Archive for the ‘Publishing in the 21century’ Category

New Hair Colour

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Peirene walks into the office and I barely recognise her. She has changed her hair colour to purple and green and is wearing a gothic inspired lacy black dress. Her nails and lips are painted a dark purple.8451909095_6854ee9945_z

‘Wow!’ I exclaim. ‘Where are you going after work?’

‘Nowhere.’ She turns on her computer. ‘But it’s important to keep up standards, even in the office.’ She opens our homepage. ‘And talking about which…I don’t like our website any longer. I hate the pink. It’s so dated. So early 21st century. Brrr,’ she shivers. ‘I simply can’t bear to look at it any longer.’ She closes the browser, then turns to me. ‘We need a new website.’

I shake my head. ‘And a new website costs a lot of money.’

‘A website is like a dress.’ The Nymph leans back in her chair and puts one leg over the other. ‘People judge us by it. ‘ She pretends to hold a cigarette between her index and middle finger. ‘We are trendy and edgy,’ She throws me a quick, sceptical glance, ‘well, at least I am. And so our website needs to reflect that. It has become far too convoluted, is not interactive enough. It feels like an old, heavy, pre-historic creature. An e-commerce dinosaur.’

A few days later, the subject comes up again. James takes me to one side: ‘I receive more and more complaints from readers who try to order our books via our website. Our shop page is just not user friendly enough. I worry that we are losing sales. You should look into getting a new website.’

If we are losing sales, we need to address the issue. And our website is now nearly nine year old. Maybe it’s time for an update, after all. So I pick up the phone and arrange to meet Tom, our webdesigner.

‘Do you want to come with me?’ I ask Peirene, expecting her to be thrilled that I have finally kicked into action. But the Nymph doesn’t appear very happy.

‘You listen to James. But not to me. I’m not sure I want to be involved now. My feelings…my feelings have been very hurt.’ She turns hers back on me.

‘James gave me a valid reason.  I wasn’t sure that just because you are now into black and dark purple we should spend all that money.‘

For a moment she continues looking away from me. Then I hear her sigh.

‘Oh well, I guess I have to come. I dare not imagine what you and Tom – two middle aged people – come up with if a trendy Greek Nymph doesn’t keep an eye on it.’

As she turns back to me I notice that today she is even wearing dark purple eyeshadow. Luckily I trust Tom to design us a website that will have a timeless quality rather than reflect the Nymph’s fashion interests of the moment.

Image by Wicker Paradise, creative commons.

Living With Builders

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

‘My nerves, my nerves. I can’t deal with this any longer. I’m only a Nymph. I want them out of the house NOW! All of them!’4378302122_bf5782d121_z

Peirene is sitting in the corner of the sofa in her PJs, hugging her legs to her chest. She has one hot water bottle by her feet and another clutched to her tummy. An empty cup of hot chocolate is standing by her side, and a plate with the last crumbs of a Nutella toast on the floor.

She’s talking about the builders. Since the end of September, each morning, Monday to Saturday at 8am on the dot seven of them turn up to work inside our house, outside our house, on top of our house. Privacy has gone out of the window. Everything is covered in dust. We spend our evenings moving the contents of one room into the next and then into the next.

A few months ago the roof of our house began caving in. It quickly became apparent that the entire top had to be taken off and rebuilt. Peirene and I saw our chance. We could convert the attic into the office and finally – after nearly 10 years – move out of the front room. But of course this meant breaking through the ceiling to create a staircase. Once you are doing that you might as well repaint all the rooms and sort out the plumbing and electrics. And then, since the scaffolding is up, we should repoint the outside walls to prevent damp and double-glaze the windows to save energy. The builders are progressing fantastically and are set to leave on schedule by Christmas.

But suddenly it’s all proving too much for an Ancient Greek Nymph.

‘I’m not moving from this sofa corner until the builders have left. Left for good. And I will eat Nutella toast, morning, noon and night. Because it’s the only thing left that makes me feel happy. And I don’t care if it’s healthy or not. Because anyway my life has turned into utter misery.’ Peirene is letting her head hang down in glorious self-pity.

