro is one of the three judges and expert mentors on the Lightship International First Chapter Competition. The other two judge-mentors are literary agent Simon Trewin and award-winning author Tibor Fischer. These three professionals are the sort of industry contacts that any aspiring author would kill to have in their email address book, and I’m really grateful for their support!
Like a lot of writers I tend to spend a lot of time in coffee shops, trying to think as I drink. The idea
for First Chapter occurred to me after my second Café Nero Grande Americano. I take three shots of espresso in my coffees, so it was a six-shooter head-rush. I conceived First Chapter as a writing competition – as a means of quality control, and a way of funding the scheme. I wanted the prize to be every writer’s dream: expert mentoring for a year by an awarding-winning author, a literary agent and a publisher. At the end of the mentoring process, if the winner has finished a novel that is as enthralling as their first chapter, I wanted the agent to sign them and the publisher to publish them, using First Chapter as a publicity platform to launch the debut novel into the market.
First Chapter is not the only international literary competition that the Lightship is running in 2010-11 – there’s a short story competition with a £1,000 first prize to be judged by Toby Litt, a poetry competition with a £1,000 first prize judged by Jackie Kay, and a flash fiction with a £500 first prize judged by Kachi A. Ozumba. We have some very distinguished patrons supporting Lightship: Christopher Reid (Costa Book Award Winner 2009), Sir Andrew Motion (former Poet Laureate), Lindsay Clarke (Whitbread Fiction Prize Winner 1989), and Hilary Mantel (Man Booker Prize Winner 2009). For more information or to enter the competitions please visit:
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Just a quick blog to reminder that tomorrow night, at Hendon Library (6.30pm), I will be discussing the challenges of translating modern Russian fiction (and, in general, translated fiction) in the UK. I will also address why there is a need for new translations of Russian classics, and talk about publishing Tolstoy’s works and, most recently, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, a hundred years after the death of Tolstoy.
To reserve a FREE place or for more information please contact Hendon Library on 020 8359 2628 or email Hendon.email@example.com Hendon Library.
Hope to see you there!
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Sorry if I have been too "reticent" and not "blatant" enough (to quote from yesterday's instructive talk by Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and Philip Hensher at the Royal Society of Literature) to evoke my own ghost over the past few weeks, but hell – especially the publishing one – can be really murky, and I had difficulties in finding my way to bed, let alone writing a daily blog.
What's been going on during this crazy time? I remember four wonderful days in Palermo – Palazzo Lampedusa in via Butera with Gioacchino and Nicoletta Lanza, dinner with Gea Schirò, twenty-four degrees centigrades, the Sarpotta stuccoes, the paintings in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, sunshine in Monreale, a storm in Bagheria – then the premieres of La bohème and Don Giovanni, the launch of Lampedusa's Letters at the Italian Institute, dinner at Zafferano with Da Mosto and Ian Thomson, a couple dozen books sent to the printers, launches with Tim Parks, Alberto Manguel, Anne Sebba, AN Wilson, the Stephen Spender Prize, excellent reviews (Julian Barnes, Boyd Tonkin, David Gilmour), some editing work, the final word on my translation of Auden – what else?
Oh yes – all the crap that has been going on in Italy and the world – Berlusconi's government about to go down among an erupting volcano of garbage, the false "diaries" of Mussolini being published, the Pope edging towards and then away from condoms, Ireland going bust, the Eurozone shaking in their boots.
Well, my friends, I am back – and I hope I'll be able to post regularly in the coming days.
Going back to Amazon.it, it'll never work. I remember the story of some Italian migrants settling in Keighley (West Yorkshire) in the late 1980's and calling back home every night from a phone box. They had devised a rudimentary tool made of a 10-p coin and a cord to avoid having to feed more money into the phone slot.
It'll be the same with Amazon – some Italian geezer will find away to order books without having to pay, and then everyone else will do the same, making Amazon bankrupt.
Good night for now.
Friday, 8 October 2010
It's funny, it's fresh and it's addictive. And I love the photographs too.
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
"…like the weather, when it is not rainy –
That is, I like two months of every year."
Italy is a strange country these days, ruled by a clownish dictator and no longer the homestead of Dantes, Cavalcantis, Petrarchs, Ariostos and Tassos – so I don't suffer from any kind of nostalgia at the moment.
England on the other hand gives me a lot of pleasure, especially old, green England. I drove past Stonehenge the other day – now, what is older than that in Europe? Visiting the village of Shaftesbury and Sherborne Castle on a sunny day, visiting the ruins of a Saxon building and sitting on a bench and looking at the same unspoilt landscape that Alexander Pope must have seen in 1724, made me really feel at home, even if Italian blood runs in my veins.
But what made me – and Elisabetta and our children – feel even more at home here was a wonderful evening of fun, laughter and great conversation at Phoebe and Lindsay Clarke's 17th-century atmospheric town house in Frome, in the company of Peter Benson and his wife Valery. We ate fish and chips, drank The Usual (delivered in a four-pint milk plastic bottle by a small pub in Milk Street – how appropriate), saw Emiliano go astraddle Lindsay's strong shoulders, Elisabetta tumble right in the heart of the medieval town and Eleonora produce some of her best drawings to date, admired Phoebe's excellent pottery, talked about past and present literature, discovered that at least three anagrams of Lindsay Clarke's name are well-known writers, etc. etc.
