Sunday, 30 December 2012

Books of the year, not published by Five Leaves

This is the third year I've posted my top ten books of the year. This has no particular link to Five Leaves as, of course, our own books are excluded but, in the welcome absence of a personal blog this site will do. Having said there is no link to Five Leaves, I doubt I'd have read so many books to do with Soviet Jewish history this year if it had not been for the Five Leaves' commemoration of Soviet Yiddish writers held in the summer. Top ten out of how many? I have, this year, read 61 books (compared to 64 last year and 61 the previous year). I'm not sure if that is a lot - back in bookselling days I would read about 100 books a year but reading, editing, re-reading, second editing, proof-reading etc Five Leaves titles takes up a lot of time out of reading for pleasure, in addition to what sometimes appears to be an unstoppable flow of magazines and newspapers coming into the house and office. I exclude short collections of poetry from the numbers as I do book length spined journals though each can take as much time as a "normal" book. But what the heck. Here's the list. They are not in order of preference and most were not published in 2012.

The Heather Blazing, fiction by Colm Toibin (Picador)
Adrian Mole - the prostrate years, fiction by Sue Townsend (Penguin)
Soviet and Kosher: Jewish popular culture in the Soviet Union 1923-1939 by Anna Shternshis (Indiana)
Heavy Sand, fiction by Anatoli Rybakov (Viking)
Bundist Counterculture in Interwar Poland by Jack Jacobs (Syracuse)
The Old Ways, travel meditations by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)
Moscow 1937 by Karl Schlogel (Polity)
Autonomy, the cover designs of Anarchy magazine by David Poyner (Hyphen Press)
Singing Men, short stories by Derek Gregory (Iron Press)
Jerusalem: chronicles from the Holy City, a graphic travel/politics book by Guy Delisle (Chatto)

Eight out of ten this year were by male writers, half were from independent presses. There were a few books I read that disappointed, including the most recent Ian McEwan. I don't think I read enough fiction this year but I will give an hon mensh to Anne Zaroudi, Stephen Booth and Sam Bourne for their latest crime/thriller novels and Alison Moore whose The Lighthouse was the small press success story of the year.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Five Leaves year so far