For a moment I’m standing in front of her and don’t know what to do. Then I grab her by the wrist, pulling her with me. We climb the ladder up into the loft. The velux windows are in now and the plastering has been done too. It’s starting to take shape. I explain to her that we will both have desks, but so too will James and the intern. The printer and franking machine will no longer have to live on the floor, and there will be plenty of storage space for the boxes with books.

‘A proper adult office!’ Peirene has perked up again. Half an hour later she is dressed. ‘I’m off to scan the second hand shops for a little round table and chairs. So we can have proper company meetings. There is space for that too in our new office. How exciting!’

‘Wait!’ I hold her back. ‘I’m not sure we have any money left for extras.’

She waves at me. ‘Don’t worry. I sense that from our new office we will conquer the world.’

Image by JD Hancock, creative commons.

A Warrior’s Spell

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

‘Oh, my god! This is awful!’ On Friday morning Peirene and I starred in shock and disbelief at the referendum results. I felt the 4415693080_930297196c_zNymph next to me gasping for air, then tears began to roll down her cheeks. I searched for her hand and held it tight.

‘I’m going back to bed,’ she eventually said. ‘Maybe this is all a bad dream.’

She didn’t reappear for the rest of the day. In the evening I woke her up and encouraged her to eat and drink something. She did me the favour but then went straight to sleep again. I sat by her bed and stroked her head. I was worried about her. Would my little Nymph slide into depression? Or worse: leave me and this country for good?

The next morning as I emerged from an erratic sleep, I could hear commotion from the next room. My heart stood still. This could mean only one thing: Peirene was packing her suitcases.

I jumped out of bed.  ‘Don’t go!’ I shrieked and tore open the door to the office.

A most peculiar scene presented itself to me.

Peirene was standing in the middle of the room. She was wearing a rag that resembled a tunic and on her head the old plastic viking helmet that my son used to play with when he was four or five – she must have found it in the attic.  In her hand she was holding the kitchen broom like a spear. Around herself she had organised in a circle hundreds of our books. She was pointing her broom-spear from one book to the next, muttering incomprehensible words.

The Nymph had gone mad! I now noticed her red cheeks, a gleaming wild look in her eyes. She must be burning with a fever way beyond 40C. I had to get her to hospital straight away. I stepped forward.

‘Don’t!’ she hissed, directing the broom head at me. ‘You might break the spell!’

I froze. After all, unsettled nymphs might become violent. So I decided not to risk a confrontation and ambled downstairs into the kitchen. I brewed up a pot of tea and waited.


‘We have a lot of work ahead of us.’ Peirene sits down opposite me and pours herself a cup of tea. She is back in her jeans and T-Shirt, her hair in a neat pony tail, her face calm.

‘So you are not leaving me?’ I watch her carefully. Then add with a lump in my throat: ‘And you’re not losing your mental stability?’ I prefer to put things on the table.

Peirene throws me a surprised glance. ‘Leave? Now? Mental stability? The referendum has made clear what we’ve always suspected: this country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then it will change for the better.’ She pauses. ‘We have an important mission that hasn’t yet been accomplished. We can’t give up half way.’

‘And your show upstairs,’ I nod towards the ceiling. ’What was that about?’

‘Something I will now do every morning. It’s an ancient ritual that gives power to our books to penetrate to the heart even of the most closed Brexiteer.’ Suddenly her face breaks out in a smile. ‘I have to admit: I don’t know if it will work. Brexiteers are hard nuts to crack. But it has made me feel more positive. And that’s a good start.’

Image by Erick E Castro, creative commons.