Life rarely gives you more: a lovely country, a ray of sunshine, some good friends and a loving family.
I think I'm going to apply for an English passport next year. . .
Saturday, 25 September 2010
The first one is Lampedusa's Letters from London and Europe, a project that has kept me busy, and at times sleepless, over the past couple of months. It's going to be a gem of a volume, full of unpublished texts and photographs, printed on Arctic paper to the highest standards. We already have half a dozen high-profile features and reviews lined up – and I am very much looking forward to the launch of the book at the Italian Institute in London on 18th October, when Francesco da Mosto will talk about it in conversation with prize-winning author Ian Thomson.
With a sigh of relief I should also add that this is the last Alma book for 2010.
The second title we sent to the printers is Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Without a doubt, it is the novel I have read more times than any other work of fiction – maybe seven or eight times? This is the second translation of it I have commissioned (the first being the Hesperus edition), and it is the book I have most given out as a present – especially to girlfriends (er, including Elisabetta!). There must be at least a dozen copies of the Mondadori edition with my dedication sitting on shelves the world over.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" – and constantly swept into the future . . .
Monday, 20 September 2010
The Guardian reports that Mary Bale is to be prosecuted "for causing unnecessary suffering and for failing to provide the cat with a suitable environment". He he he.
Sorry, I find this amusing because I come from a country where drowning kittens and torturing and even eating cats is certainly not considered such a taboo. People from Vicenza are nicknamed "magnagati" – cat-eaters. Of course this might well be a legend, but cats are quite scarce on the streets of Vicenza – and I remember people telling me that, during the War, it was commonplace to eat cats in Italy. "They're not bad – they taste like rabbits," an old woman told me once, with a touch of nostalgia in her voice.
OK, this is in bad taste, so I'll stop here.
I love cats, and I have had dozens of cats over the years ("had" as in "owned"). But let's put this episode in perspective, and let's hope the judge shows some sense and does not find the poor woman guilty.
After all, if a rabid cat scratches or bites you, I don't think there's a tribunal where you can bring up felines for crimes against mankind.
And now a sonnet from my Bestiary, in JG Nichols's translation:
This is the beast whom most of all I hate:
a glass in which I find myself revealed
a little at a time as I grow old
and see my bourgeois belly rounding out.
A cunning profiteer, she sinks to rest
on someone's useful lap, arrogantly,
to miaow and mew and purr, especially
whenever she has something to request.
She's very careful in her choice of friend:
what point in being fondled and caressed,
if one gets nothing out of it at last?
And, if she tires of stroking in the end,
a swift volte-face is always de rigueur:
she'll bite the hand that feeds, with no demur.
Thursday, 16 September 2010
Not sure if I have mentioned this already, but our new catalogues are available for download at the following addresses:
If you are an old-fashioned bugger like myself and prefer a paper catalogue, please email our valiant Marina Rodrigues on "mrodrigues" followed by @ followed by "almabooks.com"
Monday, 13 September 2010
We met some old friends, made a few new ones, and heard a great speech from Tim – who waxed lyrical on how he got the £100,000 lifeline he needed to launch the business from a retiring NatWest bank manager. All this was very romantic, in the context. Many of Tim's ex-employees, now stalwarts in the book or media world, were there and featured in a crowded photo-op.
I pointed out to Tim that behind the copies of his book displayed face out on an entire wall, there were piles of a book entitled Britain's Austerity. Very ominous . . .
I had the pleasure to see there Robert Topping, after meeting them in Ely many years ago, as well as Ed Victor, Jonathan Ruppin, Toby Mundy, Nigel Newton, Jamie Byng, Marion Lloyd and many others.
I bought a copy of the book at full price (I can see it's on sale at £9.68 on Amazon – ahi ahi ahi!) and now I look forward to reading the book. I am already twenty pages into it. Grab a copy – it's fun.
Friday, 10 September 2010
After the presentation we walked back to Bloomsbury's HQ with Bill Swainson, stopped for a quick drink at a pub near Soho Square and attended a lovely authors' party, where we were delighted to meet Howard Jacobson and Stephen Kelman (author of Pigeon English – check this one out, it's going to be a winner when it's released in March 2011) and see our old friend Paul Bailey, whose latest book – Chapman's Odyssey – will be published by Bloomsbury next January. I also had the honour to meet Nigel Newton and meet most of the editorial staff of Bloomsbury. After that, dinner at Bertorelli with the reps – a happy, enthusiastic bunch of people. I am sure they'll do well with our lists.
Today, back to the English Speaking Union for another session with the reps. We are absolutely spent and look forward to the weekend. I have just seen a wonderful review of our Decameron in the latest issue of the TLS – the cherry on the cake to an amazing week!
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
We have just published an updated edition of JG Nichols's wonderful translation, which I originally published during my time at Hesperus.
The book is a beauty, and I hope some of you will check it out. It's out now, and you can buy it from our website or any good book retailer. In it, you'll also find some bonus material, such as "A Draft of a Letter to Posterity" – which begins: "Although I much doubt whether my obscure little name ca have reached you at such a distance of time and space, it is possible that you have some inkling of me – "The Allegorical Ascent of Mont Ventoux", "Books, the Best Company" and "Italy, My Native Land" (the last two pieces were not included in the Hesperus edition).
To celebrate the publication of this book I have decided to buy a bottle of La Tour de Marrenon, Côtes du Ventoux, which I have emptied to the drains one minute past – and which helps me sink gently Lethe-wards.
