Let's Us Praise and Ponder Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Over the years, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website has been a go-to for jokes about the disconnect between the publishing industry and how the Internet works. I really don’t think I can come up with enough insults about the total disfunction of HMH’s website. Basically, it looks like something an MBA put together after waking up from a wet dream about working for Deloitte.
So, I was shocked—_shocked_—to learn about the HMH Literature in Translation site where some mysterious, smart, savvy, informed, and engaged person(s) are posting interesting links to literature in translation stories/events/works/etc. Granted, a number of posts are semi-self-promotional, but not all, and given the overall corporate smackdown you get visiting the HMH’s primary site, this self-promotion is more than tolerable.
Although of course, I chose the day to write about this in which the lead post is a list of 9 “books for voracious readers,” which are all HMH titles, and only one of which is in translation . . . but . . . well . . . yeah . . . at least the list doesn’t include Freedom?
Aside from the interesting posts, one of the best features of this blog are the links to HMH’s forthcoming Literature in Translation titles, such as this one for spring 2011. (And I’ll triple-dog dare you to find this list on the main site in less than 10 minutes. OK, go! . . . I win.)
Which actually brings me to my second point of praise: I can’t wait to read Leeches by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac. I was at Dalkey hen Random UK brought out his Gotz and Meyer, and tried to make an offer on it. Unfortunately, Harcourt (this was the pre-HMH days) beat us to it with alacrity and cash and has taken over as his U.S. publisher. Which is great (his books are available everywhere) and not-so-great (not to be an asshole, but HMH doesn’t do great publicity work for it’s translations—Piece of Evidence #1, the lack of promotion for the 50th Anniversary retranslation of Grass’s The Tin Drum).
Regardless, this book sounds fantastic (especially if you skip the Foucault’s Pendulum reference):
The place is Serbia, the time is the late 1990s. Our protagonist, a single man, writes a regular op-ed column for a Belgrade newspaper and spends the rest of his time with his best friend, smoking pot and talking about sex, politics, and life in general. One day on the shore of the Danube he spots a man slapping a beautiful woman. Intrigued, he follows the woman into the tangled streets of the city until he loses sight of her. A few days later he receives a mysterious manuscript whose contents seem to mutate each time he opens it. To decipher the manuscript—a collection of fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of the Jews of Zemun and Belgrade—he contacts an old schoolmate, now an eccentric mathematician, and a group of men from the Jewish community.
As the narrator delves deeper into arcane topics, he begins to see signs of anti-Semitism, past and present, throughout the city and he feels impelled to denounce it. But his increasingly passionate columns erupt in a scandal culminating in murder. Following in the footsteps of Foucault’s Pendulum, Leeches is a cerebral adventure into the underground worlds of secret societies and conspiracy theories.
Unless I’m missing something in my skimming, this is a one-paragraph book, which makes me giddy (and scares the crap out of Dan Brownophiles). Here’s the opening:
Now, six years after the fact, I realize things might have gone differently, but back then, on Sunday, March 8, 1998, when it all began, it was impossible to imagine any other way for events to unfold. Also perhaps I made no effort to imagine something different, believed I had no choice, no choice at all, but was instead looking at the inevitable, which I could not have influenced even if I had wanted to. It no longer matters, because what was happening, whether I chose it or not, became destiny, which nothing will ever be able to change. The apple drops from the tree, red and firm, and is nearly hidden in the dense grass, but the ants, snails, and wasps find their way to it, and in the end nothing is left of the apple; the grass will right itself in time. I must be mentioning an apple now because that Sunday, six years ago, I left the house holding an apple, not a red one, true, but yellow, which I later ate, all of it, even the seeds and the stem. To be fair, I didn’t actually eat the stem, I held it between my teeth for a time, mashing and nibbling at it slowly, until it finally came apart. I always took a walk on Sundays along the Danube, no matter what the weather, in rain or the blustering Kosava winds. Not even the snow stopped me. It wasn’t snowing that day though, nor was there much of a wind blowing: the clouds tumbled across the sky, the sun gleamed from time to time, then slipped again behind a cloud; all in all, it was an ordinary, though chilly, March day.
Sadly, this isn’t available until April 28, 2011 (thank god and Sal for sending me an advance reading copy), but word on the street has it that Albahari might be at the PEN World Voices Festival, which would be a perfect tie in.
And going back to the LiT Blog and it’s recommendations, the one translation on this list is _The Collected Novels of Jose Saramago, a $36 ebook bringing together all 12 Saramago novels (and one novella) HMH has published so far.
I’m not as big of a fan of Saramago as I am a fan of Antonio Lobo Antunes (which I’m grouping together because of the Portuguese thing—they’re actually pretty distant in terms of style and subject), but this is a pretty awesome bargain. Which brings up two points:
1) These sort of collected works omnibuses work a lot better as ebooks than as print editions. I capital-L Love B.S. Johnson, but I’ve never cracked open the omnibus I own of his work. Nor the variety of other “collected works” titles I own. OK, so two happen to be Jane Austen and E.M. Forster, but even if these were of authors I really liked, I still can’t envision myself lugging something like that around. Sure, I’d love to collect more Library of America books, but that’s mostly for collecting, and less for reading. But with e-omnibuses, some of the obvious problems go away. For example, it doesn’t matter how big the book is, you just have to click on a link in the Table of Contents to go directly to that particular title. This could be a cool side-effect of the e-readingrevolution (e-readolution?) and a great way to reintroduce authors with huge backlists. Which brings me to point two:
2) According to the conventional wisdom of most commercial publishers, this price point it totally insane. Going back to Library of America for a minute, they’ve done three Philip K. Dick collections, each containing four PKD novels. Individually these retail for $35. Together you can buy them for $110. Sure, LoA’s quality is pretty nice, and the company isn’t really underwritten by bookish-like-objects that sell but hardly qualify as literature. (And barely as books.) But I suspect that other major publishers would be tempted to break up the Saramago collection into 2-3 multi-novel sets for $36 a piece. But 12 novels for $36? Even in terms of e-book savings, this is a bit crazy . . . at first glance.
Thanks to the pricing class I just finished (and a conversation with a friend at HMH), I think I get why this is what it is. For all the Nobel Prize winningness of Saramago, he has a relatively small devoted audience who buys every book, and a insane number of general readers who buy Blindness and maybe one other title, which turns out to be a bit less reader-friendly than Blindness and features references to a poet invented by Fernando Pessoa or contains blasphemous statements about Jesus Christ’s childhood. So, you have a core of fans buying everything, and a larger set spending $30 on two titles. (Or $16 if they shop Amazon.) So if you can get this massive group of Blindness lovers to both use ebooks (doesn’t everyone? /sigh) and buy into this 12-book package, you make an additional $6 (plus all the non-printing, storing, distribution costs associated with selling a print version). And then maybe they read The Stone Raft and buy a copy as a gift, and so on and forth.
Anyway, go HMH. Keep on publishing good books, and welcome to the online world of the 21st Century.