Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Publishing in 1995... The economies of scale in printing at the time meant that you had to print 750 or 1,000 copies of books to get them cheap enough. You registered the books with Whitakers on a hand-written form. You produced a basic advance information sheet for your repping company four months in advance and they then visited lots of bookshops, including branches of national chains, which your trade distributor supplied in quantity at 35% discount. Warehousing was free as the distributor made enough on commission. Novels were £7.99 and more academic books were £9.99.
Publishing in 2012... Nowadays you print digitally, with it being economic to print even 300 copies (or 100 copies if you don't sell them through bookshops), which is just as well as sales are fewer and you need to keep your warehousing costs down. You register the books and produce information sheets seven months in advance so that your repping company can visit the head office of a couple of chains and a much smaller number of independents which mostly buy from wholesalers at 50% discount in small quantities. Warehousing costs 10p a book per annum. Novels are £7.99 and more academic books £14.99. And then you register the books with Amazon (who will later buy at 60% when people order the books), assorted library suppliers, write blog postings (as do the authors), write about them on facebook, put them on Good Reads and organise reading tours if you can. And make eBooks.
That sound you hear is me, whistling while I work.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Charles Boyle on small press publishing, and Boris

No disrespect to Hugo Williams, who usually occupies the Freelance column in the TLS, but I'm rather enjoying the articles by Charles Boyle, writer, poet and, most importantly, the publisher at CB Editions. In the issue of TLS out today he describes how he got into small press publishing, and describes the laughable economics of running such a press. The article's short enough to read in Smiths, and I mention that because he refers to writers and small publishers being broke. Meantime, here's a related article from a couple of weeks back. The Bill referred to is Bill Norris, and Central Books is our own distributor.

