Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Snakes and ladders at the Arts Council

Five Leaves currently receives a modest sum from the Arts Council's Grants for the Arts Scheme and is not in the big league of those fighting over the reduced spoils available through the national portfolio scheme whose winners and losers have just been announced. Comments on them in a minute but at all times remember that the sums available are reduced entirely because the Government prefers to stuff money into the orifices of greedy bankers and tax avoiders. That's our colours nailed to the mast then. So, good news for our friends at Peepal Tree (the main publishers of Caribbean work), the distributor Inpress, the short story specialist Comma, Writing East Midlands and Writing on the Wall book festival in Liverpool. We are pleased that Liverpool Arabic Festival is in there, which group has been very supportive of our two Arabic projects with Peter Mortimer. There's quite a bit of new money going into children's literature, which seems to have been overlooked by the commentators, with a major uplift for Seven Stories and others but little surprise attached to Nick Hornby's Ministry of Stories getting support. I'm not the only one shocked, however, to see Faber supported to the tune of £40k a year, not least as they are so mean in charging high reprint fees to small presses wishing to publish their poems in anthologies. Couldn't they, y'know, put on another performance of Cats or something?

But what of the losers? Our regional manager from the Arts Council said in his circular that it would not be right to list those whose applications failed. Perhaps he has not come across that internet thingy yet as the list takes about three seconds to find on a google search and it was on twitter and the BBC website this morning. I wonder whether the need to apply for a minimum of £50k per annum saw off some of the small publishers that applied which might have been able to put in strong applications for half that, but friends at Flambard and Arc lost out. There does seem to be some confused thinking as the Poetry Translation Centre did well, and the British Centre for Literary Translation yet Arc is a major publisher of poetry in translation as is Anvil who were not thrown overboard but will be on half-rations, and the fiction in translation specialist Arcadia did not do well either. Poetry actually did badly - Enitharmon lost out as did the Poetry Trust and above all, the Poetry Book Society. Like many small indies we have issues with PBS related to the lead time for submissions making it hard for people our size to get our collections selected. But there is no doubt that PBS shifts poetry books, in quantity, and the reduction in poetry being stocked by bookshops made its existence all the more important. It seems strange to strangle the PBS but to continue to fund, say, Poetry London, or Survivors' Poetry and to add Poet in the City. No wonder Carol Ann Duffy is spitting nails. The poetry and short story publisher Salt was also unsuccessful, but those of us of a long memory wonder whether their earlier statement about it being a bad thing to be dependent on ACE funding worked against them, as could their recent article in Poetry Review revealing a massive slump in sales. I was also sorry to see the Windows Project in Liverpool lose out as they have done some excellent work. Losing all the funding for the Writing in Prison Network will hit hard as well given how much work they have done to address literacy in prisons. Maybe - and I did not see their bid - that was their problem. Good work but not necessarily "good art"?

It does look as if those who actually publish work did not do well (never mind the huge loss to sales represented by the PBS losing out). Save for Peepal Tree a first look through the scores on the doors indicates around standstill for Bloodaxe and Carcanet, with Tindall Street choosing to move in due course from Arts Council funding (the official report looks as if they are chopped at year three but chose to end their funding then themselves). Yet the Arvon Foundation, which provides residential courses to aspiring writers, has had a major uplift. Arvon runs great courses in great venues with great tutors but with the book trade in freefall and little money here going to publishers who is going to publish all the newbies? Faber?

What of the agencies? New Writing North (whose work I respect) has had a large increase, Writers' Centre in Norwich (whose work I don't know) a whopping increase and Writing West Midlands added to the portfolio with a very large budget. I hope they all spend it wisely.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

More on Paris

A few signs of difference... in the Marais the French Communist Party (PCF) of the 4th arrondissement has a shop/gallery called "Art et societe". The children's library near the bottom of the Boulevard St Michel has a wonderful display of historic children's book illustrations and is called "Biblioteque des l'heure joyeuse", complete with creche. But above all I'm always moved to see the small street plaques to those who fell in liberating Paris. Just round the corner from Shakespeare & Company a plaque to Jean Dussarps and two "anonymes" who were killed on 19 & 25 August 1944. These small plaques, all over the place, more moving than any war memorial.