Tuesday, 7 September 2010
Where do I start? Let me look back, in anger, at the calendar – now then, yes, the last few days have been slightly hazy, so you'll forgive me if I just touch upon the main events thereof (is that correct English? I hope so – but then I write "under the influence", as one of my readers recently pointed out, so any slips can be forgiven).
Let's say, then, that my last week begins six days ago – a Wednesday, as I recall it. I had a very pleasant late lunch with Gary Pulsifer and Daniela De Groote of Arcadia. We went through some red wine, a few John Calder anecdotes and a long cahier des doléances éditoriales, emerging from the lunch, if not more perplexed, certainly none the wiser.
Then I went to Foyle's, where I was pleased to see there were still many unsold copies of Blair's book, which had been released that day and was obviously not flying off the shelves – and four copies of my own book (!). I had coffee with Rosie Alison and proudly showed her my latest book acquisition, Tim Parks's Teach Us to Be Still. Her many fans will be delighted to hear that she is working on a new novel, which – she assures – will outshine The Very Thought of You. Music for my ears – I cannot deny that I am lighting up a candle every evening in our local Catholic church.
Then I rushed to a peculiar game of pool: Editors vs Writers. The editors were myself and our valiant classics editor Christian Müller; the writers were the formidable pool players Sean Ashton and Tom McCarthy. We were beaten 6:1 – it was horrible. Our only victory was by default when Sean accidentally potted the black ball. And then – I am not saying this through spite or envy – but everything seems to be going Tom's way these days, from winning at pool to being shortlisted for the Booker . . .
The following day, Friday – no, hang on a sec – Thursday, after a long day at work I went out with Jonathan and Alison of CPI and Louise of Continuum – first to Vallandry in Great Portland Street and then to see a production of Into the Woods at the Regent's Park theatre.
Friday was the day when Elisabetta and the kids came back from Italy. There were two massive accidents on the M25, one clockwise and the other one anticlockwise, and somehow I managed to sneak in and out without too much trouble and get home safely after a short stop at Franco Manca.
Saturday and Sunday were spent reading, writing, watching films, doing a 250-piece jigsaw puzzle with the kids, enjoying our newly decorated flat and going out with our friends.
Monday was when we totally overhauled and redesigned our office and spent one whole day moving stuff in, out and around, knocking down walls, fitting shelves, throwing away books and ending up as tired as the poor Chilean miners.
Today was a quiet day, but in the evening Christian and I went to the Italian Institute for an event on Dante's Rime. What was amazing was not so much Prof. Malato's discourse (speech or talk won't do) or the actress's reading of Dante's poems in Italian and English, accompanied by a young woman playing Baroque music on a theorbo, but the after-event, when we met a boy who'd played Dante's Inferno on PS3 and told us, one by one, all the tricks to get through to "riveder le stelle". I hope I can convince Christian to elaborate on this, and I definitely want to check out this game.
From a strictly professional point of view, we have sent five books to the printer over the past few days, received our latest catalogues (which will be mailed out soon) and seen reviews of Alberto Manguel's All Men Are Liars in The Times and of Lindsay Clarke's The Water Theatre in the Financial Times.
So that's all I think. And if you wonder what I am up to when you don't hear from me on this blog – please keep wondering.
Saturday, 28 August 2010
Also in today's The Times, entirely by coincidence, there is a piece I have written about the new Lightship literary awards for short stories, poetry and first chapter of a novel. I will write more extensively about this soon, as I am involved as a judge of the First Chapter competition, and Alma is one of the sponsors of this wonderful new initiative created by the novelist Simon C. Kerr (www.lightshippublishing.co.uk).
Tuesday, 24 August 2010
What have I been up to? Mainly, I have been busy editing Lampedusa's Letters. I thought it'd take me a day or two – it's taken me ten long days of solid work. I am exhausted – but the book is absolutely fantastic, and I can't wait to see it out.
Social and cultural life has been abuzz too. Among other things – such as a visit to Guildford and to the Imperial War Museum – Elisabetta and I had a lovely dinner with Carole Welch (Sceptre), Pete Ayrton (Serpent's Tail), Christopher Maclehose (Quercus), Bill Swainson (Bloomsbury), Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson. It was a glorious evening, and publishing was not the only subject going round the table with the wine – which was even better.
We have sent to the printers another dozen titles over the past couple of weeks, and have received finished copies of many books including Alberto Manguel's All Men Are Liars, which looks fabulous. We were supposed to go to Edinburgh for Alberto's events but had to cancel because of acute Lampedusitis. Oh well – next year.
A few nice reviews of our books have appeared, including a nice mention in the last Saturday's Times by Scott Pack, who has described Bestseller as "a caustic satire on the publishing world" (thanks Scott, I owe you one!).
The Alma and Oneworld Classics Spring 2011 were signed off today, and should be available for browsing online in the next day or two, so please keep your eyes peeled.
Weather is shitty, as you may have noticed, and is making me suicidal. I miss my kids, who are coming back on 3rd September. I try to console myself with a lot of exercise at the gym – followed by Gargantuan meals at home. And readings of Milton. And blogging. Goodnight.
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
I was there with Melissa of Pushkin Press, just as crazily bent on publishing translated fiction in this country as I am. Two like-minded fools having lunch at the Madhouse. How appropriate to eat there.