At the bottom of the escalator, I heaved the box of books off my shoulder and waited for Boris Johnson – whom I’d passed on the way down – to appear on the Tube platform. I was annoyed I didn’t have my London book, Days and Nights in W12, with me, but I did have sixty copies of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel.
“Are you David Markson?” Boris asked, as he took a copy. He seemed relieved that I wasn’t. Throughout the journey he read, engrossed, not looking up. His minders and I occasionally exchanged glances. Did they want copies too? But margins are tight, and there are only so many books I can give away free. At Chancery Lane, Boris got off the train, and as he paused to rearrange his backpack and cycle helmet he was approached by someone else. Another nutter, he must have been thinking. Another book.
Boris had been promoting the expansion of his blue bicycle scheme – the “Boris bikes” – to the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush. Larkin might have approved (“Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”), though I doubt if Larkin wore a crash helmet. The Mayor of London had been riding one of his bicycles for the press (they like snapping politicians doing something: kicking a ball about, playing table tennis), and if I’d had a camera myself I’d have liked to take a souvenir photograph of Boris reading one of the books I’ve published. But cycling for Boris is more than just an excuse for a man-of-the-people photo op, and if he hadn’t been so enthralled by the Markson book we might have discussed and compared my own preferred physical exercise, which is the lugging about of books in boxes.
When stock of a particular title in the warehouse is almost at zero, I call up Chris the printer, order another batch and go round to collect. I found Chris by googling “printer west london” in late 2007, and by now we have a history. Once he house-sat my five cats while I was away for a couple of weeks. He was side-swiped by a forklift truck during that period and sent to hospital; patched up, he bypassed the long queue at the pharmacy for his painkillers, came back to the house to check on the cats, drank the bottle of whisky I’d left him, and went back to work.
The building Chris works in is 1960s or later but still manages to be Dickensian: narrow passages, back stairs, areas on the print floor where you have to duck your head. There is no receptionist. The firm’s binding service ranges from a two-hour job for students’ theses to library and conservation work (they have a royal warrant as bookbinders to HM the Queen), and if the printing technology turns out to be just as appropriate to publishers of short novels translated from the Slovenian as it is to local restaurants wanting laminated menus, good for them and for me too.
The books could be couriered from Chris to the warehouse, but that way I’d be missing out on an away-day. At the eastern end of the trip, Central Books – originally set up to distribute the books of publishers associated with the Communist Party (and sell them too, from a bookshop in Gray’s Inn Road that closed in 1993) – looks after several hundred independent book and magazine publishers. Recently, the surrounding streets in Hackney Wick have had a brush-up – new paving, a quota of spindly urban saplings – because of their proximity to the Olympics wasteland. I stand with Bill, the distributor, in the open-plan top-floor office, looking out over the yellow-jacketed construction armies and the toing and froing of dumper trucks, then we shrug and boil the kettle.
If it’s around lunchtime and the kitchen is in use, Bill leads me through the bookstacks until we find a table in a clearing; surrounded by shelves of decades-old issues of New Marxist Quarterly we sip tea, swap trade gossip, and discuss the complicated life of a mutual friend. One of Bill’s colleagues recently asked me to sign copies of a couple of my own poetry books – these books, too, more than a decade old – for her partner, a fan. When I first signed up with Central, Bill sent me a long email explaining, among other things, the difference between a book wholesaler and a book distributor; I still don’t really understand this, but Bill is a big and patient man – a man who could shift boxes of books all week without tiring or complaining – and I trust him absolutely.
Central Books occupies a massive, fine brick building with large green-painted windows and cast-iron drainpipes, but the boxes of books and magazines pile up and storage has become a problem. Recently, I spent a day with Michael Horovitz lugging boxes of his New Departures books out of Central and into various other locations around town, most of them up four flights of stairs. (It’s a pity we couldn’t do this by Boris bike; Camden council sent me a photograph of my car in a place it shouldn’t have been, with a demand for £65.) By mid-afternoon my legs were jelly. If one of the things we like about books is their thingness, that they are physical objects in the world – as opposed to e-books – it’s worth remembering that they’re quite heavy things, especially en masse, and carting them about is a necessary part of the whole business. When is a book not a book? When you can’t put it on the scales and weigh it.
Books of new poetry tend to be short, which means you can fit more of them in a single box. But still. “Nothing”, sighs James Salter in one of his short stories, “is heavier than paper.” A couple of years ago the poet Anthony Thwaite happened to arrive at my house at the same time as a truck delivering 3,000 books (a wildly over-optimistic order). Anthony, then aged seventy-nine, rolled up his sleeves and joined the chain gang. Only after we’d got the books shifted could we sit down and start talking about Larkin’s Letters to Monica, which he was then editing.
I don’t have to keep risking my back. For example, there’s an out-of-town place that combines printing and distribution in the same location, and the two are cleverly linked: when stock of a title falls to a certain level, a reprint is automatically triggered, with the number of new copies determined by average sales over a given period. Or I could go wholly print-on-demand with one of the companies that print and distribute only when an order comes in, even for single book, and never leave my desk. But working up a sweat is no bad thing – Hemingway hunted and boxed, Nabokov chased butterflies, Yeats played croquet – and having this as part of one’s job is preferable to going to the gym.
Somewhere in the book I gave to Boris Johnson, David Markson mentions that every writer and artist in history – “until Writer’s own century” – knew how to ride a horse, and that Pindar reassured his readers there would be horses in heaven. If the new facility outside Westfield shopping centre turns out to be a stable rather than a bicycle docking station, you’ll know where Boris got the idea.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Five Leaves newsletter: February 2012

Hopefully you can enlarge this. If not, email us on info@fiveleaves.co.uk and we'll send by email... the same address if you would like to receive our newsletter regularly. Or, more likely, irregularly.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The film of the book, the dance of the book