Since the Mayan calendar got it wrong about the end of the world it is worth writing an end of year report from Five Leaves Towers. OK the year is not ended but all that remains is to read, correct and edit a pile of manuscripts for next year... Appropriately the last act dealing with current books was to pack up our last ten copies of Maps for the London Review Bookshop and order another reprint of our surprise best seller from 2011, which continues to run and run, not least at the LRB. This year's journal, Utopia, is selling, though not in such quantities but we know of some reviews coming up that will help. Not that we're dissatisfied.
Utopia was one of fifteen new titles this year, and there was a new edition of Beneath the Blue Sky, our memoir of Traveller life in the 1960s. This has not been an easy year for me, personally, having to spend a lot of time in Scotland on family business which has put pressure on the firm. Despite that - and a big addition to our workload because of the rise of ebooks - we had only one casualty for the year with Chris Searle's jazz book Red Groove being held over until next year. Sorry, Chris! Of all our writers he's likely to be the most understanding as he has a long history of involvement with the small press world. The work is written, only needing editing and picture research (and typesetting and design...).
Ebooks have been the big story of the year nationally and parochially. Our worker Pippa Hennessy has turned twenty of our titles into ebooks. Indeed she has become something of an expert in this, giving talks and workshops to other groups. Our ebook of Michael Malone's Blood Tears became our best-selling title, with around 5,000 sold as an ebook, with a further 1,000 in print. As an experiment we offered the ebook free and 18,000 copies were downloaded with interest continuing as the book was priced. It is now obvious though that only some books will sell at all in ebooks. NOT poetry, which we knew really. Genre fiction does best - but we are very interested in the new Kindle Fire and have plans to exploit this as much as possible with some books in due course, with video, high definition colour, hyper links. This will certainly be part of the future for, for example, our books on landscape. But that's coming.
The tie up with Kindle - ie Amazon - is not one we are too pleased with, given Amazon's reluctance to pay tax. Save for some good young adult fiction sales through the American company Overdrive near 100% of our ebook sales have been through Kindle. Though Kobo, Sony and Nook are trying to get into the market we can expect Kindle/Amazon to dominate for some time to come. But hey - look what happened to Starbucks! This has also been our first full year supplying Amazon direct following complaints about availability. The terms are awful - 60% discount - to secure good availability, but now one third of our trade sales are through Amazon and sales continue to rise. We would prefer people to buy from their local independent bookshop, but we are realistic. But if you do buy online try Foyles. They often beat Amazon on price. Our current best seller at Amazon - Talking Green - is £7.19. Over at Foyles online the book costs £5.99. And Foyles is an independent.
The other full year of... was of central buying by Waterstones. By central buying we mean one or two people being the buyers for subjects, for every shop in the country. We have benefited from this in Scotland where the chain has really backed Michael Malone and our other Scottish crime writer Russel McLean (his third book, Father Confessor did well this year) but elsewhere we can find a book is a great seller for us but Waterstones buy in a handful or even no copies whatsoever. In the past some of their shops did well for us, some OK, some badly - fine, that's how things should be as locally the staff know their customers and vary in their interests. All gone. Such concentrated power is not good for publishers, for writers, for readers - or for Waterstones. On the other hand there are some great independents out there, and we need to do more with them. Meantime we've struggled a bit with young adult fiction, not least due to cutbacks in school and public libraries. We've produced three great books this year by David Belbin, Bali Rai and Pauline Chandler - none exactly unknown in the young adult world - but sales have not been great.
Two books have been reprinted within weeks of publication, Andy Croft's 1948 (our contribution to Olympic mania) and Colin Ward's Talking Green. Why? In both cases they were Nicholas Lezard's paperback of the week in The Guardian. We bow down in front of him. Actually, the day Ward was in the paper every paperback under review save one was from an indie publisher. We were thrilled that five out of six books on the Booker list this year were from indies, three of them being from small independents and one being from a Nottingham author. Well done indies, well done Alison Moore for her book with Salt, The Lighthouse.
I won't list all the books we have published this year - the blog would be too long, but all appear on our website at and have been covered in earlier postings on the blog. Those writers not mentioned have not been confined to oblivion and we appreciate them (so don't get grumpy if you have not been mentioned).
Outside of straightforward publishing it was a busy year, as always. Because of family commitments, though I mostly programmed Lowdham Book Festival's winter weekend, I had to drop out of organising the main festival. Five Leaves main contribution was in Pippa designing the programme and other publicity material. Our other projects were not affected - States of Independence in Leicester (a one day celebration of independent publishing) was a great day, and there is now a set of such events - Birmingham, Sheffield, the Poetry Book Fair in London. We had stalls at all, with our many writers appearing too. The Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing was duly established, with the winner being David Graeber's book Debt. Bread and Roses has been well covered in this blog, as have our Teenage Kicks Derbyshire event for young adults and young adult writers, and the international commemoration of the Yiddish writers murdered on August 12 1952. 150 people came to our half-day event of speeches, readings and music and the launch of our From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish writing 1917-1952. Finally, unless I have forgotten something, Pippa took the lead in relaunching Beeston Poets with Jackie Kay, Neil Astley and Andy Croft as readers for the first season. All our projects are with outside partners - The Bookcase in Lowdham, the Creative Writing Team at De Montfort University, the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, Derbsyshire Libraries, Jewish Music Institute, Nottinghamshire Libraries and Nottingham Poetry Society. Best friends.
It will never be easy being a small publisher. But in the year that Random merged with Penguin, that Tindall Street merged with Serpent's Tail/Profile that we are still here, still publishing and still enthusiastic is worth mentioning. 2012 has been a tough year financially and personally but there are some things to be proud of. But we won't be publishing any Mayan calendars - their fact checkers are so poor.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

David Birkett on Utopia


David Birkett is an old publishing colleague. Indeed, back when Five Leaves was a rather junior twig he was part of Troika, a repping agency for Five Leaves and many other independents. He moved on to Zed Press, then Capuchin Classics/Stacey before taking a turn at the other side of the counter as a bookseller in Hitchin. He also runs a book blog, from which this is lifted, by permission:

I've just read Utopia, kindly provided by Five Leaves Publishing for this review. This Nottingham-based press has a diverse list, but among its specialities are books which discuss the relationship between people, societies and the land (particularly from the perspective of progressive politics) and Jewish studies.  You have to love a publisher with Rock 'n Roll Jews in its backlist.

