Discounted Till We Die

We can't carry on lifing in a Bargain BasementI’m just on the train back from a very interesting (if you are a publisher) Q&A session with James Daunt of Daunt Books and Waterstones (I really miss that apostrophe) fame. In it I learnt three things that got me thinking about the way that we, as publishers, approach publishing, and have come to the conclusion that we may be doing it Poorly.

What follows is a short summary of those three points, followed swiftly by my horribly utopian vision of a better way of doing things (perhaps). I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this, so please do give them to me through comments below, or via Twitter (@robbieguillory). Continue reading

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Last week, Freight Books read…

After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie WyldAfter the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld (Vintage). There are many covers to the book, but I think this is my favourite, especially for the way it ties in with my favourite book of 2013. This is Wyld’s first book, and it has made me inconceivably content because it proves that All The Birds, Singing was not a one-off, and Wyld will be writing many more excellent books in the years to come. ‘Prove it,’ you say, and so I shall.

‘At least he’s getting out of the house, chicken,’ his mother said to him as they watched his father lope down the street, away from them, his towelled bread held tightly to his body. He would go out until lunchtime and then come back, so that his mother could run her fingers through his hair, straighten his collar and sit him down for a sandwich or a piece of cake. After lunch he would go out again, mumbling something about looking for work, but the work was never found, and with Leon running the place they had no need of extra money anyway. When his father returned he’d be wobbly and thick-mouthed, looking at his tea as though it were dangerous, picking and sorting through the food rather than eating it. Then the routine became worn and thin in the middle so he returned later and later for lunch, glassy-eyed and drunk, and then not at all, only for supper, when he would be anxiously and darkly stared at by his wife, and he’d look at the floor, his eyes as wide as they could open, his breath hard in the back of his throat. Those nights he had to be herded up to bed by Leon’s mother and she said quietly, ‘hp, hup,’ as they climbed the stairs. Leon watched out of the corner of his eye as his mother touched his father’s face, only to have him flinch away; then her sad look made him pat her hand, but quickly like she would burn him.

This is a long extract, but I wanted to reproduce it in full because it exemplifies one of the crowning features of this novel, and that is the treatment of PTSD in the novel. The novel covers the Korean War and the Vietnam war, which many Australians were dragged into through aggressive recruitment and conscription. We are shown how a community attempts to reabsorb those damaged by the conflict, to begin to heal, only to be confronted with yet another war, and yet another generation of men coming back without a sense of place. This part of the novel is concentrated on Leon, the son of Jewish refugees, whose father is a wonderfully skilled baker. Descriptions of making sugarwork into wedding figurines are worth savouring.

The second story thread running through the novel is that of Frank, a man broken by childhood trauma, who can find solace (or something close to it) in solitude. He escapes  to his dead grandparent’s house, surrounded by sugarcane and scrub, and attempts, slowly, to rebuild his life. Naturally, this proves difficult. I really don’t want to give away anything, because this novel deserves to be read fresh, as a debut from an hitherto unknown author.

So all I will say is this: both strains of this story are utterly necessary and utterly brilliant.

Ciao!

So, you haven’t heard from me (Robbie) in a while, because I’ve been on holiday, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t seeking out interesting gobbets of information to feed you with, one of which to follow. I’ve also got reviews up my sleeve for a whole plethora of books, including Evie Wyld’s debut novel, Judith Schalansky’s The Giraffe’s Neck, and the 1180 page epic tome by Michael Schmidt, The Novel, A Biography (I admit, I haven’t read it all yet, but I will make that clear) and many others that I can’t bring to mind at this moment. For now, though, let me tell you about an Italian publisher who is doing something rather special.

Beautiful sea urchin

There are a lot of sea urchins in Italy (I think this is a different species, however)

Whilst I was on my version of the Italian Grand Tour (going to as few places as possible, and only if they are very quiet) I came across a bookshop, and being of a mothlike bookish persuasion I was drawn inescapably in, even though I struggle to find enough Italian to ask for a glass of white wine. Inside I saw a lot of books, some of which I liked the look of and some that I didn’t, but one particular imprint caught my eye for three reasons: they were brightly-coloured enough for my sun befuddled eyes to be able to see them clearly, they were by ‘canonical’ authors I could recognise easily, and they were cheap. Seriously cheap, and for reasons I will go into in the following paragraph-but-one I will tell you why this is praiseworthy, and why it should be held up as an example to the publishers of so-called classic literature in this country. But before I do that I should give you a picture of one of these books, because so far all I’ve given you is a sea urchin, and tell you a bit about the publisher (I only know a bit).

Dante's Divine ComedyNewton Compton Editori may not seem like the most Italian of names (without the helpful Editori, anyway) but it is Italian through and through, having been started by a Vittorio Avanzini in Rome in the 60s. NC is primarily interested in publishing classic fiction, but have recently moved into contemporary translations, which we thoroughly approve of. They produce two forms of Classic – their paperback, which sells at 1.90€ (about £1.50) and a hardback (3.90€ // £3.10). They have only just put up the prices on their paperbacks, so if you fly out quick you can still swipe copies for only 99 cents (like I did).