Paris sessions

A Lowdham Book Festival on Tour trip to Paris gave me another opportunity to visit two of the English language bookshops, Shakespeare & Company and The Red Wheelbarrow and to discover one I'd not come across before, Abbey Bookshop, which helped us organise an event for the tour group. The latter was with the Anglo-French writer Stephen Clarke who'd previously been to Lowdham on a "French" day at one of the Festivals. His A Year in the Merdre was first self-published (oh God, no) and sold well at Abbey, leading to his subsequent career. The shop itself is the stuff of nightmares even for those of an untidy mind and office, with towering piles of mixed new and second hand stock leaning at precarious angles with but narrow paths between the sections. Hilary at Shakespeare & Co warmly welcomed the group, with a short history of the place and I was glad to see that she and Sylvia, who has taken over the running of the shop from George Whitman (aged 97 and still living on the premises) have introduced modern ideas like having a telephone, computers and recent and decent stock. The place is much more of a proper bookshop than a time travel visit to the Beat era.

My loyalties though are still with Red Wheelbarrow. By a nice chance the Guardian gave away a free "literary guide to Paris" on Saturday, featuring a useful 7km circular walk round where we were staying. The supplement described the Red Wheelbarrow as having "arguably... the best selection of literature and serious reading in Paris". I don't think there is much argument and this busy and friendly shop between the Marais and the Seine is the place to go for new hardbacks and paperbacks from North America, the UK and the "open market" whereby books only out here in hardback are available in trade editions there.

My purchases were two only, the Paris Magazine from Shakespeare and Great House the new novel by Nicole Krauss, from the Red Wheelbarrow . The latter was mostly read in the Jardines de Luxembourg - yet another middle-aged to elderly man in flat cap sitting reading and dozing in the sun for several hours. Life has had worse moments. This was Lowdham Book Festival on Tour's fourth trip abroad - to Dublin for James Joyce's centenary, a combined Amsterdam/Copenhagen cruise, a Nile cruise in the past - though the first I was able to go on. Next time, Venice, accompanied as in Amsterdam and Paris by Chris Ewan, author of the Good Thief series.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The day Five Leaves changed Government policy on Arts and Culture

Well almost. Admittedly Labour is not yet in power, but they will be. Sometime. So it seemed important to take up an offer to meet with Gloria De Piero and others from the Shadow culture team. I had many important points to make which would surely become Labour and then Government policy in due course. Except where was the stall they were on? The glossy brochure did not mention it. The stewards had no idea. The whole event was alive with excited people, many of whom were already stocking up on the free meal deal at the cafe, as they waited on Ed's speech later, meantime seeing and being seen. They still are, with Ed on in a bit. It's a Q & A and I would be tempted to ask "how do you think you can run a Government when your people put stalls in narrow corridors?" Because that's where the stalls were, with tiny workshop discussion spaces. The biggest crowd was at the first stall, trying desperately to find out if that was Harriet Harman trying to make herself heard. It wasn't. The stall was - in this narrow corridor - handily directly opposite the free coffee and meal point. So anyone wanting to go further had to use their elbows or a battering ram to get through. Tough luck if you had a wheelchair.

Finally I made it to a crowded stall advertising "Talented Britain". Hang on, I wanted to talk about arts, literature and culture, not something that sounded like a crap TV show. There was room for about four people to meet a couple of shadow ministers and a whirl of people who looked like they were from the cultural industries. With the background buzz, the heat, the crowd, the echoing corridor, I could not hear a word. So that was that then, a free coffee and back to the office, my brilliant ideas stillborn.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Jerusalem bookseller at risk of deportation

Five Leaves has signed a protest letter against the Israeli government deporting Munther Fahmi, who runs the bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in (Arab) East Jerusalem. The background to the story is in the article below from Haaretz, an Israeli daily. Anyone visiting the shop will know it is the best bookshop in the whole of Jerusalem, with a wide choice of books representing all religious and political viewpoints as well as a terrific range of Jewish and Arab fiction from across the world. The shop is always busy, and its customers have included many members of foreign governments and the press staying in the Hotel. Most people will also know that Israel is full of people with dual nationalities, though Munther, unwilling to accept an imposed Israeli nationality has lived in Jerusalem for 17 years using his American passport. Jerusalem is the city of his birth, where he lived for 20 years before going to America, returning later. The bookshop is known and respected internationally and this attempt to deport its owner will bring Israel nothing but criticism.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