One of the waiters was the spitting image of Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, and I was slightly taken aback when he came over to our table with the bill. For a moment I thought that Michael had decided to turn to a much more profitable business, after many years of publishing poetry, often in translation.
But it wasn't him and, to our relief, at the end of the meal we were not taken away in a straitjacket.
Wednesday, 4 August 2010
For another two alleged rip-offs of books published by Alma, see this bloggerel entry:
and this one:
Sunday, 1 August 2010
. . . the African Leaders Malaria Alliance (www.alma2015.org) of 30 African countries whose primary strategic goal is to eliminate preventable malaria deaths by 2015 by scaling up coverage of all other available interventions. There are 680,000 African children dying each year from malaria – let's try not to forget this.
Thursday, 29 July 2010
I was browsing a table when I stumbled on a copy of my own Bestseller, then I checked on the shelves and it was displayed face out (as in our local branch of W's – I swear I didn't do it myself or asked for it. . .) neatly between the esteemed Galgut and Galloway.
I know that all copies will be gone before the end of the year, but there's nothing that can make you prouder, as a writer and a publisher, than finding your own book in a bookstore. . .
Wednesday, 28 July 2010
The article says the book is still untitled. May I suggest one?
Autobiography of a Crisis.
PS: I don't vote in this country, and I am neither a Tory nor a Lib-Dem. . .
Tuesday, 27 July 2010
I looked at last week's report, and noticed sales of 125 e-book units, just from one supplier. Am I happy? No. Not just because it really goes against my beliefs and ethos, not just because I prefer reading on paper than on screen, but because I can easily see how the digital products can cannibalize traditional sales in the same way as it happened for the music industry. The market will get smaller, the margins will drop even further, and we'll have fewer and fewer large-budget books, which will kill independence and diversity.
Oh well, luckily enough for the time being we still have our literary dinners where we can meet with friends and gossip to our hearts' content. Yesterday we met again with Tim Parks, and he told me stories that I wish I had heard before writing BESTSELLER. This publishing world is a total circus, and perhaps we do need an Angel of Death to force us to a new beginning, after all.
Friday, 23 July 2010
After the reading, I went with Tim and his friends (some of them mutual friends) to a local pub, and after that to a local restaurant. It was a very pleasant evening, and I am hoping to catch up with Tim again before he leaves for Italy.
Talking about "Odyssey" – as soon as I came back I turned onto the Bookseller website to follow the digital saga instigated by the Wylie agency's launch of the Odyssey digital imprint. It's a total thriller, and I can't see whether this is taking us one step closer to the edge of the abyss or whether this O.K. Corral confrontation will actually be cathartic and help us come to a better understanding of the implication of the new technologies for the publishing industry.
It certainly questions the role of authors, publishers and agents in unprecedented ways. Can't wait to see the next instalment. Goodnight.
Thursday, 22 July 2010
By the way, why is it that pool billiards are so small and holes are so big in this country? Is it a game for drunks?
Anyway, it's entertaining whichever way you play it. Hic!
In the afternoon I met John Calder, who gave me the idea for a killer classic. And S*** gave me another killer idea, just when he was about to play the shot of the evening.
So, you see, you don't have to spend your day pent up in a library to come up with a good list!
Monday, 19 July 2010
And it's hot in here, it makes me sweat under my nose when I breathe.
I'll go out in a minute.
Sunday, 18 July 2010
On the way back, just when I felt I had completely forgotten about books, publishing, etc., I noticed an A4 sheet attached to the trunk of a tree as I walking home. The title, in bold letters, said "Literary Help Needed!!!" Needless to say, it attracted my attention.
Basically, it was someone looking for an editor to help him with a book he had recently finished writing. A couple of agents, apparently, had shown interest and hinted that they could secure a lucrative deal for him. The only problem is that they said the book needed some "tweaking" (scare quotes not mine). The prospective author was pleading for someone to come forward and help him put his script into shape. He was looking for someone honest and with an understanding of modern life (if I remember his words). He could not pay much, but was happy to remunerate the editor by exchanging skills – there was a note in the poster saying that he'd been a professional boxer for twenty-five years.
So if you're interested in this job, just let me know and I'll put you in touch. I think I've got the gentleman's email somewhere. Otherwise, I'll just pop down the road and copy it off the poster – I'm sure it's still there.
PS: And I am now informed that there have been sightings of the same posted as far as Kew Station.
Saturday, 17 July 2010
The salary they are offering is "to £11,000 a year". Unless there's a typo or this is a part-time position and they forgot to mention it, £11,000 is exactly the same salary I got when I started working for Grant & Cutler thirteen years ago – borderline minimum wages, basically.
I am not sure if they are going to get any applicants, but if they do, then things must be really bad. And this is further evidence – if we needed one – that there's absolutely no money to be made in books.
Thursday, 15 July 2010
I looked down and saw a one-pound coin. The train's doors opened, the passengers got onto the train one by one, the doors closed and the one-pound coin was still there on the floor when the train pulled away.
You see, we live in a part of the world where it's uncool to pick up a one-pound coin from the floor – where people can afford to walk away nonchalantly from a one-pound coin on the floor, when someone is getting throttled for even less somewhere else.
Mind you, it could have been one of those one-pound coins stuck to the floor with superglue, like the one I tried to wrangle off the asphalt in Hammersmith a few years ago. . .
