Thursday 29 July 2010

I'm praying tonight. . .

That when I wake up tomorrow morning Berlusconi and his government may have gone, like a terrible nightmare.

A Proud Author, and a Proud Publisher

Wonderful night in town with Elisabetta and friends, with drinks in a pub near Piccadilly followed by dinner at a nice Italian restaurant. But the highlight of the evening was our visit to Waterstone's Piccadilly, where I had not been for some time, and where I was happy to spot so many of our titles, especially the classics.

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

Gordon, Gordon, Gordon. . .

So the Bookseller announced that Simon & Schuster is going to publish Gordon Brown's take on the financial crisis. Is the guy a masochist? Can't he just sit still and enjoy silence and tranquillity after years of personal and public bashing?

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

The Future is Bleak

The Wylie vs the Publishing World fight is becoming fiercer by the day. I liked the articles in the Independent, especially the level-headed contribution by Profile's Andrew Franklin. I am left wondering too, in such a depressing and difficult market, who the real winner is in all this. Many people say Amazon. But let's not forget the Googles, the Apples and the Sonys of this world – the great behemoths of our digital era, who are well capable to wipe us all out in a short time. Certainly the publishers and the authors are the greatest losers – but agents too, and the entire supply chain, who is not parasitical but instrumental in making a book or an author successful.

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

The Plot Is Thickening

Just back from another odyssey in Central London, where I attended one of the most entertaining readings in years courtesy of Tim Parks and the London Review of Books Bookshop. The place was absolutely crammed, so much so that I (having not booked – dah!) had to wait until everyone was sitting before finding out if there was a seat left. Miranda Seymour chaired the reading, and Tim read from TEACH US TO SIT STILL in his usual inspired fashion. I am delighted to hear that the book is doing well and getting the most glowing reviews. If you want to know everything about meditation, chicanery and anal massage, go out and buy the book before it sells out again.

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.

Deep breath.

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

Pool Billiard

I have just come back (and I am damn lucky I made it, on the last train just before midnight) from East London, where I spent the night playing pool and whoring with S*** A***. No, the last bit is a lie: I meant "boozing" – that's a much more honourable British pastime. Well, boozing – I only had six pints – does that qualify as a refresher in Britain?

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

The Way I Look Tonight. . .

Picture this: I am at home and I am wearing a mask – one of those masks hardcore cyclists and Japanese tourists wear in big cities. There's a lot of dust in our flat (someone's redecorating it) and I look really stupid.

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

Literary Help Needed!!!

A splendid afternoon in Regent's Park for Pete Ayrton's birthday picnic (with lovely jazz music in the background courtesy of Camden Council, I suppose). It was good to catch up with him and the translator Nick Caistor (who was also celebrating his birthday), and meet some friends and make new ones.

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

There's No Money in Books

Just skimming through the Bookseller (reading it gives me the heebie-jeebies) an advert in the job section, for a position as a shop assistant at a local independent bookshop, caught my eye. They're looking for someone with two to five years of bookselling experience, with a degree in a relevant subject, who is going to be trained in due course into the role of assistant manager.

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

Recession? What Recession?

I was queuing to board the 18:28 service to Waterloo this evening when I noticed that all other passengers were staring at a spot on the platform floor near the train's doors.

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

The Longest Journey

We've just sent to the printers DON QUIXOTE, the longest classics book we've published. Its spine width will be around 52mm, 5mm longer than our ANNA KARENINA, and 9mm longer than our DECAMERON.

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

Head above Water

I'm finally emerging from a chronic bout of busy-ness. I was hoping I could bring to you, almost in real time, a description of our glitzy Orange nights – where we met and talked with some lovely authors, including Barbara Kingsolver, the deserving Orange winner – of my lightning trip to Monselice to collect a translation prize, of various reviews on our Alma and Oneworld Classics titles (including a couple of reviews of Bestseller by Boyd Tonkin in the Independent and by Jonathan Keates in the TLS), of the premiere of Idomeneo at the Coliseum, and all the latest gossip from the publishing world – but, alas, this is one of those periods where reality goes much faster than my key-bashing fingers. I've been editing two long books and a shorter one, trying at the same time to complete my translation of Auden and get my second novel off the ground.

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.