Archive for 2011

Corporate Entertainment

Monday, December 19th, 2011


Last Thursday we staged our first ever corporate entertainment Peirene Salon.

Back in the autumn I was approached by a company director. He came to a Peirene Salon, took a shine to it and asked us to organise a special Salon for his work colleagues as a Christmas treat.

He warned us: his junior colleagues – most in their mid- to late twenties – wouldn’t be thrilled. In fact many of them would prefer a meal at a restaurant followed by a night club.

We were unperturbed by his worries.

We flew in our youngest and trendiest author, Dutch Jan van Mersbergen. We booked a pianist. We provided Peirene home-made potato salad and the Salon’s famous 3.5kg Camembert.  We ordered Champagne and festive red and white from The Wine Society and got the Whisky ready for after the meal.

Jan entertained for half an hour. He talked about how to write and read extracts from Tomorrow Pamplona. The food was accompanied by background piano music and at the end of the evening each guest was presented with a beautifully wrapped copy of Peirene No 5.

The feedback was wonderful. People were delighted and surprised. None of them had ever talked to an author, most of them had never attended a literary reading – and yet all of them enjoyed themselves.

I gave Peirene a huge hug at the end of the evening.

“Well done, my Nymph. Without your spark I couldn’t have done this evening.”

She flinched at my wet kiss on her cheek and freed herself from my embrace.

“You don’t have to get all emotional.” She said, embarrassed about my affection. “After all, to spread the value of good literature is the responsibility of a publisher.”

I again threw my arms around her before she had time to escape.

“Yes. But in our own small way we do it rather well. We persuade people to engage with literature who otherwise would not have done so. I am so proud of you.” I squeezed her tight.

“Ah, I can’t breeze. Let me go.” Peirene exclaimed. “Anyway, I don’t think many will read the book.”

“I am not so sure.” I replied with a smile. “I’ve told them that Tomorrow Pamplona contains three fab sex scenes and their eyes lit up.”


Merry Chritsmas and a Happy New Year. I’ll be back here with the next episode of Peirene “Pain and Passion” in the third week of January 2012.

The Art of Living

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Why? Small children love this question. Grown-ups usually have given up on it long time ago. Not least, because we can’t find a good answer.Summer reading. Image by leiris202

Yet, I still love so ask ‘Why’ – to myself and others.

At the Peirene coffee morning last Tuesday I decided to ask the attendees “Why do you read?’

“To learn new things” and “to escape my own life” were the most common answers. I then repeated the question on twitter. Again, escapism came up top.

“What!?” Peirene exclaimed and collapsed on the office sofa. “I just don’t believe it. Where has the world come to. If you want to flee yourself and the world, get drunk, take drugs or watch a film. Reading has nothing to do with escapism. In Ancient Greece we wouldn’t even have dared to put these two words into one sentence!”

She covered her eyes with her lower arm. “Oh, my gods, I feel a migraine coming on. This is too much for me.” I rushed to get her a wet flannel.

“I understand the desire for escapism,” I ventured to suggest. “You want to follow somebody else’s life that has nothing to do with yours.”

“But in regard to literature, that’s a contradiction in terms. There is no one else when you read. Everything happens in your imagination.  A good text provides inspiration, throws you back onto yourself, demands that you reflect on your own life. A good text doesn’t dictate to you what you should think, it gives you a story to contemplate. Your mind has to become active, and that is exciting.”

I have to admit I know what the Nymph is talking about. Only last Saturday I was reminded of the inspirational power good literature.

This weekend we held our 11th Salon. On the guest list was a woman who had recently subscribed to Peirene and bought the sets. I had never met her before. She came with her husband.

They had just read Beside the Sea and Stone in a Landslide. The stories had touched them deeply. Their enthusiasm was tangible.

Beside the Sea, what a powerful book,” they said. “It makes you think of how easy it is for all of us to take the wrong turn.”

And Stone in the Landslide caused the husband – a pragmatic executive from a large company – to shed tears.

It was wonderful to see their excitement and hear them describe their emotional responses. The couple reminded me of how I felt when I had first read the books. The texts had made me feel alive.

