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Persephone Books – A Touch of Class 05 September, 2011

There’s lots of conversation in the publishing world about the future of the book as a physical object: one senior publisher was on Radio 4 the other day, saying that the paperback novel, the sort of thing most people read once and pass on to friends or the charity shop, will gradually cease to exist and be replaced by electronic versions. But, she said, the onus is now on publishers to deliver a classier product at the hardback, illustrated, books-for-real-book-lovers end of the spectrum. Better paper, more emphasis on good typography and illustrations, binding that doesn't fall apart, that sort of thing.

This is an idea that the small publisher Persephone Books latched on to ten years or so ago when they produced their first books. They are paperbacks but with jackets, in a uniform silver with very simple type. But here is the touch of genius: each book has unique, beautifully illustrated endpapers in a sort of Arts and Crafts style, so the first thing you see when you open it is a personal, thoughtful touch. And each has its own unique bookmark, in the same style as the endpapers, with an extract from the book printed on it. It’s understated but incredibly elegant and classy.

Persephone specialise in novels from the earlyish twentieth century, mostly by women, that have been largely forgotten but deserve recognition. They published Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day long before it was made into a film starring Amy Adams, and the one I have just read, They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, which was once filmed with Phyllis Calvert and James Mason, is a masterpiece of understated middle-class angst. Plus, if you are that sort of person, a handful of them will look great together on the bookshelf. Persephone are just about to put their prices up for the first time ever - from £10 to £12 a book - but that is still excellent value. Check them out at and see if we can't help one publisher who really cares about the book-as-object to continue to prosper.

The Joy of London Place Names 30 August, 2011

My book on London place names has to be finished by November, so I am beavering. The joy of this sort of book lies in the snippets you come across along the way. I couldn't justify including this one, even in the self-indulgent first draft, but I wanted to share it.

Hackney Wick claims to have pioneered the use of the word 'petrol', courtesy of a refining company called Carless, Capel and Leonard. I can't help feeling that if Mr Carless had been signed up by a Hollywood studio, they would have encouraged him to change his name.

Here I Am, Back from Swanwick 17 August, 2011

And it has to be said that I packed a lot in. I ran a workshop, a two-part 'short course' and seven one-to-one sessions, all in the space of not much more than 24 hours. Walking into a room where I was expecting to address 25 people and finding something nearer 70 was a bit of a shock, but apart from that it was great fun.

Of all the places at which I've spoken, it is probably the best organised, so as a newcomer you are never left wondering where you should be when. It's also a gorgeous setting - I went for a walk round the 'lake' (a slightly grandiose name for it) first thing in the morning and on my way back across the lawn I spotted a hare, which doesn't happen often in my part of London, however early you get up. A number of the 'delegates' (as Swanwick respectfully calls the punters) remarked on what a wonderful atmosphere it was in which to write - you can go to classes if you want, or not, and even if you do go to most things there is plenty of scheduled down time when you can just write. There are even guided relaxation sessions for those who want them or, if you are more energetic than that, the chance to party half the night away.

This year there were classes on everything from a beginner's guide to poetry to writing horror fiction, from non-fiction research to MS Office for writers, so you can have a go at something you've never tried before, polish your skills in something you have tried or - if you choose to come and listen to me - edit your own work and improve your chances of getting an agent to read it.

Details of next year’s bash will be up on the website shortly: and I can thoroughly recommend it, whether I am invited back or not.

Swanwick This Weekend 12 August, 2011

Taking a break from writing about London place names and being careful not to say ‘Shit’ on American radio, I'm off to rural Derbyshire on Sunday to talk to people about getting their work ready for publication. These events are always inspiring on the one hand and daunting on the other. So many would-be writers think that those of us who work in publishing have magic answers to all their questions, and sadly it just isn’t true.

Lots of the advice comes under the heading of 'what not to do’: in a covering letter, for example, don't tell the agent or editor that they will be missing the chance of a lifetime if they turn you down, or that what you have written is an exciting thriller (it wouldn't be much of a thriller if it wasn’t). Don't provide a full CV that boasts that you were once captain of your school netball team unless you are writing a book about netball.