Monday 5 March: 7.45pm
The Northern Rock Foundation Hall
The Sage Gateshead
Tickets: £10/£8.00
Info: 0191 443 5661, www.thesagegateshead.org
In the year of the 'Arab Spring', six artists from the North East travelled to the Middle East – their object, to create with young Palestinian refugees a play about the downfall of a long-ruling tyrant. The play, Croak The King and a Change in the Weather, put together on Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut played to great acclaim at Theatre Monnot in the mainly Christian East Beirut, before touring to three cities in the UK. The book Camp Shatila by Peter Mortimer (Five Leaves) is the beginning of the story.
‘Shatila Theatre’, is a remarkable documentary film, made by Primate Productions of Whitley Bay, which follows the rehearsals on camp, the Beirut production, then 3,000 miles to track the play through the UK (including performances at The Sage).
Also on view is the live stage show commissioned by Theatre Monnot to precede the film, and as yet unseen in the UK.
‘I Married the Angel of the North’ is a fusion of contemporary North East music, poetry and dance performed by The Creels, and the play’s author and poet Peter Mortimer. The book I Married the Angel of the North is published by Five Leaves.

Monday, 13 February 2012

This Bed Thy Centre is a novel about sex...

"This Bed Thy Centre is a novel about sex. Set in a south London suburb - down-at-heel, but up-and-coming - in the 1930s, it is a reminder of why a permissive society, whatever its drawbacks, is better than the other kind," writes Zoe Fairbairns in her introduction to the new Five Leaves' edition of Pamela Hasford Johnson's first novel, published in our New London Editions imprint. The book will be available later this month, but meantime you can read Zoe's full introduction on the London Fictions website: http://www.londonfictions.com/pamela-hansford-johnson-this-bed-thy-centre.html.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Happy birthday, Charlie Dickens

Hi Charlie, we've not been in touch since I was a teenager when I read a lot of your books, but I do promise to read Bleak House this year. People tell me it is terribly good. I hope you don't mind, on this, your birthday, telling you that we're doing a big book on London fiction next year and, well, there's no easy way of putting it - you're not in it. Yes, yes, I know you know London like the back of your hand, all those twelve mile walks and everything. It is just that you are a wee bit early for us in time, and possibly a teensy-weensy bit over-exposed. Anyway, what could we say that Simon and Claire haven't said already? Did you see Simon, by the way, on The One Show? He did look embarrassed.
You will know some of the contributors though, as we start with George Gissing, and he wrote a book about you. What did you think of it? His novel Nether World is the earliest book we discuss but I think you'd recognise your London pretty much in other material from that century, Child of the Jago for example.
I don't know how much you keep up with modern London literature, have you read Brick Lane or White Teeth? They were pretty big a few years ago. I'll let you know later when we have a publication date. And good luck with all your events this year.

Monday, 6 February 2012

States of Independence 3

Free of charge 10.30am - 4.30pm Open to all
Clephan Building, De Montfort University, Oxford Street, Leicester LE1 5XY
Bookstalls Workshops Readings Panels Seminars Book launches
Independent presses Regional writers Literary agents
Fiction Non-fiction Poetry Plays Artist books Magazines Journals
25+ events, cafe, all day book fair

Independent publishing, independent writing, independent thinking

Organised and funded by Five Leaves Publications and the Creative Writing Team at De Montfort University

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The shock of the new (bookshops)

Here's a few new bookshops of various kinds, all within the Five Leaves orbit, and all recommended. The first is a specialist internet supplier for print and eBooks related to Spain. Book4Spain stocks our Spanish/Catalan list, being only a small selection of their specialist and popular books on all things Spanish:http://books4spain.com/. The latest radical bookshop, Hydra in Bristol is now open. Not been there yet, though met some of the organisers a couple of times when they were planning the shop. Definitely in the radical sector - http://books4spain.com/. I've felt for ages that Glasgow did not have enough bookshops, so good luck to Oswald Street Bookshop (http://oswaldstreetbookshop.co.uk/). The shop specialises in all things Scottish, including Yachting Pilots for the whole of the country (now there's a specialism), and has just ordered copies of all our books by Scottish writers. Finally, in that other Celtic country, the Penrallt Gallery Bookshop is now open in Machynlleth, run by a couple of old friends from Nottingham.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