And thus it is true: Peirene’s  books don’t offer escapism. Commercially no doubt a bad decision. So, why do I publish these books? Only to please an ancient Greek Nymph? I have no plausible answers. Except  that publishing them makes me feel alive – and so does reading them.

Image by leiris202.

Heavenly Sales

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

To sell a book you have to stand. If you sit behind the stall, hardly anyone will approach.

To sell a book you have to talk. No one buys a book without a chat.Book Vendor. Image by drewleavy

To sell a book you have to smile. No one buys a book from a sour face.

Your mouth will get dry from talking, your face will hurt from smiling and your legs tired from standing.

Maddy and I have become experts in stall selling. We’ve started a year ago. Since then we have had good days and bad days. And sometimes the pain was more than the gain.

But we have never had absolutely fantastic days. Until this weekend. Over the last three days we have sold more books than during the last eleven months together. We have sold three-book packs, six-book packs and subscriptions.

Earlier on in the year, selling subscriptions via the stall had proven to be impossible. No surprise really. We were asking people to hand over hard-earned cash without receiving the goods. Readers usually subscribe online. Our 2012 subscription steadily increases in numbers. Two-year subscriptions – for 2012 and 2013 – have been bought, too. But very few so far have taken up our three year subscription.

On Friday I went with our store to a school Christmas fair. When I managed to sell a couple of 2012 subscriptions, I felt proud. But the best was still to come.

“I have just sold a three-year subscription!” Maddy texted me from the stall on Saturday afternoon. A man had bought Stone in a Landslide in the morning. In the afternoon he returned and bought a three-year subscription as a Christmas present for his wife. She also sold some 2012 subscriptions and one for two years.

This is a small break-through. Perhaps people have started to trust the brand?

Even the Nymph couldn’t help but feel pleased with Maddy and me. “I am mightily impressed with the two of you.” The Nymph emailed me tonight. “However, just for the record, I like to put in writing the following: it’s not the brand they trust, it’s me, the Ancient Greek Nymph.  They know I’ve been around since the Gods created Olympus, so I will surely exist for a few more years. I don’t think you could have achieved such trust in your publishing venture without my heavenly support.”

Heavenly support? Perhaps she is right. How else can we explain this weekend’s sales figures.

Image by drewleavy.

The Ideal Christmas Gift

Monday, November 28th, 2011

geography-fieldwork-photos-168Before I set up Peirene, I never twittered, I wasn’t on facebook. I never negotiated contracts and prizes. I never had to deal with up to hundred emails a day. I never thought about how to market a product, I never sold anything at a stall.

Nor had I ever spent eight hours on my hands and knees. At least not since I learnt to walk.

Maddy and I spent last Tuesday on the floor in Peirene HQ. I was cutting paper, ribbons and snippet of sellotape, Maddy was wrapping the books. After lunch we swapped. She cut, I wrapped. By the end of the day my knees were red and swollen. But we now have stacks of Peirene Christmas parcels ready to be sold at our Roaming Store and online shop.

“Did you ever imagine having to do something like this?” Maddy eventually asked me, probably wondering herself what she had got herself into.

I thought for a moment before I answered.

“No.” I said. Then I continued: “On the other hand: I knew I would do whatever it takes to make the publishing company work.”

Setting up business is like having children. If I had thought about it too much in advance, I would never have started. Because the facts look grim: Both, children and business, produce a lot of work, a lot of worries, a lot of hassle. So much of being a mother and a business woman is repetitive – and no one gives you credit or even thanks. So much can go wrong – and sometimes does go wrong.  And there are so many reasons to worry – because ultimately the responsibility lies with you.

And yet, I wouldn’t exchange either my children nor Peirene for anything else in the world. They have taught me a lot about the world and myself. There are still many lessons to learn. And every now and again I experience moments of utter happiness, pride and joy.  They are fleeting moments. But I am getting better at catching them.

“That doesn’t show!” Peirene is looking over my shoulder.

“What doesn’t?”

“Your moments of utter happiness. In fact, this could be your next life lesson:  hold up a sign each time you feel a touch of happiness so that we, too, can share the moment.”

Then a broad, slightly wicked smile appears on her face.

“Why don’t I give you an I’m happy sign for Christmas?”