Debating The EU

Monday, June 13th, 2016

‘So, let’s look at the facts,’ the Nymph says matter-of-factly. ‘We’ve tried to get media attention for our EU Remain Open letter and have failed. And that’s despite the fact that we have collected more than 220 signatures, including writers Sara photoMaitland, Marina Warner, Sarah Waters and publishers Adam Freudenheim at Pushkin, Max Porter at Granta and Will Atkinson from Atlantic. The Guardian said: “I’m afraid we decided that our EU writers piece was the Review contribution – and I suspect the letters page will feel they’ve carried a cultural open letter already. Sorry!” – The Economist said: “However, our policy is not to publish open letters, or any letter that has run whole or in part elsewhere.” – ‘No one has run our letter,’ Peirene adds, then continues her list: ‘The Sunday Times stated: “Unfortunately the mailbag on the subject gets bigger and as a Sunday paper we have a limited time frame to the countdown so it is unlikely to be included.” And the TLS in the last minutes before going to print even cut our statement out of their EU edition.’

‘The publisher of the TLS apologized in a personal email to me,’ I throw in. ‘And subsequently they added our piece online.’

Peirene shrugs her shoulders, unimpressed. ‘Seen in isolation, each individual reaction appears excusable. But taken together this points to a shockingly weak stand of the creative and media industries on the EU referendum. The bookies are showing that the Brexit camp is catching up by the hour and Remain is no longer a certain outcome.’ Peirene lends forward, hugging her tummy with both arms. ‘This whole thing gives me a stomach cramp.’ She distorts her face in pain. ‘Any responsible newspaper should shout from the rooftops that writers, publishers, academics – leaders in thought and imagination – are for staying in. They should print letters like ours that go beyond the argument of money and migration and show the danger of an isolationism.’

‘We are not famous enough,’ I explain. ‘That’s why they have no interest in publishing our letter.’

‘Not famous enough!’ The Nymph is now hyperventilating. ‘We are one of the leading publishers of foreign fiction in this county. Our books are on major prize lists every single year. And we do more than anyone else to spread the word of foreign lit with our pop-up stalls outside supermarkets and distributing newspapers at tube stations.

Peirene is beside herself.

‘And you, Meike. You always pretend to be so cool in this blog. But you are not! Weren’t you wondering the other day if this is what it might have felt like in Germany in the 1930s when everyone knew that something bad was about to happen but too many people looked the other way until it was too late?’

‘Peirene!’ It’s now my turn to be outraged. ‘You can’t say that – at least not out loud.’

Peirene raises an eyebrow. ‘You have become more British than the Brits.’ She sighs. ‘Luckily you have me as your saving grace.’

I see her heading out of the office with a poster in her hand. She hangs it into the window of our front room for everyone to see. Keep Calm and Stay In the EU, it says.

A Wild Beast

Monday, April 25th, 2016

I’m watching the Nymph from the balcony on the first floor. She’s in the back garden trying to balance on top of the fence that separates us from our neighbours.20514854711_c9b21fa8a2_z

Truth to tell she’s not very good at balancing. Again and again she topples over onto our recently planted flowerbed. I’m not impressed.

‘Peirene, don’t destroy all the nice plants,’ I call down.

Peirene, scrambling to her feet, throws me a dismissive glance. She brushes off the dirt from her legs and hands and clambers up the fence.

‘What I’m doing here serves a larger purpose. I need to understand what it feels like to sit on the fence. There must be benefits otherwise people wouldn’t be doing it.’ She straightens, wobbles, but manages – just for a moment – to stay on top.

Suddenly I understand what this is all about. We’ve drawn up an open letter to be published on our website and in a broadsheet newspaper. In this letter we explain why, from a cultural point of view, it is vital that the UK remains in the EU. Last week we started collecting signatures for it – from cultural institutions, publishers, writers, journalists, literary critics, academics. We received enthusiastic responses. But a number declined to sign with the explanation that their job requires them to remain impartial. Each time such an email dropped into our inbox, the Nymph couldn’t hold back her outrage. ‘Aren’t they aware that if the UK leaves the EU, the country takes a step towards isolation. A vibrant, leading culture needs impulses from the outside. Brexit means cultural death for this island.’

The Nymph now sways dangerously from side to side, her arms flailing. I can see that she’s trying to fall onto our side. But – oh dear – she goes down the other way. Fifi, the aggressive little fox terrier from next door, has been observing the spectacle. This is what she has been waiting for. She races towards Peirene yapping hysterically. I laugh out loud as I watch the Nymph throwing herself back over the fence as quickly as possible, landing with her face in the mud.

