Monday, 1 December 2008

End of a Chapter

Sharper readers might have noticed I haven't updated this blog over the last few weeks. That's not because I've been lazy, but because I've been in the process of leaving Portico Books.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out the effects of the current economic situation on book publishers -- Portico Books has been particularly vulnerable because of its reliance on UK sales (humour, sport, popular culture, etc don't travel at the best of times). So the decision was taken to halve the list for next year (effectively, to publish the books already commissioned) and ergo, the wage bill too. As publisher, and hence on the higher wage, for me to stay on would have resulted in me working reduced hours, which because of family committments, was not really an option. So I have, sadly, decided to take the payout, and my chances elsewhere.

I've learnt a lot in my two years setting up and running Portico Books. But the thing that has really meant a lot is that I've had the opportunity to commission, publish and work with a bunch of extremely talented and creative writers. There is no better feeling than seeing an author into print for the first time, and I hope that I have helped discover a number of writers who will go on to bigger and better things. That's been the hardest part, really -- leaving such people behind, especially those whose books are still in the pipeline. But I know that in my editor, Malcolm, I am leaving them in extremely capable hands.

As for what I'll do next, well in the short term I'll put the kettle on. After that, at some stage I'll dust myself down and attempt to get back in the saddle. Once you've got publishing in your blood, it's extremely difficult to let go. So watch this space.

Monday, 20 October 2008

I See A Book

One of the latest Portico titles out is I See Modern Britain, a sharp and very funny take on those old spotter's guides that used to punctuate long motorway journeys with fruitless searches for war memorials (or maybe that was just me). If I was more tech minded, you'd be able to watch the book's jolly nice advert. As it is, you'll have to make do with clicking through to You Tube.

As part of the promotion of the book, we've been engaging in a bit of what is known as book crossing: letting various copies of the book out into the wild (or at the least the public transport systems of London and Edinburgh). My own contribution to this was rather mixed. Having casually left a copy on the tube seat next to me, a helpful member of the public ran after me to tell me I'd forgotten my book. Oh well -- I hope other people have had better luck in letting them loose. If you find one, let me know.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Monty by the Sea

Things snapped on my mobile part one: while on holiday the week before last in sunny Southwold, my get away from it all break was interrupted by the fact that the town was Chateau Monty central, what with Adnams selling the wine in the UK. It's an interesting insight into the art of marking up. The first picture shows Monty's wine available in the Adnams store for £7.99 a bottle. The second picture, in the window of The Crown, around the corner from the Adnams store, offers a bottle of wine for £19.50. Now, if only there was a way to transfer that sales technique to publishing...

Spot the Book

It's always a funny time of year going into bookshops, what with the glut of new titles and the hope that yours won't be completely ignored. So a trip to a local Waterstone's was rewarded with the discovery of the not even released yet School Dinners on the 'First Floor Favourites' dump bin (it's the fuzzy brown one with the orange 3 for 2 sticker).

I didn't even have to hide the copies of Sod That and make Can't Be Arsed more prominent as I usually do (see blogs passim). I don't know whether that means the booksellers have seen sense, or if I've ground them down with my persistent display redesigns.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Sort of Super Thursday

Apparently, today is Super Thursday, with over 800 titles being released today, each hoping to find a spot in the Christmas top ten. Even with my bad maths, I can see that's 790 books that are going to be disappointed. And quite how your average bookseller is going to find space for so many new titles in one go, God only knows.

Anyway, last night was our annual Portico party, so I must confess to feeling a little less than super. It was a very nice occasion, as these things always are when there are lots of authors involved. The biggest difficulty as a publisher was trying to talk to everyone. That and making a speech, which is not my favourite activity in the world. For what it's worth, here is an edited version of what I had to say.

