Saturday 20 February 2010

Sheer Pleasure

Today we had our first ever Saturday delivery from a printer – and even if I had to go to the office on a Saturday morning, what a pleasure it was when I opened the boxes. This is possibly the best book we ever published from a production point of view.

That the book in question is Bykov's Living Souls makes me even prouder, as it's an excellent piece of literature, which I hope will be well received by the English readers.

* * *

On a totally different subject – have you read about that Waterstone's warehouse employee who's been sacked because of excessive farting? I can see many literary blogs have picked this up, but no mainstream newspapers, no TV channel has reported on this. Why? Farting is one of the most venerable and age-old activities, and surely it shouldn't lead to discrimination in the workplace and even unfair dismissal?

I have resolved to send, on Monday, a copy of our edition of The Benefit of Farting Explained to the new management at Waterstone's. Maybe they'll relent, when they read in it:

"Fart away then, my brethren, and let farting be in common among you. Vie with each other in producing … the sonorous, full-toned, loud fart.

Fart loud, I say, and never more be restrained by example, age, rank or sex, for it is natural and laudable, wholesome and laughable, humorous and comfortable"
(from Charles James Fox's Essay Upon Wind, 1787)

Monday 8 February 2010

Listen, Publishers, Lest Ye Die

This is a free adaptation from the last line of a poem by WH Auden, and it came into my head when I read an article the other day about EMI's losses of almost one billion pounds. Yes, that's right, it's not a misprint: it's one billion, or £1,000,000,000 in old-fashioned figures (some people claim it's £1.5 billion). That's certainly an awful lot of zeroes – and an awful lot of smackeroonies.

Now, there are of course mitigating circumstances surrounding these losses, otherwise all the top executives would have had to take garden leave three minutes after the announcement. EMI is apparently in the red only because of massive financial write-offs, otherwise the group did make an operating profit of close to £300M. However Terra Firma (I love the Latin names of these private-equity investment firms: this one means "mainland" or, more, literally "solid earth") must be facing a few empirical problems in feeling the ground under their feet, knowing that over the past five years the recorded-music industry's worldwide revenues have gone down 30 per cent, and that in 2009 alone they dropped around 10 per cent to $15.8 billion. It is also claimed that 95 per cent of global music downloads are illegal. So is the music industry a sustainable industry in the long term?

Well, according to another piece in the New York Times, revered rocker Peter Gabriel sees "the liberating value of Internet distribution to artists" and maintains that iTunes and music digital downloads are leading a creative Renaissance. Well, with all due respect, I beg to disagree, and I think exactly the opposite is happening, especially if we look at today's music charts, dominated by TV-context starlets and prefab boy and girl bands. I can't see too many Leonardos or Pico della Mirandolas around, but sexy, scantily clad karaoke singers do abound.

With the launch of the iPad (or Tablet, or what ever they are going to call that giant iPhone), many publishing futurologists are also announcing a revolution for the better. They may be right, but my only advice to fellow publishers is: don't jump on the first technological bandwagon, sit on the fence and wait until all the implications of the new medium sink in. First of all, a book is more similar to a spoon than to a song: it answers a very basic, practical need in an intelligent, handy, pleasurable manner. Secondly, a song can be consumed in minutes, a book requires a time investment of days or weeks, so the ability to carry tens of thousands of books with you to the seaside doesn't seem to be that attractive. Finally, writing a book generally takes months or even years, so let's not make books cheaper than they already are, otherwise there will be no real writers any more in the future, or maybe there will be, but they will not be able to make a living out of their career – with inevitable knock-on effects on the quality of what we read.


Monday 1 February 2010

Dinner chez Gallenzis

Freshly back from 48 hours in Paris up to a great deal of good – the publishable moments of which included a sensational dish of broiled foie gras in a broth of baby clams – the last thing I thought I wanted was to eat a four-course meal. Let alone one that included yet more clams.

Until serendipitously Alessandro Gallenzi left a message asking me to dinner last Saturday just as I was about to pick up the phone to call him and Elisabetta to suggest we meet that evening.

In their kitchen a sauce that looked almost naughtily fresh was simmering away, giving off exquisite vapours. My satedness at once turned to lusty anticipation.

Which was not disappointed. This was undoubtedly the best spaghetti alle vongole
I have ever eaten. Period, as our American friends say. The pasta was ideally al dente; the sauce tasted as good as it looked. (My pretentious comment of the evening was that food can be tasted with the eyes.) This would have been enough, but then an oven-cooked sea bream, still in its silver foil and again prepared to perfection by Alessandro, showed up, together with a small plate of cold spinach and beans. (Clever, I thought, to combine hot and cold: it seemed further to enhance the flavour of each.)

At this point my stomach, liver and various other gastronomically stressed organs had entirely forgotten about their Parisian challenges, and I was so enthusiastic about it all that I muttered something about being able to start all over again.

“Why don’t you?” Alessandro shot back. He and Elisabetta suggested that I try bean soup with rice – the rice has to be freshly cooked and be a little crunchy – a typical peasant dish of Umbria. After this enchanting and hearty broth I was ready for another main course, but it was getting late and we skipped that for a dessert which had been couriered over from Italy by Alessandro’s father. This was a sticky amalgam of nuts, some huge variety of dried grape, honey, spices and probably quite a few other secret potions.

As we sipped a little glass of liqueur (I can’t remember its name) Alessandro read some poems of Belli in Italian along with their brilliant English translations by Mike Stocks, another Alma author.

The whole evening was magical. I really do not exaggerate. Any Alma author who has failed to wangle an invitation to the Gallenzis for dinner – and to enjoy their warmth, wit and friendship – is missing out badly. Alright they are the nimblest small publisher around; they have the smartest book covers, the finest typeface and some of the most ruthless editing in the business. But they also run the best trattoria in London – one that, as any self-respecting wine snob will welcome, allows you to bring your own favourite bottle as well.

Il vaut le voyage.

Simon May

Simon May is the author of Atomic Sushi and Thinking Aloud, published by Alma in 2006 and 2009 respectively.