Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2
The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.
The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.
Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.
In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,
Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.
I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.
The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.
As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.
The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.
I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.
Next stop was Bloomsbury where many of Britain’s independent publishers have offices, including Faber & Faber the richly storied publisher of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin, among many other greats. Speaking of which, if you’re in the neighbourhood you might want to stop by Gordon Square to check out the homes of Virginia Woolf (50), John Maynard Keynes (46), and Lytton Strachey (51).
I was scheduled to interview Faber CEO, Stephen Page. Getting there required underground transportation. Perfect I thought, I’d stop off at the little shoe repair store I’d seen at the Oval tube station for a shine. The colour of my American-made Allen Edmonds shoes is dubbed “chili.” “No, I’m sorry,” was the firm response from the woman at the counter. “We only do black. Can’t guarantee we’ll match your brown I’m afraid.” End of story. I headed off to the appointment feeling and looking a bit scuffed up.
A tad peckish after getting off the tube at Russell Square Station, I decided to stop in here
for a fast bowl of hot white bean soup.
For the interview I’d brought along a copy of Geoffrey Faber‘s book A Publisher Speaking.
As it turned out there was a framed copy of this book’s dust-jacket on the wall of Stephen’s office, right beside a picture of Geoffrey himself. This, my boy, was a good sign.
We sat in comfortable chairs with a large, square, knee-high coffee table between us, neatly and completely covered by a colourful selection of recent Faber titles. I kicked off the conversation by giving voice to some of Geoffrey’s cracking-good lines, starting with “We live by ourselves on the top of Mount Parnassus, by our secret (and rather wicked) arts ruling the ebb and flow of the literary tides far below us.” He’s describing, rather facetiously, the lives of British book publishers in the 1920s. You can listen to the rest of the interview, and to what Stephen has to say about the nature and practice of book publishing in the 21st century, here:
Once done, I ambled off down Tottenham Court Road, on to Charing Cross Road, past Foyles, under construction
(wonder if this has anything to do with Waterstones having just acquired it?), past Harry Potter, the theatre edition,
(is there anything J.K. touches that doesn’t make mega-pounds?) after withstanding the fierce urge to dawdle and browse in Cecil Court, and on through Piccadilly to the outsize Waterstones branch where I was to interview Managing Director James Daunt.
As I entered the store I came face to face with fancy displays of two of the very books I’d just been discussing with Stephen. Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,
and Sally Rooney’s Normal People
The store was churning with energy. Loads of young people bustling around enthusing over various titles, providing evidence for what James was later to assert in our conversation. You can listen to it here
He has some fascinating things to say about selling and marketing books. Colour is key. So is questioning the customer.
As mentioned at the outset of part one of this feuilleton, I love London. This time round particularly, probably due to my mood. Years ago I’d launched The Biblio File podcast with the intention of interviewing the world’s greatest publishers, booksellers, editors, etc. Here, over the past few days in this publishing mecca, I’d done just that. And there were still two days to go.