It all seems terribly banal. And at best it can only be a guideline. There are, by general consent, three things you need if you are to be a successful published author (assuming that you aren’t a celeb already, of course) and those are talent, persistence and luck. Not necessarily in that order.

Would the Sh*t Hit the Fan? 01 August, 2011

My book Answers to Rhetorical Questions (see the books page), published last autumn, has just come out in the USA. The American publishers, Plume, part of the Penguin Group, chose to call it Does A Bear Sh*t in the Woods? (their asterisk) - you can find it on their website here.

As a result, I have been doing my first ever interviews, on American radio. During the first one, I noticed after a few minutes that my interviewer hadn't mentioned the title, so I asked - discreetly, I hoped - if he was allowed to say it on air. ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?' he said, without a hint of embarrassment or asterisk. ‘Sure.’

That was in Seattle; later I spoke to a station in St Louis which had a similar lack of qualms. Then it was the turn of Baltimore and clearly they don’t like bad language on their breakfast show. The closest we got was 'poop', although we did agree that the listeners - being no fools - probably knew what we were trying not to say.

I'm 'doing' Boston in a few weeks - an overnight show that requires me to be at my brightest and best at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning. I've always assumed, based on no evidence at all, that the people of Boston would be rather prim, but that may not be true at 3 in the morning their time. I'll report back.

A Thought About Idioms and Popular Culture 11 July, 2011

On Mock the Week last night, they were talking about tennis. Someone, I forget who, remarked that Wimbledon was difficult to get to: 'Underground, overground…'

Big laugh - because everyone in the audience recognised two words from the theme tune of a children's television series dating from 1973. And yet someone too young to remember the Wombles or from a country where the series wasn't shown would have been looking blankly at the screen.

Idioms are much the same. One of the ways you can tell that an expression has 'entered the language' is when it starts being used in an incomplete form. For example, lots of people now say, ‘Worst case’ rather than 'Worst case scenario', because they know that everyone knows what it means. Try translating it literally into Spanish or Turkish or whatever and see if it makes any sense. I bet it doesn't.

Just Writing the Book Isn’t Enough 04 July, 2011

I'm just back from Winchester, where I shared my views on how to get published with anyone who cared to listen. One of the things I always emphasise is the role of you the author as a selling tool - you have to be prepared to 'get out there' and publicise yourself and your work.

Afterwards, I was strolling round the book stall and was accosted - it is really the only word, though she did it in the friendliest way - by a woman doing a signing session. Her name was Bobbie Darbyshire and she had two novels on sale: I bought Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones because I liked the title and because, frankly, it would have been quite awkward just to walk away. She described it as not entirely frivolous, which sounds fine to me. It’s published by Sandstone Press in Scotland, a small publisher with a particular interest in the Highlands. (Her other book is called Truth Games and it’s published by Cinnamon Press, who are based in Wales and less keen on books set in Scotland.)

I discovered that Bobbie had given a talk at the conference about the pros and cons of working with a small publisher and my guess is that she approached the conference organiser and offered her services. She also handed me a flyer on which, among other things, she offers herself as a speaker at book groups. So she is doing her damnedest to sell her books at every opportunity. Her publishers must love her. And I was very chuffed to meet someone who was the incarnation of everything I’m always telling people they have to do.

Michael O'Mara Have Been Busy 25 June, 2011

On two consecutive days I've had exciting parcels from them. Yesterday brought the proofs of Pushing the Envelope, the book about business jargon that is due out in the autumn: we don't have a cover yet, but the insides look good. So proofreading these is my task over the next few days.

And today brought something that doesn’t mean more work - a copy of I Used to Know That in Dutch. I have no idea what it says, which is a shame because I can see that includes a lot of stuff about Dutch authors which might be illuminating if I could read it. But it can go on the shelf alongside the German and Spanish editions. Interesting that the Spanish and German editions are 10% longer than the original, which the Dutch is 10% shorter. Have they left whole chunks out, or is it just a compact language?

