Arifa Akbar: Enlightened idea for new publishing

The week in books

There is a lot of talk of 'new publishing' these days - a way for publishers to better relate to readers (and thereby sell more books, one supposes). Perhaps this is the idea behind Bloomsbury's announcement to stage a series of literary salons. The publisher is certainly riding on the back of a trend that has proved its success in relating to readers, and which appears to be having an impact on reading choices and book sales too.

Every publisher must pray for the hallowed 'word-of-mouth' effect when they take on a new writer, and the literary salon is one way to create a buzz. If you want to be cynical about it, it is a cut price way of marketing in our straitened times - by turning the poor author into ever more the performer.

Or so I first assumed. Having talked to writers and readers who turn up to these informal literary gatherings which began some years ago in back-rooms and didn't cost a thing to attend (based on the original Enlightenment model) I have become a hard-and-fast advocate of 'new publishing' of this kind.

Authors speak with genuine excitement about them. Many try out works-in-progress. They enter into a conversation not only with a book-loving audience, but also with fellow writers. When Alex Preston read his debut work, The Bleeding City, at Damian Barr's now-legendary salon at Shoreditch House, in East London, he fell into a debate with Lee Rourke and John MacGregor who argued for the uses of writing first drafts in long-hand rather than directly onto a computer. That was three years ago and Preston has been using long-hand ever since that conversation.

The solitary nature of writing means that there are very few places to have these kinds of conversations – book readings are often too formal and literary festival tend to draw much bigger audiences and there is the pressure to shift a table of books at the end of an event.

Even though salons might serve up subliminal marketing opportunities, they are, ironically, wonderfully anti-commerical at the same time. When Faber & Faber launched a monthly salon in June, authors outside their publishing stable were also invited to talk. Mary Morris, who runs the salon, says they initially sold the respective authors' books on the night of the salon but found that people were more interested in what the authors had to say, not in buying books (particularly with a G&T in hand), so the books were swiftly taken away.

Barr, who will take his Salon to New York and San Francisco next year, remembers his first event at Shoreditch House which took place in a tiny room, with writers and readers sitting on the floor. "People were slightly nervous at first. They weren't used to the idea of readers and writers being put on a par."

Yet this levelling proved its success. His salon was where many authors decided to launch their books, or test out their works-in-progress. It was where David Nicolls launched his bestselling novel, One Day, and where Helen Fielding read pages from her latest, unfinished instalment of Bridget Jones' Diary. Three years on, it has remained free of charge, with a drink and a slice of pizza thrown in, and a policy never to sell books at the salon. "If there is pressure to buy the book or pressure on an author to sell them" he says, "then they are not focusing on the story. It turns into a Tupperware party for books, and takes away from the social experience."

The British Council recently asked Barr to try out one of his salons on Moscow, where there tends to be less reader-author interaction. The author, Jonathan Lee, went along and says it felt like a genuine cultural exchange. By the end of the event, a Russian publisher had expressed an interest in translating a novel by Sam Leith, and Linor Goralik, the Russian poet, expressed interest in appearing in a London salon next year.

We have seen the rise of the public lecture and evening talks of late, which suggests there is a growing appetite for collective events in which brain-cells are stimulated. Nigel Newton, founder of Bloomsbury Publishing, makes the point that salons takes place in those few hours when we have left the office, before we have sat down for dinner. It is a window in which like-minded people tear themselves away from the tyranny of their screens – computers, Kindles, iPhones, televisions - to talk to authors, and to each other. An interregnum from lives lived increasingly virtually.

If this is 'new publishing', it sounds a far better deal than the old.

The imaginarium of Paul Auster

While the New York novelist, Paul Auster, has written a number of screenplays, he has not adapted one of his strongest novels that seem perfect for the big screen. Terry Gilliam is doing the job for him. Collecting a filmmaker's tribute award at the Marrakech Film Festival last week, he spoke of his next project, to adapt Mr Vertigo, a fabulous quest story revolving around a young orphan boy from St Louis who chances upon an elderly, mysterious stranger, Master Yehudi, who trains him to fly, whereupon they become their own kind of travelling circus show across America. A great road movie, and perfectly suited to Gilliam's love of fantasy.

Coffee table chameleon

Boy George launched his limited edition coffee table book this week, though it sounds more of a "piece" than a book. 'King of Queens' includes unseen personal photographs, school reports, a baby book (!) and personal letters. Each one is signed and certified and includes a 10ins disc vinyl, hand-built into the back cover, featuring unheard and unreleased material, and presented in a silkscreen printed, cloth-bound clam-shell case. Or so I'm told. The shell-case, by the way, has a gold leaf finish and features embossed blocking, whatever that may be. All for £499 plus postage and packing.

It sounds exquisite, though I can't help but be reminded of the coffee table book catastrophe scene from Roman Polanski's adaptation of Yasmina Reza's 'Carnage', which features a vomiting Kate Winslet, an outraged Jodie Foster, a very precious, very soggy coffee table book and a hairdryer. For all those who chose to buy 'King of Queens', perhaps think of keeping it in its clam-shell case.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

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