Back in the kitchen I help Peirene to clean herself up. I expect her to be in a bad mood. But far from it. She’s thrilled with her adventure.

‘You see, I’ve proven my point. If you try to sit on the fence you might end up falling on the wrong side. And while I could get back to safety this country, after Brexit, will face dangers far worse than Fifi.’

Image by localpups, creative commons.

Fighting Spirit

Monday, January 11th, 2016

‘Oh, I’m fed up!’ the Nymph lifts the piece of paper she is holding in her hands up to the level of her face and then tears it demonstratively apart right through the middle.20700379740_392b48e826_z

‘Peirene!’ I exclaim. ‘This is not the way to start the New Year.’ It’s our first day back in the office and we are sorting the post. ‘What did you just rip up?’

‘The rejection from the Arts Council of our funding application for helping to market our 2016 Fairy Tale series,’ she replies with defiance. ‘They deserve some rough treatment.’ She’s about to rip the halves into quarters.

But I’m quicker and pull the paper out of her hands. ‘Don’t! We need to file them.’

‘File this letter?!’ Peirene shrieks indignantly. ‘Did you read it?’ I nod. ‘Well, I guess then you know that their rejection doesn’t make sense. They say that they do not wish to fund marketing. And then in the next sentence they write that a more innovative approach to audience-building would have strengthened our application.’ Peirene jumps up from the chair, rolling her eyes. ‘Duh! Audience-building is marketing.’ She gasps for air. ‘And if there is one thing we are damn good at is building an audience with our salons and newspaper distribution and roaming store and …’

I interrupt her. ‘Have you finished? You don’t have to tell me. I know.’

‘…. and last year they rejected our application to take the roaming store across England’ She swallows the wrong way and starts to cough.

I tap her on the back. ‘Peirene, Peirene. Don’t get so agitated. They are simply perhaps not that keen on how we do things. But we know it works. And that’s what counts. ’ I pause. Then I add: ‘And we shouldn’t be unfair to the Arts Council. They’ve given us a lot of help over the years. Perhaps we are now grown up enough to go our own way.’

Peirene has stopped coughing. For a moment she is deep in thought. ‘You’re right.’ She straightens up.  She is now looking straight ahead with a fiery glow in her eyes.  ‘The year ahead will be tough. It will be a struggle. There will be tears. But we will get through it. And we will be the stronger for it at the other end.’

‘That’s the fighting spirit, my Nymph,’ I say and give her a kiss on the cheek.

Image by Eden Janine and Jim, creative commons.

Pink Champagne

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

‘I might just get a bit tipsy tonight.’ Peirene is standing in front of the fridge eying up the four bottles of pink Champagne I bought a couple of days ago.15963423579_3cf0c61453_z

‘These bottles aren’t all for you,’ I inform her. We are going to be nine people for our office Christmas party tonight: Sacha, Clara, Jen, Gianna, James, Eoin, Clare, Peirene and I. ‘And you can’t have a headache tomorrow, ‘ I throw the Nymph a worrying glance. Peirene and alcohol – even a single glass -  is like a game of Russian roulette. Sometimes she’s fine.  And sometimes not – struck down with a migraine for three days afterwards. ‘We still have a lot do before leaving the office for the Christmas break on Wednesday.’

‘I know. ’ She closes the fridge door and shuffles over to the kitchen table. ‘But admit it: you must have also wondered if there is actually any point in continuing at all after tonight. Haven’t you? Life will never be the same again.’ She sits down and buries her face in her hands.

Seeing the Nymph so upset, my heart warms towards her. I pull my chair close to hers and put my arm around her shoulders. For a while we both hang our heads.

Tonight we are going to say good-by to Clara and Jen.

Clara has worked for Peirene for two and a half years. She’s turned the Peirene annual newspaper from a catalogue into an exciting literary magazine, has increased our ebook sales by 500%, and has revamped our subscriber database so that we now know our readers individual literary needs.