I hope my children will have more glamorous present ideas for their mother.

The Pitfalls of Tantrums

Monday, November 21st, 2011

When babies cry they have a fair chance of receiving attention. However, toddlers, inTantrum. Image by  demandaj a fit of temper, get a telling off rather than sympathy. And when adults throw tantrums, we have a problem. To avoid this problem we have developed the art of communication. In the 21st century this art form is made terribly easy by plenty of gadgets. We should all be experts.

Earlier this week I received an email, which is familiar in tone to other, similar mails. Here is an extract:

“I have been reading your newsletter every month. In return, I think it would be only courteous if you could read the manuscript I sent six months ago.”

I am baffled -  not by the request but by the tone – a tone which implies an obligation on the part of the receiver.

If email hadn’t been an option, would a letter or a telephone conversation have been conducted in a similar demanding manner?

I don’t force anyone to receive the Peirene newsletter. If someone doesn’t want the information any longer then they can “unsubscribe.” Furthermore, if someone has a favour to ask, perhaps they would be better advised to write me a nice note.

I, too,  have many desires. And I need others to help me fulfill them. I want authors to agree that I can publish their works, I want journalists to write about the Nymph, I want bookshops to sell my titles. I want I want I want. And each day I write many emails to people I know and I don’t know soliciting help.  Sometimes they reply and sometimes they don’t. That’s the name of the game. You have to role the dice many times. Without hope and without despair. But I have one firm rule: be polite. Perhaps I am old fashioned. But I believe compliments, thank yous and pleases get me further than bitterness. After all, no one owes Peirene a living, the world existed before us and will exist after we’ve gone.

“May I kindly correct you, please” says Peirene in her sweetest voice.

“You may, since you asked so nicely.” I smile at her

“After we’ve gone the world might continue to exist. But it won’t ever be the same again.”

The Nymph has got a point. We all leave an impression. And it might as well be a positive one.

Image by demandaj.

Getting Close to Don DeLillo

Monday, November 14th, 2011

It’s been a year of fantastic prizes and nominations for Peirene:TheIndependent Publishers Newcomer of the Year award, the Foreign Fiction Prize Long List for Beside the Sea and then the Arts Council grant.Ideas Illustration. Image by

On Tuesday, the Nymph, our designer Sacha and I headed downtown to the Gala dinner of the British Book Design and Production Awards to see if we could add another trophy to the list.

A couple of months ago our 2011 Series of The Man was short-listed for the Series Identity category. We checked out our competitors and decided the only real threat came from Picador’s striking Don De Lillo series.

To cut a long story short – De Lillo won, the Nymph’s men came second. Highly commended though. Not bad, considering that we had never entered this competition before.

But Peirene does not like losing. Even against giants. As soon as the dinner finished she dragged Sacha and me outside into the foyer where the shortlisted books were displayed.

She picked up a De Lillo book. “The cover design is ok. But that’s it. No flaps, the paper quality is far worse than ours. And,” she leafed through the text, opening a page here and there. “And it’s not a coherent design. We have a unified style running through cover, front pages, text and back pages. Every milimeter of our production oozes quality and thought.” Peirene turned on her heels. “I am going home.” Sacha and I stayed a bit longer. At least we wanted to enjoy the Champagne to the end.

On Friday I gave a speech at Stationer’s Hall. I enumerated all our awards, including the “highly commended for the British Book Design and Production Awards, second only to Picador’s Don Delillo series.” The last words sounded awfully good – to be mentioned in the same breath as one of the most famous American writers.  If we had won, that wouldn’t be possible. We’d be simply called “the winner”.  I prefer the Don Delillo connection. I think.

And I am sure the Nymph will soon see it that way too.

Image by

The Murky Waters of Human Irrationality

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Humans are irrational. Most of what we do follows – at best – our own internal logic.geography-fieldwork-photos-159 And to make matters worse, we lack self-awareness. We can see irrationality in others but never in our selves. I don’t think I am saying anything new. However, only since I set up Peirene, have I become aware of the rampant irrationality in others. (Of course I’m still blind to my own).