States of Independence report

It's always tempting after events to think "we've got away with it again", but on this occasion I do feel that this is the case. States of Independence II (programme still on was attended by at least 350 people on Saturday in Leicester. We know this as we gave out day programmes (300 in 2010) which some people shared or managed to avoid so the numbers would perhaps be around 400 attending the 26 events. Why the worry? In 2010 we produced 6,000 printed programmes circulated in advance, but felt that most people attended via facebook, blogs and other electronic means. This year, with less money to play with, we circulated about 2,000 postcards and a handful of posters directing people to the website and concentrated on electronic means only. And the whole event was conceived, programmed and promoted in four weeks. Those of us from the poster and leaflet days get nervous doing without. But it worked. The short notice obviously excluded some people so more notice and perhaps a bit of postering might have brought us to around 500 people, which is as many as this kind of event should have. What is good about States is that the average age of attendees is much lower than the norm at any other literature project we are involved with - and I mean young people not just early-middle aged - and, increasingly, multicultural.
It was not difficult to pull together an interesting programme, nor was it last year, but that might not always be the case with a relatively limited pool of regional speakers. The day - being free to the public - relies on speakers' mutual goodwill (to use the phrase Ni Smith posted on facebook), accepting travel expenses and meal vouchers only, and pitching in to join panels, chair events, and mooching around the stalls like everyone else. There is certainly little barrier between reader and writer, publisher and the published, the well-known and the less well-known on the day. It would be invidious to ship in "national" names who would need paying, while relying on the free labour of local writers and organisers.
We charged stall holders a token fee, a fiver or "an interesting book" more to introduce the idea of charging at a similar event in the future, but though some stalls do well it is hardly a commercial operation, and with so many writers involved sales are spread widely. Nobody makes anything significant, but one of the major features is that much maligned networking. Last year, for example, led to Nine Arches from Birmingham forming partnerships to hold regular "shindigs" in Nottingham and Leicester, while Writing School Leicester formed a publishing partnership with Pewter Rose of Nottingham. This year I signed up a couple of writers I'd not come across before to read at Lowdham Book Festival.
The cost? De Montfort University provides the premises free, but there is a direct cost to them, albeit small, of security on the day. Feeding the speakers cost about £200, travel probably the same (by the time I've tracked down several of the speakers who ran off without their expenses). Say a couple of hundred for publicity. Excluding DMU, £600 all in. Let's say we took £100 in stall hire. £500 then, with no payment for organising time. Five Leaves picked up the bill, and the £1000 it cost last year, the remains of a fund we administered to promote independent presses. This fund is now exhausted so future States projects will need a degree of funding. We are, however, talking with Nine Arches about a similar event in Birmingham.
And on the day? A bit early to say but I know that the sessions on anarchism and on writing speculative fiction were full, that 32 people came to the session on Moomins and philosophy, that Penny Luithlen, the young adult agent who carries some of our writers, was busy throughout the day doing short advice sessions, we sold out of the graphic novel Depresso we were carrying for the day to support one of the speakers and the cafe was rather pleased with its takings. I also know that some friends are ganging up to ensure Five Leaves moves into the eBook era following a session on that subject by Abi Rhodes from Spokesman. Why don't they just leave me alone? I like the twentieth century.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

How low can you get?

There was a publishers' panel at the Derbyshire Readers' Day comprising small indies. A member of the public asked about book sales. Route came out tops with 14,000 copies sold and counting of their music and rugby league-land memoir Bringing It All Back Home (a great book). Shoestring remarked on the astonishing success of their Daily Mail promoted academic book that included the words "swapping wives" in its title, though the Mail readers must have been terribly disappointed that it had nothing to do with the sort of swapping wives that they are used to. Poetry? 300ish seemed about standard, with Peter Sansom from Poetry Business remarking that certain well known poetry publishers rarely achieve above 500 for single author collections. Peter also said that sales can be much lower, with one of his titles selling two copies. Two. Clearly that author did not even have aunties. I can't remember if it was on or off the panel when he mentioned a certain major poetry publisher only selling seven copies of a book by a well known writer, albeit one that does not do readings.
This sounds like the common poets' conversation of describing their worst and least well attended reading. Ian McMillan always scoops the pool by describing an early reading of his which was attended by minus one. When Ian got to the event the audience was one person but he had not realised it was Ian reading and left immediately making, in Barnsley logic, an attendance of minus one.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Another quiet weekend at Five Leaves Towers

Apart from the Derbyshire Readers Day mentioned earlier, there was: The Colin Ward and Childhood conference in Cambridge, well attended, excellent speakers, good programme, good booksales especially from our friends at Freedom Press. Up in Scotland Zoe Wicomb had a full house at the Aye Write Glasgow Book Festival, and was the guest at BBC Scotland's Book Cafe. The Scottish Daily Record gave Ray Banks' California an excellent review, while J David Simons talked at the Scottish Jewish Archives (shame the publicity was so late) and at the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society. And we finished the weekend by finding a sponsor for a forthcoming big book on London fiction. And I cleaned my bedroom.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Where are the Moomins when you need them?