Oscar Wilde's the Importance of Being ErnestThe reason I feel like this is noteworthy is that these books are not poorly made, are not going to discolour in a week (I’m looking at you, £2 Penguin Popular Classics). I tested my paperback copy of Bulgakov’s Cuore di Cane in Italy by leaving it in the baking sun whilst taking my siesta, holding it in my armpit whilst walking along the sea wall of the port, and it also spent quite some time lightly folded over in the bottom of my bag on the flight home, where it came out looking pretty healthy. What I am alluding to here is that Classic can be cheap (more on this in a moment) and well made, because you will sell hunners of them so they can be printed in bulk, which reduces the cost of production massively. Flaubet's Madame BovaryRight, cost. I have talked about this in passing before, but this gives me the opportunity to have a good rant. For many of the cannonical classics there is no living author, and often no rights either. Thus, if I wanted to, I could typeset, print, bind and sell a copy of Great Expectations tomorrow and wouldn’t have to pay anyone (If I did all the production). So how is it that companies (Cambridge Modern Classics and Penguin Classics being the big players here) can rationalise a £9.99 price tag (going all the way up to around £17 in some cases) for a book where there is no advance or royalty needing covered?

Bulgakov's Master and MargheritaNow of course, occasionally you will change the cover, or order a new translation, or even deign to actually pay an academic to write a forward, but largely these texts haven’t changes for decades. Just imagine the money being taken, and (in my opinion) taken unfairly.

978-88-541-6972-2I would like to hear any defense of the extortionate prices involved for out of copyright text, so if you have one please let me hear it. I have heard it said that a cheap classic will put people off buying modern fiction, but it just doesn’t wash with me, because what is on offer is a completely different experience.

Last week, Freight Books read…

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi KawakamiStrange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami (trans. Allison Markin Powell), published by Portobello books.

What a beautiful novel! A funny, ethereal and above all heartfelt love story between two isolated people. Strange Weather in Tokyo was shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize and could quite easily have won it, in my book. My only criticism (and it isn’t really one) is that it was too easy to read; I flashed through it in a matter of days, buoyed on by an expertly crafted strain of will-they-won’t-they authorship. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan BlasimThe Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press), translated by Jonathan Wright. On the day the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is due to be announced, I finally finished The Iraqi Christ, which is shortlisted (edit: and has now won it). This takes my total to three of the six shortlisted titles (and I am just starting on Strange Weather in Tokyo). I have no idea who will win, so instead I should probably talk about The Iraqi Christ instead.

This is a fine collection of short stories by a clearly talented author. Dark, twisted, often fantastical and self-referential, they carry a wonderfully wry strain of humour that matches the often macabre settings we are treated to. The experiences carried in the novel are not exclusive to war torn Iraq; we are also taken to Europe and the experience of Iraqi-as-refugee. I enjoyed these stories the most because the sense of alienation, isolation and disconnect was really tangible. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

In Times of Fading Light by Eugen RugeIn Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (Faber), translated by Anthea Bell. This book won the German Book Prize (before it was translated, naturally), but for some reason missed out on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. It is a novel of strands, charting the life of one East German family from the establishment of the German Democratic Republic through to the modern day. We flip backwards and forwards between the generations, starting with the Grandson, Alexander, who is visiting his ailing father Kurt, and then flitting backwards and forwards in time to visit each generation throughout that half century. Continue reading

On eBooks and pBooks

First off, I’d like to apologise for my use of pBook in the title. I could take it away, but I won’t, because it is an experiment on whether it works as a term. I heard it last month at the Publishing Scotland conference, where it fell from the mouth of Faber CEO Stephen Page—

 

pBook

.

And there it lay, quivering as if with a silent mocking laughter. And we took it, folks. We just nodded our heads as if to say, ‘Oh of course, everyone says pBooks these days, we know exactly what you are on about.’ And then, if the rest of the delegates were anything like me, we all felt rather ashamed. Because it is pretty awful, isn’t it? Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

An Atlas of Remote Islands (and Pocket version, right), by Judith Schalansky and translated by Christine Lo (Particular Books, Penguin).

When I woke up this morning I was worried, because I had no translation to review today. Indeed, I had nothing to review (I’m halfway through three books, which is a situation I hate being in, and other options for review are awaiting a blog post I will be writing tomorrow) whatsoever. Then our extremely cheerful postman arrived with the book on the left, and a feature that I had been planning for next week suddenly became possible. Hey, it is even a translation – perfection is a chance discovery. Continue reading

The Bookseller’s Dozen #3

Continuing our monthly feature of Scottish independent bookshops.

The Watermill Bookshop is found in a beautiful converted oatmeal mill in Aberfeldy. They were awarded UK Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2009. As well as books they also  sell music, food and drink in the café, and next door is an affiliated homewear shop. What more could you want? An exhibition to have a look around? They also have an art gallery. The Watermill’s latest venture is Film of the Book, where they host the screening of adaptations at the local cinema. On the 20th of May it will be Brighton Rock.

The Watermill Bookshop 2Bookshop: The Watermill Bookshop, Café & Gallery

Owner: Kevin Ramage

Location: Aberfeldy – a lovely place just 90 minutes from Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Open Since: 1995

How did you get into bookselling?

It’s a long story. Let’s say gamekeeper turned poacher. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

Pig's Foot by Carlos AcostaPig’s Foot, by Carlos Acosta (Bloomsbury Publishing), translated by Frank Wynne. Pig’s Foot is a temporal traipse through the history of Cuba. The narrator, Oscar Mandinga, leads us through the four-generation family history of Pata de Puerco (guess what this translates to), a Macondo-like slave village in Cuba’s deep south.

This is a rather remarkable debut novel, clearly a labour of love, which describes the landscape and, above all, people of Cuba in delicious technicolour. The currents of bloody revolution that flow around this little village, the changes that occur, and the wonderfully-drawn characters that inhabit it, all add up to a rich and satisfying meal. Continue reading