It is no surprise, then, that Utopia's main focus is on how relatively small communities have articulated and attempted to realise various concepts of a fair and just society.  These communities include the Moravians, various Back to the Land settlements in Essex, Israeli Kibbutzim and the radical Liverpool bookshop, News from Nowhere.

The book, following its 2011 predecessor, Maps, comprises a number of articles by various authors, with old, new and archive material mixed happily together.  The News from Nowhere chapter is for me, (perhaps because of my bookselling proclivities) the most remarkable and inspiring, describing as it does the phenomenal courage, indomitable persistence and commendable idealism of the various personnel who have guided this outlet from the humblest of beginnings to its present status as a flagship institution in the city, never having sacrificed their principles en route.  My jaw grew ever slacker as I read about how the Nowhere people struggled against financial crises, environmental problems and - most alarmingly - physical attacks by extreme right-wing thugs.  The necessity to clear up after arson attacks, secure and remove steel shutters around a building and sleep on the premises to fend off further raids rather puts my reluctance to tidy the Transport section into perspective.

This is not to say that Utopia neglects the theoretical and ruminative aspects of it subject. The first essay - Let's Talk Utopia, by Mike Marqusee, is a clarion call to the effect that only by striving for better and even ideal societies can we make progress, and Utopias of the Nineteenth Century, by Marie Louise Berneri, is an older piece which, with an admirable combination of erudition and readability, maps out the scope and limitations of the relevant philosophers and social commentators from that era.

In fact, one of the great strengths of this book is the variety in tone, style and genre of its constituent parts, ranging from scholarly pieces, exceptional travel writing (Homeland by Chris Moss), songs and poetry, with not a dud piece of writing among them.  As with any good anthology, there are charming little outcrops of fact and anecdote: Shelley being shot at by deranged Welshmen; the word 'nostalgia' having been coined 'in order to identify the mental condition of Swiss Guards separated from their homeland' and an offhand reference by Macaulay about an envisaged future New Zealand tourist viewing the remains of London Bridge becoming a common trope in nineteenth-century literature.

My utopian version of this book would have included an index, but I was thoroughly satisfied, stimulated and educated nonetheless.

Monday, 10 December 2012

New from Five Leaves, Mixed Messages by Peter Vacher

Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories

From journeymen musicians to stars with many albums to their name, Mixed Messages includes interviews with 21 American jazz musicians – on music, mostly, but the world intrudes, as it does with the best of jazz music.

The musicians range from the late trombonist Louis Nelson, who was born in 1902, through the New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis, who is still playing and on to Byron Stripling, who plays trumpet with his Columbus Jazz Orchestra. Peter Vacher has been interviewing American jazz players since the 1950s and this is his second collection of interviews. As well as Nelson, Marsalis and Stripling this book includes interviews with Norman 'Dewey' Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George 'Buster' Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr., Carl 'Ace' Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, John Eckert, Houston Pearson Jr., Tom Artin, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield IV, Judy Carmichael and Tardo Hammer.
Mixed Messages is lavishly illustrated with rare and original photographs and will be of interest to any serious follower of jazz. The book is large format, 315 pages - you get a lot of book for your money.
Peter Vacher knows just about everybody in the jazz world. His interviews and articles have appeared throughout the English-speaking world, including in the Melody MakerJazz UK and CODA. His previous book of interviews is Soloists and Sidemen (Northway). He also writes too many obituaries of jazz musicians for The Guardian.
Copies of the book will be in bookshops very shortly, but are available meantime from

