Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Cashing up, cashing down

The perennial argument about whether people in publishing are paid enough has raised its head again, with that current zeitgeist twist being a well-subscribed Facebook group bemoaning the lack of decent salary. I’ve been there myself – when I started out years ago, my salary was well down on what friends in other industries were earning. It’s a situation exacerbated by the fact that publishing is almost exclusively London based, which doesn’t exactly help in making the money go far. But it’s a situation that’s not going to change in the short term, for simple reasons of supply and demand. I’ve been interviewing for a new assistant in the past couple of weeks, and both the number and standard of applications is remarkable: scores and scores of good, bright, well-educated graduates eager to get their first foot on the ladder. The truth is that for everyone complaining about how much they are getting paid, there are many more people who would love to be in a position to have something to complain about.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Could this device really spell the end of books?

Shouts the Metro in one of many obits in today's press for the printed form. As with virtually every newspaper article that starts with a question, the answer, of course, is no.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Hard Times

The announcement by Picador that from next year they’ll publish new novels as hardbacks and paperbacks simultaneously has led to the predictable pieces about The End Of The Hardback. I’m not sure that’s true, and even it is was, it’d be a shame. The older I get, the fonder I become of hardback editions – there’s something satisfyingly comforting and weighty about them. A bit like vinyl records (which I also love) as opposed to CDs, or those old British passports rather than their modern day flexible replacements. The funny thing is that the newspapers heralding the death of the hardback are the same ones who won’t review anything unless they are out in hardback in the first place. Maybe I’m not the only one who is old fashioned after all.

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Other Side of the Wall

Older readers may remember an advert for Nat West back in the 1980s, where a spotty youth talks the viewer through his job (the cash machine is ‘a bit like a photocopier, except the paper is more expensive’) – and come Friday night, he’s on the other side of the wall, it not being all work, work, work you know. Writing and getting a book published, I guess, is the publisher’s equivalent of being on the other side of the wall. The book I've co-written is Shopping While Drunk, and is now available from all (well, some) bookshops. It’s interesting to see the process from the author’s angle, and so far, it’s a salutary reminder to me why being published by a big house is not always the panacea of publishing: corrections to manuscript? Not taken in. Contact from either editor or publicist on publication? None. Publicity and marketing generated by publisher to support the book? None. Sales last week? 28.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Paris and be Damned

To Paris, to take a selection head-office buyers to meet an author. It’s one of those days where you can’t quite believe everything is going to happen: we’re coming in from London, the restaurant is on the other side of Paris from the station, the author is coming in from Germany and doesn’t have a mobile phone. But somehow it works. It’s almost a hark back to an earlier age: these days, not only are the chains wary of letting people go on such trips, but even when they are allowed to go, prising people from their desks can prove tricky. But when it does come off, as on this trip, it’s very much worth it. As much as you can talk up a book yourself, it’s never the same as letting authors – and their enthusiasm – speak for themselves.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

If It's Half Term It Must Be Christmas

To Waterstone’s Piccadilly, for a recce of what books are looking good for this Christmas, and what might ideas might be ripe for next. No, I’m not feeling particularly festive either, but the d├ęcor is up and the big guns are out: Gordon Ramsey is in the foyer, signing copies and saying ‘fuck’ a lot. Meanwhile, as a publisher, one cannot both be amazed and slightly deflated at the sheer volume of titles fighting for attention. Take the humour selection. There are two huge tables full to bursting, with further books stacked on the floor by the side, three display units of more titles and a further acre of shelves, with even more offerings.

It’s a bewildering choice: how does a punter make a decision about what to buy? How does any book break out of such saturation? What’s more, one can’t but help notice how few new ideas there are on display. The bestsellers of previous years are voluminous in being parodied to death – I count three spoof Miscellanies, four Timewaster Letters take-offs, even a couple of cod Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shits – mockingly suggesting everything is, in fact, great. The few books that are based on original ideas – including our own verily brilliant The Internet Now In Handy Book Form! – stick out like sore thumbs. One can only hope they buck what is otherwise a somewhat depressing picture.