This week in books

Like any job, publishing is full of small bits of unexciting detailed work that builds to a fulfilling life at the cutting edge of literature. That, at least, is what I keep telling myself when doing those bits of unexciting, detailed work. Not that I mind packing parcels for Amazon, a task so skilled that it can only be done by senior management at Five Leaves PLC. This week, however, has been exciting. On Tuesday I spent seven or eight happy hours on trains working on the first edit of Russel D McLean's next, third, novel, Father Confessor. We've already announced the book, signed a contract, designed the cover... and it is always a relief when manuscripts live up to their expectations. No slashing and burning required. In an earlier McLean manuscript I'd had fun tracking the route of every gun through the book as a shoot-out at the end seemed to have one firearm too many. No superfluous firearms in this book but it's still bloody dangerous to live in Dundee. McLean fans will be happy.
On the journey back, David Belbin's forthcoming Student lasted from Carlisle to Alfreton. This was my third read of the book, following some editorial changes by the author. There had been an interesting issue as one, now changed, chapter had previously included a lot of action around Second Life. How do you manage to make a novel about students read as current, when aspects of their behaviour pass so quickly? Nobody now uses MySpace, how many people have even heard of Second Life? Whatever students do now, or terms they use, will be out of date by publication date, which is challenging for authors and publishers.
The big local news is the new book of short stories by Jon McGregor, reviewed everywhere the last few days - This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. One of the stories appeared earlier in the Five Leaves' anthology, Sea of Azov, so we can marginally bask in the acclaim. At the launch Jon revealed that if he'd had his way the book would have been called (I think it was) "I Bought You a Shovel". His publisher, Bloomsbury, thankfully squashed that idea, but wittily and usefully sent him a snow shovel as a present on publication day, so that the sender could add a note saying "I bought you a shovel".
The same evening author Rebecca Buck and editor Victoria Oldham from the American-based lesbian and gay publisher Bold Strokes were giving a talk at Nottingham Writers Studio on their experience writing for and editing a mid-size publishing house. It was hard not to regret the loss of so many of our lesbian and gay publishing houses, Sheba, Brilliance, GMP, Oscar's... when hearing how successful Bold Strokes are, and how mainstream they are too, being stocked in major bookstores. Here there is no discrimination against lesbian and gay writers being successful - think Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Carol Ann Duffy - but outside of Gay's the Word you will rarely see lesbian and gay books in any quantity or labelled as such.
Bold Strokes will be at our States of Independence day in Leicester on March 17 and this week the programme went on line at http://www.statesofindependence.co.uk/. I'll post later about States, but if you are withing striking, or stroking, distance of Leicester do make a date. In short it is a free book festival in a day, with seventy writers taking part, with its roots in the independent publishing sector.
This was the week the programme had to be finalised for Lowdham Book Festival's winter weekend, held over the first weekend in March. And it has, though it is not yet on line. The theme of the winter weekend is Local Heroes, and it includes an evening with the film-maker Billy Ivory as the highlight. Lowdham's winter weekends have always been on a more intimate scale than the summer festival (intimate being code for smaller), which suits us just fine. The date, for those who follow all things Lowdham, is, however, the usual date for our Flicks in the Sticks film weekend. Well, after ten years Flicks has gone dark. It may return, we hope so, but ten years was a good run and frees up some time to develop our winter mini-festival in the future. Lowdham also now runs a "First Friday" lecture series, with one of our regular speakers, Mike Wilson, yesterday having to cover the whole of Dickens' life and work in a hour. Easy, given his last challenge was to cover the whole of English Literature in an hour...
The week closed with National Libraries Day. That is something. Last year there were dozens of protest actions (including one organised by Five Leaves and UNISON) about library cutbacks, but the day has morphed into a day to celebrate libraries - and protest where necessary. Our local Nottingham Post included a good article in support of libraries, with short interviews with me from Five Leaves and our writers David Belbin and John Stuart Clark (the cartoonist Brick), together with some national figures including the ubiquitous Stephen Fry.
Except the week is not over yet. There are many emails to get through and - hurrah - tomorrow night the next order from Amazon arrives, telling me exactly which books I'll be packing on Monday morning. I'm looking forward to it already.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Becoming a Five Leaves writer

