Barbara Kingsolver Posts

“Faber & Faber: The Untold Story: by Toby Faber

The big firms say that they intend to retain the imprints of the small publishers they absorb. But I doubt if that ever works for long. You might retain the imprint, but you must inevitably lose the elusive character of the individual firm, compounded by its proprietor’s personality and taste.

Geoffrey Faber in The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, 12 August 1939

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber, grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber is a fabulous account of a publishing firm that is synonymous with setting the gold standard in literary publishing, including poetry. Toby Faber details this history by mostly presenting edited excerpts of correspondence from the official archives of the firm and presumably some from his family such as the diaries of Geoffrey Faber and his personal correspondence. Toby Faber’s commentary in the opening pages of every chapter and occasionally between the reproduced correspondence helps contextualise the moment in history. Faber is responsible for launching/ closely associated with the careers of many prominent writers and poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett, Vikram Seth, Kazuo Ishiguro, William Golding, Wilson Harris, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Barbara Kingsolver, Sebastian Barry, Gunter Grass, Harold Pinter, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Peter Carey, DBC Pierre, Sally Rooney, and Anna Burns. Establishing the bedrock of this magnificent list of A-list authors can be attributed to Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot and the poet Walter de la Mare’s son, Richard, who were a part of Faber’s founding editorial team. They gave shape to the editorial policy of Faber & Faber and thus gave the publishing firm its distinctive identity of publishing excellent modern literature. Some of the other editors-at-large who joined the firm were musicians Pete Townshend of the WHO and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.

In 2019 Faber is celebrating its ninetieth year. It was established on 1 April 1929 by Geoffrey Faber. Interestingly as this wonderful historical account describes, Faber & Faber arose like a phoenix from the ashes of Faber & Gwyer. A firm that had in turn been built by the distinguished lawyer, Maurice Gwyer* and Geoffrey Faber on the foundation laid by the Scientific Press, estd. 1880s. The Scientific Press had been established by Gwyer’s father-in-law, Sir Henry Burdett. This publishing business had been inherited by Sir Henry’s daughters, one of whom, Alsina, married Maurice Gwyer. Curiously or perhaps with some astute business sense, Geoffrey Faber persuaded the Maurice Gwyer to launch a magazine for nannies called The Nursing Mirror. Unfortunately as sometimes happens in businesses, the two partners fell out over what are keen strategies or sheer foolhardiness. Despite the steep learning curve Geoffrey Faber decided to reinvent himself and launch a new firm, Faber & Faber.

This ability to reinvent itself and respond to the changing times is embedded in the DNA of Faber & Faber. It is evident in the manner in which the firm took to publishing paperbacks although in principle for a long time remained a firm known for its hardback publications. It also at critical junctures of its history restructured itself and launched new firms such as Faber Music, Faber Academy, Faber Digital and Faber Factory. It also has a fine children’s literature list too. In the early years it also managed to “discover” new authors by encouraging T. S. Eliot to continue the publication of the literary journal Criterion. Later there was a fortuitous discovery in the slush pile of the manuscript originally called Strangers from Within submitted by William Golding, to be published as Lord of the Flies.

Faber & Faber is a superb history on how this publishing firm came to attain its legendary status. Extraordinarily it has retained its independence through its nine decades of existence. Toby Faber attributes this ability of the firm to hang on to its indepedence as being “lucky”. He says:

That repeated ‘luck’ points to something else: a publishing philosophy that, without ignoring commercial imperatives, has always focused on excellence and the long term, whether that applies to relationships with authors that last for decades, or to books that enter the literary canon. A philosophy like that can lead to books that continue selling; Faber’s backlist has given it the income as the core of its financial stability.

Philosophy alone, however, is not enough. It needs to be allied in good editorial taste.

Of course there have been extremely tense moments about Faber & Faber’s survival. In some particularly gloomy years the royalties earned from the musical adaption of T.S. Eliot’s poem Cats by Andrew Lloyd Weber kept the firm afloat. There have been conversations about mergers but ultimately the directors have steered Faber & Faber firmly to an even stronger footing. One of the notable moments in its history was when the widow of T. S. Eliot decided to support the firm. So while the Faber family holds a fifty percent stake in the company, Valerie Eliot joined the firm as a “sympathetic shareholder”.

Faber & Faber is known for its enviable stable of authors. Apart from those already mentioned, since 1990, Faber authors have won more Nobel prizes, the Man Booker, the Costa awards etc. While the book is a glowing account of a fiercely independent firm there are also moments of regrets such as losing out on publishing James Joyce and George Orwell. At times this history reads like an old boys publishing club that did occasionally publish women — Anna Burns was their first woman writer to win the Man Booker Prize in 2018. As Toby Faber points out that this win “itself [was] an indication of the firm having travelled a very necessary distance from the chauvinistic 1980s. The same could be said of Barbara Kingsolver’s victory in the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction in 2010”. Be that at it may, Faber’s list is fantastic and makes every author proud to be a part of it. A testament to this is an excerpt of the correspondence between Indian author Vikram Seth and the then Managing Director Matthew Evans.

Author Vikram Seth to Matthew Evans, 28 May 1985

After we had lunch yesterday, it struck me that you would be a good person to send my novel in verse to. If you like The Golden Gate, you might want to do a British edition — and even if that doesn’t happen, reading it might somewhat increase your affection for a city that is — I promise — far from dreary and provincial.