Winchester writers’ conference coming up 20 June, 2011

I'll be there on Saturday 2 July, ready to impart my wisdom on how to get your work published. In my case it was ‘go out and get very drunk with the right person', but I have some more constructive things to say too. More information at

A Cool Piece of Packaging 30 May, 2011

If you ever buy books from the Folio Society you'll know what a slip case is - that three-sided cardboard box that the book 'slips' in and out of. Stuart Evers’ Ten Stories About Smoking comes in what you might prefer to call a flip case: a box shaped like a cigarette packet, with a flip top. The typography is in red and white, with a gold band just where you would expect a gold band to be on a cigarette packet. The book itself has no words on the front or back cover, just the image of five cigarettes - one for each story in the collection. And, you've guessed it, all the stories focus to a greater or lesser extent on smoking (at least I assume they do; I've read only two so far). It’s a very clever piece of packaging.

And, come to think of it, it's a great argument for buying this book at least from a bookshop: you’d miss out on the joke if you were looking at it online.

Update on English Place Names 12 May, 2011

Seems to be doing well so far. I did 16 local radio interviews in three hours on publication day, which is one of the most exhausting things I have ever done but I hope it was worth it. A few nice reviews, and I've seen the book in Waterstone's and in Stanfords, the wonderful travel bookshop in Covent Garden. I’m also monitoring its progress neurotically on Amazon. (It's peaked at around 3000 and sunk to around 12,500.) Thank you to anyone who has bought it!

The Book of English Place Names publicity 18 April, 2011

My new book is due out on Thursday. The day before the Royal Wedding, so if there are any republicans out there looking for a bit of distraction…

Early signs are good. I’ve written an article for The Independent which should appear on Wednesday. The book has already had two lovely reviews - in the Manchester Evening News (see my home page) and the Lonely Planet magazine: they said it would ‘enliven a journey through even the dullest parts of the country’. It will also be featured in the Birmingham Evening Post, the Midlands Express and Star and the Yorkshire Post around publication. In addition, I'm doing a heap of local radio interviews ‘on the day’ and the book will be mentioned in lots of glossy mags over the course of the summer. It’s all very exciting.

The Impress Prize for New Writers 13 April, 2011

I mention this prize on my Talks & Workshops page, but thought it was worth updating you on what has been going on down at Impress lately.

I think the best book Impress have published so far is their first (2007) prizewinner Consider the Lilies by Carol Fenlon. A rather simple girl left alone on an isolated farm when her father dies becomes pregnant by a passing charmer. Horrified at the very idea of a baby, she always refers to as her as ‘it’ and keeps her hidden away in one of the outbuildings. What happens when a child like that grows up? It’s touching and haunting in equal measure.

More recently and most prestigiously, Roshi Fernando - winner of the 2009 prize for Homesick, a collection of interwoven short stories about Sri Lankan immigrants in London - was short-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. Also short-listed was Booker winner Hilary Mantel, so I am not using the word ‘prestigiously’ loosely here.

Looking to the future, Impress have decided to publish not only the winner but one of the runners-up from the 2010 short list. The winner, This Farewell Symphony by Edmund Bealby-Wright, comes out in June. Billed by its author as ‘a comedy of manias’ and structured along the lines of a classical symphony, it’s about a group of eccentric day trippers on a coach tour of places significant in the life of the composer Josef Haydn. Yes, OK, not a very well established genre, but it is quirky and a bit mad and I loved it.

The other, to be published in September, is Death of the Elver Man by Jennie Finch, a crime thriller set on the Somerset Levels whose central character is a (female) probation officer recently arrived from London and generally considered by her (mostly male) colleagues as being not up to the job.

More about all of these books on the Impress site.

Another Talk 06 April, 2011

Just a quick note to anyone in the Guildford area. I'll be talking at the book festival there in October - see my talks and workshops page for details of the sort of thing I cover. The festival runs from the 13th to the 22nd and I'm provisionally booked for the 19th. Pencil it in.

Just My Type 26 March, 2011

Just as verbal pedants write in to complain about the anachronisms in Downton Abbey and car enthusiasts complain because an episode of Marple set in the early ’50s shows a ‘classic’ vehicle not produced until 1964, so type nerds notice with horror that a poster in that same episode of Marple is using a font designed in the 1970s.

