Sunday, 24 April 2011

You have nothing to lose but the chains

Phone call on Wednesday - a (potential) reader tried to order one of our books at his local WH Smith. He was told it would take 3-4 weeks to obtain, so he rang us and the book went in the post the same day. WHS could also have had the book next day if they could be bothered. Thursday, an employee of another national chain emailed asking about a book his shop had ordered to his firm's national distribution centre on 28th March - was there a problem with that title? No, but our trade distributor has not received the order for it from the distribution centre (though they did return ten copies of the book last month). Friday, checking sales: bookshop sales of our title Scamp are good... but one chain ordered 30 (further) copies last month and have returned 21 this month.

Friday, 22 April 2011

A Rose Loupt Out

Andy Croft at Smokestack has published this new collection of poetry and song celebrating the UCS work-in, thirty years after Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie and others put it to the workforce of the Upper Clyde Shipyards that they should not accept redundancy, nor strike, but take over the yards and run them. The work-in electrified Scotland - I can well remember marching in Glasgow with the chants of "Heath Out" echoing back from the high buildings in the centre of town. After a year the government caved in and the yards were saved. Meantime folk musicians, poets and a couple called John and Yoko raised and sent money to keep the wages flowing, the struggle going. I cannot remember hearing Jimmy Reid speak at the time, but, like Mick McGahey and Lawrence Daly of the NUM he was an autodidact; a well-read man with a wonderful turn of phrase. This is an unashamedly political book, collecting songs and poems from the period, the history of the work-in and the solidarity movement covered by the editor David Betteridge. Scattered throughout there are snippets from interviews and letters from the period, and the book ends with a detailed further reading list about the work-in.

The selection of poetry is excellent, including the never to be forgotten title "The Industrial Relations Act, 1971 (Repealed 1974)", though that is an exception, title-wise. The stand-out poem for me was "I am the Esperance" by Gerda Stevenson, which imagines the creations of the workforce - the floating crane Hikitia, home from Wellington, the Empire Nan, a stout tug, the Delta Queen "her great stern wheel churns the foam / as she steams in from the Mississippi" - "canvas unfurled, freighted with hope, / as wave upon wave, you surge into Glasgow Green". Some of the poems are by well-known writers, Edwin Morgan and Jackie Kay for example, her "The Shoes of Dead Comrades" being reprinted here, another great poem. The majority of writers were new to me.
My one criticism would be that the songs don't quite work as well as the poems, unless you know the tunes they were based on. I wish the book had included a CD of the songs. Good value though at £8.95 for 140 pages.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Looking ahead

The Allotment: its landscape and culture by David Crouch and Colin Ward was Five Leaves' first publication (though initially under the label of Mushroom Bookshop). Fifteen years, a second edition and a number of reprints later the book is still in print, but it is about time someone else wrote a new good social history of allotments. At one time Five Leaves was the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments, becoming so when we brought out a second allotment book. Eventually we published five, all of which sold well (probably the only books that made us money!) but only this one remains. I'm pleased to say that we've just signed up Lesley Acton to write a new social history of allotments, and it should be thumping onto our doormat/into our in box in 2012. Lesley will concentrate on the twentieth century and is working on some fascinating detail of employment/class among allotment holders in the first half of the century. Any booksellers wondering where they have come across that name before might remember her books on ceramics with A & C Black and Crowood.

2012 will also see a vast increase in our jazz list, from, um, one to three titles. Peter Vacher, who shares the Guardian jazz obits with John Fordham, and who writes for many jazz mags, is pulling together his interviews of American jazz players under the title Mixed Messages, a companion volume to one publisher earlier by our friends at Northway, currently getting good publicity for their Peter King autobiog. And Chris Searle is going through his fantastic 750 jazz reviews in the Morning Star to select 100 of the best to come out at the same time. Chris sends his weekly copy to the Star handwritten. Just as long as he doesn't try that on us! Chris's earlier jazz book was also published by Northway.

Camden news

The Camden New Journal is always worth reading, regardless of where you live, having unusually good coverage for a free newspaper, and an excellent Review section. When in London I usually nip across from St Pancras station to Judd Street where there is a box of them. The current issue features two literary articles of note. The first is the big debate on the future of libraries in Camden, where the nice American company LSSI is offering to take over the library service. Of course they promise that there will be no closures, the improved service will be run more economically for the tax-payer and everyone will walk off hand in hand to a glorious future. And who could doubt them?

Elsewhere in the paper there is another story of the Con-Dem elysium in which we are living. The writer Emanuel Litvinoff (many of whose poems appear in Five Leaves' Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain since 1945) has fallen on hard times and the local Council has withdrawn his carer. He can't afford the £150 a week to keep the service he had. He was told he should sign on and claim Job Seekers Allowance. Emanuel is 97. His partner can't sign on as she is unavailable for work as she has to look after him. As well as being a great poet, Emanuel wrote one of the best books of life in the East End in the 1930s when he was fed by the Sally Army and was given old boots by the Jewish Board of Guardians. His Journey Through a Small Planet is still available from Penguin. As he said in the paper "It seems the same as 1931 all over again. This is a depression caused by financiars and bankers, but it is the poorest who are paying for it."