"Firstly, I’d like to say thank you all for coming to celebrate the last twelve months of life at Portico – and to say how nice it is to see so many faces I’ve worked with all in one room at the same time. There’s something rather decadent about a drinks party in the midst of the worst economic crisis for 60 years and I’m pleased to say there’s plenty more. As Alan Partridge once so rightly said, Titanic! Titanic! What everyone forgets is that there were 2000 miles of very pleasant sailing before it hit the iceberg.
It is currently all the rage to set up a quirky non-fiction imprint and I’m always happy to pioneer a trend. But Portico was there first, and in my not remotely biased opinion, is still the best. In reviews from just the last fortnight, we’ve had one fantastic, two brilliants and three hilariouses, And with many more wonderful books to be published in the coming weeks, we’re in a strong position for the Christmas season ahead.
So what is Portico Books about? If one of the big Anova successes for the year is the TV tie-in to Britain from Above, then Portico is perhaps best described as looking at the world with a sideways glance - looking at things differently, quizzically and satirically.
One of the strengths of Portico lies in its variety. Over the last year, I’ve been to the East End of London, to my first ever book launch come darts tournament. I’ve been to the Argentinian Embassy, to watch the world’s leading Tango dancers strut their two feet, quite literally two feet in front of me. I’ve been to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I somehow found myself on a panel of the great and the good, discussing the future of publishing. I’ve been to the South of France, to see for myself a working organic and biodynamic vineyard in action. I’ve been to a cooking masterclass in Notting Hill to discover why watermelon and feta cheese are unlikely but delicious bedfellows. And had I not given up free tickets to some head office buyer who then couldn’t be arsed to turn up, I’d have watched Have I Got News For You being filmed as well.
But don’t just take my word for the quality of the list. Take the words of Adrian Chiles, Boris Johnson, Paul Merton, Emma Thompson, Indra Sinha, Harry Pearson, John O’Farrell, Alan Titchmarsh, David Crystal and many others who have been kind enough to endorse the books we have published this year. Take the words of the newspapers and magazines who have given us so many glowing reviews, some of which you can see on the projection in the corner. The Portico class of 2008 is a classy list, and each and every book deserves a place on any discerning bookshelf.
I’d like to thank you the authors on the Portico list – those who have already been published, and those who we are publishing in the years to come. What makes publishing so enjoyable is the opportunity to work with rare and talented individuals, and at Portico, we are fortunate to work with a collection of such writers – each experts in their own fields, who write with wit, warmth and insight. It’s a great honour to be given someone’s work to publish, and we remain hugely touched that you have entrusted your writing with us.
Your spark of creativity and gift for good writing is what all publishing is based on – without it, agents wouldn’t have books to agent, editors wouldn’t have any books to edit, and sales wouldn’t have books to sell. I’d like to finish with a favourite joke of mine, from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ And so what I’d like to say to all the authors in the room, please keep writing, because, well, the rest of us need the eggs."

Friday, 19 September 2008

What is an Ass Hat?

One of our Christmas titles, Can't Be Arsed has been getting lots of coverage this week with extracts in the Sun, the Daily Mail, and Times Online. Richard Wilson's suggestions of things not to do before you die has been rousing the bloggers from their slumbers. On the Sun site, Maytheforcebewithyou, offers the thoughtful suggestion that 'most other countries are shit'. On the Times site, Carolyn from Sydney writes 'Richard Wilson is like that naughty kid with a stick, poking it into the ants nest.' But my favourite is the discussion that has popped up on American website Fark, whose contributors broadly missed the humour in Richard's choice of books he can't be bothered to read. Out of the 400+ opinions posted so far, my favourites include Numsix's comment that 'Don't read 'The Iliad' ? What are you, stupid? The Iliad kicks ass' and Cythraul suggestion 'this guy sounds like an Ass-Hat'. Nope, I don't know what an Ass-hat is either, but I'm guessing he might not be asking for the book for Christmas.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


Last Friday was a company away day, where in the spirit of team bonding, various challenges were set including duck herding (and lots of inevitable keeping your ducks in line jokes). But perhaps the most fun was an unscheduled match of football, which as you can see from the photo, was taken extremely seriously, with Katie Cowan, publisher of Collins and Brown very much playing the man, not the ball. My bruises are still healing, but at least I've learnt why her authors deliver on time...