Monday, 24 September 2007

The Glamorous World of Publishing Part Two

Here's an example of just some of the glamorous publishing things I've actually been up to in the last few weeks: dealing with the fallout of storms off the coast of Scandinavia, causing books to be delivered late into the warehouse; coping with the beast of Bodmin (I think) causing another printers' binding machine to give up the ghost just as another book is due for publication; having teeth pulling contract negotiations with various agents over small print hypothetical never-actually-going-to-happen situations; placating authors who want to make changes to their books after they have already gone to print; attempting to get an internet bookseller to change the information displayed on their various pages; debating why calling someone a 'nightmare' is libellous, but 'high maintenance' is ok.
After all that I just haven't had the energy left for all the hating and knife sharpening and back stabbing and whatever else it is I'm apparently meant to be up to. Not to mention that my sparkly dress is at the dry cleaners ...

The Glamorous World of Publishing Part One

From The Times on Friday: 'the usually sedate, dignified, slow-moving world of books is in uproar, transfixed by one of the bitterest and most gripping feuds to have affected the literary world. Phones are ringing off the hook, rumours are flying about rampantly, long-held grievances are aired as knives are sunk deep, and usually anonymously, into the backs of old rivals. “On the surface we all get on brilliantly, but on a personal level we all f***ing loathe each other,” as the editorial director of one of the country’s largest publishing houses cheerfully confided yesterday. “I’ll tell you everything but it’s career death if I go on record.' Goodness, publishing sounds exciting. Or does this journalist want to be a fiction writer, perchance?

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Hail to the Chief

A book such as 'The Ants Are My Friends' wouldn't be complete without an entry or two from George W Bush: indeed, we've got a whole section dedicated to his mangled charms. However, it would be churlish not to applaud George's put-downs to BBC political reporter Nick Robinson at the Bush-Brown press conference earlier in the week. Bush, who clearly finds Robinson as irritating as I do, greeted the BBC reporter with the ever so-friendly 'Are you still hanging around?' He went on to advise 'Next time you should cover up your bald head', and when Robinson responded by saying 'I didn't know you cared', Bush simply said, 'I don't'. Girls, girls.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Something New in Publishing Part Two

Is this another publishing first? I’m not sure, to be honest. Is it a record? Most definitely. Next month, we’re publishing a book by Martin Toseland called ‘The Ants are My Friends’, a wonderful collection of linguistic gaffes, including malapropisms, eggcorns and mondegreens, or misheard song lyrics (the title comes from Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing In The Wind’. Think about it). Martin has put together an iMix of some of the misheard songs in question, including such classics as Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’ ('Last Night I Dreamt of Some Bagels) and Johnny Nash's 'I Can See Clearly Now’ (or rather, ‘I Can See Cleveland Now Lorraine has gone’). So you can buy the book, download the songs from iTunes, and enjoy a true multimedia misheard experience. I wonder if it will catch on with other authors – Martin Amis recommending ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd? JK Rowling choosing the Steve Miller Band’s 'Abracadabra'? Better suggestions please!

Monday, 30 July 2007

Something New in Publishing Part One

Well, it's probably not: not many things in publishing are, but it feels new for now at least. I've bought a book to be published next August called The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts. It's the story of a football fan recounting the non-league club's worst ever season, back in 1969 when he was 14. Not the most immediate subject for a book, I'll grant you, but in a slightly perverse way, I think it's great. The book came in unsolicited, after the author had seen an interview I did with a writing magazine, so it just goes to show: these things can happen. The unsolicited signing isn't the new thing, btw, rare though that that may seem. No, Dave and I have hit upon the idea of blogging the progress of the book from start to finish. So he'll write as he writes, I'll write as I edit, and as the book gets further down the line, there'll be contributions from copy-editors, designers, publicists and so forth -- the whole book chain in fact -- to give, for the first time, the whole story of a book being put together, from all sides, as it happens. Follow the progress here.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Nicest Man in Publishing?

