I love publishers’ catalogues. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not pervy about them, I don’t collect them, I don’t fetishise the ones which extravagantly promise books that the authors somehow never get round to writing, and I’ll quite happily bury them all in the bottom drawer once I’ve given them the once-over and throw old ones away without a second’s thought.
What I really love, I suppose, is the hope they contain. Each of their listed books is going to win glittering prizes or amazing sales, and is wafted on its journey with orgasmic hype. Reality will only strike later on, whether through a critical lancing or – far more likely – a failure to stand out from the crowd in the world’s most crowded books market.
Some authors, of course, don’t need the hard sell. With Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, all Faber has to do is to gently remind you that The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go each sold over a million in Faber editions alone, that the films based on them did rather well, and that his seventh novel, The Buried Giant (out in February) is his first for ten years. All Fourth Estate needs point out about Jonathan Franzen, whose novel Purity is out in September, is that he also wrote The Corrections and Freedom. All Doubleday needs to do to draw your attention to Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, out in May, is that it tells the story of Ursula Todd’s younger brother, poet and bomber pilot, and you will of course remember Ursula from Life After Life, which sold so heavily that if you’re reading this, the chances are that it’s on your shelves too.
And so it goes, with all those in that select band of writers whose talent is already so copiously proven as to fall into the category of the bleedin’ obvious. Anne Tyler, my own favourite novelist, whose 20th novel, out next month will, she says, be her last. Simon Schama, most stylish writer among the planet’s historians, with The Face of Britain, out in September. In May, Anthony Beevor with Ardennes 1944, its importance underlined by the sub-title; “The Battle That Broke the Wehrmacht”. In April, August, and October Alexander McCall Smith’s latest Isobel Dalhousie, 44 Scotland Street and No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels will hit the bookshelves, with Stories of Love, a standalone book of short stories based on anonymous photographs, to follow in November. Each one of these authors has this in common: they’ve been tried, tested, and not found wanting by millions. No further tricks of the catalogue copywriter’s trade are needed.
It’s the same with memoirs. Elvis Costello, after 40 years in the business, surely won’t need much help in shifting copies of his autobiography, due out in September from Viking. Grace Jones too: I’d buy her book just to find out more about that time when she was working as a model in Paris and sharing a flat with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange. Was that really as much fun in real life as it is in my imagination?
It’s only five years since fashion designer Alexander McQueen committed suicide, but there are two biographies about him this spring; Andrew Wilson writes about his tormented inner life in Blood under the Skin, while Dana Thomas in Gods and Kings looks at how he and John Galliano (whom he followed at Givenchy in 1996) transformed the world of fashion. Elsewhere, John Man offers what we are told is the “definitive” biography of Saladin, Claire Harman gets in a study of Charlotte Brontë a full year before her bicentenary, and Paul Scott, in Motherless Child, writes about Eric Clapton ahead of his (goodness, is that the time already?) 70th birthday.
Among Scottish writers, the catalogues give us advance notice of novels from Andrew O’Hagan (The Illuminations); the late Iain Banks’s debut poetry collection, edited by his good friend Ken McLeod and due out next month; new novels from Louise Welsh, James Naughtie, Christopher Rush, Karen Campbell, Christopher Brookmyre; and what sounds like a fascinating SF debut by West Highland Free Press deputy editor Michael F Russell.
Are there, you ask, any trends among next year’s books? My gut instinct says no, but then maybe there are so many books about gut health that maybe that’s a trend in itself. I spotted three new ones this spring: Follow Your Gut, Love Your Gut, and Gut Feeling, all by different authors, although the last – by the photogenic German science writer Giuilia Enders, has sold half a million in Germany, helped by its insistence that the gut, “one of the most complex, important and wondrous” parts of our anatomy, might have a bearing even on our mental health.
And it’s that quote about the gut that exemplifies what I mean about catalogue hype. The gut might indeed be amazing, might play a role in everything from obesity to Alzheimer’s, but you or I would never think about buying a book about it unless you are made to think how unique and how important the human bowel is.
The war in Afghanistan is another example. A nasty, but geopolitically insignificant conflict, you might think; but in the catalogues the entry for Christina Lamb’s The Retreat points out that it is the longest war that the US has ever fought in its entire history and the longest one Britain has been involved in since the Hundred Years’ War. As Scotland was largely sidelined in that medieval England-France clash, does that mean that Afghanistan is our longest war ever too? Seduced by the catalogues’ hype, I’m only asking.
The other thing catalogues do is make you feel out of touch. Publishers love that, because it means they can aim to produce books to fill those mental gaps. Give them the right title, and the phrase can even enter the vocabulary, which is what Douglas McWilliams must be hoping he will happen with The Flat White Economy. What is the Flat White Economy, you invariably ask: the answer is the one centred on London’s East End which has replaced the old bankers-and-supercars culture of the City and which, he maintains, is the real reason London is growing one and a half times faster than Hong Kong.
Post-Romantic Stress Disorder is another example: almost inevitably, sometime in the next six months you will find yourself reading (or flicking past) a feature based on John Bradshaw’s book of this title, which argues that 40 per cent of perfectly good relationships are jettisoned because of unrealistic expectations of enduring romance, and that this failure to recognise unlovely reality should be treated as a serious psychological disorder.
Then there are the books that don’t need any publicist’s help: they just intrigue. Tory MEP Struan Stevenson on Life With the Mojahedin, out in June from Birlinn: what on earth, you wonder, has he been up to there? Did you know that 130,000 members of the PMOI, the Iranian opposition group, Stevenson was studying have been executed? Me neither.
Or again: can you follow Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s arguments in A Beautiful Question (Allen Lane) that beauty is the fundamental organising principle of the universe? How did gangsters nearly wreck Manchester’s nightlife, and what has David Peace to say about Goth clubs in Leeds? (Answers in Mirrorballs and Wonderwalls, Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam’s book on British nightclubbing.) Nightclubbing, exiled Iranians, and the secrets of the universe all within just a few pages of each other: I hope I’m at least hinting why publishers’ catalogues might appeal.
One last reason. They give the first glimpse of new ideas, new projects, even new imprints. In Birlinn’s case, it means the first view of their new Birlinn Children’s imprint, which gets underway in the late spring and summer with two books that draw heavily on JM Barrie and Peter Pan, and link up with the restoration of Moat Brae House in Dumfries.
It was in the gardens of this house – which a local trust has saved from destruction and hopes to open as Scotland’s Centre for Children’s Literature – that JM Barrie spent the happiest days of his life. After studying at Dumfries Academy just around the corner, he’d go to his friend’s house to play. “As night began to fall,” he wrote, “certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries Garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”
Sixteen String Jack and the Garden of Adventure is Tom Pow’s take on that true story, as Sixteen String Jack was the nickname for the boy who, as Barrie, produced one of the most famous characters in children’s literature. Beautifully illustrated by Ian Andrew, the book – which is due out in May – will also raise money for Moat Brae House’s restoration.
Two months later, it will be followed by the first-ever graphic novel of Peter Pan, by Edinburgh-based illustrator Stephen White. Six years in the making, his artwork in the book – truer to its spirit and darker than anything Disney’s animators dreamed up – is based on the gardens in Moat Brae House itself.
There’s a wonderful circularity in all of this. The garden playtimes of Barrie’s Dumfries childhood become a book which, more than a century later, becomes another book, which returns to that very garden where he played and from which he drew inspiration. Royalties from the book go, in part, to Great Ormond Street, so the circle of goodness widens still further. The project helps set up a new children’s publisher, so it grows wider still. And when you first read about it in the catalogues, you realise that not everything about them is hype. There’s hope too.