All Must Have Prizes

Awards season is well on the way, with the Booker shortlist being announced and Elbow winning the Mercury Music Prize. I haven't read the Rushdie (the Joseph O'Neill is the only thing I've read from the longlist), but the dissing by Hardeep Singh Koli will probably not give Salman Rushdie any sleepless nights -- no, I'm not sure why he's on the panel either. Interestingly, in a recent report of previous Booker judgings, Midnight's Children apparently only just won by 3 votes to 2 -- but is now seen as the Booker of Bookers. All of which confirms my long held opinion about literary awards -- they are arbitrary bollocks, unless your book wins, in which case they are prescient and on the the money.

The Elbow win, meanwhile, I found interesting as it is only the fourth time in the Mercury Prize's history that a non-debut album has won the award. Like publishing, music is more and more sucked into the excitement of someone new, rather than rewarding an author/ writer for learning their craft over a number of years. The sad fact is that if you don't deliver saleswise on day one, you might not get your chance to fully develop to your full potential (and ironically, that's saleswise as well as creatively). Elbow, who have been dropped by their record label in the past, and faced the situation that this particular album might not even be released, fully deserve their moment in the sun. I just hope this breaking out of common sense isn't a one-off.

(I know Salman Rushdie isn't going out with Padma any more, but any excuse for a gratuitous photo)

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The TV show... the wine... the book

A lot of publishing waffle around at the moment about 'platforms', which I think means different places to flog your stuff, rather than editors moaning about their commute. Here's one such example: Chateau Monty, the story of Monty Waldin's attempts to make his own organic and biodynamic wine, is a TV programme (Channel 4, Thursday nights at 8pm, or you can catch up here) -- 'a corker ... highly entertaining' according to The Observer. It's also a wine -- 'a nice fruity, thoroughly healthy, natural-tasting southern French red' according to Jancis Robinson , which you can buy here. And, oh yes, that's where we come in, it's also a book. Personally, I'm all for this multi platform lark, especially when one of the platforms you can uncork and pour into a glass...

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Prince of Amazon Blurbs

This time last year, Prince was in the middle of his 21 night residency at the O2. And very Princely it was too. This year, to celebrate/cash in on the residency, comes a book. I say 'book', because whoever is writing his amazon blurbs has gone a touch purple themselves.

The book will be 'juxtaposing his dueling worlds of music and solitude'. And as well as photos 'it will incorporate Prince's evocative poetry and lyrics'. Nope, I was unaware the man who wrote 'Do Me Baby' was a poet on the sly either. Perhaps in his moments of solitude? But most impressively of all, there's a free cd music, which is included 'as part of the dimensional experience'.

Perhaps that's what my books are lacking -- not enough attention to the dimensional experience...

Thursday, 28 August 2008

101 Ways to Die Before You Die

Sometimes you just can't make these things up. With the publication imminent of Richard Wilson's Can't be Arsed: 101 Things Not To Do Before You Die, comes the news that Dave Freeman, author of the original 100 Things to Do Before You Die has, well, died. And not by doing one of his ridiculous things to do -- touching a tiger or swimming with dolphins or so forth. No, the guy fell over at home, hit his head, and that was it. Had he done his 100 things? Nowhere near, he'd done about half.

There's a word for this kind of stuff, isn't there?

Friday, 22 August 2008

It's like Christmas come early

One of the best bits of the job is when the advance copies of your new books come in. It's that moment when all the hard work is made worthwhile and you finally hold a finished copy in your hand. With autumn fast approaching (if not already here weatherwise), we've had a glorious glut of new titles coming our way in the past couple of weeks. These advance copies are there to check, and once approved, then the bulk gets sent on to the warehouse, and out into the shops. With the exception of one title, which the printer managed to print on the wrong paper, everything seems to be running smoothly and on schedule. Which is no easy matter when books are coming in from as far afield as Finland and the Far East...