Not me. Actually, given the amount of hassling I've been doing this week, certainly not me. I am, instead, referring to the rather wonderful Alexander McCall Smith. I'm publishing a book in September called 'Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?', a charming and quirky book about old place names by first time author Harry Campbell. Harry and I discussed who we might send the book to for an advance quote. I tried Michael Palin -- his people politely declined, though given they replied about an entirely different book, I'm guessing he gets quite a few requests. Harry wrote to Alexander McCall Smith... who wrote straight back and asked to see a copy. He read it, loved it, offered to write a foreword, during which he very generously said, "In this marvellous and intriguing book, Harry Campbell has achieved something that most scholars would give anything to achieve. He has created a whole new discipline - one which we may perhaps call nostalgic geography". He even invited Harry to tea. What a top, top man.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Harry Potter for Grown Ups

Even a jaded old publisher like me can still occasionally get excited about a book being published. At lunchtime I hotfooted it to Books Etc in Hammersmith to snaffle the last copy of The Blair Years in the shop. By the time I got there, there was already a large hole where the book should have been sitting on the shelf -- as luck would have it, though, there was a display copy still sitting in the window.
With my publishing hat on, I think Alistair Campbell has played a blinder in terms of the publicity for the book. Too often with big books, by the time you've read the serialisation in the newspaper, you feel as though you don't need to buy the book. By not selling the rights, Campbell has kept the buzz going to publication day, and also given the impression that he's not in it for the money.
Is that spin? Who knows? I will say this, though, about a supposed master of presentation: what a dull jacket.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Rep Rap Part Three

The second shop the rep and I visit is Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. Foyle’s has gone the opposite way to Waterstone’s since the time I was a bookseller. Back then, there was an incredibly complicated system of books being categorised by publisher. So you’d have to consult a thick catalogue of titles to work out where exactly was the book you wanted to buy (either that, or go to the Waterstone’s next door).
Unlike our previous appointment, where one bookseller buys titles for the entire shop, at Foyle’s you have to find the relevant buyer for each section. It’s a lot of coming and going for a rep, but it means that when you do track the buyer down, they really know what they’re talking about. We head upstairs for the music section, to sell in Perfect From Now On, an American indie music memoir. At the last shop, our ‘like Chuck Klosterman’ pitch failed as the buyer didn’t know who Chuck Klosterman was. This time, I notice a huge pile of Chuck Klosterman on the table. We’re in here – the buyer gets what the book is about and takes a punt: thirty copies. Thirty! I struggle to keep the grin on my face in check.
From Foyle’s we move onto Hatchards. Another great dame of London publishing, and though now owned by Waterstone’s, still very much maintains its distinctive nature. The books displayed on the ground floor are all different again, a selection with as much character as the various booksellers we meet. I make mental notes of more titles I should be reading. We head upstairs to the health and parenting section, and we pitch my book Staying Sane, a humorous guide for young mothers. Again the buyer likes the package, and takes a gamble: ten copies. For a first book by an unknown author (on a new and untested list) this is brilliant. I come away from the day feeling buoyed.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

The Rep Rap Part Two

To a central London branch of Waterstone’s. It’s a huge store, and it’s empty. Empty of customers and seemingly empty of staff – it takes us five minutes of hanging around the till point before anyone appears to ask if we need any help. Finally someone appears, and we head off the shop floor and up the stairs. It’s the first time I’ve seen our London rep in action, and I’m pleased to see he’s really good. He presents about forty titles, on subjects raging from naval books to knitting, and sounds confident and assured on each one.
Here’s the bit that always gets me. Each title is getting about twenty seconds airtime. If that. The bookseller is looking at the title, the jacket, and perhaps the first couple of sentences of the AI (Advance Information sheet) and making a decision on the basis of that. It’s blunt and it’s brutal. It’s the heart (or lack of it) of modern publishing. If the buyer says five or more, then the book will end up on the table. One to three and it’ll be on the shelf. Zero, and it won’t even be in the shop.
I don’t know if it’s his nature, or his selling rules, but this buyer is cautious. He takes everything, but hits the magic five figure no more than a couple of times. My own titles, which I pitch as best I can, gets two threes and a two. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement: when was the last time you bought a book off a shelf? Exactly. When I was a bookseller, we were far more gung ho – decent quantities of some titles, none of others. But then we didn’t have the scale-outs to deal with, head office taking the big decisions out of your hands. The big decisions that take the fun out of being a bookseller.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Is it Just Me...