Every day of the week: a celebration of the life and work of Alan Sillitoe

Around 150 people attended the British Library celebration of Alan Sillitoe last night. There was an impressive line up of speakers including Margaret Drabble, Alan Jenkins (from the TLS), Miranda Seymour, DJ Taylor, Elaine Feinstein, Peter Chasseaud (who shared a love of WW1 trench maps with Alan), Richard Bradford and Tansy Davies (who had written a requiem for Remembance Sunday which was influenced by Alan). With a fairly short event none of the speakers could go into too much detail, but Margaret Drabble's contribution emphasised how much Alan wrote about nature, in a quite natural way as a backdrop to his writing. DJT said that "[Sillitoe] managed never to separate himself from those things which are worth writing about" while Elaine Feinstein reminded us about Alan's work in support of Soviet Jewry and his address to a Soviet Writers' Union conference, in the presence of Brezhnev, about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. But Alan was not a "political writer" - "I tell stories" was the phrase he used.

The formal setting in the BL Auditorium precluded the kind of rumbustiousness seen at the Nottingham event held a few months ago, but it was well worth attending, particularly to catch up with Michael and Ann Sillitoe, Alan's brother and sister-in-law.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Hungry and homeless writers

It's tough out there. Five Leaves makes it clear on our website that we are not reading submissions, mostly being a commissioning press. Our plans are worked out until 2013. But still they come. In one recent week the pitches included: a novel by a well-published and respected but not big-selling writer which had been sitting with a publisher that has now decided to cut back its UK fiction; an option to paperback a good crime novelist whose publisher is now finding it impossible to sell paperback rights to the bigger publishers; a first poetry book by an internationally published US novelist; a third poetry collection by a reasonably successful poet whose publisher has lost Arts Council support; a book by... but I need not go on. In that week I could easily have taken five titles that would have fitted happily on our list, but we already publish to the limit. There have always been, will always be, pitches, more than we could read let alone publish, but what has changed is that many more people who would otherwise have found a place are approaching us. We can't help. Nor can the editor I spoke to earlier from a poetry press who has turned down 27 published poets since the Arts Council withdrew support from some previously supported presses.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Greeks have a word for it

Here's a literary quiz. What do the following have in common? Achebe's Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), Falluda's Alone in Berlin, Norman Lewis' classic Naples '44, a random Rebus and a Wallander, David Szalay's The Innocent (Russia), Phil Cohen's Children of the Revolution (about children of Communist parents), Andrew Greig's wartime novel That Summer and yet another book on DH Lawrence? Answer, they have nothing to do with Greece. Every time I go to foreign parts I promise I'll practice by reading only books by authors from the country I'm going to and when there only read local writers. So there's my reading during two weeks in Greece. Pathetic. I've never yet kept that promise. I also read some back copies of the London Magazine, which reminded me what a good editor Alan Ross was, and picked up a back copy of Transatlantic Review which had the cover price of 5 shillings/$1.00, an interesting exchange rate. The journal, forty years old, mentioned six writers on the cover: BS Johnson, Jean Rhys, Ted Hughes, Ruth Fainlight, Patrick Garland and Barry England. Forty years on BS Johnson is still a cult figure, Jean Rhys is still read, Ted Hughes is still read, Ruth Fainlight has just published a massive collected poetry anthology with Bloodaxe (though in TA she had written a short story) while Garland is still known in the theatre world and only Barry England now forgotten. If there is a point it is that some people's reputations do sustain and it is the mark of a good editor to find the writers who will give pleasure forty years on, from a dog-eared copy of a magazine priced in an obsolete currency. I was also struck by one point, reading that a contributor was "a subaltern in the Far East", indicating how even in the 1970s WW2 terminology was commonplace to readers, many of whom would of course have done National Service.

I should add that I only took one manuscript to read, and checked emails only every second day. This really was a holiday, some of which was spent in the same street Byron wrote Childe Harold. The rest was spent in a Greek island town of 15,000, which had four Greek language bookshops plus several other book outlets.

Small talk

I'd previously blogged an earlier version of this article, on running a small publishing firm, by Two Ravens Press. I was reminded of Chaim Bermant many years ago saying that the only way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large one. Two Ravens has one big advantage, that the main Scottish market is defined, the country has some good bookshops, 36 book festivals and a lively literature community. The disadvantage is living in one of the furthest out places in that country, making, say, a stall at a Festival impossible. Nevertheless, with tweaks, all small publishers could write something similar.,%20four%20and%20a%20half%20years%20on.html

Friday, 1 April 2011

Like many old peaceniks, I've got a battered old copy of the Gene Sharp trilogy The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Suddenly the world has discovered Sharp is hot. Here's an article about him on the Beeb: In short, his From Dictatorship to Democracy is being widely used, samizdat style, to give people ideas on how to overthrow real live dictatorships. His book has been circulated in thirty languages. Who knew? Housmans Bookshop in London has just rush-released the book. It's not even on Amazon yet so you had best get copies from, or News from Nowhere in Liverpool. The reader may or may not agree with the obvious and topical conclusion in Sharp's prescient section on foreign support to overthrow dictators when he says "some foreign states will act against a dictatorship only to gain their own economic, political or military control over the country. The foreign states may become involved for positive purposes only if and when the internal resistance movement has already begun to shaking the dictatorship..." concluding "...there are grave problems with this reliance on an outside saviour."

Sharp also lists 198 forms of unarmed resistance - ideas lapped up in some Arab states - though how they managed to translate "bumper strike" or "nonviolent air raids" into Arabic is beyond me since it seems hard to translate them into English. There is a minor and invisible Five Leaves' fingerprint on the production, but I'm really pleased to see Housmans returning to publishing with this important book.