This is just one of the gems I have learned from Simon Garfield’s wonderful book Just My Type. You wouldn't think that a book subtitled ‘A Book about Fonts’ could be entrancing, but this one is. Describing the type on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, Simon tells us that ‘the R loops like a sustained guitar note, its tail curling beneath the o to reach the l, while the lower bowl of the g smirks as it fuses with the S’. He discusses the effect on type of everything from Nazism to the i-pad and even gives a list of his eight worst typefaces in the world. When you have read this book you’ll look at street signage, cinema posters and newspaper headlines in a whole new light.

Despite everything we hear, there is hope for the publishing world if mad but delightful books can still find someone willing to take them on.

English Usage 20 March, 2011

Not a rant this time: more a serendipitous discovery.

The American edition of my book My Grammar and I contains an epigraph that we didn't find for the original version. (So thank you, Reader’s Digest US, for putting this my way.) It's a quote from E B White, author of Charlotte‘s Web. He says:

‘English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgement and education - sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.’

I don't know to what extent I could justify this in a serious debate, but I rather like it anyway.

Great Excitement 18 March, 2011

I have a finished copy - just the one, but I am told there are more on the way - of The Book of English Place Names. It's due to be published on 28 April and I'll let you know about any publicity that I am doing.

But just to show how topical the whole thing is: the news that Wootton Bassett is to be made ‘royal’ came literally the day after I received my advance copy. So if we reprint I'll have to update not only its entry but those for Leamington Spa and Tunbridge Wells too. For a hundred years those two have been the only places in the country entitled to put ‘Royal’ in front of their names - and both of them received the privilege because Queen Victoria liked spa towns. A far cry from the reasons for honouring Wootton Bassett.

A Depressing Thought 14 March, 2011

Why is it, I often wonder, that however much you read there always seems to be much more out there than you will ever have time to catch up on? I've just finished Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, which is extraordinarily life-enhancing, given that its subject is an elderly German couple conducting a doomed protest against the Nazi regime.

My copy tells me that Fallada was one of the best-known German writers of the twentieth century, which makes me feel ashamed that I had never heard of him till a friend recommended the book to me. Its Afterword also makes me want to read several more of his oeuvre, notably Little Man, What Now?, about a family struggling to cope during the Depression. The 1930s one, that is, not anything that we might be going through now.

OK, I could go out and buy it tomorrow - though it is probably out of print - but that would take me away from reading any of the fifteen books already sitting on my to-be-read shelf. All of which I want to read, and some of which are by authors I've never read before. When I do get to those, assuming I like them, I'm going to want to read more by those authors too.

And so it goes on.

The answer? If there is one, it has to be keep ploughing on. Keep reading.

Which is quite a cheering thought really.

Getting into Publishing 28 February, 2011

I’ve had two enquiries lately from strangers - one through this website, another a friend of a friend of a friend - wanting advice on how to get into publishing. The short answer has to be that it is amazingly difficult, for the simple reason that so many people want to do it. I got my first job in publishing (I've only ever had two real jobs in publishing, out of a total three real jobs in my entire life) through dumb luck: I went to an employment agency who had various things on offer and publishing was one of them. ‘Might as well,’ I thought, and obediently went to the interviews, just as I had obediently gone to interviews with the Press Association personnel department, a South American shipping company and I forget what all else besides. Nowadays, work experience - or an ‘internship’, if you don't mind being in the same breath as Monica Lewinsky - is the best way in, providing you can afford to work for a few weeks for nothing more than bus fare and lunch money. Most companies take students or recent graduates on and some even give them useful work to do: one small company I know ensures that an intern is given some insight into every department, giving him/her the opportunity to discover an unsuspected interest in production or marketing, rather than fostering the assumption that publishing is all about reading (if you’re lucky) and photocopying (if you’re not).

So my advice is:

1. Find a few publishers in whose work you are interested (there is little point in doing work experience for a cookery specialist if your passion is romantic fiction, although it could be argued that no experience is wasted).