Let me give you two examples. In the first instance irrationality lead to the happiness of everyone involved. The second story is an impressive example of how we boycott ourselves with irrational fears and destroy a win-win situation.

Example 1: A few weeks ago I sent out emails to friends and relatives inviting them to buy Peirene’s new 2012 subscription. Some did, others didn’t like the idea at all. And one dear friend even took the pain to explain that she definitely won’t be signing up because she didn’t want to read any depressing European books. Then, at the beginning of last week, I sent out Peirene’s November newsletter. Once again I promoted the Peirene 2012 subscription. My dear friend was one of the first to sign up. When I saw her for dinner a couple of days later, she congratulated me. “A gift subscription,” she exclaimed. “What a brilliant way of buying books. I will definitely spread the word and my mother and sister will receive a subscription for Christmas.”

Example 2: A couple of months ago, a big London theatre decided to stage one of the Peirene books as a play. Huge excitement at Peirene HQ. A producer was in place, a leading actress too. We only needed the go ahead from the author to allow the actress to shorten the text down to a play of one hour length. She even offered to fly to the Continent to discuss the cuts with the author. The author refused all co-operation. Pleading and persuasion didn’t work. Therefore – sadly – the play cannot be staged.

Peirene was beside herself and threatened to call up the author to air her fury. I managed to grab the receiver out of her hand just in time.

“Leave it. We’ve tried everything we could. We have to stay professional after all.”

“This makes no sense. Doesn’t the author want to become known in this country? Other authors would pay for an opportunity such as this.”

The Nymph paced up and down the office. When after a while she calmed down, she approached me and whispered into my ear:” I shouldn’t really say this and that’s why I am only whispering it… I am wondering if some authors worry too much about controlling their intellectual property. Perhaps they have never heard about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was staged in London a few years after its first publication. The author was in the audience. No one asked permission. But the play became popular and that’s why Mary Shelley became famous.”

I don’t find it easy to pilot a business through the reefs of human irrationality. But I’m lucky. I have an ancient Greek Nymph on board who loves the waters and whispers wise words.


Sunday, October 30th, 2011

November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. An American idea, the website encourages people to write a 50,000 wordgeography-fieldwork-photos-1531 novel within a month – 1500 words each day, for 30 days. Now in its 13th year, this initiative has grown into a global online success story. Last year there were 200,500 participants and 37, 500 winners who made it to the 50,000 word-finishing line.

The Nymph, however, has her reservations.

“Oh dear, oh dear!” She shook her head in dismay. “What about structure, characterization, careful plotting, fine-tuning the language.  50,000 words in a month – I call this diary writing, not a novel.

“Some will agree with you. I personally think it’s a lovely idea. I believe many use NaNoWriMo to help them overcome their initial block. The few who will become writers know that this is only the beginning of a long road.” I suggested.

“OK, then don’t call it Novel Writing – at least be honest and call it Word Production month or something.

We left the conversation there. But a few days later Peirene called an emergency meeting, insisting on the presence of the entire company – Maddy, intern Andrew and I. A matter of utmost urgency had arisen.

“As an ancient Greek Nymph I have the obligation to save the modern world from open-ended texts,” she announced. “I therefore have thought of an initiative that will encourage finished works of art.” She paused for a moment and then pronounced: “PeiShoStoMo.”

Maddy and I looked at each puzzled, while Peirene explained that during Peirene Short Story Month the Nymph will personally encourage people to write a 900 word short story. “30 words a day for 30 days,” she explained. “That is much more realistic and will leave time to polish the story until it shines like a true gem. Then we will choose the best three stories, publish them on our website and announce the winners in our newsletter which goes to Peirene readers world-wide not to mention the entire British press.”

Maddy, Andrew and I were impressed with the Nymph’s suggestion. After all we too prefer short fiction to overwritten novels. We immediately got down to work. We set up a webpage for a Peirene Short Story Competition. We sent information to creative writing courses in the UK and US. A twitter and facebook campaign is about to be launched. Then we arrived at the final hurdle. The judges.

“What do you mean; Judges?! “Peirene exclaimed indignantly. “I am going to be the sole judge.” We had a long discussion and finally concluded that the judges should represent a cross section of the modern book world – a writer, a publisher, a bookseller. However, the Nymph will serve as a close advisor.

