Category Archives: fictional publishers

Flip books unite alternative fact and fiction

At the beginning of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, Henry introduces the concept of the flip book: ‘a book with two front doors, but no exit’. The fiction will start at one end and the non-fiction essay at the other.

Meeting with his publishers at the London Book Fair, he is told that his idea for such a book on the Holocaust had not gone down well: ‘Henry was in high spirits. He thought they were a wedding party. In fact, they were a firing squad’. The book will not fit in the bookshop; readers will not understand; they keep asking ‘what is your book about?’

The group of publishers, supported by an academic and a bookseller, agree: ‘the idea of the flip book was an annoying distraction, besides being commercial suicide. The whole was a complete, unpublishable failure’.

In the current climate where alternative facts are more than ever confused with fake news and fictional events, perhaps some publishers will think again about the flip book and its possible place in explaining politics, history and current affairs.

Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil, 2010

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Mr Big Nose, our publisher

I have been sent a couple of pages of The 13-Storey Treehouse, one of which contains a picture of Mr Big Nose, a publisher who is demanding his book from the hapless authors.

They make the following observation.

We were a little behind schedule. Well when I say ‘a little behind schedule’, I mean a lot behind schedule. And when I say ‘a lot behind schedule’, I mean a LOT LOT LOT behind schedule.

As authors meet their publishers this week at London Book Fair, one can imagine many such encounters. Let’s hope the publishers are more understanding than Mr Big Nose.

 

Andy Griffiths (author) and Terry Denton (illustrator), The 13-Storey Treehouse, 2015

Getting published may be easier for some

Some novels clearly state that they are about publishing, and Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is one of them. At one point it covers the evaluation process for new manuscripts untaken by the hero, Paul Dukach, in his first job.

“Manuscripts from literary agents would show up in neat gray or powder-blue boxes on his pockmarked old school desk, or in battered manila envelopes if they were coming from writers without representation, and he’d read through them with the requisite show-me detachment. In 90 percent of the case, you could tell within a page or two whether the writer could write. Ninety percent of the time, box or no box, he or she could not.”

You have to wonder if Muse, written by the longtime president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, went through the same critical process. Certainly the paperback edition contains glowing reviews from all parts of the New York publishing scene, something that isn’t much echoed in the reader reviews available on the internet. When it comes to choosing which books to publish, the platform and influence of the author may be more important than the young Paul Dukach thinks.

Jonathan Galas, Muse, 2015

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I apprehend caducity

“I apprehend caducity” says Bennett in Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a book that shows us different aspects of ageing.

The cast of older people write and read books, and they are not always against the digital, even though they come from an era when “even university press publishing parties aspired to glamour”. They read their i-pads and kindles, while still reserving a special place for the printed book. The writers have rows with their publishers “over e-books and royalties on reprints”, and can complain as so many do: “We never got to grips with the contracts for the e-books, I think the publishers took him for a ride”.

One of the characters, Teresa, dies as the result of a fall when trying to reach a book on her library shelves, but her son will never know which book it was: “Nobody will ever know. She has taken this small secret with her, and will shortly take it to her grave in St Mary’s churchyard, Kensal Green”.

Caducity: look it up.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises, 2016

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Who exactly buys “art books”?

‘Who exactly buys “art books”?’ Widmerpool asks in Volume 2 of A Dance to the Music of Time, the sort of difficult question the newcomer to publishing may be asked at any party, and not always one that can be answered convincingly.

His questions became more searching when I tried to give an account of that side of publishing, and my own part in it. After further explanations, he said: ‘It doesn’t sound to me like a very serious job.’

Widmerpool advises the narrator: ‘You should look for something more promising. From what you say, you do not even seem to keep very regular hours.’

The answer is revealing about one of the pleasures of a publishing career in former times: ‘That’s its great advantage.’

Anthony Powell, A Buyer’s Market, 1952

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Books and hats are things of the past

Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis won the Deutscher Buchpreis in 2016. It is story of loss and yearning, about love and journeys across continents, and it says a little about a life lived through books and publishing.

After thirty years Reither has given up on his small publishing house and retired to Bavaria, from where one night he takes off to the south with Leonie Palm, a member of a local reading group and previous owner of a failed hat shop. It seems that only the rich now want or need books and hats. As they drive south through Austria and Italy, they smoke and listen to music, learn a little about their respective life histories, their different losses; they meet a refugee child and a family from Nigeria, and then part company.

Publishing, books and bookselling pop up throughout the book. It is books that bring Reither and Palm together in the first place, and one short self-published title, Ines Wolken, creates a bond between them. The breast pocket of the shirt where Reither keeps his cigarettes reminds him of his book fair days, as does the leather jacket that Leonie Palm wears on their road trip and which is the one thing of his she keeps at the very end of the book.

Reither started in the business selling pirated books on a street stall, and he yearns for those days and a woman he knew then who sold feminist books at a nearby stand, but who never became part of his life. He liked editing, choosing appropriate covers for his books, but during his trip he realises that life cannot be managed like the publishing process: “Nun war das Leben keine Neuerscheinung im Reither-Verlag”.

Towards the end of the book he is pressed about his previous work by the Nigerian who helps him. He replies simply in English (with a little German conjunction): “Making und selling books”.

What else is there to say about a life in publishing?

Bodo Kirchhoff, Widerfahrnis, 2016

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The last season of the avant-garde

The Last Season of the Avant-Garde is a (presumably fictional) work of the (real) Berlin artist Bastian Schneider, part of Documenta 13 as it is reimagined and reviewed by Enrique Vila-Matas in The Illogic of Kassel. As the author meanders round the diverse artworks he encounters Schneider’s work twice, which had “a small machine attached to it that looked like an old wall-mounted telephone, but was in fact a tiny, peculiar printing press“.