I’ve told Anne Freedgood at Random House — who tells me that TCG is out at a few British houses — thatI’d like to send it to you, and she says that’s fine. ( She showed it briefly to Robert McCrum, but when he offered to consider it only for the poetry list, she refused. The book is fiction, and to put it on a poetry list would be to kill it.) [. . . ]

The book is due out in February 1986, and I can think of nothing more pleasurable than to appear simultaneously on the fiction lists of the British and American houses I most respect.

To read some more excerpts from the book, here is a link to the Guardian. To commemorate 90 years a fabulous collection of 90 short stories have been released.

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is a wonderful, wonderful history of an iconic publishing firm.

14 June 2019

*Sir Maurice Linford Gwyer, GCIE, KCB, KCSI, KC (25 April 1878 – 12 October 1952) was a British lawyer, judge, and academic administrator. He served as Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University from 1938 to 1950, and Chief Justice of India from 1937 to 1943). He is credited with having founded the prestigious college Miranda House in 1948 in Delhi, India. Gwyer Hall, the oldest men residence for the university students is named after him. ( Source: Wikipedia )

Note: All pictures used in the gallery are off Twitter. I do not own the copyright.

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers

They read about myrrh-tree transplanting expeditions depicted in the reliefs at Karnak, three thousand five hundred years ago. They read about trees that migrate. Trees that remember the past and predict the future. Trees that harmonize their fruiting and nutting into sprawling choruses. Trees that bomb the ground so only their own can grow. Trees that summon air forces of insects that come to save them. Trees with hollowed trunks wide enough to hold the population of small hamlets. Leaves with fur on the undersides. Thinned petioles that solve the wind. The rim of life around a pillar of dead history, each new coat as thick as the maker season is generous. 

Richard Powers The Overstory is a novel weaves through it stories of various families/individuals spanning more than a century. It is a fine example of eco-fiction that is preoccupied with discussing the perennial Man vs Nature argument. It is a vast novel not only for the subject it tackles but the vastness of the landscape Powers creates. It flits from an immigrant family to that of environmental activist to an Indian software entrepreneur who amasses a fortune by creating games to the most mesmerising character, dendrologist, Patricia Westerford. While all these lives are being described it is impossible not to draw comparisons with the peaceful and vibrant descriptions of Nature that Thoreau wrote about in the nineteenth century or even perhaps with the truly talented writer Nell Zink. But now we are at the brink of a possible ecological disaster, possibly manmade due to the wilful damage done upon the environment by man. The LitHub describes it perfectly as “Henry David Thoreau meet Georgia-Pacific“.

The genesis of this novel Powers describes in an interview to The Chicago Review of Books:

I was teaching at Stanford and living in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Just to one side of me was one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and technological might in history: the corporate HQs of Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook, eBay, Cisco, Tesla, Oracle, Netflix, and so many more. To the other side were the Santa Cruz mountains, covered in redwoods. When the scramble for the future down in the valley was too much for me, I would head up to walk in the woods. These were the forests that had been clear-cut to build San Francisco, and it seemed to me that they had grown back wonderfully. But one day, I came across a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the loggers. It was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar. Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth.

I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Yet the gloomy moments of the book are more than compensated for by the hope written on the last page of this stunningly magnificent book.

His friends begin to chant in a very old language. It strikes Nick as strange, how few languages he understands. One and a half human ones. Not a single word of all the other living, speaking things. But what these men chant Nick half grasps, and when the songs are finished, he adds, Amen, if only because it may be the single oldest word he knows. The older the word, the more likely it is to be both useful and true. In fact, he read once, … that the word tree and the word truth came from the same root. 

The best compliment he could ever have received was from fellow novelist Barbara Kingsolver who reviewed his book for the New York Times. Upon reading her review he was ‘beside himself with gratitude to Kingsolver. “I just feel so lucky,” he says. “She makes a case for a broader way of reading me.” Taking issue with Powers’ reputation for cold, science-y novels, Kingsolver writes The Overstory “accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.” ‘

The Overstory is a powerful testimony to the decades of environmental activism and the damage man can cause. Yet it is not a novel meant for all readers. It is not an easy book to read and requires intense engagement. Even Powers has had to admit that it was a life-changing experience for him writing The Overstory, akin to a “religious conversion“. Award-winning novelist Powers is known to combine his passion for philosophy with science. In his 12th novel he has done much the same opting to talk about the environment, a subject that is not only dear to his heart but extremely relevant now. No wonder it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018.

To buy on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Hardback

Kindle

26 October 2018 

Book Post 13: 30 September – 13 October 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 13 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

15 October 2018

Dave Barry “Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog”

Pulitzer Prize Winner and popular columnist Dave Barry writes about turning 70 gracefully and the lessons he has learned from his 11-year-old rescue dog, Lucy. As expected it is a delightfully bittersweet book with Dave Barry amazed at himself for having written a “self-help” book. With increasing old age memories of the past come flooding back like playing in the musical band called Rock Bottom Remainders. It consisted of authors such as Amy Tan, Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Frank McCourt, and Mitch Albom to name a few. They even played with Bruce Springsteen on stage once. But what hits Dave Barry hard is that the “fun” element in his life is slowly decreasing as more and more time is spent just fulfilling daily needs like paying a bill, replying to an email, filing a column etc. The sheer joy of living in the moment and with it the peace it gives can be learned from his ageing mixed breed Lucy or even by watching his three-year-old grandson. He slowly begins to make slight changes in his life like calling up old friends and chatting to them, throwing parties at home, spending more time with his family and making the effort to enjoy every moment rather than be preoccupied and in a hurry.

The book is scheduled to be released in October by Simon and Schuster. A good book to read. Light and yet one that will stay with you for a long, long time.

15 August 2018 

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014