Peirene is now counting the hours till Tuesday, the 1st of November, when NaNoWriMo and our short story competition will kick off. “And if the entries are stunningly good, we could publish them as a Peirene book,” she’s already musing. It’s true, if we were to discover a future Nobel Prize winner, I, too, would be proud of my Nymph. But let’s first wait and see, what comes our way.

Inspiring Lunch

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Dinner set. Image y Crossett Library Bennington CollegeRunning a small publishing house can be a lonely business. On a bad day authorsdon’t want to cooperate, translators react with fury to my edits and foreign rights departments treat me as if I can’t add up. And when the Nymph decides to lie on the sofa, weepingbitter tears and threatening to pack her suitcases, then I too feel like packing my suitcases.

That’s on a bad day. But then there are other days when I realize how incredibly lucky I am in running Peirene.

A few months ago the author Sarah Lapido Manyika introduced me to her Nigerian publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusufof Cassava Republic Press. Initially I didn’t understand why. Cassava does not publish European lit and I don’t publish books by African writers. Anyway last week we met for lunch.

We talked about our books, exchanged anecdotes and then traded marketing ideas. Although Cassava and Peirene publish different books, there are many similarities in Bibi’s and my publishing approach. We both set up our own company. We choose the texts carefully and work to perfect them. We both view publishing as a cultural responsibility and not just as a money spinning venture. And she, like me, is willing if necessary to hand-sell each and every copy.

As I walked to the tube station after the lunch, loneliness had evaporated. I had met a kindred publisher. Back at headquarters, the Nymph though was still lying on the sofa with a wet flannel across her forehead. She opened one eye when I came in.

“You’re looking cheery,” she said.

“I had a fabulous lunch.” I replied

“Where did you go?”

“It was because of the company not the place.” I was no longer in the mood to share her misery. “You are a very lucky Nymph, Peirene. It’s time you understand this. We’ve set up an exciting publishing house. There will always be people who won’t appreciate it. Get up from the sofa and let’s find the ones who do.

Peirene was so taken aback by my brisk words that she set up straight away and returned to her desk. She hasn’t moaned since.

Image by Crossett Library Bennington College.

The Dishwasher Test

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Peirene interns are intelligent, motivated individuals before they even startgeography-fieldwork-photos-144working with us. However, by the time they finish interning here, they have developed a set of unique skills, I am sure any future employer would be thrilled to have.

So how do the Peirene ladies train them up?

Not everyone who applies receives an interview. And not everyone who is interviewed obtains a place.

It’s a careful selection process. After all, the intern has to satisfy all three Peirene ladies. The Nymph wants spark. Maddy is looking for the ability to conceive of literature as a marketable product. And I’m searching for signs of initiative and thinking outside the box.

Furthermore, we do not offer:

Photocopying experience: I like to do this myself because it gives me a break from intellectually more demanding work.

Tea making experience: Maddy likes to do that, for same reason as I like photocopying.

Spoon feeding: We assume that by the time people have reached their early twenties, they are able to eat with knife and fork.

And this is the exposure we provide:

Transferral of skills: How to use skills learned at school and university in a work environment and employ them to use tangible results.

Development of projects: We encourage our interns to deliver projects of lasting impact. Will, our first intern, set up the Novella page, Alex (our second intern) researched and approached gift shops to stock our books. Andrew, our current intern, is setting up the Peirene Nanowrimo writing competition for us.

Dishwasher loading: how to stack up a dishwasher in a most economical way.

This last point is unique to Peirene. And usually proves to be the biggest challenge for any intern.

The intern lunches with Maddy and me in the kitchen. We tend to have soup, bread and cheese. Afterwards the dishwasher is stacked. When in the evening I open the dishwasher I can see if it was done correctly. I strongly believe that if you know how to stack a dishwasher you are in control of your life and thoughts. I have learnt this wisdom from my mother. My children and husband have so far not succeeded. They load the dishwasher without any method. Our current intern Andrew, however, has great potential. He will be with Peirene until Christmas. By then he will be a master-loader of the dishwasher, a marketer of fine literature and a worthy candidate for the best jobs in publishing.