To the UK for a week, and, working on the continuing principle that I don’t know half as much about being an independent publisher as I think I do…or even a quarter, come to think of it…I keep up my basic plan of coaxing meetings out of anyone who can tell me I’m an idiot and that why didn’t I think of this…or this…or this. So Katherine Bright-Holmes, the Consortium representative in London, takes pity on me, and meets me on a pouring rain down day, for tea, in Russell Square. The minute I see Katherine hurrying through the square toward the caff (we’re both late, the traffic was, as it so often is in London, unbelievable), I know it’s her. Not just because we’re both wearing the usual black and dark grey clothes, both with black scarves slung around our necks, and not even just because of the same slightly anxious lift to the back of her legs of the person who’s worried she’s keeping someone waiting that I can feel tightening my own tendons. There’s just something about book people that’s always familiar. What could it be? I wonder about it briefly, but can’t get beyond a vague intuition that people who love books tend to look a certain way. They tend to look like they’d like to be curled up in front of a fire on a rainy day with a book and a steaming cup of something. (Unless they’re in Portland, in which case they tend to look like they’d like to be stretched out with a book on a grassy knoll on a sunny day–same principle.) They tend to look curious, I breezily conclude, they tend to look friendly, and, yes, they tend to look a little anxious, too.
Most of all, I decide as we sit down, they tend to look like they’re more likely to give information than withhold it. Book people, I decide, like to talk about books to other people who like to talk about books. They’re not in it for the money; they’re in it for the love of the thing. And, of course, when you’re in love with something, you take every opportunity you have to talk about it. In fact, you can tell what someone loves by what they DO talk about. (Just ask my friends who are completely bored by hearing about my dogs.) As I can never be bored by any book talk, and, to my surprise, find I am almost equally fascinated by any conversation about the business of books, this suits me down to the ground. And of course, the more interested you are in a subject, the more IN LOVE you are with a subject, the more painless, the more fun, the intake of information.
Katherine pours the information out, and I sit there, intently filing it in the appropriate brain folders for easy access later. The two mistakes beginning publishers make: not enough thought to marketing and not enough capital. (About this latter, thinking wryly of the recent crash and my own difficulties raising capital for a business that everyone agrees is break even at best, I say “force majeure,” and laugh…though not very hard.) We race through a variety of strategies, differences between UK markets and US markets, more info about Consortium, and she tells me about a fascinating project I hadn’t heard of, the Persephone bookstore and publishing house, run by Nicola Bowman, in Lamb’s Conduit Street.…
I don’t even notice I’m almost late for my lunch, at which I am very much in danger of boring my companion about EAP. He, however, is very kind, and even offers some suggestions about the cover of THE SUPERGIRLS, which I just happen to have on my computer and casually take out in between courses–as you do. And as he himself is an avid reader, and so knows a few owners of independent bookstores where he spends a great deal of his time, he suggests making introductions.
He’s a Media Person, and so normally doesn’t fit the rather romantic description I made of Book People above, looking rather, on his most Media Person days, like someone who is not likely to want to talk to you unless you are on first name terms with the bartender at the Groucho Club. This is deceptive, obviously–elsewise, why on earth would he be taking me to lunch?–but then, as I babble on, and I notice he is actually listening to me with every expression of real interest, I think to myself, no, he looks like a Book Person after all. As we talk, he looks more relaxed, and more open, than he does when the subject is, say, the Cannes Film Festival. And I enjoy myself very much. I even enjoy the conversation more than my food, which, since it’s being served up at my favorite restaurant in London, is really saying something.
Then to an espresso with another book lover/mentor, Philippa Brewster, an editor at the publisher IB Tauris. Another person who has kindly offered to let me pick her brain. She’s wearing black and a nice black scarf wrapped cosily around her neck, so I laugh at that, unwrap my own black scarf, and sit down, and we have a rollicking time, me babbling about what I’m planning to do, and she entering into it with enthusiasm, kind of in the same way someone who travels the world for business enters enthusiastically into the plans of a friend making her first trip abroad. She’s brought a clutch of print outs of emails between an editor and one of their authors, going back and forth about the actual period of production–the copy editing, the proofreading, the index making–that’s really helpful. And she brings up Nicola Bowman and the Persephone project.
I end the day with dinner and a nice long chat with my favorite Media Person in the world, Margaret Matheson, who, come to think of it, is one of my favorite people in the world, period. And she says, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the independent film world. There’s no independent movie costing more than a million pounds that makes money, but nobody’s admitting it. The whole thing’s in flux; I’ve never seen anything like it.” We talk about how publishing seems more controllable, you don’t need large amounts of someone else’s money, for one thing, and because almost every sensible person involved in it knows they’re not going to get rich and famous on the back of it, you can just get on with the job–which is getting ideas out there. That’s why she’s in the business of making films, a drive to get ideas out there, and, now I look at her, I see she looks just like a Book Person too, and so I’m forced to reassess my little theory. Because of course, the look I’m talking about is the look of people who love Ideas, not just books, and I have to remember that there are people like that in the film business, and that I know and love some of the best of them, too.
That’s good to remember. And also good to remember is that the next time I’m in London, I’ve got to go to Lamb’s Conduit Street to meet Nicola Bowman and check out the Persephone project…