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Northern Lights

This week, while David Cameron's think tank has been bemoaning the state of north and encouraging everyone to move down south, I've been going in the opposite direction to visit Portico's more northerly writers. First stop was Newcastle, to catch up with Harry Pearson, who is writing a humour book for us for next autumn. Then it was onto Edinburgh to see the authors of our 'I See' Spotters books, which are out this Autumn. Part of the visit was practical -- a bit of nuts and bolts here, and marketing and publicity ideas there -- but the main reason, really, was (to use that horrible phrase) face time: to say hello, have a chinwag and the sort of proper catch up you just can't do at long distance.

And despite what the think tank said, I came away (as I always do), thinking what fantastic cities the north has, and what a shame it is that publishing is, the odd exception aside, so London based...

Monday, 4 August 2008

Water Under the Bridge

Why do bad reviews hurt more than good reviews feel great? We've been riding the review rolloercoaster with Ken Burnett's 'The Field by the River' this week, with a wonderful review in the Mail on Sunday, followed by a less positive one in Friday's Daily Mail. Somehow, though, the negative points, however mild, seem to have a way of lingering longer than the glow of the good comments, however great. And it's not just the writer who feels like that -- any publisher worth their salt will also feel a twinge of apprehension about their own judgment. The remedy is normally a quick skim of the book itself, and the reaffirmation that although everyone is entitled to their opinion, in this case you're right, and they're wrong.

Dealing with reviews is a bit like learning to ride a bike -- however much it hurts, you've just got to dust yourself off and get back in the saddle again. After all, it doesn't matter how nice the bike is (and this case, it's a very nice bike indeed), there'll still be the occasional pothole in the road to deal with.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Cin Cin

To the Italian Bookshop, just off Charing Cross Road, and the launch of 'How to Live Like An Italian' by Annalisa Coppoloro-Nowell. I've always had a soft spot for Italy, ever since I put some money on them at 7-1 to win the last World Cup, and this was a suitably Italian celebration, with much strong family support, warm weather and gorgeous food.

As a publicity exercise, launch parties are a bit hit and miss these days -- which is why publishers throw far fewer than they used to. But they're not without purpose the warmth of a family and friends affair, such as here, is always a welcome reminder as to why you're in publishing in the first place.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Another Day, Another Title...

Having written a couple of days ago about how our Can't Be Arsed rival, Life's Too Short, had changed its name in response to F**k That!, it now transpires that the book has changed its name again, this time to Sod That! How many titles does one book need? At the time of writing, the book's poor old amazon page can't keep up -- the synopsis calls it Life's Too Short, the cover image still says F**k That! and the title says Sod That!

As a smaller publisher, one has to get used to being blown out of the water by the conglomerates. That may well still happen here, but it's nice, for today at least, to feel as if we have one of the corporate publishers on the run.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Going On the Offensive

There's nothing worse in publishing than the sinking feeling you get when you discover that someone else has had the same idea as you. This autumn, we're publishing a book by the Have I Got News For You producer Richard Wilson, called Can't Be Arsed: 101 Things Not To Do Before You Die -- an extremely funny take on those books telling you things you absolutely must hear, see, listen and well, do, if your life isn't to be absolutely worthless. However, it transpires that Orion are publishing a near identical book by Sam Jordison called Life's Too Short... However however, upon discovering our book, they've decided to up the swearing ante by rechristening their book F**K That! (You can almost hear the cogs in the marketing meeting grinding that one out). As a publisher, this leaves me with a quandry -- the poker player in me wants to up the ante and outswear them back (C*n't Be Arsed?) -- but the more sensible side thinks a. no one will stock the book if we did, b. we've got by far the better title anyway, and c. as our title suggests, I can't quite be arsed.