2. Check their websites for any hint that they might take on work-experience people and advice on how to approach them.

3. If there is no information on the site, ring up and ask. There is no good time to do this: a student acquaintance of mine, looking for work in the summer holidays, made two approaches in February last year. One publisher said, 'For heaven's sake, we won't even start thinking about that for three months', while the other happily booked her for three weeks in July.

4. Be prepared to be rejected - and remember, trying to get into publishing is a bit like trying to become an actor: if rejection puts you off, you may not be cut out for the job.

Pushing the Envelope 10 February, 2011

When I posted my first blog on 7 December I had just started work on this book. Today I have finished what I suppose I should call the second draft, by which I mean I have been through the first draft on screen and tidied it up.
So now I am printing it out and will put it aside for a couple of weeks, then I'll read it through on paper and see what I think. Some of it will be fine, some of it will stink, is the most likely outcome.
I find that a useful way of editing my own work: if I've only ever worked on something on screen, it can feel very different when it is on paper, and vice versa. If you’d rather save paper by not printing out a whole book, try changing the font so that it looks completely different. It's surprising how this can help you to spot mistakes that you missed last time round.

Just back from Finland… 09 February, 2011

…which was very snowy, but bright and beautiful, not nearly as dark as I had been expecting.

A friend has a blow-by-blow description of Finnish weather on the wall of the loo. It contains lines like '+10°C - Californians think they are going to freeze to death; Finns are sunbathing in the back garden’ and ‘-10°C - the British turn on the central heating; Finns put on long-sleeved sweaters’. The last two entries are ‘-273°C - microbial life ceases to function; Finns say to each other, ‘It’s getting a bit chilly’ and ‘-300°C - Hell freezes over; Finland wins the Eurovision Song Contest’.

Not as funny as it used to be, since Finland won Eurovision in 2006, but that was about their 46th time of trying, so it had been something of a national joke. The Finns are a notoriously dour people (though the individuals I met were nothing of the sort), so the very idea of them having a national joke is quite funny in itself.

If you want to consign someone to Hell… 02 February, 2011

A friend gave me The Weekend Book for my birthday some months ago and I have been dipping in and out of it. It is that sort of book: an extraordinary miscellany of everything from wild flowers to etiquette, parlour games to architecture. There is even a chapter called ‘The Law and How to Break It’, but I haven’t reached it yet.

The book was first published in the 1920s, was astonishingly successful and earned Virginia Woolf’s sniffiest disapproval as a result, and has been reissued in a lovely nostalgic hardback by the Nonesuch Press. I mention it because I like its description of Mercury in the chapter on astronomy:

There is no procession of night and day on Mercury; one half of the planet lies in perpetual day and the other half lies in perpetual night. If you want to consign someone to Hell, send him to Mercury. It doesn't matter whether you want the hot Hell of the Mediterranean and near-Eastern regions, or the cold Hell of the Nordic peoples, Mercury has got them both.

It’s somehow reminiscent of Nancy Mitford’s Uncle Matthew - ‘Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends’ - but extending its prejudice even further.

Lines I wish I'd written 30 January, 2011

These are far too numerous to mention, but yesterday I came across a new (to me) one in Lyttelton’s Britain, a compilation of Chairman Humph’s introductions to the towns hosting each week’s episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. With reference to Winchester, he tells us that Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, came here in 1002 to marry Ethelred the Unready, who used the occasion to launch his unsuccessful range of torch batteries. If you were in Costa Coffee in Earl’s Court about 6 o'clock on Saturday, the woman cackling wildly in the corner was me.

a perfect obituary 29 January, 2011

I've just read an obituary of Kitty Godley, first wife and muse of Lucian Freud. It ends, ‘She was a true friend, and for many the bestower of something sweet upon the world.’

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have that said about you? Note to myself: try to be sweeter from now on.

Return to Radio 4 25 January, 2011

If anyone is listening to Radio 4 at 1.30 p.m. this coming Thursday (the 27th), I'm going to be making a brief appearance on Questions, Questions, talking about place names - specifically a place in Suffolk rejoicing in the name of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I'm reading the proofs of The Book of English Place Names this week (very exciting - it makes it all seem real) and I have an official publication date, 28 April. Wish me luck.
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