Only four more days before our second States of Independence day in Leicester, celebrating the wonderful world of small and independent presses, this Saturday at De Montfort University. A one day - and free - book and spoken word festival. This list gives you an idea what it is about.
The 1950s, artists' books, publishing, eBooks, Asian writing, Irish writing, speculative fiction, spoken word from Short Fuse and Word!, anarchism, sex and sensibility, crime fiction, graphic novels, the Moomins, music, short fiction, money, poetry, making it as a writer, editing, East Midlands Book Award, book and magazine launches. Cafe available. Come for an hour or all day. Full programme on All human and Moomin life welcome.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Where would we be without amoebas?

Derbyshire Readers Day - mentioned earlier as drawing its speakers only from small independent presses - was a great success, at least as far as this indie is concerned. Six of the speakers, Berlie Doherty, Stephen Booth, Dan Tunstall, Maxine Linnell, Danuta Reah and Charlie Williams are all associated with Five Leaves, though we are not their sole publisher in four cases but on this day they were all in our orbit. I was also pleased to chair a publishers' panel with the editors of Smith/Doorstep, Templar, Shoestring and Route, and to attend a lecture by one of the editors of Peepal Tree on the Caribbean history that forms the backdrop to Caribbean writing. I hope Jeremy Poynting repeats this talk elsewhere. It will certainly soon appear on Peepal Tree's website. Quote of the day was from Danuta Reah who mentioned that she had some dealings once with a computer shop where the owner, "would have been a serial killer had he not gone into computing". Malcolm Burgess also raised a laugh when he reported that I'd [accidentally] described Five Leaves as a "micro press" which made him think that his Oxygen Press must be an "amoeba press".
Thanks and congratulations to Derbyshire Libraries for taking the risk of devoting their whole annual event to the groundlings.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Mod culture

Safe to say that, save for humming along to the odd Small Faces track while at work, Mod Culture has never intruded on Five Leaves nor we on it. Not that there's anything wrong with it. In County Council days I organised a Mod Night in a library - with half the audience arriving on scooters. The more respectable elements - the other half - told some hair raising tales of their pill-popping youth. Anyway, here's Five Leaves debut article on the Mod scene. More on this book sometime later.

On board the Carousel

We don't usually post our reviews in full, but I rather liked this one from the children's book mag Carousel. This also give an opportunity to say nice things about the mag, details on, which is a good read - and for those of us printists out there, happily produced in a paper format.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Indie bound for glory

Britain's independent bookshops are fighting back, using the "indie bound" model imported from the USA to promote the value of supporting local bricks-and-mortar shops. Below are some of their arguments. Try them out - ask your local bookshop to put up a notice advertising a book group, then try a chain, then try Amazon...
•Based on US statistics, £100 spent at a local business means £68 of that stays in your community, as opposed to only £43 if spent at a national company •Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbours. •Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint. •Shopping in a local business district helps create a healthy and vibrant high street. •Local retailers are your friends and neighbours—support them and they’ll support you. •More independents mean more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community. •Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national companies.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Today Cowdenbeath, tomorrow the world

World Book Night

Arguments are raging about the value of World Book Night, though I get the impression the doubters are using WBN as a lightning conductor to focus their rage about other things making the life of a bookseller pretty tough right now. WBN was all over the press and radio, and 19,999 people gave away a million books selected from 25 great titles. Yes, there were glitches - the WBN website was late and not the best, and on Friday I got an email saying my books had been delivered to somewhere miles from where I live and work, and even further from the bookshop I had nominated as my delivery point. Except they haven't been delivered anywhere as yet. But anyone trying to deliver 20,000 parcels with a million objects is bound to have teething problems.
I joined forces with another "giver" who had received her books and we gave our titles - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - at a special showing of the film of the same name. Except they were furtively handed over by a fairly unconvincing looking spy wrapped in a brown paper bag marked "World Book Night 2011. Classified papers. Authorised readers only. TOP SECRET". We also gave away a mixed box of the 25 titles and toasted World Book Night with some sparkly stuff. In what way could this be bad for bookselling?
The doubters are meantime arguing whether giving away, say, tens of thousands of copies of Toast will lead to better sales of the book in the long run. No, WBN was not about whether Toast shares will go up 3% or down 3% but whether you can get people excited about books. It worked.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Don't get it right, get it writ.