Certainly people are even less fussy later on at night. I was queuing before the change dispenser at Waterloo station's toilets before boarding the 10:30 train tonight, and someone in front of me slotted in 50p and left a whole 20p below – two-thirds of a piss's worth – to be collected.
I thanked again London's generosity and moved on . . .
Saturday, 10 July 2010
But this isn't the longest book we've published – the prize must go to William T. Vollmann's IMPERIAL – a title that could also be applied to its size, which was a real challenge to printers. We intended to print 1,500 copies to begin with, but the printers run out of paper just over half-way through, and we were left with a little more than 1,000 copies. Its spine width is 67mm, and it's 1344 pages long. Vollmann's previous book, published by us in 2006, EUROPE CENTRAL, was a mere 42mm-er.
I must say I love short books. I remember that the initial idea behind our Hesperus series was to only have books which were exactly 100 pages long. We even experimented with a few 100-PAGE logos, but in the end decided against it because it would have limited our choice and diluted the series' branding. I think that was for the best, but the majority of the books we published were just over or under 100 pages, and I remember I was able to edit or proofread most of them personally. The same, alas, I cannot do with our Oneworld classics: the last three books we published total more than 2,000 pages.
In Europe, novella-length books are generally – if not more popular – at least as popular as long ones. In this country there's an 'Eat as much as You Like for £7.99' attitude to books. Enrico Brizzi's JACK FRUSCIANTE È USCITO DAL GRUPPO (1994) sold millions of copies in Italy, although it was only 176 pages long. Susanna Tamaro's VA' DOVE TI PORTA IL CUORE (1994), which sold 14 million copies worldwide, was well under 200 pages long. More recently, Milena Agus's MAL DI PIETRE (2008) became an international bestseller, although it's a novella barely 120 pages long. The first two books were published in the UK a few years ago, but sunk without trace, the last one was not even translated into English.
There is a big problem in this country – maybe it's a prejudice dating back to Victorian times and never shaken off (production - production - production - quantity - quantity - quantity). If you have a new-fiction book that is less than 80,000 words, you'll have an almighty struggle ahead of you to market it effectively in the English language countries. And if the book is, say, 80,000 words, you'll have to show as if it's 120,000 or 140,000 words long using a bigger typeface or bulking up the paper.
The recent winner of the Orange Prize, THE LACUNA, has been described as a "saga" by many commentators and critics, but a quick look at its bulky 688-page format will reveal that it is, more than anything else, a typesetting saga: it could have been set less generously and easily lose between 100 and 150 pages.
But size does matter over here, so on we go, publishers, wasting even more paper than we need!
Wednesday, 7 July 2010
While I recover and find new blogging energies, I thought I'd share with you a piece that appeared in The Times a couple of months ago, which I fear may be now pay-walled for ever. Talk to you soon.
How to Write a Bestseller
A friend once told me in a conspiratorial tone, handing me a manuscript: “Read this. It’s so bad that it could actually be very good. It could be a bestseller.” Since I started working in publishing, I have heard that magic word pronounced by a host of publishers, agents, writers, scouts, publicists, sales reps and booksellers, as if a number-one title could be conjured up by using some readily available formula. Sadly, there is much evidence to the contrary, as demonstrated by the pitiful state of publishers’ balance sheets. So what is it that does make a bestseller?
Paying six- or seven-figure advances, the method of choice of large publishing conglomerates, doesn’t seem to guarantee success. The inadequacies of this model have been exposed in a much-commented-upon article that appeared in the New York Times last year, which claimed that seven out of ten big-budget books do not earn back their advances but become, at best, prestigious loss-leaders.
Publishing what is fashionable, or trying to copy themes and ingredients of a best-selling title, is also far from foolproof. The minute the Twilight novels swept the top four spots of the UK chart, a flock of commissioning editors duly started looking around for the next Stephenie Meyer, saturating the market with hundreds of second- and third-rate imitations which barely registered on Nielsen BookScan.
Looking abroad for inspiration is another possibility, but what works in one country rarely works in another. Many observers were bemused when Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey stormed to number six in the Swedish charts in May 2009, or when Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past climbed to number ten in France in February 2009. Out of the thousands of foreign bestsellers only a handful are able to translate their sales ranking into another language. Everyone in this country remembers Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, for example, but books such as Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the fourth-highest-grossing title in Europe last year, failed to reach best-selling status in the English-speaking world.
The truth is that it is hard to predict what readers will like, and that publishing is ultimately a very subjective business, relying on the personal taste of a few individuals who, more often than not, get it terribly wrong.
Personally, I have a fatalistic vision of publishing: I believe that a bestseller is the right book published at the right time by the right people. One of the publishers who turned down Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy recently confessed to me that he still has confidence crises and sleepless nights about his fateful error of judgement. But I told him that he should not kick himself: maybe the book, if published by his company at that particular time, would have sold only a few hundred copies and joined the ranks of millions of other titles that vanish soon after they are published.
It is surprising that someone, almost fifteen years on, should lose sleep over a missed opportunity, but this is perhaps symptomatic of what is a very British obsession, namely sales – possibly a residue of the Victorian-industrialist mentality, or perhaps a consequence our own capitalist society. Otherwise, why is it that readers here assume that what sells a lot must also be good? And why are book-trade awards usually given to celebrity authors and publishers who exemplify commercial success? Dan Brown’s novels may have sold millions of copies worldwide, but what is their literary value or their impact on our culture?