New from Five Leaves, London E1 by Robert Poole

London E1

I have yet to find out who suggested this book for our New London Editions series. All the usual suspects say it was not them, so who was it who found this otherwise completely forgotten book? London E1 was first published by Secker in 1961. There was one review as far as we know, in the Yorkshire Post by Anthony Burgess, taking time off, perhaps from writing A Clockwork Orange. Did the book sell well? We don't know. But two years later Robert died, probably from an accidental overdose of painkillers. There had been talk of another book but all trace has vanished and Robert and London E1 slipped from public memory. Robert Poole was born a few yards from Brick Lane, the setting of this novel. He described his education as "practically nil". His later life included service in the Navy, various dead-end jobs and the Merchant Navy. He jumped ship, changed his name and became a broadcaster in New Zealand before being caught and deported. His last known job was running a Bingo stall in Margate.
What makes London E1 interesting is that the book was set in Brick Lane before, during and after WWII. The Jews were leaving and new settlers were moving in, "the Indians". The young "Jimmy Wilson" had an awful life of poverty and violence, but was fascinated by the white woman Peggy, a prostitute who worked with the Indians, and her mixed race daughter Pinkie who show him the possibility of escape from his family and his limited horizons. I can't think of any other novel that describes that changing world, written so close to the time by one who was there.
As a result of a couple of earlier blog mentions of Robert Poole Five Leaves is now in touch with some of his relatives and we expect some will join the broadcaster Alan Dein and Rachel Lichtenstein (who has written a foreword to the book) in discussing the book on Tuesday January 29th, 6.30pm at the Brick Lane Bookshop. Everybody is welcome. There will be refreshments from 6.30 with the event running from 7.00-8.30 or so. Please email if you would like to attend. In the meantime copies of London E1 are available from now, or from Brick Lane and other bookshops later this week.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

We are the Romans...

Five Leaves' Roman Nottinghamshire by Mark Patterson is up for the cup, or, to be more exact, has been shortlisted for the Current Archaeology Book of Year. This is one of those awards that depend on public votes. We disapprove in general as it depends on the Mark Pattersons of this world having large families and larger fan clubs. But there you go - we've voted, and we ask you to vote as well at . There's an interesting research project of the year award too, involving the Iceni run by some folks from Nottingham University. Feel free to lob them a vote too.
Roman Nottinghamshire has turned into something of a hit for us. The book was reprinted a few weeks after publication and has been reprinted again, with a short afterword. We've also been able to correct a quote wrongly attributed... we had not realised there were at least two people working in the same field here with the same name, a bit like the two Duncan Campbells who used to work for The Guardian, with the same writing interests. We'd love to do a full new edition as there has been a glut of new information on Roman Nottinghamshire. People connected with some of the interesting characters involved in local archaeology mentioned in the book have also been in touch. That will have to wait until 2014, and come out alongside a book on Roman Derbyshire, currently being written by Mark. You can order the book here: Dinarii accepted.

Foreign Office, Peter Mortimer, Camp Shatila and Five Leaves


I’ve blogged previously about our work with the Palestinian veterans who fought with us in World War II, and questions of history and justice.
Today is the Day of International Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Attention will rightly be focused on New York, where – just as Israel did in 1948 – Palestine is making its case to the UN for statehood. Whatever Ministers decide is our position, some will be disappointed. The key point though is that the UK approach has been guided throughout by the principle that we want to maximise the chance of the creation of a viable Palestine, living in security alongside Israel.
But far from the halls of the UN, I wanted to use Solidarity Day to highlight the Shatila Theatre Trust’s programme of artistic collaboration between British artists and the Palestinians of Shatila camp in Lebanon, and their artistic director Peter Mortimer’s new book ‘Camp Shatila’, which is full of insights from his time spent living and working in the camp. I met Peter and his ebullient and talented colleagues today. They are Brits doing brilliant work on the ground, showing real solidarity with camp residents whose story is as troubled as any in the region.
Beyond this, our team here are part of a sustained wider effort with the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, the UN and Palestinian partners to improve the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, to prevent crisis and resolve conflict. As more and more Syrian refugees arrive, we should also remind ourselves that this situation cannot be permanent. After a wasted decade, we have to put our shoulder to the wheel of a just two-state solution. I hope that will be the real conclusion of the vote in New York, and of our solidarity.