A new twist in the plot

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The Independent Online
AMONG the corporate-identity consultancies paid handsomely to hold brainstorming sessions and come up with titles such as "Diageo" and "egg", one marketing genius proved his worth after receiving a brief from a publishing house to devise a name evoking core brand values like "refreshing", "strong" and "zestful". His suggestion was spot-on: Citron Press. So take a bow, Nico Connors. He received no payment and he's eight years old.

Nico is the son of Steve and Nikki Connors, the husband-and-wife team who founded Citron last year in the belief that if everyone has a novel in them, it's up to the book industry to help get it out. Citron has been described as a "vanity publisher" - the sort of place that will put unknown authors writing about psychotic warthogs into print because the authors are paying for the privilege. However, vanity publisher is what Citron is not - because writers will only to have pay any money if the company thinks their books will sell.

If that sounds an odd sort of arrangement, it is because Citron has changed both the rules and economics of publishing. While the large companies vie for big-name authors to sell out huge print runs, Citron takes on little-known writers to fulfil small print runs.

It works like this. The budding novelist sends his unsolicited manuscript into Citron along with a cheque for just under pounds 400. Citron guarantees to read the novel and, if it doesn't think anyone will want to read it, returns the script along with the money and a letter explaining why it was rejected. This letter will contain more detail than "lacks only a beginning, middle and end".

Should the work be accepted, it will be distributed through bookshops, Citron's internet site or the company's own book club - the sort of scheme where readers are offered incentives to purchase, say, six titles in the first 12 months of membership. Each book in Citron's collection comes with a "critique card" encouraging readers to provide feedback. This instant market research helps the company to spot potential best-sellers and step up its promotional efforts accordingly.

While the money lodged by published authors allows Citron to cover its overheads, its biggest financial boost has come from "Print on Demand" technology. On the market since 1993 and so far used mainly for manuals and business reports, POD makes it economically viable to print exactly the number of copies that readers have ordered - be it 100 or one. And this, in turn, takes a lot of the financial risk out of publishing unknown authors: there'll be no remaindered copies and no pulped fiction. Meanwhile, Citron will be far less likely to bemoan "the ones that got away".

The company does not expect its book club to break even for 18 months or so because of the costs involved in offering reader discounts. In the meantime, therefore, it is trying to raise around pounds 650,000 by issuing 1.3 million shares at 50p each. The offer closes on Tuesday, though it is not believed the shares come in the form of a book token.

It could be a good investment. Ms Connors says that with the overheads covered, all book sales are pure profit - and Citron expects to publish 300 titles in the next year. If you don't believe that unknown authors can bring big returns, look at the sales figures achieved by Nicholas Evans for The Horse Whisperer or Alex Garland for The Beach. And then there are the book rights. If mainstream publishers want new fiction with a low risk and a demonstrable market, they can take a look at Citron's list. Citron may then be able to sell additional rights and take both its earnings and the author into the big time.

Nevertheless, anecdotal reports from publishers and literary agents suggest that nine out of 10 unsolicited manuscripts are dire. So in setting itself up as the great hope of the little guy, isn't there a worry that Citron will be swamped with lemons? Possibly, says Ms Connors, but it has a big team of freelance readers and every book will be read.

So you don't need a bottle of whisky to work at Citron, but it helps. Now back to that bodice-ripping pot-boiler about a one-eyed gerbil called Silvio.

Gifts from the nick

FED UP with visiting the same old crowded malls to do your Christmas shopping? Then why not take a walk on the wild side and visit the toughest gift emporium of them all - the San Quentin State Prison in California.

According to the American magazine Mother John, San Quentin's inmates - to a man, lovable rogues who are good to their mums - have come up with a novel way of earning their keep. They craft products, for sale in the prison gift shop, which offer an ironic twist on their own limited existence. Among the gifts is a paperweight complete with watchtower, rocks, and ball and chain. Gallows humour would not be the right phrase, but it can be said with some confidence that these are the world's first post-modernist prisoners.

Apparently, the inmates use their earnings to pay for movies (Papillon, Escape from Alcatraz, that sort of thing) or to spend on such items as deodorant or shampoo. I wonder if they use Wash'n'Go?