As a small literary independent publisher, my belief and secret motivation is that books can be quietly successful in mysterious and often unforeseen ways: a single copy of one title can transform the life of its reader and even – forgive me the hyperbole – change the course of human history. And the losers of today may be tomorrow’s winners. Jane Austen had to finance the printing of some of her novels, which achieved only average sales during her lifetime. Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti, perhaps the most important volume of modern Italian poetry, sold a handful of copies by the time of the author’s death. Many twentieth-century masterpieces, such as The Master and Margarita or The Leopard, were only published or recognized posthumously, while most best-selling titles of the past are now justly forgotten. This is why I think publishers should take the long view and continue to publish only what they are passionate about, trying to resist fashion and the urge to be populist.
Well before I entered the book business, I completed a long poem in which I lamented that “for reprobates that publish all that counts / is something to attract ‘the much-too-many’ / to swarm like flies around a pot of honey…” Now, more than ten years later, I have written and published, under my own imprint Alma Books, a novel about the folly, the excesses and the sheer desperation I have witnessed in my career as a bookseller, translator, writer, editor and publisher. The book, entitled Bestseller, revolves around the figures of an unpublished writer who’s prepared to do anything to fulfil his obsessive dream of literary stardom and an ageing old-school publisher who is sacked from his own company by a sharkish financial consultant.
Some people may question my integrity as a publisher, and others may wonder how comfortable I am being both the author and the publisher of my own novel. In my defence, I can say that I know quite a few publishers and editors, both in this country and abroad, who have written works of fiction and non-fiction, and that – whatever my talent – I am only the latest in a long tradition of authors turned publishers and publishers turned authors. Samuel Richardson, for example, the author of monumental eighteenth-century bestsellers such as Pamela, Clarissa and The History of Sir Charles Grandison, was also a leading printer and publisher. One can easily imagine him driving his employees crazy with late corrections after his books had already been typeset and signed off to the press. Charles Dickens worked as an editor of journals for most of his life, even at the height of his success as a novelist, and Fyodor Dostoevsky founded and ran two literary journals with his brother Mikhail, Time and Epoch, before running out of money and going back to writing full-time. Not far from our Alma Books offices in Richmond, Virginia and Leonard Woolf set up, from the basement of their house on Paradise Road, the Hogarth Press, which over the years published – originally using a handpress – a number of important European classics in translation, as well as ground-breaking contemporary works such as The Waste Land and most of the couple’s own creations. These included Virginia’s debut collection of modernist stories, Monday or Tuesday, a book she might have found difficult to place with a mainstream publisher. Being able to publish her own work, setting it letter by letter and line by line, she could experiment more boldly and develop her style free from any editorial pressure or deadline.
Others, however, felt they could not reconcile creative freedom with the daily grind of a publishing job. Christopher Potter, who left his position as Publisher and Managing Director of Fourth Estate in 2005 to become a full-time writer (his latest book, You Are Here, will be out in paperback next month), says that his only regret is that it took him twenty years to turn his back on publishing. “I was determined not to become the complaining author of my publishing nightmares, but I have failed. I’ve just given in to the fact that all writers are neurotic.”
T.S. Eliot, another illustrious writer-publisher, once quipped, “Some editors are failed writers – but so are most writers.” Indeed, most of the authors I have met are always aspiring to more success, fame and money – always aiming for the Big Book, for the number-one spot, for the bestseller. Having written the last word of my novel and watched the ink dry on the paper, I am happy to take a back seat and turn my ear to the comforting wisdom of the ancients, who said: “Habent sua fata libelli” – books have their own destinies.
Saturday, 19 June 2010
Sunday, 6 June 2010
The city centre has all been cleaned up, and pedestrianized for the most part – this enhances the tourist's (and, no doubt, the local's) experience of the city. The recently restored Villa Torlonia park, a few hundred yards from Villa Mirafiori on the via Nomentana (where Elisabetta and I studied languages) was another highlight. Tucked away at the back of the park, an al-fresco restaurant where flocks of children can run amock and play in complete freedom the simplest of games. This is Italy as I remember it.
Back to England now, and the misery of clouded sky, but we brought a bit of Rome back with us, in the shape of porchetta d'Ariccia, corallina, coppiette, coppa, olive alla calce and many more titbits that we are going to share with some Roman friends later on today.
Thursday, 3 June 2010
And tomorrow and Saturday, cherry on the cake of our trip, ROME.
Sunday, 30 May 2010
She'd just spotted her first typo. At six years and a half. A genius proofreader – a Mozart of the copy-editing world . . . Never was there a prouder editor-father . . .
I speak in jest, of course.
Friday, 28 May 2010
The dinner, by and large, went down very well – the consommé de homard was quite good; so was the poitrine de canette – but a few French noses, as well as a couple of Italian ones, were turned up at the potted tiramisu aux noisettes et pont-l'évêque: the chef could have done better there, sorry. Tiramisu is something else.
However, the coreography was better than La Scala's – so many bouquets of fresh flowers, so many white-gloved waiters serving all sorts of delicacies and topping up your glasses . . . it was an Epicurean's paradise. All in all, it was a great day for French cuisine.
And I am not drunk – amazing. I am simply wasted.