Friday, 20 June 2008

'The Modern Successor to Gilbert White'

In Bruce Forsyth terms, all my authors are my favourites. In George Orwell terms, some books are more favourites than others, and one of those, Ken Burnett's The Field by the River, is published next month. When the manuscript originally came in on submission, it was one of those books that didn't quite fit in any of our established categories, but I felt immediately that it was plenty good enough to break the rules to publish. In a way, that's what publishing should be all about -- leading and not following the industry obsession with genres and pigeonholing.

But don't just take my word that this book is a cracker. Indra Sinha describes the author as 'the modern successor to Gilbert White', and Paul Henderson in last week's Bookseller, described it as thus:

'I'm lucky enough to live in a house with a garden by a river (stream), and I spend a seemingly inordinate amount of time in the garden, watching and listening to the wildlife around me, wondering if there is a snake under that piece of corrugated iron, why there are so many slugs, and occassionally: 'F**king Hell! A Kingfisher!' Coupled with knowing that publisher Tom Bromley lives locally, is often on my train and is very keen on the book, it was easy to imagine The Field by the River by Ken Burnett might be up my street. And it was. A year of closely observed nature from a Scotsman living in France -- a cross between Peter Mayle and Gilbert White -- it follows the natural history of his field over the course of a year, together with three bloodthirsty dogs. It's very charming and although his humour didn't really do it for me, he conjures the sense of awe in the miniature well, and the day-to-day lives of spiders, mice, mushrooms and so on. You can feel his love and enthusiasm for the place -- it sits happily with contemporary natural history and should have broad appeal.'

Monday, 9 June 2008

Take that You Luddite

Here's how the Observer books pages saw the digital debate I took part in last week. Wish I'd been there, it sounds a touch more exciting than the one I took part in.

Tempers were running high at the V&A last week, when a debate on the future of books in the digital age turned into a very public scrap between Daniel Stacey, editor of Bad Idea, and Times Online books editor Michael Moran. A surprising addition to the Luddite corner, Moran claimed he didn't like e-book readers because his children would spill Ribena on them and, worse, you can't display them in your house like books. Striking a blow for the technophiles, Stacey swiftly countered that 'stacking books on shelves is a gauche way of displaying cultural credentials'. A full-blown duel was prevented by the quick thinking of literary agent Charlie Campbell, who poured oil on troubled waters by donating wine strictly reserved for the speaker's table to the het-up assembly at large.

Poured wine on troubled waters, surely?

Thursday, 5 June 2008

‘A Granta for the MySpace Generation’ (Observer)

From Gladstone and Disraeli to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Last Friday, the latest of the museum’s Friday Lates events took place, hosted by literary magazine Bad Idea (and whose anthology we have just published). As well as the launch for the book, there were numerous happenings dotted around the museum organised by the editors, as well as a Question Time style panel which I found myself sat on. Alongside the extremely nice Mil Millington, Times Online Journalist Michael Moran and agent Charlie Campbell, I discussed and answered questions on publishing, the internet, and all things digital. Despite the breakneck enthusiasm for electronic books, my sense was that both the panel and the audience seemed more reserved about the whole thing. This was echoed in a recent Zogby poll that found that only 3% of Americans had a e-book reader, and only a further 4% were considering buying one in the near future.
The Bad Idea editors Jack Roberts and Daniel Stacey are the latest in a long line of that most important of literary institutions: the champions of new writing. These champions are to be cherished, and it felt fitting to me that among the many wonderful writers in the anthology, was another long standing champion, Nick Royle. Ten years ago this month, I was lucky enough to have my first ever piece of writing published in a similar anthology edited by Nick. So it was nice for me not only to be able to repay the favour, but to oversee the passing of the baton to the next generation of literary champions.