As my old and now late friend and novelist Les Williamson used to say. So here's J. David Simons' notes on how to do or not do research for historical novels:

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Commedia dell'arte

It's been a few years since I've been to Nottingham Writers' Club. I went along to support our Maxine Linnell, author of Vintage and the forthcoming Closer. Pitched up early, didn't recognise anyone but noticed there was a bookstall to check out during the break, and made myself comfortable. "Are you the speaker?" asks one of the women present. "No, I'm her publisher." Blank look. "You are the Writers' Club?" "No, we're the Harlequin group." Oops. The only Harlequin group I'd known in town had been for TV/TS people so I wished I'd had time to look at the bookstall but didn't want to be late for the meeting I was supposed to be in. Got into the right meeting, said to the bloke next to me that I'd gone first to the wrong room. "Ah - the Harlequins - they used to be Ladies' Gas, but they changed their name." I could hear the next part of the conversation, though it did not happen. "Not transvestites then?" "Nay, lad, I don't think so. They used to work for British Gas."
Maxine was very good.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

What the papers say

February was an interesting month for Five Leaves in the press. Yes we made the crime reviews in the Hull Daily Mail (thank you Nick Quantrill) but I hope Nick and the entire Hull population won't be upset if I class the full page in the current Times Literary Supplement as being more of a winner. The page, by Roz Caveney, was about our Roland Camberton books, especially Scamp. Unfortunately not online, the review spots a lot in his books that made us want to publish them after sixty years of unavailability, pointing out that "Scamp feels more interesting than it perhaps did on publication". Alone this looks like damning with faint praise, which is not the tone of the article. She ends saying "Like Scamp, Rain on the Pavements belongs to a tradition of London fiction which is partly journalistic; its consolations are not plot and character, but observation and vivid recall." Our New London Editions have been covered well in Hackney Citizen and Camberton again in Jewish Renaissance.
At the other end of the country, Zoe Wicomb hit the Sunday Herald with The One that Got Away while J. David Simons had a perfectly formed and good review for his The Liberation of Celia Kahn in the Herald guide. David's book is getting coverage in book blogs including Vulpes Libris, while the Jewish Telegraph gave a big spread to the Glasgow book launch. Our Crime Express series is starting to get coverage on specialist crime blogs, with writer "Nerd of Noir" taking a big liking to Graven Image by Charlie Williams and California by noirista (a word borrowed from Mike Ripley) Ray Banks. John Lucas wouldn't know an e-zine or a blog if it came up and hit him but was very pleased by the print out of Michael Bartholemew-Biggs' review of Things to Say in London Grip, which has reached 27 issues but was new to me. B-B's review is on More conventionally, by Lucas standards, the great Jim Burns reviewed the same book in the current Ambit. Parochially I was pleased to see a review of Ray Gosling's Personal Copy in The Nottinghamshire Historian. Because of that other business with Ray his book has not had as much attention as it deserves so it was nice of Denys Ridgeway to ignore that other business remarking that "His memoirs really do capture the mood of the younger generation [of the 1960s], how they lived and behaved."

All of the day and all of the night

It's World Book Night this Saturday. I'm joining with 19,999 other people to give away 48 books, part of a million being given away from a set of 25 very good titles reprinted specially by big publishers. I should have subverted it slightly and given away 48 Five Leaves' books. But I'm mean that way. I'll be giving The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, mostly to people attending a showing of the film by the same name at Flicks in the Sticks, Lowdham Book Festival's film weekend. Is it a good thing? There are quite a few people in the book trade complaining that flooding the market with free books at a time when shops are under pressure is crazy. On the other hand, in Lowdham village there are quite a few givers, and the local bookshop is handling the distribution, as part of its general promotion of a reading culture. I'm with them on that. Two of our writers are taking part in WBN events - J. David Simons will be doing a late night at Sauchiehall Street Waterestone's in Glasgow and Russel McLean will be strutting his stuff at Dundee Waterstone's, together with other local writers in each city. Some, backed by Susan Hill, argue that - as they do in Catalonia - there is a day where everyone buys a book to give away. This is the first WBN - I'm happy to go with the flow for next year, but there is a day Five Leaves' will be backing for sure. The Campaign for the Book is proposing a national library day, on the first Saturday of February, following the 110 events of protest against closures this February just gone (see this blog passim). The Campaign is suggesting a celebration of libraries - as the day of protest turned out to be - as part of a longer term campaign to keep libraries open, public and popular. Five Leaves can sign up for that without any need for discussion.