… or do a lot of submissions have a similar ring to them? Every so often, you get a book whose influence dominates your in-tray. They are picked up and waved about by prospective authors because a. the book has been hugely successful and b. because they seem deceptively easy to put together. Previous ‘I could do that’s include Schott’s Miscellany (‘It’s just a load a random facts chucked together’), Nick Hornby (‘I can do lists’) and chick-lit (‘Jane Austen plus nice shoes equals easy money’). At the moment, the market leader is ‘Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?’ – a week doesn’t go past without one Shit Lite (Shite?) landing on my desk, full of ironic rudeness and digs at Starbucks and Jade Goody. These wannabe writers are making two mistakes here: firstly, the book they are adapting is already eighteen months old, and will be over two years and counting by the time their book would be out – in other words, it’s too late. Secondly, and more importantly, they are assuming that because something is easy to read, it is easy to write. The more I work in publishing, the more I realise the absolute opposite is the case.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Rep Rap Part One

One of the most salutary lessons any editor or publisher can do is to spend a day treading the shop floors with a sales rep. Because it’s all very well negotiating with agents, commissioning books and working on the editorial nuances of the text, but unless you’ve got a clear idea of what it’s like out there at the coal face – till point? – all that hard work counts for nothing.
I used to be a bookseller many moons ago. When I first moved to London, back in the mid 1990s, I worked at Waterstone’s in Hampstead. The salary was south of £10,000, yet the shop was bursting full of bright and committed booksellers who had a real passion for books. This was in the days when booksellers had responsibility for their own sections and when ‘scale-outs’ of titles chosen by head office was only just beginning. It was a fun place – and a fun time to work. And in terms of publishing, I always think that sort of experience gives you an edge over those who have come in to the business straight from finishing their English Literature degree.
Today it’s all different. The bookshops are being squeezed on both sides: on range by Amazon and the Internet sellers; on price by the supermarkets. It’s all a bit grim. Times have been ‘tough’ on the high street for as long as I can remember. Which is not great, when you’ve got a new list of books to sell in.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

‘I thought I’d send you the whole manuscript anyway’

Another tip for sending in a submission to a publisher – send in what they ask for. Everyone has their own guidelines: find out what they are and follow them. Personally, I like a decent synopsis and a couple of sample chapters. That way, I can see if the book has legs, and whether the writer can actually write. If it’s good, I’ll ask for more. But not before. Writers who ignore such requests and send in the whole thing anyway I don’t tend to look favourably on. It’s a waste of the editor’s time. And more importantly, it’s a waste of trees.

Conversely, I’m not a huge fan of those writers who fire out emails with half a dozen book ideas, each a couple of lines long, and then expect a full length critique on the merits of each one. Not so much full of ideas as full of it. I say: come back when you’ve done some work.

Friday, 27 April 2007

A Different Kind of Delivery

On Wednesday morning, a beautiful little manuscript called Josephine arrived. As with many of my authors, she completely missed her delivery date, but when she finally appeared, it was more than worth the wait.