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
What's so funny about this? What is funny is that to corroborate Wittgenstein's endorsement, the publisher has quoted from a letter the philosopher wrote to his friend Ludwig von Ficker…
I don't know if you have any German, but I'll let you imagine what Ficker means. . . I think I have given you enough clues. . .
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Today is an exciting day for Pushkin press, seeing as it does the launch of its first young-adult title – also the first title to be written for Pushkin, rather than translated from a foreign-language original.
The book is called The Moonstone Legacy – inspired by Wilkie Collins’ classic Victorian mystery, The Moonstone it’s a literary sort of young-adult title, but still has a plot as gripping as that of the original, taking the reader on a journey from the Yorkshire Moors to the jungles of Gujarat and back.
Over the next couple of weeks the book and its authors, Diana de Gunzburg and Tony Wild, will be going on a blog tour to promote the book. Diana and Tony are busy preparing for the launch, but Tony sent us this message from his native Yorkshire, home of the novel’s heroine, Lizzie Abercrombie:
“With the Yorkshire launch coming up tomorrow, Diana and I retreated over the weekend to the North York Moors for a heavy dose of Lizzy-land. Thirteen miles of bone-wearying trek around Farndale later, we ended up in Kepwick, the location of our fictional Shalimar. It was on particularly fine form, roasting under the blazing May sun, the early heather shoots on the surrounding moors a startling green, snipes soaring in the blue, blue sky. As the Moghul Emperor Babur said upon his first visit to Kashmir,"If there is a Heaven here on earth, this is it, this is it … !”
Below are the dates of the forthcoming stops on the tour:
Lizzy's Literary Life http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com 27th May
Marjoleinbookblog http://marjoleinbookblog.blogspot.com 31st May
Pretty Little YA Books http://teen.chicklitreviews.com 1st June
Writing from the Tub http://carlybennett.blogspot.com 3rd June
J'adore www.jadorebooks.blogspot.com 5th June
The Truth About Lies http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.com 7th June
Once upon a Bookcase http://onceuponabookcase.blogspot.com 8th June
Narratively Speaking http://narrativelyspeaking.blogspot.com 10th June
So Many Books, So Little Time http://solittletimeforbooks.blogspot.com 11th June
Magic Bean Review http://magicbeanreview.wordpress.com 14th June
Nayu's Reading Corner http://nayusreadingcorner.blogspot.com 15th June
Bookbabblers http://bookbabblers.co.uk 16th June
Book Reviews by Sarah http://bookreviewsbysarah.blogspot.com 17th June
The dinner itself was, according to many, senza infamia e senza lode – quite a few people left their wild mushroom risotto on their plates – but the company was good and although our book (Kachi Ozumba's The Shadow of a Smile) didn't win, we were delighted when our friend Ian Thomson received the prestigious accolade for his book on Jamaica, The Dead Yard (published by Faber).
He also received ten thou from Sir Christopher Ondaatje, and during the improvised acceptance speech he confessed he's going to buy a new car with it – but knowing Ian it's more likely to buy him a new trip to some other hotspot of our planet – or to his beloved Italy.
Anyway, well done Ian!
Sunday, 23 May 2010
More Italy, this year, than in the last five years put together!
I have just seen this lovely review of Bestseller by Allan Massie in the Scotsman, and I'd like to share it with you. When you write a book, you always hope that you'll find at least one reader who can understand everything you intended to do. I seem to have found just that ideal reader in Allan.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
In the morning, I had a root-canal operation and spent two and a half hours with a dentist's head hovering above me and all sorts of drills, iron clamps, needles and syringes messing around in my mouth, to the grating sound of several internal shrieks.
By contrast, in the evening, two and a half hours of the most melodious high notes: it was the premiere of a new UK production of Tosca at the Coliseum (coinciding with the launch of our Overture Opera Guides series), and Elisabetta and I were kindly invited there by English National Opera. My only regret is that the opera was not sung in Italian, as Tosca is one of those works that don't translate easily into another language: most of the music is in the words themselves, and it gets lost in translation.
It's amazing to think that Tosca was premiered 110 years ago, when my great-grandfather was only sixteen years old (Joyce's Ulysses and TS Eliot's Waste Land were published only two decades later). So much has changed in terms of taste, language, fashion and social mores since then that I had the impression, at times, to be looking at something written in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.
Yet I was glad to see, as I elbowed my way towards the front of the bar during the intermissions, that there are still many people who can appreciate this art form – not all of them silver-haired, which is even more encouraging.
Monday, 17 May 2010
And (I whisper here) it's very very reasonably priced.
Sunday, 16 May 2010
Risotto ai carciofi (mum): 8/10
Spaghetti ai funghi porcini (aunt): 9/10. This could have been a 10/10 if the porcini had been picked the previous night
Minestra di fagioli (mum): 9/10
Second or main course
Bistecca alla brace (mum): 9/10
Scaloppine ai funghi porcini (aunt): 10/10
Baccalà in padella (mum): (10/10)
"Bieda" (Swiss chard) ripassata in padella (mum): 10/10
"Cicoria" di campo (wild chicory) ripassata in padella (mum): 10/10
Zucchine gratinate (aunt): 9/10
So it was a fiercely fought tie. Even more than eating, I enjoyed learning the small secrets which can transform an ordinary recipe into something special.
Should our publishing business fail, we could always turn to cooking.