Five Leaves is pretty clear on unsolicited manuscripts. Our website says we are not looking for submissions. Despite this, we receive one, two or three pitches a day. Several hundred a year. Of these, some are clearly sent, scattergun, to every email address the sender can find. Others are from people who've carefully examined our list (although not noticed the note on submissions) and even some who have read some Five Leaves' books (we are grateful). A few have seen the submissions note but write "I see from your website that you don't normally accept unsolicited submissions, but..." Sorry, no buts.
Why don't we look at unsolicited manuscripts? Bloodaxe does, for example, and in consequence it receives - according to the firm's website - getting on for 100 submissions every week from new writers, say 5,000 a year, only one or two of whom will be taken on. God knows how they manage to check through them. And that is one reason we are not keen - we do not have the staff to go through the unsolicited work.
How then do we recruit new writers? Are they all friends, a clique? Well, we could survive happily taking on no new writers. Existing writers on our list have a habit of writing more than one book. We don't, contractually, tie people down and some of our writers have gone elsewhere, somewhere bigger, or somewhere more appropriate with their other work. Good luck to them. But some writers are now on their second, third... eighth book with us and that leaves little room. Most of the books we publish are commissioned. We might think of an idea, and find the right person to right it. Thus we commissioned Mark Patterson to write Roman Nottinghamshire - we'd been looking for a writer, and luckily for him he wrote a piece in Nottinghamshire Today, which had just the right tone. We approach writers whose work we like. We'd noticed that Naomi Jaffa had been publishing some good poems over the years in good poetry magazines but had not published a pamphlet or a book. We asked her. I attended a talk by Michael Billig on Jews in rock'n'roll - I asked him if he would write a book on the subject for us... and so it goes on. Our historic reprints are another matter as we usually ask around for suggestions, from people expert in the areas we are interested in. Beat material, working class fiction, utopian social history, London novels. Sometimes things just develop. Some years ago we published an anthology of East Midlands' young adult fiction writers... one of the stories by Berlie Doherty became the novel A Beautiful Place for a Murder, published by us, another story by David Belbin will form part of his book Student, due out this year and we have republished a novel by one of the other contributors, with another pending. Our next poetry pamphlet, Oxygen Man by Joanne Limburg, is by someone who appeared some years ago in our anthology Passionate Renewal, where we printed substantial sections of her work. Later this year we are picking up a book by Bali Rai, whose agent represents several of the young adult writers on our list, and through them we've got to know Bali. But our favourite anecdote was that J. David Simons joined our list through my starting reading his first novel in an in-law's bathroom. This led to a mention of the book in a blog entry, then to some correspondence, then to attending a reading by him, and a conversation where he was encouraged to write along a particular line, and the consequent book, and his first one, are now Five Leaves. The in-law is now thinking of putting in a special shelf. Two of our writers this year - both writing on jazz - came to us by recommendation by another publisher, but we knew Peter Vacher and Chris Searle's work already. And so it goes on.
Getting on Five Leaves' list is the most inexact science. It's not fair, but publishing a book is a bit investment of our time and our money, which will often result in much more time being spent and a loss of money (in publishing, the story goes that 80% of books make a loss) so it seems to work best when we have, somehow, built a relationship with a writer, or admire their work, or have come to them by serendipity. Wading through submissions does not do it for us.
So my advice to all potential writers is to get out more; get yourself noticed, write for small magazines, turn up at readings, give talks, don't be a hermit. But also, don't scare off publishers by being demanding or needy. Don't forget to stay in more too - reading the books you have bought or borrowed. Good writers are good readers.