Books: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture
Under the glass-and-steel canopy of the Business Design Centre in Islington, the Citron Press this week launched its much-heralded alternative to vanity publishing. This airy Victorian shed used to be the Agricultural Hall, back in the days when many Islingtonians knew more about the soil than you can glean from the salad menu at Granita. Its 1980s rebranding brought in shiny hi-tech outfits and a title heavy with the buzzwords of the age.

Underneath, though, it remains the same old Aggie. So does Citron offer anything more than a cosmetic makeover to the often shady trade of paying someone else to print your cherished manuscript?

I think it does, although its true significance exceeds the balm it offers to disgruntled authors rebuffed by established imprints. After a quality- control process to weed out sub-standard work, Citron will edit, print and promote your book for a fee of pounds 400 (or pounds 399.99, to be exact - the founders have plenty of form in the dark arts of marketing). It will then be sold in as many shops as possible (so far, and predictably, the independents rather than the chains have bitten hardest), via a dedicated website, and through a special book club. Members of the club - participating authors, and anyone else who wants to join - will be asked for feedback on the titles that they read. The highest-scoring books will be submitted to mainstream publishers, with this handy market test already done.

Nikki and Steve Connors, the husband-and-wife team who created Citron, have neatly side-stepped the miasma of misleading claims about sales, advertising and reviews that gives some "commission" publishers such a pungent name. Derek Johns, an agent at A P Watt who has campaigned against the scams and lies of the vanity presses, accepts that Citron has brought new standards of straightforwardness to the cash-for-copies business.

"They don't give authors a lot of flannel about having written a masterpiece," he comments, and neither does Citron make false promises about the likely distribution of their books. "The absence of deceit is the key difference here."

Bruce Durie, one of the six authors in Citron's initial batch, argues that the speed of the process may appeal to some established writers driven to despair by the snail crawl of much trad publishing. Citron can move "from disc to book in less than three months. That's pretty amazing for an industry that moves at a glacial pace," he says.

Durie explains that he was once asked by a major Canadian house for a $4,000 contribution to costs before they would accept a book as a "joint venture" - one of several recent signs that the ancient practice of author- subsidised publishing may be staging a comeback in some highly respectable places.

So much for the pitch. What about the quality of Citron's opening crop? In a nutshell, the list of titles (all pounds 5.99) comprises solid genre pieces, each confident enough but pretty close to a safe commercial niche. So Bruce Durie's The High History of the Holy Quail belongs firmly in Terry Pratchett's comic-fantasy land; Richard Baum's Bombay Mix offers lively subcontinental satire in the Rushdie and Irving mould; and the Railway Man theme of the embittered Far-East POW in search of peace and reconciliation resurfaces in Peter Rhodes's memoir To Japan to Lay a Ghost. Meanwhile, Nick Johnston-Jones's advertising romp Toilet Elephant manages a brisk workplace farce, with romantic grace notes, at least as well as several of its much-hyped laddish peers.

Only Going Indigo by Sam North - the most experienced of this bunch, with four novels to his credit - seems to be treading really new ground in its off-beat, child's-eye black comedy. A word of warning, though: this Sam North teaches creative writing on Humberside, but is definitely not the same Sam North who already publishes well-regarded fiction with Secker & Warburg and has a new novel due in October.

As for the production values of the Citron stable, the covers have a bright but slightly rough-and-ready feel. I didn't much care for the grim sanserif typeface inside. On the other hand, the editing never sank to the depths of carelessness that you can sometimes encounter in Top Five bestsellers from the corporate giants.

I suspect that the real revolution in the making here lies in Citron's ability to print small batches of each book (in theory, even single copies) on demand from its readers. This low-cost "just-in-time" production (JIT) can eliminate expensive stockholding and ensure that titles never go "out of print" in the traditional, frustrating way. Some academic houses can already order very short-run reprints for specialist monographs.

There's no reason why general publishing should not follow suit. Best arranged in combination with on-line chapter samples and sales, JIT publishing could help to haul books out of the 19th-century mass-production era in which many are called to authorship, few chosen, and success depends primarily on the sheer volume of copies shifted.

A time of small-scale, open-access print communication might be just around the electronic corner. But surely, with 100,000 new titles already gushing from the British presses every year, more will mean worse? We should worry about that when our billion-pound, star-studded conglomerate publishers take the trouble to hire copy-editors with a sound command of English spelling and grammar. Until then, let a hundred flowers bloom, and a literary orchard grow up around Citron.

Citron Press authors' helpline: 0800 0136 533; Citron Press Book Club information: 0845 602 2202.