Friday, 20 April 2007

‘I know you don’t publish fiction, but …’

Here’s a tip if you’re approaching a publisher with a manuscript. Have a look first at the sort of books they publish. My website might not be the most comprehensive available on the web but it is fairly clear in the five categories of non-fiction I’m looking to buy books in. But even that is not enough to stop the constant stream of fiction, poetry, children’s books and illustrated titles that still come my way. If you start a letter with the sentence ‘I know you don’t publish fiction, but I really think you should look at my novel’, what sort of response are you seriously expecting? ‘Thank you so much for sending in your manuscript: as a result of the brilliance of your prose, I have decided to completely revisit my publishing plan, and shape it entirely round your future Booker Prize winning career…’

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

All the Fun of the Fair

To the London Book Fair, or LBF, or Load of Bloody Fuss, at Earl’s Court. It’s a sort of Ideal Homes Exhibition for publishers, and to be honest, I much prefer the venue when there’s a decent band on. In the olden days (ie. about ten years ago), the fair was an exciting place to be, with publishers running around like headless chickens throwing silly money at Big Books. These days, the only Big Book activity is the staged announcement that one has been bought weeks before, and the rights director trying to claw some of the advance back by selling foreign rights. For an editor now, it’s more about the meet and greet, catching up with old acquaintances and making new ones.

I am shown enough books on the environment to turn me into Jeremy Clarkson. An equal number of misery memoirs, not to mention stories of drug addicts and drug mules, alcoholics and prostitutes, all telling the ups and downs of their ‘rollercoaster’ life story, ‘overcoming’ their terrible odds. I’m offered an autobiography of an ex-boy band member, and another of one of the worst pop acts of recent years. I come away with the sense that I’ve only put my foot in it twice – once when I start talking to an editor about a friend’s wedding he hasn’t been invited to; and once when I big up a book I’m publishing in the summer to someone I then discover to be the author’s ex-wife. Ah well.

On day one of three I chat to seven literary agents, four American publishers, one Canadian publisher, three British editors, one television producer, one journalist and one professor. Oh, and to one author – a chap called Dave Cornthwaite who we have just signed up to tell his story of skateboarding from one side of Australia to another. He’s a nice guy and genuinely excited to be published. His enthusiasm is the highlight of my day.

Publishing Words That Should Be Banned No. 1

Babylon – Books about Babylon itself are fine, but otherwise, please, enough already. Attaching Babylon to any subject – Gardening Babylon, Haberdashery Babylon, Cutting Your Toenails Babylon – is shameless shorthand to highlight the shameless approach to a given subject. It’s saying, you might think this subject is as dull as dishwater, but wait until we reveal the non-stop shagging and debauchery and vicious backstabbing that lies behind being a librarian!

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

An Editor is Like A Record Producer

On my first day as Publisher of Portico Books, I managed to pull off having a meeting with a rock star. If you ever get a chance when starting a new job, I’d recommend it. Far better than the tour round the office as you forget everyone’s name or sitting at your new desk pretending to look busy and important.
I’d even succeeded with the golden rule of potential author meetings – always bag the last one of the day as a. this is when the author will be at their most relaxed and b. as you’re at the end he’s more likely to remember you. Having the meeting at six meant the meeting was facilitated by beer and wine rather than tea and coffee. It also meant the meeting could run on – and run on it did. Six became seven, became eight, became nine, with the rock star (let’s call him Rock) holding fascinating forth. Rock also slept in the following morning, missing his meetings with the other publishers he was meant to see. As you can imagine, I wasn’t over-gutted about that.
The point of bringing all this up is not to suggest that an editor’s life is all about meeting rock stars – far from it, as days two to the present of being a publisher of Portico will confirm. Instead, it’s because of an analogy I made to Rock about what being an editor is all about – which according to the agent, struck home with Rock.
The relationship between an editor and a writer, I’d suggested, is like that between a record producer and a rock star. It’s the writer/ rock star’s role to come up with the creative magic, and the editor/ producer to shape it, to edit it and to rein in as appropriate. The best music is the stuff where a decent producer has been able to keep control of proceedings, and producing a book is no different. Once a rock star decides to self-produce their work, quality control normally goes out of the window. The more cynical might consider this editor’s unedited ramblings further proof of this point.
Rock liked the record producer analogy. This week the agent sent through the material he’s been writing. It’s like Rock – arresting, uncompromising, and downright great. Here’s hoping I’m the one let loose behind the mixing desk.