Thursday, 13 May 2010
Rome is lovely at this time of the year: it's warm but not too warm, sunny but not sun-strikingly sunny. I was prepared to be disappointed after so many years of absence, but in fact I loved every bit of it, from the stunning buildings and monuments to the food. It's true that quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini, et quod non fecerunt Barberini fecit Populus Romanus: the city centre is annoyingly dingy with smog, noisy and overcrowded. But it's also true that there are more beauties than any other European capital I have ever visited put together, and that its atmosphere and charm are unique.
Although I used to be a seasoned Rome explorer, I discovered some previously unknown sites yesterday, such as Sant'Ivo in Sapienza, with the famous Borromini cupola (I only knew the other one, near Quattro Fontane). The beauty of Rome is that you can walk from one place to the other with ease, as it's all so compact. Incidentally, I realized that whereas Roman people walk at normal pace, I constantly found myself marching along: thirteen years of life in London leave a deep mark.
Rome has not changed much: walking from Termini through Piazza dei Cinquecento and Piazza Esedra to Piazza Barberini, I saw the usual second-hand-book stalls - most of which have diversified into classic adult movies such as Il buco del piacere (The Pleasure Hole) - the usual shops, the usual museums and hotels, the usual people hanging around bars as if it were Sunday morning.
The highlights of the day were the discovery of a nice Osteria near the Piramide Cestia and my return to visit Keats's and Shelley's tombs at the nearby Protestant Cemetery. There were also funny moments, such as when a nutcase almost assaulted my friend for not letting him get off the bus, and when there was a popular uprising against a bus driver who drove too fast and too jumpily on the cobblestones around Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum.
In short, a great day, which confirms my opinion that even if I would not like to live in Rome, I'd love to be here more and more often as a visitor and day-tripper.
Tomorrow off to Tivoli.
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Reading the informative articles at the front of the book and working on the Thematic Guide, I realized how ignorant I am in terms of music. Julian Rushton's musical analysis of Mozart's opera was just about as intelligible as a page of Arabic script. But it's delightful to be immersed in a completely different world, time and genre, and I look forward to going with Elisabetta to the premiere of Tosca at the Coliseum on Tuesday.
In our Idomeneo volume, there's a brilliant selection from the letters exchanged between Mozart and his father Leopold. I have always heard that Leopold was quite dispotic and "used" his son's talents for his own advantage and advancement. But reading these letters a complete different relationship seems to emerge, at least at the time of Idomeneo's composition. Leopold offers sound and practical compositional advice to the twenty-four-year-old exuberant genius, who responds with great brio and wit to his father's prompting.
There's many bits I loved, such as when Mozart says: "Tell me, don't you think the speech of the subterranean voice is too long? Consider it carefully . . . If the Ghost's speech in Hamlet weren't so long, it would be even more effective." Priceless.
But the passage I loved most is when Leopold says to his son: "I advise you when working on the score to consider not only the musical but also the unmusical public. You know that for every 10 real connoisseurs there are 100 ignoramuses. So don't forget what's called the popular style, which tickles long ears." Mozart was quick to pick on that and replied in this next letter: "As for what is called popular taste, don't worry, for my opera contains music for all kinds of people, not just for those with long ears."
It's particularly moving to read this exchange, as Idomeneo was only performed twice during the author's lifetime - although Mozart was always very attached to it - and it has been reappraised by critics as one of his masterpieces only in recent years. A sign that the Salzburg genius was not really writing for those "with long ears" . . .
Sunday, 9 May 2010
"Michael Gregorio, Unholy Awakening, to be published on 5th August by Faber
Fourth novel in the Hanno Stiffeniis series from the husband-and-wife writing team. In 19th-century Prussia corpses are turning up everywhere with their throats ripped out, and the blood drained from the body. People are whispering about vampires and Magistrate Stiffeniis must investigate."
Stephen Page told me they had banned vampires from their list – this one must have slipped through.
What is that noise, you ask? Nothing, just TS Eliot turning in his grave.
Friday, 7 May 2010
For a long time Turi on Putney High Street has been my Italian restaurant of choice. But many friends have often mentioned Riva in Barnes. It's only two or three miles from our office, but I had never been there until today. I had lunch there with Melissa Ulfane of Pushkin Press, who always initiates me to the most delightful places in London. Apart from its great, cosy atmosphere, the food was staggeringly good and simple. At least enough to impress a hardcore amateur cook like me. I'll be returning there many times.
But that will have to wait until I'm back from Italy. I miss my family and I miss Rome, Tivoli, Albano. I can't wait to get there – Icelandic volcano permitting. There's nothing like the pappardelle al sugo di lepre from the Cacciatori restaurant in Genzano – or Ariccia's porchetta – or the porcini bash you can have anywhere in Lariano – or the wine you can drink in any tavernetta in Frascati.
Oh well, my mouth's watering again. . .
Thursday, 6 May 2010
The title piece of the collection is easily the most interesting, and it lists fourteen attempts at defining a “classic”. Since this is one of the questions I am most frequently asked as a publisher of classics, I found this article particularly engaging.
However, I agree with only a few of Calvino’s definitions. Who would subscribe, for example, to his claim that “the first reading of a classic is in fact a rereading”? It’s also a bit disappointing that he never gets round to answer the question in the title. The nearest he gets to this is towards the end of the article, when he says that “reading the classics is better than not reading the classics”. I have a feeling that such a generalization is bound to raise a few eyebrows today, especially in this country. It did raise mine – and I think of myself as a bit of classicist...