Some things don’t change

In the past few weeks, the papers have been full of Cherie Blair, Lord Levy and John Prescott washing their tawdry linen in public – sorry, promoting their heavyweight political memoirs. As books go, they’re all something of a disappointment. One thinks of previous political memoirs – Denis Healey, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle – and how well-written, revelatory and ick-free the genre used to be. As a way of raking in the cash, though, they continue an extremely time-worn tradition. I’ve just finished Richard Aldous’s The Lion and the Unicorn, a fascinating dual biography of Gladstone and Disraeli (I know that sounds like the worst kind of wanky Summer Reading pull-outs in the Observer, but bear with me) and when Disraeli leaves office for the last time, he is offered the then megabucks sum of £10,000 to write a novel. Considering how this was more than the heavyweight novelists were on at the time (Dickens and George Eliot were the biggest earners on £9000 a book), and you can see that in 150 years, very little has changed.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Are books getting longer?

One of the books I’ve been really enjoying over the last couple of months (the ones I’ve commissioned aside, of course) is Mark Penn’s fascinating Microtrends. Penn is an American pollster famous for coining the phrase ‘soccer mums’, a small but influential group of voters who could swing elections. In Microtrends, he describes dozens of these other groups that aren’t large enough to make headlines, but still plenty big enough to change things. One movement he notes in culture is that of the rise of the long attention span – that despite culture supposedly dumbing down, there are many of watching longer films, loving The Sopranos and The Wire, and not being put off by doorstep books. There’s a graph in the book, which shows how the length of the average book has risen over the past ten years, from just under 400 pages in 1995, to just under 500 pages in 2005.

That might be a sign that people want stuff in more depth. But my first reaction as a publisher was to think, whatever happened to the art of editing?

Friday, 18 April 2008

Fair Enough

Monday to Wednesday this week has seen publishing taking part in its annual gathering to moan about the London Book Fair. I think it’s compulsory to go on about how much you hate it, even though secretly everyone quite likes a couple of days out of the office swanning around as though they’re dead important. The days of the big fair books felt a long time ago, with most of the major announcements being books that had been bought months back and the rights people seeing more action than editors. The best bits, as always, were not the appointments themselves, but the people you bump into in the corridor. On Tuesday night, an impromptu gathering in a nearby pub swelled into what felt like half of publishing by the time I wended my way. I got more out of those couple of pints than the rest of the fair put together.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

And the Winners Are...

Ever so slightly belatedly, here are the results of the Bad Idea/ Portico writing competiton. The winner was Emma Hooper, with the following writers shortlisted: Susan Jackman, Caroline Moran, Tom Williams and Benjamin Wood. If you ever want to know what it feels like being an alcoholic, try queuing up with competition prizes of five bottles of whisky plus a sandwich for your lunch! There was a whole range of quality entered, but what I particularly enjoyed was the passion that people showed for the process of writing itself. I was disappointed, perhaps a little bit, that every single one of the entries were electronically written, and no one had written in pen. But I think that's just me. The rather wonderful Bad Idea Anthology itself, is out next month, complete with an exciting looking evening at the V&A.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Competition Time

For the past month or so, Portico and Bad Idea Magazine have been running a writing competition. The prize, apart from various alcoholic inducements, is to be included in the first Bad Idea Anthology, which we are publishing later in the spring. The competition was to write a 1500 word piece on the subject of 'The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard'. In front of me, I have a large stack of entries to read through by the end of the week -- on Friday, the editors of Bad Idea, hot literary agent Charlie Campbell and my good self, will retire to argue the toss about who deserves to win.
So far, the entries I have read have been the following: funny, touching, scary, terrible, wrong, right, unreadable and rewriteable. One entry came as a tracked document with all the changes and deleted sections. I'm guessing this was a mistake (either that, or an incredibly clever piece of postmodernism that was way too smart for me), though it was interesting to follow through the train of thought. Overall, though, I was touched at how many people were willing to enter and how much thought had been put in. Maybe it was the subject matter, but I found myself thinking about the process of writing a lot more than I was expecting. Which made for a very nice surprise.