Jen has worked for Peirene for three and half years. She has made the Roaming Store into what it is today – the perfect pop-up bookstore: knowledgeable, friendly, efficient. She trained 15 booksellers and ran over 300 stalls.  She has also set up the PeireneBookClub, turning it into one of the most stimulating reading groups in town.

‘It’s the end of an era,’ Peirene sniffles, and a tear runs down her cheek. I, too, feel a frog in my throat. Then suddenly I have an idea. ‘You and I we deserve an early glass of Champagne.’ I fill two glasses. We drink it in solemn silence. Peirene tops us up.

And soon the bubbles show their desired affect. A sparkle appears in the Nymph’s eye.

‘There is, however, one way I can imagine that life without Clara and Jen could become tolerable again: if we make it our custom to drink a glass of pink champagne in the late afternoon in their honour every day from now on.’

Image by Shari’s Berries, creative commons.

Musings under the Sun

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

A couple of weeks ago the UK publishing world was hit by a little storm. Kamila Shamsie, a well-known British novelist, has called on publishers in a Guardian article to bring out only female 11012234054_7f8f9c288e_zauthors in 2018. She wishes to redress an apparent imbalance in male and female published writers. A couple of publishing colleagues have responded and taken up the challenge.

When I tell the Nymph, she shrugs her shoulders: ‘Been there, done that.’ In 2012 our entire annual programme consisted of female authors. And overall we have a beautiful gender balance: 21 authors in total, 10 women, 11 men.

‘And may I be frank,’ she continues, ‘they are looking for a solution in the wrong place.’

We are having this conversation in the pocket-size garden of Peirene HQ. A beautiful afternoon with blue sky, sunshine and a lovely breeze. Peirene, in shorts and belly top, is lying on a deckchair under the cherry tree. On her kindle she is reading a Serbian novella in French translation to see if it might be a book for us in 2017 or 2018. I’m sitting at the table in front of my laptop, line editing our first 2016 title, The Man I Became by Flemish Peter Verhelst.

Peirene moves her sunglasses to the tip of her nose and directs the gaze over the brim straight at me.

‘As you very well know, the problem lies with the women writers and women readers.’ She sighs, adjust her shades and reaches with her free hand for the glass of lemonade that is standing on a little table next to her.

At the London Bookfair in April we met a number of national and international publishers who are desperate for more submissions by female literary fiction writers. The critical mass is missing. And as for readers, although the majority in the UK are women, most of them lack courage to step out of their comfort zone of thrillers and romance. And if they do, they often need to be guided by major prize winners. At the Roaming Store we spend most of our time trying to persuade (mainly) female readers to take a risk with something different. Men seem to be far quicker to be willing to make a bet on a new reading experience.

Peirene walks into the house and returns a few minutes later in her bikini. She hands me the sun cream. While I rub her back, I ask: ‘What about the Serbian novella, any good?’ The Nymph shakes her head. ‘No. And initially I was so excited by the prospect of publishing a Balkan story. But I’m on page 50. So far nothing has happened and I’m utterly bored.’ She rolls her eyes, adjusts her bikini and spreads her towel onto the grass. She lies down on her front and covers her head with a T-Shirt.

‘Is the author male or female?’ I wonder.

‘Don’t get me started,’ she mumbles, ready to drop off for a nap in the sun. ‘The story doesn’t feel alive. And that’s what matters. And to be honest, I can’t judge by the author’s name. Obviously not Greek,’ she chuckles. And in the next moment breathing comes and goes with the calm rhythm of a summer siesta.

Image by Pawel Pacholec.

Hero of the Revolution

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Last week I spoke at a TEDx conference about Contemporary Revolutions. I was surrounded by giants. The speaker before me was facebook’s policy director for 68766132_65f6fc03a8_zEurope, Middle East and Africa, Simon Milner. The speaker straight after was the Vice President of Spotify, Marc Hazan. Then came the founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts and Tom Hulme, General Partner of Google Ventures Europe.