On the first occasion he reads a poem attached to the work and then sees that if “you pushed the button on the little machine beneath the word fröhlich, it would crank into motion and spit out a scrap of paper on which Schneider gave his opinion that the contemporary artist these days was in the same position as the traveling artist of the pre-Aufklärung (the period before the German Enlightenment), writing not for an established community, but rather in the hope of founding one.”

The second time he presses the button, “the text warned that at night, when there was no one there, the place was taken over by beings wearing Polynesian masks, singing songs from the future, songs that will be sung six centuries hence in a very different Germany, but one where Lichtenberg will still be read, even if it is only out of respect for that passage in which he expressed his conviction that, without his writing, such different things would be discussed ‘between six and seven on a certain German evening in the year 2773’.”

The theme of this Documenta is Collapse and Recovery and the little printing machine, with its comments on creating communities and the longevity of print, gives us a view on the collapse and recovery of publishing in the post-Enlightenment digital world.

Enrique Vila-Matas, The Illogic of Kassel, 2014

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This book that left the format of the book itself behind

In Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the Company is working on the Koob-Sassen Project, and the narrator is hired to write the “Great Report…The first and last word on our age”: an exciting prospect.

“When Peyman, with his visionary vagueness, handed me my epic, my epochal, commission, this Great Report, the sense that anything might end up forming part of this made everything I came across, every event I lived through, glow and buzz with potential even more.”

The author soon discovers that any project that is too open-ended will founder.  Although the commission is not from a publisher but from the mysterious Company, there’s a need for direction and editorial guidance, as anyone might realise, including Peyman.

“I pictured Peyman back, once more, with all his moguls, mover-shakers and connectors, laughing at me, laughing at the thought that I could have believed, even for a moment, he was serious…Even when I reasoned these last, deranged notions back out to the fringes of my mind, I was still left with the immovable fact of the thing’s unwritability.  This filled me with anger, and a feeling of stupidity, and sadness, too – grief not for the actual loss but, worse, for a potential or imaginary one: this beautiful, magnificent Report; this book, the Book, the fucking Book, that was to name our era, sum it up;this book that left the format of the book itself behind, this book-beyond-the-book; and beyond even this, the tantalising and elusive possibility of transubstantiated now-ness, live-ness it was to inaugurate – the possibility, thetis, of Present-Tense Anthropology ™. All that was gone. Which, in turn, raised the question: What was I still there for?”

In an age of grand ambitions for publishing – with their vortices of digital accumulation, voracious remixes and mash-ups – the author’s role remains to pick and choose between the possibilities, muster the serendipity of choices, and go, as the narrator does at the end of this fascinating novel, “back into the city”.

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island, 2015

 

 

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Thank you, Juan-Bautista

Mohsin Hamid’s intriguing 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, arises from the changes in global politics and sensibility following the attacks of 9/11.  He arrives in America from Pakistan to study at Princeton, becoming fixated with the troubled Erica and taking up a well-paid position at Underwood Samson (U.S.).  After a trip back home to Lahore, he returns to his job in New York (now sporting a beard) and is sent on the (somewhat improbable) mission to evaluate a Chilean publisher for a potential acquisition.

In Valparaiso, the chief of the publishing company, Juan-Bautista, is not too happy to see the Underwood Sampson mission.  He fears the owners will sell.

“…the prospective buyer – our client – was unlikely to continue to subsidize the loss-making trade division with income from the profitable educational and professional publishing arms.  Trade, with its stable of literary – defined for all practical purposes as commercially unviable – authors was a drag on the rest of the enterprise; our task was to determine the value of the asset if that drag were shut down.”

There is a visit to Pablo Neruda’s house and at dinner Juan-Bautista makes a reference to the janissaries, Christians who fought for the Ottomans.  Wheels are set in motion: the narrator walks out on the job, returns to New York where he is fired, and then he travels back to Lahore.  It is here that he tells his story to a mysterious American and it becomes clear that life decisions have been made – all, it seems, because of a Chilean publisher’s intervention.

“Thank you, Juan-Bautista, I thought as I lay myself down in my bed, for helping me to push back the veil behind which all this had been concealed!”

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2007

Truth is stranger than fiction, and vice versa

As in several novels from the past decade, books play an important role in Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan. In this 2010 view of writing and publishing in New York, some books are fiction and some are non-fiction, but all of them are stories, and they are mostly agented by Geoff Olden and published by Merrill Books. Ian Minot’s adventures – straddling genre, deceptions, deals and the theft of a copy of The Tale of Genji that eventually gets sold at auction for $8.13 million – are mostly stage-managed by a disgruntled author-cum-editor called Jed Roth who is fixated on the death of publishing.

I asked Roth if he’d ever work in publishing again.  No, he said, that business was dying. Books would never disappear entirely, there would always be places to buy them, libraries where you could read them. But for him, they had lost their romance.

His solution is a novel one.

He said he might start some business in Europe, maybe in London, or perhaps in some other foreign country whose language he didn’t speak, one where it would take him a lifetime to understand what old traditions were passing, so he wouldn’t regret their disappearance.

There is a lot of code and personal argot in this fast-moving narrative, and many shifts between what’s fact and what’s fiction, and why the distinction might matter to publishers and readers. What is clear in the end is that truth isn’t really what’s important, just whether the writer has a good story that the publisher can put a good spin on.

After early doubts, Ian very soon puts away any suggestion that writers and publishers are ‘betrayers of the public trust’ or otherwise ‘despicable’ – the gentleman publisher has transmogrified.

Now that I was one of them, and had dated another, I saw them as All-American rogues. Who hadn’t fudged their taxes, embellished a résumé, or invented a tale to impress a date?

Adam Langer, The Thieves of Manhattan, 2010

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