Needless to say the Internet featured highly during the day. Milner spoke about how facebook can transform the cycle of friendship – sustaining connections that would otherwise have fallen away after school. Hazan used the success story of New Zealand teenage singer Lorde to demonstrate the power of the Internet to create a global audience overnight. And Roberts talked about the anonymity of most Mumsnet users and how such a set-up allows for honest conversation.

I, too, made reference to the Internet in my speech, pointing out that even a small, independent press like Peirene can now sell ebooks anywhere in the world and that twitter, facebook and blogging allows us to build and interact with a global community of readers.

So, the Internet was outed as a 21st century hero. Or was it?

‘None of the other speakers has talked about how they make their money,’ the Nymph whispered into my ear half way through the conference. ‘It’s all very well, talking about truthful chatter and overnight fame in the virtual world. But these Internet platforms employ a lot of people. So were is the money coming from?’

‘Shh,’ I hissed. ‘Making money is not the focal point of this conference.’

‘Well… revolutions need money… just saying. ’ Peirene continued. ‘You and I know that the Internet serves us well as a marketing tool. But we make our money primarily through subscriptions, the roaming store and our sold-out events.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘If you ask me, the Internet is a lot of fluff and empty air. People ultimately still want to belong to a real community, made of flesh and blood.’

‘Peirene, please be quiet.’ I was embarrassed sitting next to a whispering Nymph.

But Peirene continued: ‘One more point. Which were the slides of your speech that evoked the most reaction? The image of 50 adults on little plastic chairs in your front room, and you in your thick down jacket behind the stall at the farmers market. Humans love the real stuff. That was the case during ancient Greek times and it is still the case. The future of revolutions may depend not on a few Internet giants but on many small enterprises building and sustaining communities in the real world. So… now I will be quiet.’

And she indeed was, until the end of the conference.

Image by

The Founding of a Trades Union

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

‘Oh, no.’ I point to the typo on the back cover of our latest book. Peirene’s name has been misspelled in the web address.

‘How could that happen?’ The Nymph stares in disbelief.


I shake my head. ‘I don’t know. I approved the cover. Then the proofreader signed off too. Neither of us noticed the mistake.’ I feel deeply embarrassed. I search desperately for an excuse. Eventually I find one. ‘It must have been the Gremlin.’ I add with gathering confidence, ‘the same one who steals our post’.

‘You think so?’ Peirene asks doubtfully.

I nod vehemently. ‘Yes. I’m certain.’

Before I have time to utter another word, the Nymph jumps up from her desk, rushes over to the sofa. She kneels down in front of it and glances underneath. Then she is back on her feet, opening all the cupboard doors. ‘This time I will find him…,’ she raises her voice, ‘Do you hear me, you Gremlin,’ she shouts, her face flushed. ‘You do not cross an Ancient Greek Nymph.’ She hurries out of the office. I hear her searching the house from top to bottom. She is banging doors, moving furniture, even looking behind picture frames on the wall. Because Gremlins can hide anywhere.

In the meantime I return to my work, pleased that I am no longer being blamed – but not entirely at ease with myself.

Then the ceiling above my head starts to shake.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ I stop at the door to my son’s room from where the commotion is coming.

Peirene is lying on her front. She has removed a couple of floorboards and is prodding a cricket bat into the space between the joints, knocking every now and again against the ceiling of Peirene HQ. I gently bring her to her feet.

‘That’s enough,’ I tell her. ‘The house is old, the ceilings are shaking, and there are no Gremlins hiding here.’

‘But he must be somewhere!’ Peirene exclaims.

I take a deep breath. I have no choice. I need to own up to my mistake.

‘Overlooking the typo was a human error. The proofreader or I should have picked up on it. I’m sorry that we misspelled your name.’

We fix the floorboards in silence. I head back to my desk. When Peirene walks into the office fifteen minutes later, her aura has visibly changed. She has washed the dust off her hands and face and is beaming contentedly.

‘The Gremlin has come out of his hiding place, ‘she announces. ‘We had a chat.’ Her eyes glitter with cheeky delight. ‘And we have decided to found a  Trades Union for gremlins, nymphs and other ancient spirits. We need to defend ourselves from being unjustly blamed for human shortcomings.’

Image by Prayitno.